The first article I ever wrote was a tiny piece of a large puzzle. The medieval Crusades were one of the largest social movements in history. They swept up countless people of all levels of society in a combined religious and military enterprise that lasted, off and on, from the late eleventh century to the late fifteenth--nearly twice as long as our own Republic has lasted so far. The excitement they caused, their effects on European life, what they reveal about deep beliefs, what they did for architecture and for military and transportation technology, all have been closely studied for many decades. A lot less is known about how they ended. As a cultural phenomenon, they ended in a sort of fantasy literature that has a lot in common with Chuck Norris movies (in fact, one of the questions that can be asked in research is how much fantasies of this type really are alike and why).
I was busily studying the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts of this heroic literature in the French National Library in Paris in 1967, when it suddenly came to me that something was wrong. The manuscripts I was looking at had signatures in them, dating from the 1480s, and the signatures were those of persons we would today call Belgian, not French. I began to wonder who the people were who first collected these books--somewhere else--at the end of the fifteenth century, and why those people cared about the Crusades. Did they, for example, have political or economic motives linked to their local allegiances? Were they planning Crusades of their own, or did they want to look as though they were? And not least, what were these products of the early Holy Roman Empire, of medieval Hainault and Flanders, doing in the government depository in Paris, France? A week's reading got me the basic story. As good law enforcement professionals, you will have guessed that the books were stolen.
In the long centuries since these stories were copied and collected in Walloon country and then in Brussels, boundaries have shifted, war has passed through over and over, and more-or-less official agents of government have had many an opportunity to get their hands on documents that they thought were important or objects they found valuable. The French invaded what is now Belgium more than once in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and if you look at the dustier old inventories in the Paris library and at the history of the collection, you begin to get the idea that they came home with some pretty valuable items that almost nobody knows much about.
Excitedly, I asked for an appointment to see the Conservator of Manuscripts. I wanted confirmation that my Chuck Norris stories had been gathered together in Brussels around 1520 by Margaret of Austria, daughter of the Emperor of the Low Countries, for political reasons; that way I could go on with my studies on bigger things. I was duly ushered into the great man's presence and explained my problem. To my initial surprise, he gently but firmly told me there were no such manuscripts to his knowledge, and I needn't bother to look further into the matter. No, he didn't mind being disturbed, but there was a principle involved: I must understand that I was implying an irregularity had occurred, and that such things rarely happen.
That got my dander up. I felt like Agent Mulder when the local sheriff says there's no corpse in the coffin. I set out to prove that I had seen what I saw. It meant taking the Trans-Europe Express at six A.M. to Brussels, where the Royal Library still contains the medieval inventories and the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century hand lists that showed my manuscripts had been there. The books were indeed Belgian in origin and had been taken from what had once been the Imperial collection. (The details are fascinating in themselves. Some of them were carried off twice, once in 1746 by a French free-lance agent, a sort of cultural commissar, and after they were returned, by wagon of course, they were stolen once again by agents of Napoleon's empire. All of this opens onto many larger questions including why people keep careful records of illegitimate activities.) A few hours of fast note-taking in Brussels, and I actually had proven something. Publishing articles is a way of getting places in my profession, but I was younger then and I didn't care. I had the goods on the librarian, and the goods were in print in a major journal in Paris within the year. I, in fact, was the one who had seen what principle of behavior and record-keeping was involved. If a kid who started out in higher education by shifting the coal pile in the heating plant of a small college in upper East Tennessee can learn how to do that, then there must be shareable principles involved--not just luck, rank, or magic.
This may sound at first like the sort of thing you hear on the History Channel--good entertainment, but does any of it change the way any of us live our lives today? To return to one of my first points, the information may or may not make a difference. But the "hows" of finding out about the past are vitally important because of the judgement and choices they involve and illustrate. The story of my little discovery matters because it is the story of an anomaly in the evidence and the story of how an ordinary human being tracked it down and explained it. Like so much of what we do in higher education, this story has more value as an illustration of principles and ideas than it has as information--though it did contribute to shedding some light on what some of the most powerful people in Europe once thought a Holy War was supposed to be like.