Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic
We all learned about history at school, but what do we actually know about history? It’s common for us to know a lot about the rulers of the past, wars, and other important historical figures. But what do we know about the common people? And what do we know about the groups among the common people who weren’t so popular among the majority of the population? What about homosexuals, gypsies, and vagabonds? Himl’s areas of study are those forgotten groups. By studying these “outsiders”, Pavel wants to recreate the views and self-perceptions of these people, and give us an insight into their lives.
Pavel: My name is Pavel Himl, I come from the Czech Republic and I’m an university lecturer in history at Charles University in Prague. I am interested in cultural history in the large sense of the word, and so my main research topics used to be marginalized social groups in 17th and 18th Century: vagrants, vagabonds, gypsies. I also worked on the history of homosexuality in Czech lands, and now I am working on the history of administration and state formation during the enlightenment.
Nerina:Why are these topics so important to you? Why are you so passionate about, for example, outsiders?
Pavel: Firstly, I was surprised that we can get so much evidence about these seemingly lost or forgotten people, so ‘archives’ is the reason number one. The second reason is that I think it tells us a lot about the society when we consider which groups, people, and behavior this society excludes.
Nerina:What is your approach?
Pavel: I would call my approach historical anthropology. This means that I try based on trials to reconstruct the behaviour, and self-perceptions of these groups. How did they act if they had some space to construct their lives and their activity? So I try to look at their lives through their eyes.
Nerina:Is it possible to get really close to these people?
Pavel: It is not completely possible because you don’t dispose about self-evidence. It means you don’t have diaries, memories, and letters of these people. The closest source you have are their depositions, their trials, and this is, of course, a unique situation. But I am convinced that we can still at least approach the view and self-perception of these people.
Nerina:Based on your research, do you think that there are similar reasons for being or becoming an outsider?
Pavel: It’s a good question because I could start thinking about eternal, everlasting, mechanisms which lead to exclusion, but it’s hard to say because the concrete reasons for exclusion change over time, and what remains the same is this situation of being excluded or feeling excluded.
Nerina:What can we learn from history about for example being an outsider?
Pavel: I would say we can learn, or I offer as a historian a lesson to my students and to people who read my articles and books, that we still have to examine or observe closely the situation of people who think they don’t belong to us. You know, to really consider their singular situation and to put aside these stereotypes because partly, they are different and considered the ‘other’.
Nerina:Is there something you feel that we should change in our approach to history?
Pavel: There are a lot of things already changing, and one of the most important to me is the replacement of history by histories; so this tends towards plurality. There are a lot of histories competing in our memory and our media. Perhaps we should pay more attention to this plurality of histories and be attentive to who is speaking, and who is presenting this one possible history to us.
Nerina:What is the most important lesson that you have learned from your research?
Pavel: To pay attention to detail.
Nerina:Why do we need history actually?
Pavel: We are history, and I think we are made by history. History is not foreign, but a part of us and history still influences us. We need history in order to recognize ourselves as individuals, members of different groups, and as speakers of languages. The language itself is a bearer of history which is sort of a container of history. In a language you have segmented different influences and different elements from different times because even when we speak, we are part of these histories.
Nerina:Can we say that if we change our perceptions of the past, we change our perceptions of the present?
Pavel: Absolutely. It’s not that everything that happened in the past is history. There are a lot of lives, events, and things which happened somewhere in the past, but when nobody remembers these past things, they are not part of history. History is only what we are creating for us, what we are writing about, for us. So I consider history rather as a present activity, the choosing, emphasizing, telling, and constructing of stories. In this activity, there is a present activity making history. There is no history without making history.
Nerina:This is really interesting because this means that even your work on outsiders, somehow is to bring them into our history, to make them part of our history.
Pavel: Absolutely. For me it’s also a substantial part of the work of a historian. You choose your object and you bring it to our conscience.
Nerina:What do you do when you’re not researching?
Pavel: I take part in sports, I am a member of the green party and for me, because I am basically a teacher, or university lecturer, the most important topic is education.
Nerina:A wish for the future?
Pavel: My personal wish is that the education system in the Czech Republic would be better, more inclusive, and less competitive.
Nerina:If you could send a letter to a future historian, what would you say?
Pavel: “You will perhaps have a better look on our society than we have, and you will feel that you are the master – you know everything about us in a similar way as I am thinking I really discovered the substance of the society of 18th century; but you may be wrong.”
Nerina:Thank you very much, Pavel.
Pavel: You’re welcome Nerina.
We spoke with Pavel last year, in one of our first ever interviews for Traces.Dreams. He is an historian based in Prague. Last time, he explained to us about the details of his new project. Do you want to learn more? Have a watch!