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The Afghan queen, the Sheffield steelworker’s daughter, and a more ‘sanguine’ approach to migration history

By Josh Allen - August 21, 2017 (0 comments)

by David Holland, University of Sheffield

I recently presented the research associated with my Past & Present article at my History department’s weekly seminar. Like the article, the paper outlined my investigation of South Asian immigration and settlement in the Sheffield area between the First World War and 1948. During questions, one of the academic staff asked me that, considering the race riots which struck a number of major British ports in 1919-1920, might I be a little too sanguine in my assessment of race relations during the period? My immediate response was that although those destructive events rightly inform my research and analysis, without a ‘sanguine’ approach which focused on marriage and belonging, a previously un-researched settlement would have been much less likely to have come to light.

The violent events referred to – so vividly described by Peter Fryer and given substance by Jacqueline Jenkinson’s research and analysis – are indeed, as my questioner suggested, regarded as key indicators of the working-class population’s outlook toward perceived racial difference. Before undertaking my research I also subscribed somewhat to this generally pessimistic view of early encounters between white working-class natives and non-white newcomers. However, my investigation of smaller-scale, but far more frequent, interpersonal encounters revealed an entirely different facet to the history of the era. It indicated that although the riots remain, without doubt, important factors in our understanding of the inter-war period, they do not entirely reveal relations between natives and non-white newcomers. Unfortunately, this other side to the story: the frequency of mixed-marriages, the births of children and the evidence of the everyday lived experience of native-newcomer relationships among the working-class population has tended to be overlooked.

My research began some years ago when, as an undergraduate, I conducted an oral history survey of the experiences Sheffield-based Pakistani settlers who arrived in Britain during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The son of one of this group alerted me to the presence of a small inter-war cluster of graves of Indian Muslims in a local cemetery. This very early South Asian presence was obviously worthy of attention. But what particularly interested me was the epitaph on the headstone of the infant Souriya Khan (see image). It reads: ‘In loving memory of Souriya, beloved daughter of Ayaht and Hilda Khan, died July 30th 1929 aged 9 months (Mohammedan religion)’. What I find remarkable about this inscription is that it commemorates a child born to a working-class couple comprised of a Sheffield native and a South Asian newcomer and who were bringing up their daughter in the Muslim faith during the late 1920s.

On first inspection Souriya’s grave might be viewed as a somewhat anachronistic curiosity in an inland city in which the South Asian population is viewed as having only begun to arrive in the early 1950s. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the burial fell outside the scope of the project in hand, my interest was piqued. No doubt this was partly due to my own experience as a child born to a white British mother and Asian Muslim father and growing up in white working-class neighbourhoods in the 1960s and 1970s. I do not count my personal circumstances as a necessary credential for studying this subject. This is simply an observation of how a personal experience or preoccupation can impose itself on research in unexpected, but sometimes very fruitful, ways.

The grave of Souriya Khan in Sheffield UK, image David Holland (all rights reserved)

Further investigation revealed that Souriya was not a geographically and historically isolated example of a child born of a ‘mixed’ relationship. Rather, she turned out to be part of a cohort comprising at least 338 male migrants, their native British wives and their children, all of whom lived in a city with no previous claim to be a site of pioneering migration and settlement. The method I used to investigate these previously hidden lives primarily involved targeting instances when natives and newcomers came together as couples, had children or simply shared the intimate spaces of hearth and home. Many of these individuals appeared at some point in the General Register Office’s records of births, marriages and deaths, electoral rolls and the 1939 Register. Others’ activities occasionally appeared in press reports, but never in association with racially motivated mob violence. The collated data has been used to plot a tentative map of the locations of marriages involving Muslim-named individuals in Britain during the period. In this way clusters of migrant settlement have been provisionally identified. While not able to provide definitive migrant population numbers, this approach to historical migration research can geographically identify migrant population clusters worthy of further investigation.

The data was also used to locate and discreetly contact a small number of surviving family members and I remain extremely grateful to those and who kindly agreed to share their family history with me. The information they provided not only filled many of the lacunae in the official record, but also lent much human warmth to the cold data. Equally important for the scholar concerned with understanding and historically reconstructing the quotidian experience of ordinary lives is the potentially large pool of new data this approach can provide.

