Historical Revisionism

31 Mar

I just finished Florin Curta’s The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c. 500-700 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). There are several good reviews out there such as Paul Stephenson’s (2002) 1 and, in this case, even the ones up on Amazon are pretty good so I’m not going to write one. However this book is one which argues (and argues well – a very detailed examination of the evidence) for a significant revision of the traditional opinion of the Slavs as being an ethnic group during the period covered.

For some reason this brought to mind several recent arguments I’ve either participated in or observed on non-Academic discussion boards. Recently on the usenet group soc.history.medieval there was an extensive discussion of feudalism. One of the participants strenuously and prodigiously argued that the rejection of the “ism” or “system” related to feudal structures proposed by Susan Reynolds and others 2 was nothing more than an unsupported re-writing of history and that the 18th and 19th century historians had it right. Larry Swain participated in this and I admire his tenacity – I just sat back and watched in horrified awe as someone repeatedly rejected well-supported and argued posts discussing charters and other evidence which showed that any argument in favor of some sort of all-encompassing feudal system stands on very shaky ground.

For myself, I was recently involved in a conversation on Library Thing in the Ancient History discussion group. There a couple of posters argued that the end of the Roman Empire could be viewed as nothing other than disastrous – that the level of civilization crashed and burned and if the Empire had survived we might have landed on the Moon centuries ago. Statements in this discussion included, “Civilization was set back a full 1000 years with global implications” and “I guess I remain amazed that it has become so important for historians to refute the fall and call it something else.” In other words, historians changed the way they viewed something simply because they wanted to (there were other errors of fact not relevant to this post). The dirty phrase for this seems to be either “Historical Revisionism” or “Rewriting History.”

If there’s a purpose for this blog (other than self-indulgence) it’s so a reasonably well-read amateur (I hope – how well-read I am must ultimately be judged by others) can post a few things which may be helpful to amateurs just beginning to study the period.

So here’s my first blog suggestion for amateurs: Any time you’re tempted to call a newer work or current understanding an unwarranted rewriting of history, please do two things:

First – Remember that all history is rewriting history. Rewriting history is what historians do – they publish articles and books which, hopefully, increase our understanding of a period and/or issue. This often replaces an older understanding. This shouldn’t be a dirty term (though most historians would likely prefer the use of “reinterpret” rather than “rewrite”).

Second – Ask yourself, related to the issue in question, whether an author’s argument for a new interpretation is based on his or her desire to see things differently, or on the basis of new evidence. Or even, in some cases, by finding new patterns in old evidence. Is the argument based on fact or pure opinion?

It would be naive to claim that nobody has ever argued for a new historical understanding based on nothing more than their desire for things to be viewed differently, however this happens surprisingly little, at least over the past couple of decades. I think you’ll find that most historians are motivated by something more substantial.

1 Stephenson, Paul, (2002). The International Historical Review 24, 629-631.

2 Reynolds’ Fiefs and Vassals (1994) is more of a culmination of over two decades of debate which seems to have started in earnest with an article by Elizabeth Brown in The American Historical Review in 1974, and there were plenty of rumblings before that.

Brown, Elizabeth A. R., (1974). “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe”, The American Historical Review 79, 1063-1088.

Curta, Florin, (2001). The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c. 500-700 (Cambridge, UK) ISBN: 9780521-036153.

Reynolds, Susan, (1994). Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (New York) ISBN: 9780198-206484.


Posted by on March 31, 2010 in Amateur Tips, Historiography


Tags: , ,

9 responses to “Historical Revisionism

  1. theswain

    April 1, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Very nice post, Curt! And excellent points:I can't speak to your LibraryThing discussion, but in the soc.history.medieval discussion, it should be noted too that the author of those posts could not and did not read the original languages. He checked but 2 of the references in Reynold's book, and he checked them not against the original language, but how they had been translated in the 19th century. Based on that, he decided revisionism was going on. Regarding my tenacity: yes, a personality trait that has both yielded benefits and gotten me into trouble. As for posts like those on soc.history.medieval, I have no illusions of convincing the original poster, but I do hope to at least make any future reader who may not know think about the issue and look into it more. People do find such discussions on the 'Net, and hopefully they won't just accept the nonsense.Good post! Keep 'em coming!

  2. Jonathan Jarrett

    April 1, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Brave work Larry, I imagine I could guess the identity of the s.h.m. poster and he (if I'm right) is basically why I don't read the group any more.There was a not dissimilar argument to this over at Historiann's a while back (which I picked up because of it being mentioned at The Adventures of Notorious, Ph.D.); it does seem that revisionism is a dirty word to some people. I was raised in an academic culture where it was a necessary if destructive force that cleared the way for a better understanding, and it mainly meant proper demolition of outdated scholarship. Now Susan's book fits that description perfectly, but it wasn't seen as a description to avoid, and to hear it used as a condemnation seems just as weird to me as the same kind of usage of `liberal'. National and political positions vary a lot in these issues, I think (and the s.h.m. troll's national and political positions are hard to miss).Thankyou for your comment over at mine, by the way, Curt; inspiration failed me for a reply but it was well-put and thought-provoking.

  3. Medieval History Geek

    April 1, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Jonathan,SHM's longstanding "resident troll" has vacated the premises – hasn't been heard from in several months. Unfortunately that's left something of a vacuum (which is still preferable to what he brought) but hopefully things will return to where they were before our Hawaiian friend arrived a dozen or so years ago.This feudalism person arrived, I believe, through a crosspost from another group and is not a SHM regular. Larry would know that better than I – I was an observer only for that thread and missed chunks when it seemed the same arguments were being repeated.

  4. theswain

    April 2, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Surprisingly, Jonathan, our Dear Little Friend (DLF), who as Curt mentions hasn't been heard from for months thankfully, would actually have never made such an argument as this interloper did.Re: Revision, the accusation of the poster was that history, not scholarship, was being rewritten by nefarious academics who have current political agendas to support and so "change" history to support those agendas. It isn't that previous scholarship misunderstood or operated under mistaken notions, previous scholarship to this chap was absolutely sound in every way.To take another example, this interloper claimed that historians of science starting with the passage of the US' civil rights law changed their characterization of Lemarck and his place in the development of evolution, and did so in order to support this liberal, civil rights for certain minority groups in the US, political agenda. A kook, but a kook the hapless might read.

  5. Jonathan Jarrett

    November 20, 2010 at 12:18 am

    I had forgotten to come back to this thread, I need to thank you guys for the informative replies. It sounds almost as if the group might be readable again and I might have some kind of contribution, if'n I but had more time…

  6. Medieval History Geek

    November 20, 2010 at 4:34 am

    I haven't been on myself in at least a month. Updated to Windows 7 and apparently my newsreader isn't compatible. I really should load a new one.

  7. Benjamin Cooper

    May 20, 2013 at 9:05 am

    Hi there, just landed on your blog after browsing the internet for some historical inspiration. Fascinating and thought-provoking post, thanks for the enjoyable read. I hope to delve more deeply into history in the future, but these days universities seem so intent on marking and results rather than the teaching and learning part! Regards, Ben.

    • Curt Emanuel

      May 24, 2013 at 2:15 pm

      Ben, thank you for your comment. I wasn’t aware that the emphasis on standardized learning had infected things at the University level like it has in secondary and primary schools. I’m more aware of the now longstanding conflict between teaching and research and how quite often in this country teaching seems to have almost nothing to do with promotion and tenure.


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