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.