Research using this method revealed that Souriya’s father Ayaht Khan was an ethnic Pashtun originating in the north-west of British India (now Pakistan). A farmer’s son turned lascar seafarer who landed in Britain, along with kin and comrades Ayaht moved inland to work as a boiler-firer in the Sheffield steel industry. His wife Hilda was the daughter of a Sheffield steelworks’ furnaceman who, at the time of his daughter’s marriage in December 1927, lived next door to Ayaht. Unfortunately, Hilda’s occupation is not known, although it is likely that, like many working-class Sheffield women, both married and single, she was employed in the city’s extensive and world-renowned cutlery and flatware industry. Such was the global reputation of the city’s metalworking industries that the cutlers Mappin and Webb even hosted a visit by King Amanullah and Queen Soraya (also often spelled Souriyah) of Afghanistan as part of their royal tour of Europe during 1927-1928. The Afghan monarch and his queen were, like Ayaht Khan, both Pashtuns and their widely reported visit to Sheffield most likely inspired the couple to name their daughter after the Afghan queen. The 1939 Register shows that eleven years later Hilda and Ayaht were living on the Manor estate, a newly-built municipal social housing project with their two children (they would have five children together). Here they took in Vina Brown as a lodger. Vina was a young native woman working as an emery glazer (women cutlery workers colloquially known as ‘buffer girls or lasses’). Also of interest is the record of Hilda’s parents provision of lodgings for Hawas Khan, another Pashtun migrant who, like both Ayaht and his Sheffield father-in-law, was employed as a steelworker.

Such domestic arrangements demonstrate that the networks and everyday connections between natives and newcomers could be much more embedded into the day-to-day life of the native working class than we might currently allow for. Moreover, my ongoing research into the relationships established between natives and newcomers is beginning to reveal that the composition of the South Asian newcomers’ social networks comprised not only their kinsmen (as currently understood), but also their native wives and families, friends, neighbours and workmates. Consequently, I argue that it was these wider social networks, made up of both newcomers and natives, that played a central role in the pioneering settlement of South Asian men, not only in the Sheffield area, but perhaps in Britain as a whole. The centenaries of the 1919-1920 port riots are fast approaching, as is the much less well known centenary of the first arrivals of South Asian migrant workers in Sheffield and their marriages to natives. As I hope my research demonstrates, studying migrants either in isolation from the native population or allowing the 1919-1920 riots to characterise their relations with natives will not provide the entire picture. Moreover, the findings illustrate the benefits of a more ‘sanguine’ research methodology which investigates the instances of co-operation and mutual, everyday tolerance between these two populations. Rather than obscuring or wilfully ignoring historical instances of racism and racial conflict, the approach aims to situate the pioneer migrants and settlers firmly within their immediate social contexts at domestic, neighbourhood and workplace level.

David Holland is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield and is currently completing his thesis. He is in receipt of a Wolfson Foundation for the Arts and Humanities scholarship.

Ordering the margins of society: Space, authority and control in early modern Britain

By Josh Allen - August 15, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Richard Bell, Dr. Joseph Harley and Dr. Charmian Mansell (workshop organisers)

Past & Present is pleased to be supporting “Ordering the Margins of Society” at the IHR on 5th September 2017, between 9:00 and 18:00. You can read the provisional programme here. 

Since the spatial turn, historians have conceptualised space not as a passive backdrop against which social interactions and everyday life took place, but as a social construct that shaped identity, societal development, human behaviour and experience.  Historians of early modern Britain have long been concerned with questions of social order and control. Debates continue about the relationship between the coercive and participatory facets of governance and the capacity for social discipline. Yet while these subjects remain fertile areas of research, relatively little work has examined the interaction between space, authority and social control of the people on the margins of society.

By Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) (after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819), Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812), Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838), J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This one-day workshop considers the attempts of those in charge to order society within particular places, spaces and locales. It asks how marginal populations (i.e. the economic or socially vulnerable) were organised in spaces such as workhouses, taverns, households, prisons, asylums, hospitals, streets, marketplaces and churches. It seeks to explore how authorities attempted to exert social control and discipline within these spaces and how these efforts might be resisted. What were the extents and limits of negotiation, participation and defiance within the systems of regulation, and how did this shape social order?

