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Embarrassing Amateur Moments Supplement

Lately life’s been getting in the way of me making substantive posts. I’d say that’s unfortunate but it’s actually good; just not for this blog.

However the other day I was driving and heard something on the radio which applies perfectly to a post I made a couple of years ago about Embarrassing Amateur Moments. In that post I mentioned that one of my problems is not knowing how to pronounce things. I read a lot but I don’t attend a lot of seminars and am not involved in regular discussions with historians. I don’t know how to pronounce a variety of things; historical figures, place-names, even names of modern historians. At one time this bothered me until I adopted a policy of figuring that most historians had better things to worry about so I wouldn’t overly concern myself with it either.

In the US (and these days I’m sure it’s available internationally) a sports network, ESPN, has a morning talk show called Mike and Mike, featuring a retired (American) football player, Mike Golich and a sportswriter, Mike Greenberg. I was listening to it the other day and heard an actor/comedian, Kevin Hart, discussing an issue he had pronouncing the word “facade.” Here’s a link to the audio. The facade conversation begins about 3:30 into it.

Let’s face it, pronouncing something like “Amalasuintha” isn’t easy. And what the heck do you do with Welsh? Seriously – Rhwng Gwy a Hafren? Gwynfardd Brycheiniog? I’m sure there are rules and once you learn them it’s simple but speaking as a layperson, I consider Welsh to be significantly lacking in vowels.

So as a supplement to that earlier post, if you ever get into a conversation with someone (doesn’t have to be a historian, any subject matter specialist will do) and find out after the fact that you butchered a pronunciation, go back and listen to this. It’ll make you feel better.

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Posted by on February 23, 2014 in Amateur Tips

 

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Why I’m not a(n) Historian

I’ve recently been involved in an off-blog e-mail exchange with someone who initially contacted me thinking I’m a historian. This is not the first time this has happened but this morning, while being snowed in for about the 5th time this winter, seems like a good time to explain why I am not in more detail. I have always tried very hard not to give this perception and have commented frequently that I am not, never have been, and likely never will be a historian. I’m going to try to rank my reasons in order of importance. 1

1. I cannot read source material in its original language. This is the elephant in the room. All I can read is translations. Not only that but any time you read a translation, you’re reading the translator’s interpretation of the source. I comment on sources a lot. I enjoy reading them and have reached the point where, rather than read multiple secondary sources and THEN read the primary/contemporary sources, I’d rather read the sources first, then find out what modern historians think about them. This is, I think, an important evolution in my knowledge of history, that I’m comfortable enough in my own assessments to do this. It is likely the one area which causes the most misconceptions that I may be a historian. I’m not. Unless I can read, assess, and interpret the earliest extant version of source material for myself, not through the eyes of others, I am not a historian. This is more than a rule for me; it’s a law. 2

2. I haven’t been trained. I think I’ve learned a fair amount on my own (not to say that others haven’t been kind enough to help me) but there’s a lot to be said for formal education. You are required to submit work to an authority who will return this to you after providing a critical assessment. You will need to hone your craft through a fairly rigorous review process. This is also a reason why advanced degrees matter. This isn’t as much of a go/no go criterion as number 1. I do think someone without a degree can become a historian. You can submit publications for review, work with historians on projects and observe and learn from their methods, etc. You certainly can learn a new language(or a very old one). It’s not a “you’re dead on the spot if you can’t do this” type of qualification like the inability to read sources but for me it’s pretty strong. I can read books on historical methodology and I’ll learn a lot. But without another party evaluating what I’ve done a big part of the process is missing.

