September 27, 2012
I have often said how much I love reading history (though I have zero tolerance for taking part in guided tours of historical sites). But I really need to be more specific.
What I love is reading accurate history.
Of course, there is no such thing as accurate history, not in any pure sense. History is relentlessly inaccurate, for reasons that can't be helped:
1. Documents and other evidence are only spottily available. Sometimes we have a wealth of information, but sometimes we have only the vaguest hints.
2. Whatever documents we have are often of questionable reliability. Just because an account was written a long time ago doesn't mean it's accurate. For one thing, a 500-year-old account of a 700-year-old event is not reliable because it is old. Since it was written two hundred years after the event, it is not an eyewitness account. Gossip does not become more reliable with age, and legends famously grow with the retelling.
3. Eyewitnesses and participants have their own agendas, conscious or not. Even contemporary documents can thus be unreliable.
Our view of Richard III, for instance, is colored by the fact that the Tudor usurper Henry VII, who killed and replaced him, had to legitimize his own illegal rule. The easiest way was to demonize his predecessor (rather the way that Obama ascribes godlike powers of destruction to George W. Bush, whose evil influence has continued to overwhelm Obama's heroic efforts throughout nearly four years in office).
The very parenthetical statement I just made is an example of how eyewitnesses color their accounts. My sarcasm was obvious to my contemporaries – you – but other polemics might be more subtle, or an ironic frame of reference might be forgotten, making the surviving documents potentially more deceptive.
4. As long as many documents with different points of view survive, a historian may pick and choose among them, giving greater weight to some sources than others, and finding where even the most contradictory accounts agree. But then the historian's own biases will intrude. Just as some "scientists" look only at data that promote a global-warming-alarmist point of view, some historians give weight only to evidence that supports their conscious ideology or their unconscious assumptions.
For instance, when I was researching archaeological works about the Fertile Crescent during the time of the biblical patriarchs for my novels Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel and Leah, I was amused at how these serious scientists felt obliged to remind readers that there was no evidence of the existence of Abraham, Isaac or Jacob.
But many of them went even further, declaring that archaeology showed that they definitely did not exist. This is a ludicrous claim, of course – with few inscriptions surviving from the period in question, there is no way to rule out the existence of any particular person because his name was never carved on a rock somewhere.
In fact, such a claim by an archaeologist requires that he completely ignore one huge piece of evidence – Genesis itself. There is no doubt that it is an ancient record; and it is obviously a far more reality-based account, at least in the histories after the creation and the flood stories, than a heavily magical and weird story like the Gilgamesh tales from Mesopotamia.
So the insistence on the non-existence of Abraham is not at all about archaeology; it has everything to do with the writer trying to assert his non-connection with any organized religion of today. "I may be writing about the biblical era," the writer is saying, "but I am not writing to defend the Bible. Instead, I disdain it as a historical document." But that disdain is, in itself, a distortion of the record. The Bible exists; it makes whatever assertions it makes; the belief or unbelief of the archaeologist is irrelevant to any scientific discussion, and it cheapens his work, as science, to include such blanket disclaimers.
The book of Genesis, despite the many markers of compilation, editing, translation error and later interpolations, remains a genuinely ancient, if only semi-historical, document, whose evidence should not be set aside without good reason.
But outright lying for propaganda purposes in ancient as well as modern documents is also common.
There is no reason, for instance, to believe that Richard III killed his nephews, the "princes in the Tower," though he is charged with the crime. Already in control of England, with the legitimacy of his reign fully recognized, he had no reason to kill them.
But Henry VII and his agents had every reason to kill the boys, since if Richard III were not the legitimate king, those boys' claim was still far superior to Henry VII's.
So how does a later historian sort through the evidence? Thomas More, writing a manuscript history, is the likeliest source of the account of Richard III apparently used by Shakespeare for his famous play; but More never finished the account, and may have broken off the effort when it became clear to him – a famously honest man – that the charges against Richard III were a pack of lies, and that Henry VII, the father of More's friend and patron Henry VIII, was the only person who needed the princes dead.
All this is speculation – it can only be speculation. It is the kind of subject on which honest historians can and do disagree in their conclusions, even as they agree on the lack of evidence that could settle the question.
Sometimes ancient accounts are obviously false on their face. Herodotus has Solon of Athens meeting Croesus of Lydia. It couldn't have happened. One was dead before the other reached adulthood.
Then the debate becomes: Is the story true, and Solon's name was merely applied to the "wise man" of the account? Or do we look at it as a fabrication intended as a fable about hubris or affirming faith in the wisdom of old Greeks?
We are allowed to wonder whether Herodotus believed it, or knew it was impossible and included it for its moral value or storytelling pleasures.
Good historians lay out their sources and show their reasoning to their readers. They declare their conclusions, but leave room for the reader to give a different weight to the items of evidence and reach a contrary conclusion. Despite his inaccuracies, Herodotus, the first historian, set the example, often including three contradictory stories, saying, "The Egyptians say this, the Lydians say that, but I believe the most reliable account is this one."
This technique applies to historians and biographers who are working with original sources. There is a branch of popular history in which the writer never looks at, let alone weighs, the original documents. Such a writer merely glances at the work product of previous historians, picking up whatever facts are needed to make the point the writer wants to make.
This does not mean that such popular histories are valueless. How the Irish Saved Civilization, for instance, was quite interesting and provided a useful overview of medieval Europe. Nearly all of the author's conclusions is open to question, if only because so few documents from the era actually survive, but the conclusions are reasonable and the narrative is interesting and clear....continued on page 2