Modern historical writing is rooted in the prejudices of 19th Century scholarship. It elevates written sources as a superior form of evidence. Why? Because in the 19th Century, literacy was not universal. Literacy was the preserve of the educated classes (like the 19th Century historians themselves) and the clerks of the emerging government bureaucracies. Ordinary people were not literate, therefore their rude understandings could not be captured by the written word. Written sources from the past, it was thought, could be studied as artefacts of cultured or government men.
In Part 7 of this 9 part series, I discussed the distinction between Form and Matter, a philosophical concept that became embedded in historical writing in the 19th Century. 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.
What did these historians seek within the texts? They sought details of events, especially events relating to ‘Great Men’ – kings, princes and generals.
Why did they focus on events, rather than the stories? Events, once perfectly realised by cross-matching the same event across different sources, were separable from their stories – events are the facts of history. Everything-else – attributions of motivations (to divine intervention etc.) and descriptions of such motivations – was mere distortion of reality. The historians of the 19th Century felt that they were uniquely equipped to understand the past, and that therefore they were free to disregard anything that did not fit with their view of history and the rational methods that they were employing.
In short, such historians relied upon a distinction between form and matter – the events (i.e. the facts) could be stripped from the stories, compared for their relative reliability against details recorded in other texts, and aggregated into authorised chronologies of the past.
With our notions of history clarified, in Part 9 I will contrast these notions with the Early Medieval approach to historical writing.
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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.|