|Church History|

More Than Words: Conceptual History and the Struggle for Meaning

Author: Dr. Giulia Marotta

This is the second blogpost in a series from Giulia, one of our first-ever WiRe fellows whose research focuses, among other things, on the contemporary history of Catholicism in Europe. We are thrilled to have her back as a guest on the blog, this time introducing by way of creative writing her newest research project on the conceptual history of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Giulia would like to thank the WWU for funding the preparatory stages of the project through the Post-doc Program and Erasmus+, and Professor Dr. Olaf Blaschke, apl. Professor Dr. Klaus Große Kracht, and Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. Hubert Wolf for their invaluable input and support. The story, all names, and characters portrayed in this blogpost are fictitious.

Rome at dusk has a uniquely tranquil beauty. The gracious contours of its hills, the many shadows and reflections on the waters of the Tiber, the delicate earth tones of its rooftops, and the deep blues and purples of its cloudless sky… Everything instils calm and confidence and makes you think that sometimes the meaning of life is just as simple as that, and a simple idea is the one that can save the day and even your research project. I still had to find a simple, genius idea that could guide my work, but at least now, after a long dry spell, my creative juices were flowing again.

Only a few hours ago I was staring at my blank computer screen, feeling stagnant and lost. Now I felt like a fish in water, exactly where I was supposed to be and ready to make the most of it. It was a springtime evening in the eternal city, and I was savoring the last sip of a refreshing aperitivo with my friends Aurora and Elena. They were filled with curiosity about my upcoming project on the history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and, thanks to their doubts and comments, I was suddenly starting to define my own research questions and answers. Now I clearly knew the WHAT and the WHY of my quest: I wanted to explore both unchanging and changing factors involved in this issue and I wanted to do it because so far other scholars had overlooked at least one of the two aspects, focusing either only on continuity or discontinuity. But one of the most essential questions that inspire the work of a historian was still unanswered: WHEN? How would I determine the best temporal boundaries for my project? Could I aspire to even identify a saddle time[1]?

Before I could seriously get busy thinking about this, a more pressing WHEN took the lead. “What time is our dinner reservation?” asked Aurora, looking at her watch. “At 9 pm sharp, we’d better hurry” replied Elena. So we left our aperitivo table and worked our way out of the crowded square, knowing that we had some 20 minutes of fast walking to do if we wanted to reach our dinner place on time. As we stepped out of the bustling Piazza di Pietra, the narrow back streets leading to Piazza Navona hailed us with their own tumult of pedestrians. For us it was not exactly a slow and relaxing stroll, but we could still enjoy the warm air and the many sights and sounds all around us. Three blocks later it was already time to turn right and head toward Ponte Sant’Angelo, which was not yet visible but would soon gain prominence with even more stunning sights and sounds.

In the meantime, since my project had already monopolized a great part of evening, we couldn’t wait any longer to catch up on other things, like Elena’s volleyball team’s latest win, Aurora’s new apartment, and my next trip to Berkeley. Then a few more steps and there we were, just waiting for the traffic light to turn green and give us the OK to begin our bridge adventure. The traffic noises and the general chatter were still loud, but as we moved farther and farther away from the intersection and approached the middle of the bridge, a soft music rose above it all. A street artist standing up against the clear blue-black sky was gently strumming his guitar, mesmerizing both tourists and locals alike.

Elena was anxious to get to the restaurant and not pass up our reservation, but Aurora and I convinced her to linger a little and indulge in this unexpected treat. The guitarist was very engaging: a tall, broad-shouldered guy with wide and firm hands, but fingers so agile that it looked like they were floating across the strings. His flowing brown hair hovered lightly over his eyes, making us all wonder what their color was and how would it feel to meet his gaze. But more than anything else, I was struck by his outfit. Over a gray ‘Save the Whales’ T-Shirt, he was wearing a Lincoln green jacket, carelessly rolled at the elbows. “A very beautiful but also unusual color,” I thought. It immediately made me think about this book I read in high school where the protagonist wore most of the time a Lincoln green suit.[2] The book character, a sixty-five-year-old man telling the story of his innocent and insecure boyhood, had not much in common with the daring street performer in front of me, but for some reason the connection wrapped itself around my thoughts and remained there for some time, until I realized why. The book was mainly about memory. It was the story of someone who experienced the end of an era, personally and historically; a sense of broken time together with the awareness of the ever-present influence of the past. Then the emblematic opening sentence of the book crossed my mind: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” That was true for sure. But what did that mean for a historian? What did that mean for me at that moment? Did this have anything to do with my project? As these questions resonated in my head, I was brought back to reality by a deep, chest voice, singing a cult song of the 90s, More Than Words.

What a simple, truthful, and at the same provocative saying! That was it! That could be the simple, genius idea that could unlock my project’s potential: investigating the deeper meanings that underlie all history. More than words, concepts. That in the past they did things differently meant that they acted and spoke differently, but more than that, beyond and before that, they also thought differently, they conceived reality in a different way and that was at the core of my topic. Both in religious and non-religious contexts, the way of conceiving childhood, abuse, gender, and sexuality underwent massive transformations from the 19th century to the present day. Especially between 1850 and 1950, a lot of old concepts were dismissed or reworked, and new concepts were formed, mixed up, and used to handle new situations. This was the perfect WHEN for my project, a timeframe in which so many and so many kinds of transformations happened that people’s way of thinking changed at an accelerated speed, so that it was almost as if these 100 years were more eventful than 500, because innumerable layers of conceptual history accumulated in a relatively short time.[3]

I couldn’t wait to dig deeper into my latest insights, and fortunately I was in great company to start doing that. The song was over, and each one of us interrupted her own personal daydream to get back on the route to the dinner table. We still had enough time to arrive only a few fashionably late minutes after 9, so I didn’t desist from sharing right away the progress I made. “I made one more step for my project! I was inspired by the guitarist!” I gushed. “Who wasn’t?” giggled Aurora. “Hahaha! Well-said! But let’s hear it, what was your revelation?” asked Elena.

