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On the difficulty of remembering things past

I enjoyed reading this:

What we know about events in the Middle Ages depends upon a surprisingly narrow source base. We need to imagine a stage with ninety per cent permanently in darkness. An occasional spotlight flickers upon this corner or that, suddenly revealing details and colours that we might not otherwise imagine existed. A vague half-light enables us to discern some broader outlines, a few darker and lighter shadows. For the most part, however, we depend upon inference and imagination to establish what is there. It is no coincidence that those trained as medieval historians have occupied a disproportionately significant role in both MI6 and the CIA, precisely because the medievalist’s training ensures that the bare minimum of detail is employed to the maximum effect in intelligence gathering.

That comes right near the start (page 3) of A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485 by Nicholas Vincent. Whenever I read something that interesting at the start of a book, I am encouraged to continue. Dipping around in other parts of it suggests that there is much else in this book of interest. I was especially held by the bit I happened to read about how William the Conqueror and his heirs turned vast swathes of England into royal forests for their own hunting pleasure, the previous owners just being turfed out. That King William Rufus, son of the Conqueror, died in a hunting accident, caused much satisfaction among the conquered Anglo-Saxons.

Changing the subject somewhat, but only somewhat, from the disaster that engulfed Anglo-Saxon England to an earlier disaster that seems to have deranged the entire world, I see that Instapundit today linked to an article about a lady geophysicist called Dallas Abbott. Ten years ago, she had the bright idea of looking for evidence of asteroid strikes under the sea. She concluded from her investigations that a big asteroid splashed into the Gulf of Carpentaria (the big bite out of the north coast of Australia) in the year 536. I wrote about this event in an earlier posting here. The book I was reading then was by a certain David Keys, and he reckoned that the various climatic horrors fitfully reported around the world at that time, horrors also noted by Ms Abbott, were triggered by a volcanic eruption, in 535. But they are quite clearly both talking about the same disaster.

It is not surprising that we can’t even be sure that such a thing even happened, let alone what the details were. By the nature of such events, not a lot of written evidence survives about catastrophes. The people at the time were concentrating on trying to stay alive. Keeping us fully informed of the details of their difficulties was not their top priority.

17 comments to On the difficulty of remembering things past

  • Julie near Chicago


    Some people have no social consciousness.

    PS. The book does sound interesting. Another trip to Amazon in the offing.

  • veryretired

    The volcanologists(?) vs the asteroid impactors seems to be a common fault line in many of these “What caued it?” controversies.

    But, now that we know global warming causes both volcanoes and meteors, maybe some of the furor will die down.(/sarc)

  • Julie near Chicago

    “Vulcanologists.” However, global warming certainly does cause both, and I believe that when the Sun goes nova that too will be the result of AGW. What a mess we’re making of our galaxy. 🙁

    What about asteroid impacts’ causing tectonic shifting, earthquakes, and volcanoes?

  • bloke in spain

    “It is no coincidence that those trained as medieval historians have occupied a disproportionately significant role in both MI6 and the CIA, precisely because the medievalist’s training ensures that the bare minimum of detail is employed to the maximum effect in intelligence gathering.”
    Well it could be an explanation. An explanation that’d be appealing to to medievalists, anyway.
    Of course another could be it’s a prime example of one of those cushy fields of academia that are qualitative rather than quantitative. Where there’s not much worry about whether things are right or wrong but whether they’re accepted by one’s peers. Plenty of opportunity to while away one’s time compiling weighty tomes of nonsense to ensure prominence in the field & a fine reputation. The move to intelligence work must be almost seamless.
    Heaven forbid the intelligence gathering services should be contaminated by those from the sciences & the rigour they’d bring to assessing data & making hypotheses from it. Testing those against observations & reaching conclusions. Conclusions they’d be happy to abandon when new & contradictory information became available. Like that Turing bloke. Better people like that be kept in the background & dispensed with as soon as possible.
    Of course this view could easily be refuted by pointing to the long series of intelligence successes these doughty academics achieved. Couldn’t it? depending on which side they were working for, of course.

  • Well, that is why they are called The Dark Ages, isn’t it? I learned this from a Ladybird book.

