27 May 2012

What do Historians know?

A person I debated recently raised some interesting points on the nature of historical study and methodology which can be summed up thus:
  • We cannot never know for sure anything that really happened in the past

  • People left very little behind, so we cannot truly know what they thought or believed

  • Most of the records we do have were left were composed  by or for the 'ruling classes' or clergy who represented only a small segment of society, so therefore we cannot know what the vast majority of ordinary people believed, or much about thier attitudes and values.
These points were raised in order to try to refute my position on some beliefs and values common to Medieval people by a person who had no formal historical training, but this does not necessarily make them invalid.

To examine the factuality of these statements it is necessary to also examine the nature of the source material. I know that this has nothing to do with books or novels so I will try not to spend too much time on this but will examine each point briefly.

"We can never know for sure what really happened in the past" or "we cannot know because we weren't 'there'".

To a certain extent this is true. We cannot know exact precise or intimate details about events that we did not witness, however, we do have accounts written by people who were 'there' and did witness the events they wrote about. That these accounts might be biased or partisan does not necessarily discredit the testimony of those who wrote them nobody is totally impartial after all.

"People left very little behind, so we cannot truly know what they thought or believed"

This really depends on the period or era in question, as well as the nature of the evidence and source material, and other circumstances. For the so-called 'Dark Ages' namely the period after the fall of Rome in the 5th to 8th century sources are limited, but for the Later Middle Ages it is a different matter entirely. Spending hours trawling through parish records, parliament rolls (so-called because they are, in their original form, literally huge rolls of parchment) and all the other reams upon reams of records and bureaucracy, or even looking at the bibliography section of the average history book should evidence enough that there is a significant amount of material left behind.

 Medieval  'rolls' such as this one are useful to historians
Such records often refer to subjects which are irrelrvant to our understanding of the beliefs and attitudes of common people, but some do, for instance records pertaining to a church or cathedral might refer to moral and social matters which had been bought before the church for mediation, or a will left by an individual might give some clues to their beliefs and values. Ordinary people themselves were also more than capable of giving voice their opinions, and these may well be remarked upon by a literate individual, even if the person themself was not literate. In this way, it is indeed possible for us to gain insights into the attitudes, values, opinions, and beliefs of everyday men and women of the Middle Ages, this in turn leads onto the third point.

"Most of the material we have were written by those of the ruling classes, or a literate minority, so it is not possible to know what the majority believed"

This is a fairly common idea, but is it actually true? Certainly it is correct that in many Medieval Societies a significant proportion, or the majority of the population were illiterate, but this does not mean that they did not have access to Literacy and there can be no written material pertaining to them. Even an illiterate peasant could dictate something to a clerk or a priest, who could write down their words; thoughts, or wishes, and so preserve them for posterity. If that peasant had any dealings with the law, or took part in a financial transaction their actions, thoughts or wishes might also be recorded in this context.
Also, people of certain professions or occupations would likely have needed to have some measure of, or at least some grasp of literacy. Merchants or traders could be an example these, and it may be significant in this regard to mention that Geoffrey Chaucer is supposed to have been the son of a wine merchant.

There are also other types of written material such as songs, poems, or plays which can also enable us to gain some understanding of what ordinary Medieval people might have thought, felt and believed about life, and the world around them.

So really, it is possible for Historians and others to know something of the above about Medieval people. We can never know everything, but we can know a lot more than nothing.

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