Me: “Do you remember that we talked about layers of patterns and changes throughout history? Now I can be more precise. I will focus on conceptual history, studying enduring and changing concepts. And based on that, I also chose the perfect timeframe.”

Aurora: “That sounds very interesting… I just don’t get what’s the connection with the charming guitarist.”

Me: “Well, you know historians usually work with documents, with written words, right? But what if words were not enough, not enough to understand a period or a phenomenon? And what if the very same documents could open more doors than we thought once we look at the concepts behind the words? And so, what if all I have to do to make my project real is to think about more than words?”

Elena: “Wow… Very intriguing questions… But what is exactly the difference between words and concepts?”

Aurora: “Yes, how do you make the difference?”

Me: “The difference lies precisely in being more… ‘The concept is connected to a word, but is at the same time more than a word[4] because it holds together many different meanings.”

Elena: “But a word too can have many different meanings…”

Me: “Yes, but every time that a word is used it normally refers to only one of these different meanings. The word ‘chicken’ can refer to a live animal, a dish, or a person lacking courage, but it will hardly incorporate all these meanings at once.”

Aurora: “Of course, one can understand the specific meaning from the context. It is not so with concepts?”

Me: “Not exactly. The meaning of concepts remains undecided even after being placed into a specific context. Take the word ‘church:’ it can refer to a physical building or a religious organization, but it is usually easy to understand which one of the two is meant in a sentence. The concept of ‘church’ instead, the way in which one intends and understands such a religious organization, is a matter of endless debate and even conflict.”

Elena: “But this way it looks like concepts are very confusing…”

Me: “In a sense, they are. If something is a concept, it is also something that is ambiguous and contested, somehow something unclear and confusing. That’s why concepts can be interpreted but not really defined.”[5]

Aurora: “I think I understand now… And I can see how that is important for your project. I’m sure that what we today intend with ‘sexual abuse’ was something very unclear and contested a hundred years ago or more.”

Me: “Definitely! In the time period I chose, between the 19th and 20th centuries, there was an intense struggle over concepts related to sexuality and the human body, and even over general concepts like ‘childhood’ and ‘abuse.’”

Elena: “But what does that mean in the real world? I mean even back then, what did that mean for the real life of real people? To me it all sounds so intellectual.”

Me: “Well, concepts are a means to express but also to establish and legitimize certain views… and they are a necessary tool to exercise dominance and power… So even if ‘conceptual history’ may sound a little abstract, it is in fact the history of a struggle for meaning that influenced very concretely the everyday life of everyday people.”

I knew that what I just said needed further discussion, but I also knew that if I didn’t stop talking we would have ended the evening with a full head and an empty stomach. With the promise of returning soon enough to the topic, I picked up the pace and we swiftly covered the remaining few hundred meters to the restaurant. A dimly lit table standing on the beautifully uneven cobblestones of Borgo Pio was awaiting us, and I felt like the universe was finally aligning with my scientific goals. I managed to put another piece of the puzzle into place. I took another step forward in the journey toward the making of a great project… But not yet the last one… Not until my next blogpost 😉

Contact: marotta@uni-muenster.de


[1] See my previous blogpost, footnote 3, at https://www.wire-wwu.de/2021/07/01/rome-wasnt-built-in-a-day-layers-of-time-in-church-history/

[2] The Go-Between, by L. P. Hartley.

[3] This is what Reinhart Koselleck called a „Sattelzeit“ (saddle time), a time in which the conceptual framework of a society changes more rapidly, disparately, and significantly than usual. He identified the period between 1750 and 1850 as the saddle time par excellence, marking the transition to modernity in Europe.

When we look at church history, we can identify an analogous time of pivotal transformations about a century later (approx. 1850-1950). In this period, several major crises (the end of the temporal power, the general decline of the Inquisition and the abolition of its local courts, the Modernist crisis) stimulated the proliferation of new concepts, including many related to the understanding of the human body and sexuality. This is an original thesis that my project aims to present and verify, so I cannot report any reference work that discusses it. Hopefully, you’ll read more about it in my next monograph 😉

[4] [emphasis added] “In use a word can become unambiguous. By contrast, a concept must remain ambiguous in order to be a concept. The concept is connected to a word, but is at the same time more than a word: a word becomes a concept only when the entirety of meaning and experience within a sociopolitical context within which and for which a word is used can be condensed into one word.” R. Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, Columbia University Press 2004 [transl. by Keith Tribe; original title: Vergangene Zukunft. Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten, Suhrkamp 1979], p. 85.

[5] Because concepts simultaneously convey several different contents, they can be described as “concentrations of multiple meanings.” R. Koselleck, „Einleitung,“ Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, Bd.1, Klett-Cotta 1972, p. XII, quoted in N. Olsen, History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck, Berghahn 2012, p. 172.


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