American History Essay

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At issue was the question whether the pope or a monarch should invest a new bishop with his ring and crosier, symbols of his office.

Again, or again again, every medieval history dwells at length on nominalism versus realism.

But these are specialized importances; I am concerned rather with Importance in the large sense, Importance for the nonunprofessional reader, who has the blessed privilege of stopping when he is bored.

If one examines a set of current historical textbooks, one sees that their authors agree pretty closely on what is important.

The earliest reference that I have discovered to a button in Europe is in Robert de Clari’s account of the coronation of Baldwin of Flanders as Emperor of the East, in Constantinople in the year 1204.

By the end of the thirteenth century there had been an explosion of buttons in western Europe, and they were standard equipment in the fourteenth.

An academic eavesdropper, bugging college classrooms, would hear endlessly repeated the lecturer’s phrase “a matter of the utmost importance is …” The conclusion of the sentence, accompanied by a squeak of chalk, might be almost anything: “the Occasional Conformity Act of 1711,” or “the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713,” or “the Molasses Act of 1733.” The cultural spy would observe the forward quarter of the class eagerly noting down what sounds like an examination question of the utmost importance, while the rearward three quarters, asprawl and aslump, indicate in every limb that the matter is of no importance at all. If his pronouncement were of actual importance, his hearers would rouse, gape, cry approval, or protest.

The teacher should properly qualify his statement to read, “A matter of the utmost importance to me personally is this or that,” or, “A matter of the utmost importance to those who wish to get a good grade in the course is…” The teacher might in his gloomier moments amplify his reservations; he might ask himself what, if anything, is important in history.

One may even wonder if historical importance may not be defined as that which historians have liked to argue about. The ancient Greeks and Romans had no buttons; they held themselves together with brooches and clasps and, safety pins.

If importance is what is of import, consequence, and value to me in my daily life, then feudalism, the investiture of bishops, nominalism and realism, all added together, are less important than the buttons on my coat and the zipper on my trousers. The button is not mentioned in the Bible; hence some rigorous Amish still eschew the button, and there is, or was, a fundamentalist sect called “Hook-and-Eye Baptists.” Up to the middle of the Middle Ages, Europeans fastened their cloaks and gowns at shoulder or breast with clasps or buckles, and tied their breeches with laces, thongs, or “points.” The button was apparently invented, like so much else, in China, with the linking of garments by a kind of toggle and with the application of frogs to silk to hold buttons and preserve buttonholes.


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