Scholarly discussion on celebrities of bygone eras at the Faculty of History of the University of Gdańsk

Ewa Karolina Cichocka talks to prof. dr hab. Beata Możejko from the Faculty of History, co-organiser of the next academic conference entitled 'Celebrities of the past eras. Scandals, secrets, romances and other excesses.'

- It is hard to believe how eventful the lives of former celebrities were. Infidelities, illegitimate offspring, high-profile divorces and scandals were quite common. Compared to today, they do not pale in comparison. How important is it for historians to uncover the private sides of important figures' lives?

- It is human nature that the private life of others is very interesting. Nowadays, whether we like it or not, we reveal our own, for example by uploading photos to various social media. For historians, it is not only political history that is important, but also social history or biographical studies, and therefore the private lives of not only important figures. Discovering different sides of the lives of people who lived and worked in the past can be a fascinating intellectual adventure. For me, for example, it is reading the letters of Isabella d'Este, the Marquise of Mantua (1474-1539), known as the first lady of the Renaissance, while for someone else it may be following the figure of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. Their private lives were almost inseparably intertwined with their public lives and it is often difficult to separate the two, even in research.

- The rich and varied programme of the last conference can encourage historical research. The social themes were as engaging as a sensational read. The organisers were probably pleased with the diversity of topics and the way they were approached.

- Our aim, mine and that of prof. Anna Paner, was precisely to encourage such research. The conference was organised for students of the University of Gdańsk, but also those interested in history from a broader perspective than the political one. To say the least, we also wanted the audience to take their minds off the pandemic, the covid, vaccinations, all these current worries. At the same time, we wanted them to receive really interesting papers, supported by research, relating thematically to different people and different eras. The diverse selection of topics was therefore planned in advance. On behalf of both of us, however, I must thank all those who presented papers for their commitment to the conference. Each paper was different, and the theme evoked by the title found many threads.

- It would seem that a meeting among historians would be based on documents from the archives. And yet it has often turned out that the sources are sometimes uncertain, the information residual, and some issues remain unexplained. Can the discussion about their value, which emerged during the conference, be called a scientific dispute?

- Of course, a large part of our research is based on archival records, but we must not forget either the results of archaeological works - such as the uncovering of graffiti in Ancient Rome or Pompeii, which are so vivid in their message - or iconographic sources. We must always remember that even the most abundant written sources reveal to us only part of the truth about events, persons and that they are often subjective. Much, therefore, depends on research methods and interpretation. It is precisely these research methods, posing questions even to rudimentary sources and their interpretation, that can be the subject of academic, scholarly dispute, as was also evident during the conference. Let us not forget that sometimes, and not only in relation to chronologically very distant eras, but we also have to accept the idea that not all questions will be answered. Sometimes we are only getting closer to such an answer, or so it seems to us... The progress of science, including the humanities, consists in the constant posing of questions, as the poetess wrote, out of astonishment.

- It turns out that we have many sources - such as letters, memoirs, which reveal a huge number of past scandals, alcove secrets and affairs of manners. One might wonder how much more we would know if there had been a tabloid press in the old days?

- Our conference covered the period from antiquity to the 19th century, and in the second half of the last century, such a tabloid press already existed and was publishing. However, one should approach these reports with a distance, just like today's sensational tabloid reports. After all, we (probably?) do not believe everything that is written about contemporary celebrities on various portals. However, some secrets from the past and contemporary ones will remain secrets. Letters, memoirs and diaries from the past should also be treated with caution, although it is very tempting to believe them right away.

- Despite the rules and norms that seem to have been scrupulously observed in titled families, the many biographies and stories presented show that illegitimate children, betrayals and mistresses were not uncommon. Behind the dry historical facts and dates, real people with their weaknesses and passions emerge. This is probably the important side of the conference?

- This is an important aspect of the conference - showing that the heroes and heroines of the papers were flesh and blood. Often history textbooks give dry facts, focusing on politics and dates, and strip these people of their everyday life. Meanwhile, they were real people with their weaknesses and passions, and I have the impression that we succeded in presenting them this way.

- Encouraged by the participation of speakers and listeners, are you planning another edition on this theme next year?

- I have already thanked the speakers, but I must say that we, as organisers, were very pleased to see such a large number of people listening. Up to one hundred and fifty people listened to us, and many of them asked questions. For the time being, we are thinking about a possible publication. We don't know how the system of organising conferences next year will turn out if it will be possible to hold the sessions in the buildings of the University of Gdańsk, not only on-line. The basis is a good topic, perhaps a continuation, perhaps something new. We certainly don't lack will and ideas.

- Thank you for the interview.

Ewa Cichocka / Press Office of University of Gdańsk