These past two quarters at the UCLA, I have been taking a graduate seminar class in the history of Middle Ages, concentrating on the Carolingian history (that is the dynasty of Charlemagne). The second quarter (the one that is currently ending) is dedicated to writing a research paper on whatever subject we choose, as long as it is related to the early Middle Ages. Last night, we had to present our paper topics in the class and discuss the subject matters.
I listened to the 18 papers presented by my peers. All had interesting subjects and were well researched. However, what really captured my attention was the subjects themselves. They are extremely specific, ranging from a closer reading of the Eccelesiastical History of Bede to looking at the veneration of relics in Medieval Europe. Others were looking for the uses of fish and fishing in that time, while another one was comparing the role of religion in the Byzantine and Carolingian army. All are subjects that are eventually going to be finding their way to academic journals and contribute to our understanding of Medieval Europe.
But the last word there is the catch-word: Europe! We know so much about the Medieval history of Europe. We certainly have a clear picture of its “bigger picture” and know the big issues and matters. Subjects such as diplomatic relations between European dynasties are known and well researched. We are now in the second gear of studying the European history: closer look at the long-held beliefs and correcting some wrong statements. We are now refining our knowledge of the history of Europe and fine-tuning our research.
Then, switch to some other place in the world. Forget about Sub-saharan Africa and similar cases, where we have almost no information for hundreds of years. Even in the case of the history of well-established literate cultures such as India, China, and the Near East, our research is not anywhere to be compared with the European one.
In my own field of Ancient and Medieval Iranian history, many big issues and general, “big picture” matters are unknown. We don't have one tenth of the amount of information we have about the economy of Britain or France for Iran. Subjects that are now becoming more and more important in historical research about Europe are completely unknown in the Iranian case. Subjects such as looking at edicts and royal charters, as well as using hagiographies for historical research, are not even considered.
This particularly is true in the research done in Iran and in Persian. Other than the lack of attention to the field of history itself, many historians do not even know about the new methodology and sources for historical research. I find myself running research about subjects that have been solved for the European case a long time ago, yet in the Iranian context are neglected matters. This, other than being important for the professionals, is determinal in the general lack of attention and knowledge about history among the people.
That is why I find that I am the only first year PhD student doing research about Medieval history of Near East in my university! No one else is doing that, while there are over 15 people working on some aspect of Medieval European history. Our lack of basic knowldge about the subject is even affecting the number of people who are not intimidated by the field.
Khodadad Rezakhani is a PhD student in History at UCLA. Visit his website, Vishistorica.com.