This workshop is free to attend but advance registration is required.

Past & Present is pleased to support this event and others like it. We welcome funding applications from historians of all fields and time periods at any stage in their career. More information can be found here.

Congratulations to Stephanie Mawson

By Josh Allen - August 14, 2017 (0 comments)

by the editorial team

Past & Present was delighted to hear that Stephanie Mawson (Cambridge) has been awarded the Royal Historical Society’s (RHS) Alexander Prize for her recent article with us “Convicts or Conquistadores?: Spanish Soldiers in the Seventeenth-Century Pacific” (Past & Present, 232 [2016], pp. 87-125).

Named for L.C. Alexander, the founding secretary of the RHS who endowed the original award, the Alexander Prize “…is awarded for an essay or article based on original historical research, by a doctoral candidate or those recently awarded their doctorate, published in a journal or an edited collection of essays.”

Prize winners receive a silver medal, two hundred and fifty pounds and an invitation to submit a further article for consideration by the editors of the RHS’ in house journal Transactions.

In awarding Stephanie the prize the judges remarked:

“This ambitious and important article examines the ragtag army which colonized the Spanish East Indies during the seventeenth century. Its deep archival research reveals ordinary soldiers to have been quite unlike their stereotypical depiction as conquistadores. They were a motley collection of criminals, vagrants and fugitives, many conscripted and mostly from New Spain, who seldom shared the spoils of conquest with their commanding officers. The author at once restores agency to these historical figures and displays its narrow limits. Mutiny and desertion were among the few pathways open to the conscripted and the mistreated. Such a small, impoverished and volatile force could not be relied upon to achieve Spain’s imperial ambitions, resulting in the recruitment of increasing numbers of indigenous troops. The article offers a compelling portrait of the early modern Philippines. Its intertwining of social and military history makes it distinctive among submissions dominated by intellectual history. Its success in ‘[h]umanising and complicating the face of imperialism’ invites historians of empire to take account of the conflicting interests and motives of the colonisers and their correspondingly diverse relationships to the colonised.”

Appropriately fulsome praise, and wonderful recognition for a remarkable piece of work; to which the Editors and Past & Present Society are proud to add their own congratulations. Our congratulations Stephanie, we are delighted that you chose to publish aspects of your current research with us.

Past & Present logo, 2017 all rights reserved

Are you working on an article that you think might be a good fit for Past & Present? If so find out all about the submission process here.

A Radical (Feminist) Writing of the First Crusade?

By Josh Allen - August 11, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Like many scholars who have turned their attention to medieval crusading movements in recent years, I am not a “crusade historian.” I’m trying to write a book on medieval texts as artifacts created by the mediation of multiple historical actors – many of them technically illiterate. My goal is to change the way we understand the evidentiary nature of texts, which we (modern, and even postmodern) historians tend to strip-mine for the meaning(s) of their written words. Everything we have learned about medieval documentary processes in the past few decades has revealed that these texts were shaped and conveyed by the specific circumstances of their negotiation and inscription; their fungible physical formats; and the embodied, performative contexts in which they were enacted, witnessed, displayed, declaimed, contested. Reading the writing is not enough. Pace Jacques Derrida, “il y’a toujours d’hors-texte.” Knowing what happened outside a medieval text is materially important because the conditions of its making and reception influenced what it said and how it worked – or didn’t.

It was strangely ironic, then, to find myself compelled to advance this argument by tackling the multiple near-contemporaneous histories of the First Crusade (1095-1099), none of which survives in anything close to a contemporary format. Instead, as I show in my recent Past & Present article: “Popular Literacies and the First Historians of the First Crusade”, accounting for these histories – many lost to us – means accounting for the fragile media through which they would have been transmitted: the perishable materials (parchment, maybe; but papyrus, cloth, wax, and wood as well), the chancy processes of manuscript transmission, the now-silent channels of oral communication and commemoration, the exigencies of memory and the exercise of power.

A medieval text on the edge of oblivion: leaf from a working set of by-laws created by a confraternity of jongleurs, now part of a manuscript codex in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (fr. 8541).

