Posts Tagged ‘historiography’

How much do we really know about history — or maybe more properly, how much do we know about the human past?

(The Institute of Historical Research defines “history” as “the bodies of knowledge about the past produced by historians,” along with everything involved in producing and communicating that knowledge. That said, we often use the word “history” as an umbrella term for everything that happened in the past, and I’m not going to nitpick here.)

I often ask that question, because people who think they are erudite will sometimes tell me that I’m wrong about this or that fact about the past. Or, more often, they will just make some unequivocal statement about the past — such and such happened during such and such period, as if there were no question. (See one of my meditations about such certainty at “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”)

Egyptian inscription, menu of Tepemankh

Inscription from tomb of Tepemankh, Giza, Egypt, conventionally dated about 2350-2300 BCE. Via Wikimedia Commons.

When historians make a statement about the past, how certain are they really? What prompted me to write about that question today was a comment contributed by a reader calling himself “Columbus” (I think his real name is Norbert — no comment on that) responding to my recent post, “Did Columbus Prove the Earth Is Round?” The commenter made reference to an article on the topic by historian Jeffrey Russell, who had this to say about what he called “the precariousness of history”:

History is precarious for three reasons: the good reason that it is extraordinarily difficult to determine “what really happened” in any series of events; the bad reason that historical scholarship is often sloppy; and the appalling reason that far too much historical scholarship consists of contorting the evidence to fit ideological models. The worst examples of such contortions are the Nazi and Communist histories of the early- and mid-twentieth century. (boldface mine)

All three reasons are causes for concern, particularly the urge for promoting ideologically-based falsehoods, one of the principal motivations behind the myth that Columbus proved the earth is round.

However, what I’m thinking about today is Russell’s reason number one, just the sheer difficulty of determining what really happened.

If you think about it, what is history based on, that is, our hypothetical narrative of the human past? Things like written documents and inscriptions, which become scarcer and more fragmentary the further back you go in time. Archaeologists help by creating conjectures based on traces of human activity dug up from the ground — the foundations of ancient buildings, shards of pottery, old pieces of metal, the occasional bone. But how much certainty does such evidence impart, especially when it comes to ancient history?

As an example, supposed erudites often assert that the Bible chronology can’t be correct, because the chronology of Egypt continues back in time before the Biblical date of the Great Flood at 2370 BCE. Many people “know” that, but what’s it based on? For the most part, two lines of shaky evidence — the puffery of Egyptian kings engraved on monuments, and an account of Egyptian history based on a source named Manetho, reputed to be an Egyptian historian living in the 3rd century BCE, more than 2,000 years after the Bible’s date for the Deluge and any Egyptian kings thought to have been living at that time. On top of that, Manetho’s history has never been found in its original complete form, and is only known from excerpts quoted in a work by the Jewish historian Josephus in the first century CE, four hundred years after the purported life of Manetho.

You still run across people who dismiss the Bible account based on that shaky foundation. Perhaps this is an example of what Russell refers to as “contorting the evidence to fit ideological models.”

But is Russell the only historian who suggests that history as commonly written is less certain than we like to let on?

Moses I. Finley

Moses I. Finley

The best reference I have found on this topic is Ancient History: Evidence and Models, a 1985 book by the Cambridge Classics scholar Moses I. Finley (1912-1986). If you’re open-minded enough to consider a criticism of history at the deepest level, I encourage you to read the book, which can be obtained through Amazon, or perhaps through an academic or public library.

However, following are a few selected quotes which help to express Finley’s thinking and observations about history as it is written.

Much of Finley’s focus is on classical Western history, beginning with Ancient Greece and Rome. In discussing Roman history as understood through Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus:

Try as we may, we cannot trace any of their written sources back beyond about 300 BC, and mostly not further than to the age of Marius and Sulla. Yet the early centuries of the Republic and the still earlier centuries that preceded it are narrated in detail in Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Where did they find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit — irrespective of possible reliability — we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. (9, boldface mine)

One of the problems Finley points to in reconstructing ancient history is the paucity of real primary documentation. In discussing government documents, he writes:

Outside Egypt, governmental documents available to us are solely those that the authorities chose to display publicly in lasting materials, stone or bronze (apart from the quotations that are preserved in the literary sources) …

… it is worth noting that of all the publicly displayed Roman laws, senatus consulta and imperial ‘enactments’ down to Constantine, barely one hundred are now available in some condition from the whole of the territory under Roman rule. For the whole of antiquity, in sum, what we have at our disposal (apart from Athens) is a scatter of documents from one end of the Mediterranean world to the other, the great majority of them isolated texts without a context … (37-38, boldface mine)

While Finley’s critique of history is strong, he does not assert that it is impossible to come up with a better accounting of the past, but that this requires a more systematic way to assemble and evaluate ancient sources, which he discusses in the book. It also requires that historians give up precious assumptions that have let them fool themselves into thinking they are able to unequivocally “tell ‘how it really was.'” (47)

ARK — 28 October 2014

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