3. I’m not paid for it. I think labels and titles have some importance (if I believed otherwise this post wouldn’t exist). Before I got myself a real job I used to be a horse trainer. I used to tell amateurs all the time that if they knew horses very well they could probably train their horse as well as I could, it just would take longer. I was riding 10 or more horses a day, doing this 12-14 hours/day six days a week. The sheer number of experiences I had with horses, each with his/her own little idiosyncrasies, meant I could figure out what was going on and what to do more quickly. What I could get done in 90 or 120 days would probably take them 6-8 months. If these amateurs chose to do this that didn’t make them horse trainers but people who trained a horse or two. There’s a difference between someone who derives his or her income from something and someone who does not. In this case one is a historian, the other (even if he/she can read sources and has been trained) is someone who does history. I will not get 100% agreement on this one, but I think the fact that someone believes that what you do has economic value means something. For me, if I’m not getting paid for it, I’m not a member of a profession.

When I started this post I thought I’d have a much longer list but once I began thinking on it I decided that just about everything I had fit under one of these categories. For example, part of being a historian is being a member of the profession which means you’re submitting material for publication, review, and critique. This actually fits under #2 (receiving assessments and critiques), at a different point in one’s career.

Also, I haven’t listed things which might make you a good vs a bad historian. The best example of this I can think of is professional development. I would say that a good historian tries to stay current. He or she will attend professional conferences, remain current on developments in his or her area(s) of expertise, etc. Someone who fails to do this does not necessarily cease to be a historian, he or she just likely isn’t a very good one.

I have reached the point where I think I can assess the validity of a historian’s argument and his/her methodology. I take some pride in this and it’s taken me a long time to reach this point. It’s a nice skill though I still have a lot to learn about it. But it doesn’t make me a historian.

1 By history I mean assessing the past using written source material (including inscriptions and art). Archaeologists are involved with studies all the time which they evaluate and interpret, frequently without a single textual piece of evidence. For me, while there’s a ton of overlap and members of each profession should at least be conversant with the others’ methods, this does not make an archaeologist a historian (though some people are both).

2 I don’t want to imply that a historian, in writing, must have personally read every single source on a topic to construct an argument, just that he or she must be able to go back to a source to assess it if they find another historian’s interpretation questionable.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2014 in Amateur Tips

 

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Were Medievals “Just Like Us?”

The above is a question I’ve steered away from for a bunch of reasons. Probably the main one is I don’t know how to properly approach it, not really. I’m not that smart. But I’ve decided to finally give it a shot even though I’m not very well qualified to talk about it. I’m not going to offer any sort of detailed evidence, just a description of my thoughts as they are now, and I make no promise that these won’t change at some point in the future.

The reason I’ve finally decided to address this (I’ve had a draft on this sitting around since the Spring of 2010, a few months after I started this blog) is because I’ve recently received quite a few hits from a site and, as is usual when this happens, I decided to see why/how I was mentioned. In some cases, particularly if it comes from another blog, I like to thank the person who provided the link. In this case the site is a discussion board talking about whether a historical Jesus really existed. In the middle of it one of the participants offered this as part of a comment:

Well, I tend to think people are not so different now as they were back then …

I’ve encountered this plenty of times. For myself, 15 (this is getting perilously close to 20) years or so ago when I first started reading on this, I’d often get into a discussion where I’d use what I thought was very logical reasoning for why some one or group may have behaved in a certain way only to be shot down (usually nicely) when someone pointed out that I was making a lot of assumptions that people back then thought and behaved the same as they do now.

So this is the question; Were Medievals pretty much like us? My answer is yes, and no.

First, there do appear to be some truths about Human behavior which largely transcend time and space. Human beings are social creatures, tending toward living in groups. The size of these groups obviously varies but we tend to want to be around others. These social groups almost always have some sort of hierarchical arrangement where certain members, classes or groups are dominant over other members, classes or groups. Related to this, Humans have a propensity to divide people into “us” and “them.” We tend to establish certain criteria by which we can judge the “us-ness” and “them-ness” of people. Now some groups are far more accepting of “thems” than others. But this still seems to be characteristic.

Family is important. This is almost as much as I want to say on the matter however this seems to be indicated for every group which I’ve read about. Keep in mind though that “family” can mean very different things in different cultures. Romans placed great value on adoption into the family. Some families indicate household members, not biological relations but there seems to be some value placed on family/kinship. This reaches the point of calling members of groups which do not involve kinship “brother” or “sister” in order to emphasize the importance of membership.