Thanks to exciting new scholarship, it is becoming clear that the apparent explosion of documentation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries C.E. was not new, and not necessarily the beginning of a shift “from memory to written record” in western Europe. Lay men and women in the lands of the former Roman Empire – and beyond – had been making, using, and keeping documents for centuries, often employing or expanding older models of record-keeping, but also introducing their own practical innovations, sometimes in their own vernaculars. But the scattered evidence of these widespread practices is only barely visible, thanks to the collaborative efforts of experts in many fields working in many different regions of what we are learning to call the medieval globe.

The Novgorod Codex: a palimpsest of wooden boards and wax pages, written (mostly) in Old Church Slavonic, probably during the 1010s. It was discovered during excavations of a twelfth-century boardwalk, in 2000.

Yet this evidence is paltry compared to the much larger percentage of written materials produced in clerical and monastic institutions, which had the advantage of housing many trained scribes and which were, thanks to their stability and longevity, uniquely situated to assemble and preserve texts – and to manipulate historical memory: if not that of their contemporaries, then that of modern historians. Increasingly, many of these institutions were able to establish local monopolies on the recording and archiving of transactions, which resulted in the gradual loss of documentary agency by lay individuals and communities, and often to their legal disenfranchisement.

So what I think we see happening, in the eleventh century, is either a resurgence of lay documentary activity in some places or the opening of new channels through which more people could access textual processes. But we also see a concomitant attempt, by clerical elites, to suppress that activity and safeguard the status quo. The capture of Jerusalem by a mongrel army of Franks, Normans, Rhinelanders, and others – with virtually no sustained papal support, spiritual or practical – was thus the catalyst for the creation and consumption of mediated texts. These men had opened a new chapter in sacred history and they (or their surviving friends and family members) wanted to write that history themselves, drawing on the narrative forms meaningful to them: song, epic, liturgy, anecdote. Indeed, some of those forms may have been augmented by other story-telling traditions and textual cultures encountered in the Mediterranean and Islamicate worlds, where the crusade’s home-bound monastic historians had never been.

Medieval archives contained a wide variety of texts and other objects. The family archives of the twelfth century might well have juxtaposed little booklets of crusade narratives with weapons and relics brought home from the Holy Land. This particular booklet shows the indelible mark of the spearhead that was once left rusting on it. Closely contemporaneous with the First Crusade, it was copied c. 1086, during William the Conqueror’s survey of his realm. It should have been recycled (to stuff the bindings of books, to insulate a garment or hat) but it was remarkably preserved and is now housed among other such libelli in the library of Exeter Cathedral (MS 3500).

By reconstructing the documentary conditions of the era, then, we can begin to recognize how the first histories of this momentous expedition could have been created by lay or lowly clerical combatants – including the author(s) of the so-called Gesta Francorum – within a few years after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. Around 1107, however, these once multiple documentary perspectives were being actively suppressed by the Benedictine establishment of northern Francia. Horrified that unauthorized narratives were in wide circulation, these monastic authors (notably Guibert of Nogent, Baudri of Bourgeuil, and Robert of Reims) drew on their own sources (e.g. elite networks, Biblical exegesis) in order to craft more conventional histories that promoted their own agendas and that of the “reforming” Roman papacy. This papacy would reach the apogee of its power a century later, under the pontificate of Innocent III, who directed crusading fervor toward fellow Christians in Constantinople as well as toward new kinds of “infidels” within Europe.

At its core, this is a feminist argument – about the workings of medieval texts and about the historiography of the First Crusade.  Although I mention women only once in my article (p. 60) and do not deal with issues of gender or race in any explicit way, my methodology is fundamentally attuned to exposing the power dynamics that have written certain people out of the historical record even when those people were fundamentally instrumental to the creation of the historical record.  In fact, women were the real keepers and conveyors of historical memory in this era. The way they narrrated history, and what they chose to include and emphasize, would have been crucial to the framing and perpetuation of these first crusading texts. For example, modern crusade historians frequently express frustration about how little actual fighting gets recorded in extant early histories – that is, if one discounts the Old Testament battles recycled by armchair monastic historians. To me, this is another mark of these early histories’ proximity to that fighting and their authors’ need to help themselves and their audiences process the trauma of combat and loss.

