What do the Early Medieval sources tell us? Usually, when this question is asked by modern readers, it is assumed that the real question concerns what these sources tell us about the people and events that occurred in the past. Yet this is a second order question. The sources tell us about how the past was viewed, and only secondarily (like all written histories) tell us the ‘facts’ about this past.
In Part 6 of this 9 part series, I discussed the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In Part 7, I will discuss the distinction between Form and Matter, a philosophical concept that became embedded in historical writing in the 19th Century.
Modern historical writing arose in the mid to late 19th Century, and imposed a measure of rigour on a study of the past that had been previously been lacking. No longer were all written and oral traditions treated with similar respect. Instead, notions of facts – i.e. what really happened – were imposed upon the evidence. The more factual a source appeared to be, or at least, the more authoritative the author, then the more factual the whole source was deemed to be. This approach is a variation on distinguishing form and matter, which has a long philosophical tradition stretching back to Plato and Aristotle.
Form is the perfect understanding of a concept or aspect of reality. Human reason, through extended and deep study, can work towards and understand the truth of something.
Matter is the distortion of form that evolves over time. Truth is obscured by misunderstanding and ephemeral thinking.
Modern historical writing relies on a study of evidence, which are clues from the past that tell us about what happened in the past – i.e. who did what, and when. Such evidence must be rigorously studied, to sift the distortions and the untruths from the facts.
In Part 8, I will discuss some of the assumptions found within 19th Century historical thinking, which continues to shape modern notions of the past.
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|Title: Sutton Hoo helmet reconstructed Description: Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, England. Source: Wikipedia Commons Author: Gernot Keller Copyright Statement: This is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: brighten & crop. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.|