The range of Human emotions we have today seems to have existed at least as far back as there are written records. Literature of all times speaks of love, fear, anger, etc. And it’s not exactly an emotion but at least among literate Humans, questions about our origin, our place in the world and whether there is an afterlife and what form it may take seem to be pretty common.

So with all that, I can say yes; Medievals were like us. They were Human beings with some of the same characteristics as folks living today. Like us, they were products of their environments.

And Medievals were very different from us. Their personal characteristics, skills, belief systems, relationships and moralities were formed by their interactions with their own unique environments. These environments were profoundly different from those of modern western civilization. I think we can all see that the worlds in which a 6th century Merovingian, an 8th century Syrian Arab, a 9th century Anglo-Saxon, a 12th century Christian (or Muslim) Iberian or a 14th century Icelander lived in were very, very different from ours. These environments formed the basis for their development as individuals and as societal members. What was or was not important to them, how they thought, made decisions, etc., is based on this personal development. With such a difference in environments, is it reasonable to think that the end products of that environment, people, would be the same as we find today? I don’t think so.

A fairly obvious example of this is slavery. To me and the vast majority of others brought up as I was, the concept that one person can own another is reprehensible. For most of the medieval period, this was not the case, and this is even more explicit when we look at classical Rome. To many Romans, slaves were animals with the ability to talk. Any use a master chose to make of his or her slave (except for sexually if you were a married woman) was permitted. Some of these uses were frowned upon and not spoken of, but they were legal. If I hear of something like this going on (and unfortunately reports occasionally surface) today I become angry and repulsed. Most Romans would not have. This is a fairly obvious example and one that’s been mentioned quite often in literature but there are many others that appear in sources and I’m reasonably sure there are a lot of attitudes which can only be inferred. 1

The same concept of development related to the difference in environment holds true today. When I talk to someone from what we would label Western Civilization, my level of understanding of them is fairly high. It’s certainly far from perfect but I can carry on a conversation with someone from France or Germany where we each seem able to make certain assumptions about one another. We have a fairly closely shared heritage.

However when I interact with someone from, say, the Sudan or Nigeria (even Mexico or Costa Rica), this changes. They have likely learned English. We can understand each others’ words. In discussing specific issues or trying to solve a problem we get along just fine. However the core values and basic assumptions we carry with us are different, as are the worlds in which our identities were formed. This can create some problems if I’m not careful. I have to continuously think about how we interact, communicate, and relate to each other.

In the end, I don’t know exactly how Medievals thought. But I’m just about certain they thought very differently from me. And to add another layer, it’s very possible that the 95% or more of people who are not represented in the sources – the peasants, slaves and other members of the sub-elite classes – thought differently from those for whom we have a record. Heck, I often have a hard time figuring out what a Hollywood actor or someone who comes from old money is thinking. Why would I expect Joe Peasant to think the same as a king?

This is a conversation I enjoy and one which I think is important. Medievals were just like us. However this also means that they were almost certainly very different. The same holds true for today’s global society. Our commonality creates our diversity, and that’s a wonderful thing.

NOTE: I hope this doesn’t come across as condescending or anything. I suspect these are the kinds of issues covered in an introductory history course in college (probably should be in HS), particularly when teaching how to interpret source material. Likely 90% of the people who read this blog know this better than I but I still run across it when I talk to people. And I still have to remind myself of this when I’m reading. Every now and then I have to tell myself something along the lines of, “Really Curt? Do you actually think this was the reason Gregory hated Chilperic so much?”

1 There’s a fair amount of variability here which I’ll leave alone as I may want to eventually do a post on the differences between Christian and Roman concepts of slavery.

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2013 in Historiography

 

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Amateur Tip: A Few of My Favorite Things

I’ve highlighted some of my favorite blogs before. Thought it might be helpful if I did the same for some websites.