Pope Innocent III Action Figure (contemporary)

A truly feminist methodology is inclusive. With that in mind, we need to ask what other assumptions and habits have prevented us(me) from reading medieval texts as fully as they deserve. What other actors and factors have we(I) left out of this story?  For example, how has systemic racism shaped the norms and practices of medieval historiography in the modern world, and how has that contributed to the invisibility of certain people and phenomena? How has our discipline’s valorization of the single (male) author made it hard for us to grasp the plurality and gendered diversity of medieval authorship? How do older and newer forms of nationalism and xenophobia contribute to the ways we (mis)conceptualize medieval categories of difference, identity, religion, language, territory, etc.?  How, indeed, have modern norms of textuality, and the fetishization of alphabetic literacy, prevented us from fully appreciating medieval texts and their makers?

A feminist historiography of warfare, or anything else, doesn’t merely consist in proving that women were involved in the crusades or examining the toxic politics of masculinity and misogyny in this era – although these are among the many necessary topics currently being addressed. It also has to mean a willingness to rethink what we think know about what happened, based on what we have learned about the delivery mechanisms of medieval texts and their frequently unnamed or occluded mediators. The silence that has engulfed these textual actors is deafening, and it was very often a silence deliberately imposed by those with a vested interest in amplifying their own voices: men who were in a better position to exercise documentary power via the destruction of some texts and the multiplication of others, at the expense of any outsiders, whether male or female, “heretic” or Muslim or Jew.

A feminist, gendered approach to textuality, meanwhile, pays critical attention to the fact that medieval texts were (and are) essentially embodied.  Not only are they made of bodies (until the late thirteenth century, in northern and western Europe, parchment was the most prevalent and only durable writing material) they were prepared, at every stage, by bodies.  Behind every surviving medieval manuscript are animals nurtured and slaughtered, the labors of farmers and shepherds and tanners, and maybe even the chronic malnutrition of peasant families who seldom had access to animal protein prior to the first global pandemic. For on the one hand, the Black Death’s terrifying rates of mortality eventually resulted in more sustainable modes of agricultural production and a healthier diet for survivors. On the other, this coincided with the more widespread availability of paper, which was cheaper and easier to use.

Moreover, medieval texts were experienced bodily. Of the vast majority that don’t survive, many would once have been put to the service of bodily needs: patching a shoe or lining a winter coat. The work of inscribing a medieval text was hard, physical labor. No legal document was valid unless it was publicly produced, read aloud, and physically ratified by witnesses, who were often called upon to touch it or to impress their personal seals on it. Books could be so heavy that they required a lectern, or small enough to fit in a palm. Texts were noisy, too: stiff parchment leaves crack loudly when they are turned, leather and wood bindings creak, iron fittings clank, pendant wax seals knock together like dried chestnuts. Such sensual details would have affected (and effected) the reception of a text. They ask us to reach out and grasp medieval texts in radical, old ways.

The Pig[er] Picture?

By Josh Allen - August 4, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Jamie Kreiner (University of Georgia)

“Who knew,” Lawrence Wright recently reported in The New Yorker, “that it was ever against the law to shoot pigs from balloons?” Well, it isn’t anymore, at least not in the state of Texas. “Texans already could legally shoot pigs from helicopters — even with machine guns” (as Wright pointed out), and now, as of this April, they are also allowed to hunt them from hot-air balloons. Could you ask for a more bewitching pastoral? Millions of wild pigs, bulky and ferocious as they sweep darkly across the state and mow down its grain; a flotilla of bright balloons; the snipers; the slaughter.

“Der Verlorene Sohn“ (The prodigal son)” by Hans Sebald Beham, via Wiki Commons (image out of copyright)

Pigs can be hazardous, and they have been for a long time: farmers and lawmakers have been devising new ways to manage them since antiquity. In my article for Past & Present, I zoom in on this pig-person dynamic as it played out in early medieval Gaul (what’s now France, western Germany and Switzerland), because I was surprised to find pigs making a dent in that kingdom’s laws, which are now nearly 1500 years old. These Gallic pigs, unlike their Texan kin, were more like invited guests than invaders: they were domesticated livestock, properties with a price even though they were free-ranging. But they still escaped and destroyed crops, and sometimes they even killed children. The challenge was how to raise them without doing too much damage in any direction. As a result, Gaul’s humans found themselves thinking a lot about the physical world and how its pieces interlocked.