  • Interesting Brian. Does the author give any source for the claim that MI-6 and the CIA are full of Medievalists ?

  • Jacob

    Seems we know more about ancient Rome and Greece than about the Middle Ages. There were probably more, and better historians at that time. Can anybody comment on this ?

  • Comnenus

    Jacob I’d have to say yes and no to your question. For all the periods you mention the record is extremely patchy.

    Some areas are relatively well known and attested such as Classical Athens or the First and Second Triumvirates and the transition to Imperial Rome. Other areas are extremely poorly attested, periods of Hellenistic history and the crisis of the Third Century have very little in the way of documentary evidence. There are Roman emperors who are little more than faces and names on coins.

    I would say some areas of ancient History are more well known than the Middle Ages and vice versa but I’d hesitate to make a blanket statement on one being more known than the other.

    A further point worth considering is that once you get into periods of history before the invention of the printing press it becomes very much an interdisciplinary mixture of archaeology and history. Archaeology depends much more on funding and certain areas are often unjustly neglected due to modern day unfashionability or even political considerations (I had a tutor who had once worked in Iran, who had been compelled to label anything found from Alexander onwards as “Post-Achaemenid” and who had been non too subtly encouraged to not find such things at all if it could be helped).

    Suffice to say, many areas of Mediaeval and Ancient History are not very well known or understood through no fault of their own and no paucity of evidence.

  • Paul Marks

    This is why the spade is just as useful as reading glasses when engaged in the study of the past.

    Written records are incomplete – look for physical evidence when you can. Although for the Middle Ages Church records are not that bad.

    It is even worse for the Classical period….

    Which is why when people tell me “the Romans did not have…..” just because no written record mentions it, one must remember that only 1% of classical works survive.

    “How do we stop the water system of Rome leaking?” asked one of the Popes.

    But no one could answer him – the old knowledge had been lost. [one of the “Mad Max” Popes of the Dark Ages, Hadrian, built a wall around the small area of Rome that was still inhabited – but he misspelt the inscription on it, that was how bad things had got, the Pope and his advisers were functionally illiterate – a bit like me].

    Once people knew – and then the new generations (trying to fit things back togehther again) did not know.

    For example, we can build artillery (stone throwers and so on) from the Middle Ages – because it was based on mechancial principles we know.

    But the “Roman artillery” you will be shown can not do the stuff that we know (by digging people up with bolts in them at X range) that we know Roman artillery did.

    That is because the Romans relied on certain things they did to animal hair and gut – in making the ropes.

    What things?

    No idea.

    5th century monks did not write it down (or if they did the works were not copied) so even in the Middle Ages people had to figure out new ways of doing things.

    Remember perhaps the most common Roman book was the “Institutes of Gaius” the basic guide for law students.

    We did not have a copy of that till the 19th century (when one discovered by accident – it was reused for a work on theology, and the old writing could still be made out).

    The “Twelve Tables”? The basic foundation of law in the Roman Republic?

    No one has got a copy of that. Everything we know about it is second hand (or, rather, hundreth hand).

    And people want to specualte on what the Greeks and Romans knew about scientific subjects?

    Where the number of copies of works written would have been far fewer?

    And Saint Augustine said that such works were not worth copying out anyway…….

    Not really the fault of Mad Max Popes – they tended to be decent sorts, busy fighting barbarians (trying to save what was left of civilisation). Saving works on, say, the history of the Etruscans or the principles of geology, was not high on their list of priorites (and the language used in such Greek and Latin works would havee been much to hard for them in any case, full of technical words that would have sounded like gibberish).

  • Paul Marks

    One of the leading scholars of the Middle Ages recently died – the leftists on wikipedia were full of the CIA connection.

    It is not really lack of records that makes a scholar of the Middle Ages ideal for intelligence work – it is the experience of getting into a different mindset.

    Clasical authors are like modern ones – the State can (basically) do what it likes, and religion is a matter of paying lip service.

