Every so often, a non-scholar (or beginning scholar) who reads the Wordhoard will ask me, "What's historicism? I can't figure out what it means when people use the term, and the dictionary doesn't help." Whenever I try to explain it, I always feel like they're just nodding politely, and have no idea what I'm talking about.
The Naked Philologist's icons recently got me thinking about this problem. One of her icons flashes the slogan, "Understand the words, understand the people who used the words."* That slogan holds the key, I think, to help the layman understand historicism.
Medieval literature is pulled between two poles: philology (which simply means "the study of words") and historicism. Now, right about now, a bunch of scholars are reaching for their keyboards to argue that philology and historicism, properly understood, aren't really at odds with one another -- and they aren't, but for the purpose of the layman's understanding, let's pretend they are for the moment. When you get down to the comment thread, you may be seeing people arguing why it isn't really the case. They're probably right; I'm just offering a baseline here.**
Philology suggests that to understand the people, you first have to understand their language. If you want to understand the Anglo-Saxons, for example, you need to be able to read what they wrote. Beyond just being able to read what they wrote, you have to pay attention to what words they had and how they used them, as well as what words they didn't have. For example, the Anglo-Saxons had a word, frod, which means something like "old and wise." Note that I cannot translate that into modern English with a single word -- it takes a phrase. This suggests that the Anglo-Saxons closely associated the concepts of age and wisdom. On the other hand, there is no Old English word for "knight," -- or, more accurately, the word cniht, from which our modern word "knight" comes from meant something more like "young boy." Why? Because the heavy mounted cavalry units we think of weren't around in Anglo-Saxon England.
Historicism suggests the opposite: That to understand the language, you first have to understand the people. If we understand how they thought about things, we'll have a better sense of what their language meant to them. For example, if you understand Anglo-Saxon gift culture -- that the person giving the gift is asserting authority, and the person receiving the gift is tacitly acknowledging that authority, then we see the scene in Beowulf where Hrothgar is giving gifts to Beowulf not as payment for services rendered, nor as gratitude, nor as a bribe to leave without overthrowing his reign, but as an assertion of authority, and Beowulf's acceptance of those gifts as a way of saying, "I accept that you are king here, and won't oppose you or your sons."
These two sides tug the rope of medieval literature constantly. A century ago, the philologists dominated; now it's the historicists who dominate. Of course, neither side can do without the other, and most scholarship needs the knowledge and skills garnered from both. Still, each thinker (and perhaps each article) favors one or the other as an approach, and each side has a tendency to suspect that the other kind isn't really a rigorous scholar -- the other side is fluffy, pseudo-scholarship, not to be confused with the serious rigor of one's own work.
Most of the time, the debate is simply a simmering quiet contempt for the other. Every so often, it grows hot. But, for the most part, laymen can understand the argument like this: Is it better to use first the language to understand the people, or to use first the people to understand the language?
*I've been assured by several people that she's quoting some famous linguist, but I've gotten conflicting reports as to who that linguist would be, and can't find the quote myself. If anyone has a source, that would be great.
**One of my lectures I give near the beginning of every medieval lit course has a line about midway through it that goes something like this: "That's what we teach people, anyway. Now let me spend the rest of the hour explaining why everything I just said isn't true, even though it's absolutely true." It must be difficult to take notes in my classes.