Saturday, May 28, 2011

The history of the unknown

I’m impressed with the idea that as historians we write the history of the unknown rather than of what is known. It seems that facts are helpful in creating parameters for our chosen playing field, but in themselves are boring, even almost contemptible. It’s as if the 19th c. Rankean ideal of “what actually happened” has been replaced with the more compelling depiction of what could have.

The pronouncement that Columbus *discovered* America in 1492—a curious formulation since it was already the world for the millions who lived there, so you might well ask who really discovered whom—is intrinsically inconsequential, since it might have been in 1493 and by Columbus' brother-in-law, and what difference would that have made? More interesting is what isn’t knowable about it, for example which Carribean island did he land upon, the subject of an overly long PBS documentary film a year or two ago.

Writing the history of the unknown proceeds mostly by analogy. In a given social process, we don’t know how A turned into B, but we do have an idea how C turned into D, so we apply that to the former situation. This makes us feel that the know-ability of our undertaking has increased and the aporias correspondingly diminished.

Tenth-century Europe is notoriously difficult for medievalists, who avoid it like the plague, due to a profound lack of documentary evidence. The common practice is to dismiss it as a century of transition. We have the growth of towns and an economy utilizing silver coinage by the year 1000, which wasn’t the case in 900, so it’s like Jack’s beanstalk that grew up overnight when nobody was watching, and we move on quickly to the century following where sources abound.

I’ve been reading Gerd Althoff’s Die Ottonen, a really useful book about the Saxon kings of Germany in the tenth century, but which laments the lack of documentary evidence so often that the reader almost feels guilty for having picked up the book to begin with. One should stop kvetching, accept that the fact that we *know* as much we are intended to, and get on with writing the history of the unknown.


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