    In the Middle Ages people did not believe that “the law” was whatever the state said it was (and they were willing to KILL to back up this position). Canon lawyers taught that natural law trumped state law (the OPPOSITE of what Roman Imperial lawyers had taught) and it was not just natural law – TRADITION had a vast power also (and, and there is no paradox here, proves to be far more useful for progress than the arbitrary whims of the Emperors).

    And most people (even very intelligent people) has a passionate belief in God.

    Some student of the Classical period is not really goint to understand the passionate faith that (for example) Marxists have in Marxism.

    Or understand the passionate faith that Islamists have in Islam.

    Such a typical cynical student of the Classical period will assume these people do not “really” believe what they say they believer.

    Or they will assume that these people are “stupid” and easy to defeat. The position of David Hume and co – cynical contempt for the religious.

    On the contrary – such people are often highly intelligent.

    To understand the minds of scholars and nobles of the Middle Ages requires a leap of understanding.

    Mental flexibility.

    And remember…..

    It was the Middle Ages that had new inventions – new ways of doing things. Economic advance – and rising populations.

    Whatever the Roman Empire may have started with – it was certainly (from the physical evidence) in DECLINE for centuries.

    “You are King – but you can not do this, it is against the lawd of God and the traditions of man” would have been a meaningless statement under the Roman Empire.

    And military logic meant that soldiers favoured the winner – who ever it was.

    Fighting to the last man is not a habit of the Roman civil wars – where sworn loyality meant little or nothing.

    Just as such things as following a Maid into battle because God had told her that she would liberate France, would have meant nothing to the Roman mind (or to a modern mind).

    And, I repeat, if you make the assumption that such people are stupid – you bones will soon be bleaching in the sun.

    They are not stupid.

  • Comnenus

    I agree with Paul when he talks of the flexibility required to enter into another mindset and the benefit that can bring to intelligence work. A further benefit is that such scholars are often skilled linguists.

    It’s worth adding though that a perhaps more down to earth reason is simply that Classical/Mediaeval degrees were and still are to an extent populated, studied and taught by the sorts of people appreciated by the Whitehall establishment. That’s to say public school and Oxbridge educated. This actually might be changing with a massive growth in subjects like “Intelligence Studies” etc.

    Call me a cynic, but I doubt such ‘professionalisation’ will actually result in better results.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Paul M,

    One of the leading scholars of the Middle Ages recently died – the leftists on wikipedia were full of the CIA connection.


    Also, your comments are most interesting and enlightening–thanks.

  • Rich Rostrom

    There are other aspects of the past that escape us. We look at some point in the past down the corridor of things that have continuity from then till now. What is much harder to do is to put oneself in that past place, and be aware of all the other things that existed then, which did not continue forward to the present.

    The place of religion in a culture may be one of those things. The place of religious convictions in medieval, early modern, and even nineteenth-century societies is hard to grasp now – when religion is practically dead in most of the modern world. (IMO. We see what’s left and it seems obtrusive – but we don’t grasp the level of religious activity of these earlier periods, which was much greater.)

    Another thing is trying to relate the place of “religion” in polytheistic societies such as the classical age (or China and Japan) to “religion” in the European and Moslem sense. On the one hand, polytheistic “religions” did not have the sort of moral authority claimed by the Abrahamic religions. It would be absurd for Zeus to hand down commandments. But on the other hand, it’s clear that ancient societies believed very strongly in the supernatural, and spent vast sums to accommodate and display their “religious” convictions.

  • Paul Marks

    The name escapes me Julie – but it was someone who specialised in the military interpretation of feudalism.

    I will go and see if I can find out.

    Rich – as you imply hard to see the concept of the Paladin in the Classical “religions”, I know there is in role playing games (with Paladins of the various Gods), but not in history. The idea of the knight fighting for the cause of right (regardless of the odds) is a Christian concept (although there is the concept of the hero in classical literature – and it sometimes come close).

    And it goes over into atheism also.

    After all the main characters in the fiction of Ayn Rand are basically atheist Paladins.

    Well forget the word “basically” – they are Paladins.

  • Paul Marks

    Here we are Julie.

    Joeseph Strayer.

    I am not sure he was a military feudualism person (now I have had time to check).

  • Julie near Chicago

    Joseph Strayer–got it! Thanks, Paul. 🙂