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MEMSlib team Cristina Alvarez talks about when her Venezuelan parents became historians for a day

Sometimes, it is easy to take things for granted. If you were to visit the Moon, you would be astounded by the sight of the Earth up in the sky. But if you had to commute to work every day, from your home in crater H to your work in crater B, you might not look up in wonder at earth from space as often as you used to. But a visitor from Earth might make you see your environment in a different light. Likewise, when I invited my parents from Venezuela to visit me in Britain, I experienced, once again, what is like to look at Medieval Studies with fresh eyes.

Venezuelan history and British history are very different creatures. Whilst the British were furiously writing their laws and recording their properties during the Early Middle Ages, the indigenous tribes in Venezuela were living off the land, making canoes and floating houses, and fighting other tribes. Their culture was not the type to write something down. In fact, there are tribes where their people refuse to even name themselves (or their children) because a name is considered a dirty thing. As a consequence, Venezuelan history is richer in archeology than in recorded history.

To a Venezuelan, anything with a history before 1492 is exotic, new, fascinating.

My parents came to visit me whilst I was undertaking my Master's degree at the University of Kent, more specifically, during my finals. Both of them are curious people, and they enjoy history, but neither of them are historians, and both of them have lived most of their lives in Venezuela. They asked, for example, if one particular book was three hundred years old, when its age was closer to seven hundred. For one of my finals, I had chosen a book called Secreta Mulierum, which was somewhat popular between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which served as an inspiration for the Malus Maleficarum, the Hammer of the Witches. I wanted to find a certain section that pertained to monstruous births, but the specific manuscript did not have paragraph breaks, chapter headings, or any kind of indication that differentiated where anything ended or began. By the time I gave up and focused on the first page, my mum was wandering about my general proximity, until she came close enough to ask, “Can I help you?” My mum does not ask that to be nice; she genuinely wants to help… and she might have been curious, too. So I said yes, knowing she hadn’t the faintest idea about how to transcribe a manuscript. It was a bonding activity, pure and simple.

I pulled out my books, and I started going through them. I kept it simple and told her that scripts are usually bound to a particular time period and location, and that, in the fourteenth century, Gothic styles were taking form, so the manuscript was very likely to be Gothic. I also explained to her about the abbreviations, as I showed her the handy guides that usually accompany palaeography books, and she smiled with all her teeth. The entire time, she kept saying “It’s like a puzzle!” and “I feel like I’m in a game!” whenever she guessed a new word, before she diligently wrote it on her notebook. Like any novice paleographer, she had a bit of an issue with distinguishing the “s” and the “f,” but I corrected her as we went along. We only focused on the first page, and we discovered it was about who wrote the book, who they were dedicating it to, and a few apologies on account of the author’s young age. My mum was satisfied with it. “It’s hard!” she said, elated.

The interesting thing is that Secreta Mulierum is, more or less, a book on gynecology, written long before the scientific method was devised. It tells people, for example, that women should cover their hair during menstruation, because it becomes poisonous and can generate snakes. You cannot read more than one paragraph at a time without finding something that seems to be utterly ridiculous. I had a critical edition at hand, and I had been reading its translation alongside it. I translated a random paragraph to my mum from the English in the critical edition, to Spanish. She seemed to like this a little less. In a second, she called my dad, because they are both doctors, and doctors cannot be stopped when it comes to talking about medicine. After I read the excerpts again, they argued about the book. My mum advocated for not being too harsh on the Secreta, because it was written so long ago, so it had to be compared to other books of the same time period; but my dad advocated for “hammering” it down because of how wrong it was and kept laughing the more I read it. The argument was kept civil and did not last long, but they, unknowingly, were talking like historians. Should a historian focus on the context of when the book was made, or should they compare it to modern day, and how it influences the here and now? The problem with the first is that it alienates new readers of the material, and the second’s flaw is that the present only lasts for a little while before it becomes a recent version of the past. Therefore, the future readers of the second example will be just as alienated as the readers of the first, but they will have to juggle two contexts in a more overt way.

I am going to finish this with a little anecdote: when we were at the Tower of London, and we were walking towards the Princes in the Tower exhibit, my dad was nowhere to be seen. I let my mum go into the Tower as I turned back to find him, thinking that my mum's nickname for him is ‘my prince,’ and this tower has already disappeared two of those. In Venezuela, we tend to half-joke about people, places, or situations being bad luck. On the week I was born, my dad had his car stolen, and Venezuelans joked and said that I made the car get stolen. Years later, my uncle’s shoes lost both their soles before his own wedding, and the shoe-seller told him, ‘Don’t get married.’ Anyway, I found my dad pretty quickly; he was already walking towards the Tower. “I saw a crow” he said, excited, “It was eating from the bin.”

He likes birds.

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