On the left of this page, part way down, are some links I consider useful for folks like me without access to some of the academic resources historians have access to. Actually, I have a lot of that access since I work for a University – I just don’t know how to use all of it. In any case, I have over a hundred medieval and ancient sites bookmarked for my use but including all of those on my blog wouldn’t help anyone. The ones I’ve included on my blog page are those leading either to online journals or source material.

Maps

If you’re into maps, these sites may be of interest:

  • Euratlas is the map site I visit most frequently. It has dozens of maps of interest ranging from the 4th millennium BC to now. I particularly like the century-by-century progression of Europe myself.
  • The Ancient World Mapping Center goes well beyond providing some free maps (which you may find through a link on the left of the main page). It also includes information and links related to current research into mapping and cartography.
  • The Collaborative Numismatics Page has much, much more than just maps. I’ve linked to the map page here but you’ll want to check out the Numiswiki main page for loads of information, primarily ancient.

Art and Images

One of my very favorite, recently discovered sites is Kornbluth Photography. I probably shouldn’t call this a “discovered” site so much as one I was led by the nose to. Genevra Kornbluth gave a very interesting paper on archaeological finds in 5th-7th century Western Europe at the 2010 International Congress for Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. She provided her website address there. After looking through it, I was hooked. If you’re into Art History – or, like me, just like looking at very old pretty stuff – she has bushels of images with accompanying descriptions. And if you’re an academic and looking for an image for your current book project, you may find something of use (this is what she does for a living so there will likely be a fee – these images are NOT public domain or for indiscriminate use). I also love the fact that when; in addition to never bathing, indiscriminately killing one another and nobody reading; someone throws the old, “after the fall of Rome nobody did any art” at me, I have a wonderful site to point them to that illustrates that no, this is very, very wrong.

Texts and Source Material

I’ve mentioned before how I like to do my reading. Generally, I read several secondary works covering a topic at the same time. While taking my notes, on a separate sheet of paper I also write down a list of materials I want to find; additional secondary works, journal articles, etc., and; primary and contemporary or near-contemporary source materials. The following sites are those I’ve found very useful when looking for sources:

  • The Medieval Sourcebook is such an astonishingly useful site that I have a hard time describing it. Dozens of sources translated into English, or links to them. Paul Halsall, the author, is a God – at least when it comes to his contribution to access to Medieval resources. Even though he is no longer (I don’t believe) actively maintaining the Sourcebook, it remains a wonderful resource.
  • I’d call Roger Pearse a God too except I know he’d prefer some other term. So I’ll revert to Steve Muhlberger’s characterization of him as a Benefactor of Humanity. The Tertullian Project is his main page (he has others) where the results of his effort to translate public domain source material into English are displayed. If you’re looking for materials on early Christianity, this is a wonderful site.
  • Another excellent source covering the same general area (and one I know Roger has contributed to) is the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. This site contains a treasure of source material related to Early Christianity and the Early Church, translated into English. Downloading materials requires a small fee however you may read them online for free.
  • The final site I’m going to point out today is Fordham University’s Bibliography of Medieval Sources Page. When I start looking for source materials, this is one of the first places I look. The bibliography is searchable and easy to use. Generally I only input the medieval author name, the original language, and that I’m looking for materials translated into English. It includes materials available online as well as those that have been translated and published. Obviously, it’s not 100% complete but it’s a great starting point and, if you happen to go there and notice they’re missing something, use their feedback page to help them update the site.

So these are just a few of the sites I consider useful for finding source materials for those without access to a university or comprehensive public library system. This is just the tip of the iceberg and most of my links here are to other collections of sources, or online journals. If you have other sites to add, please either e-mail me or include them in comments on this page.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2010 in Amateur Tips, Resources

 

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Amateur Tip – How I Remember Stuff

The value of this will depend on what level you intend to take your Medieval interest to. It should go without saying (but may not so I’ll say it anyway) that this is how I do things and what works for me. This post is more along the lines of suggesting something you may want to think about and not me saying I have “the answer.”