So pigs had an impact on environments and law and economics a long time ago. But there is even more to their historical legacy and pop-culture persona. We have a complex and maybe even conflicted set of ideas about pigs, and that too is an inheritance from the Middle Ages.

Pigs are not pests in the way that roaches or rats are. Go ahead and Google the photos of Texas pigs-turned-trophies that happy hunters have posted: this is big game. And this is not the only way we exterminate Sus scrofa. Mostly, that happens through the food industry, a domain in which pigs are not combatants but are instead subjects of an ecstatic obsession. Pork is venerated in cooking high and low, from April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig and Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast to bacon-weave tacos courtesy of “Dude Foods.” It is Anthony Bourdain’s “favorite vegetable” and Homer Simpson’s “magical animal.” It might be more obvious to the pork-abstainers among us that sometimes this frenzy is orchestrated — like for instance how the A.V. Club had a short-lived bacon-themed series sponsored by HORMEL® Black Label® Bacon. But even lame corporate initiatives strike a chord when it comes to a flesh that a culture has already hallowed. So last year, when a pork concern commissioned a sculpture of country singer Chris Stapleton made entirely of bacon (besides some its Styrofoam base and gumball eyes), the publicity stunt was somewhat inscrutable, but it was also a social media hit.

I look delicious

A post shared by Chris Stapleton (@chrisstapleton) on

That bust of bacon also points to a stranger side to our relationship with pigs. We industrialize and devour and fetishize them, but we also think that they’re relatable, and in an uncanny way, we really are what we eat. I’m thinking about more than meat statues or the unsettling iconography of humanoid pigs that graces the billboards of barbecue joints. When the pigs are still alive, we are drawn to stories of their intelligence and cuteness. Forty-one thousand people have apparently viewed an article entitled “15 Celebrities Who Have Pet Pigs.” 1.1 million people “like” Esther the Wonder Pig and the ways she has taught her owners about the capacities of her species. (Early lesson: plundering a kitchen full of closed cabinets is no problem when you’re a quarter-ton sow.) Almost 10 million views have been racked up by a video that ostensibly shows a pig rescuing a drowning goat, which is exactly what the comedian Nathan Fielder was hoping would happen when he staged the whole thing in the first place. But pigs can actually swim, by the way, and if you missed the viral coverage several years ago of Exuma a.k.a. Pig Beach, an island in the Bahamas inhabited by swimming pigs, you can easily catch up on YouTube and Instagram. I’d especially recommend the videos, because every once in a while, a tourist who leans in to hug or kiss an adorable pig learns that it can bite.

Medieval humans did not think pigs were cute (or at least, nobody went on record as saying so), but they did appreciate their intelligence, and their meat, and the thrill of hunting the wild ones. Pork was more of an elitist meat than a populist one back then, and it gradually became a more self-consciously Christian one, too, more than it had been in the religion’s first millennium. Physicians even saw pigs as anatomically proximate to humans: no species in the animal kingdom came closer. So early medieval feelings toward the animal were in some ways different than ours, but they were just as mixed. In the words of historian Michel Pastoureau, the pig has long been un cousin mal aimé, a cousin we have badly loved.

37-svaghi, caccia,Taccuino Sanitatis, Casanatense 4182.

“Wild Boar Hunting 14th Century”, By unknown master (book scan) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But that doesn’t mean the relationship doesn’t change. Environments change, economies and appetites change, and so do pigs themselves. Pigs are clickbait because they seem to have new things to show us, and in the process we might also see other things differently. The world always changing in the early Middle Ages, too, and humans learned things from their pigs that sometimes changed their minds about it (which is the subject of the book I’m writing now). I wouldn’t say that our thinking about pigs is evolving, insofar as that implies improvement — if I had to choose, I’d rather be a medieval pig than a modern one — but as long as we’re actually curious about the things we badly love, we are maybe more entitled to our complexity.