When I first started reading about Medieval History, I mainly wanted to get a “feel” for the period to help me write fiction. I figured that if I needed something factual I could hit a library for research (the Internet was very young at the time) and since I was writing fantasy, not historical fiction, I could deviate from historical reality so long as that deviation made logical sense.

So my reading consisted of just that – read a book, stick it on the shelf. I’d write a few sentences as a summary and stick it in a word doc (I’ve sent that to people and will happily do so again but it’s mostly from books I read before about 2000). Then I started becoming involved in discussions of the Middle Ages, primarily on-line. My “system” (not a system at all) worked for a while until this usenet group I participated in became inhabited by a troll. And not just your ordinary troll but a fairly intelligent one who enjoyed blasting holes in what other people had to say – not by offering information on his own, but by pointing out flaws – real or imagined – in other people’s arguments. One of his favorite tactics was to take a post and rip it for not citing any sources, providing evidence, etc.

For the most part this was stupid – usenet isn’t an academic discussion group. But it had the effect of getting me to start paying attention to where I got my information so if someone called me on something, I could recall that information more quickly than the process of checking out the 3-4 books I may have read that in, searching the indexes and (hopefully) finding the info to cite.

This has led to a change in my reading habits. For the past several years, whenever I read something I keep a notepad nearby and jot down anything which I think I may want to refer to for future reference. These can be broad concepts but typically these are specific arguments, quotes or research findings that have a bearing on issues I’m interested in. I’ve found that writing an actual review I intend for public consumption raises my recall level immensely – those take me 2-4 hours to put together, I have to refer back to whole passages/sections of the book, cite specific statements, etc. Unfortunately I haven’t reached the point where I do that for everything I read.

However when I have time, I take my notes and enter them into a spreadsheet. The columns are titled Topic, Time, Region, Author, Title, Pub Date, ISBN, pp, Category, Location, Date Read, and Comments. Most of these are self-explanatory but for those that aren’t:

  • Time – the period this item refers to – could be a century, specific year or even a conceptual time such as “Investiture”.
  • pp – page(s) on which I found the item
  • Category – book, article, web (typically I save something of interest I find on the web – no guarantee it’ll be there forever)
  • Location – owned, library(which library), downloaded (with file name), URL
I wish I had started doing this 15 years ago. As an example of why, at one time during a discussion on life expectancy I recalled reading that once someone had survived childhood, his or her chances of surviving to the 40’s were pretty good. But I couldn’t recall where so I had to go through 7 different books to find what I was looking for in Life in the Middle Ages by Hans-Werner Goetz (Notre Dame, 1993) where he discusses how average life expectancy was between 25 and 32 however this was skewed by high infant mortality rates and men and women who survived childhood had a life expectancy of 47 and 44, respectively. (p 17) I think I spent a couple of hours trying to find that information. 1

What led me to think about this is that I’m currently reading Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages by Noble and Head, eds., (Penn State, 1995). I’ve read a fair amount of hagiography and even debated not going through the vitae in this volume, just the intro’s – I know the hagiographical norms fairly well and even though this would include some biographical and historical information, I thought maybe I should just skim it. But I decided to dive in – you never know, right?

I don’t have a lot of notes from this book but last night I was reading, “The Hodoeporicon of Saint Willibald” by Huneberc of Heidenheim, translated by C. H. Talbot. The first notable item is that Huneberc was a woman. Female authors in the early Middle Ages (this was written in the 8th century) are relatively rare. The other notable item for me goes back to myth-busting and refers to bathing – during his travels Willibald and his companions were captured by Muslims in Syria and imprisoned. A merchant tried to have them released and failed but remained concerned about them and, “Every day, therefore, he sent them dinner and supper, and on Wednesday and Saturday he sent his son to the prison and took them out for a bath and then took them back again.” (p 152)

Next time I come across someone who gives me the “dirty medievals never bathed” line, I have one more piece of ammo to throw at him/her. Willibald and his companions received two main creature comforts from their benefactor – food, and bathing twice a week. The fact that they received this AND that it was notable enough to be recorded in his vita says a great deal about their desire for cleanliness – Take THAT William Manchester! Plus the gender of the author has implications for the role of women and female literacy.

To finish this up, my notes from this vita are as follows:

  • Willibald – pp 141-45 – Huneberc female author, 8th c., “female weakness” in prologue
  • Willibald – p 152 – bathing
Once I get done reading the entire book, I’ll enter my notes (expanded of course – the comments will include details) under the topics “Source”, “CE 8”, “Bathing”, “Education”, “Literacy”, “Women, Medieval”, and “Women, Authors” along with whatever else I come across. And yes, I will post identical information under multiple topics – there may even be more topics once I get there. I’d rather have too many than not enough – digital space is plentiful.

I didn’t know I’d become addicted to Medieval History 15 years ago but I did – and I wish I’d done some sort of note taking from day 1. If you think you may reach the point where you’ll become involved in discussions of this sort, I think you’ll find that spending a half hour or so per book (which is usually all it takes me though there are exceptions) to use some sort of indexed reference system will be well worth your while.

1 There’s a ton of more recent information out there on this topic since I went hunting for this back in, say, 1998 or so. Please don’t reference this as “According to the Medieval History Geek . . .”

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2010 in Amateur Tips

 

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Another Tip for Amateurs – Library Features

This post originally began as a tangent to a post about another topic. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my tangent would detract from what I wanted to get across there – and to figure out that this was worth its own post.

For an amateur, access to reasonably priced books is often a significant limiting factor. I know when I first started reading history it was a bit of a jolt transitioning from buying $6.95 paperback fiction to $20-$30 non-fiction. Eventually I got used to that enough to where I frequently buy books in the $60-$80 range – it has to be a very useful book though.

This brings us to the world of the Inter Library Loan (ILL). Many if not most of you are at least somewhat aware of this so this is more of a reminder. Use it. I’ve been astonished at what our little (town of 15,000 people) public library has been able to acquire for me. I’ve received fairly specialized books housed at Notre Dame, Indiana University, Taylor University, Oberlin College, etc. And the fee is next to nothing. So if you see a book and buying it is beyond your means, talk to your library.

What many people don’t seem to be aware of are subscription services your local library may have. I’ve told several people to check and find out if their library subscribes to JSTOR – a subscription service which provides access to many journals, in digital form. They are frequently surprised to find their library has it. If your library doesn’t, you may want to try finding several people interested in having journal access beyond what the library subscribes to – these don’t have to be history people either – and talk to the library. If they see there’s an interest in the service they may be willing to purchase it – or if you get enough people, ask the library if they’d consider subscribing if you can find enough donors to cover the cost. There are other services besides JSTOR – Project MUSE is one I’m familiar with. I’m not up on the inner workings of all this because through my “nothistory” job at a university I have access to all sorts of stuff through the library and they make it easy, but it’s amazing how many good public libraries offer many of these same services.

And finally, since I mentioned university libraries, if you want additional access to resources, ask the college or university you graduated from about alumni library accounts. Depending on the type of institution, they may not have many of the books you may be looking for but they often have JSTOR or other journal access. I try to keep up on things by looking through 5 journals on a regular basis – Speculum, Journal of Late Antiquity, Early Medieval Europe, the American Historical Review and the English Historical Review. I subscribe to Speculum (access through JSTOR isn’t available for the most recent 5 years) and JLA, and access the others through the University. And often something from another journal is cited, such as the article I mentioned in my Rich Peasant/Poor Peasant post which I can access through JSTOR.

Many institutions of higher education offer alumni accounts. Sometimes you may not receive all the bells and whistles of faculty and student accounts but it is absolutely worth asking about. And in this day and age of digital information, even if you’re physically thousands of miles away from your library, you can still access many of the resources.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2010 in Amateur Tips, Resources

 

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Historical Revisionism

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.

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

 

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