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How it Really Was

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Michy
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How it Really Was

Post by Michy » Fri December 17th, 2010, 10:21 pm

Margaret mentioned a book about the Middle Ages on another thread here that piqued my interest, so I zoomed over to Amazon to find out more about it. Most reviews seemed to be favorable but there were a few critical ones that were, IMO, very well-expressed and raised good points. One, in particular, criticizes the book for perpetuating pre-1950s concepts about the Dark Ages, namely how dirty, ignorant, etc. etc. people were back then. The reviewer says (I'm paraphrasing, obviously), that we now have a much better understanding of how people lived then, and that their lives weren't so brutish as had been thought and depicted in older movies, etc.

Which got me to wondering....... and since many of you are medieval scholars and writers you seem like a pretty good group to ask :) ..... what triggers such changes in scholarly and academic opinion? Is it that new documents and information have been discovered since the 1950s that have given us new insght into the Dark and Middle Ages? Or is it just that we view the same things through different lenses now, so to speak? If the latter, what has caused such a shift in interpretation?

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Fri December 17th, 2010, 10:57 pm

One of the trends that is really starting to change opinions is the new emphasis on going through data that was formerly considered too unimportant to bother with --- parish records of births and deaths, including gravestones, old legal cases, and the like. Taken together, they are changing and deepening our picture of medieval life.

For one thing, it was not so much a 'meltdown' as the Victorians liked to believe. Social conditions like feudalism, which seem quite brutish to modern eyes, were in fact an improvement from human-rights standards on the Greek and Roman social systems, which rested on slavery for the greater part of the population. Serfdom was not as pleasant as freedom, but it was much better than the agricultural slavery it replaced.

The total body of research, along with the internet making it all available, means that it is much harder for one historian with a big name to force his/her theories on the rest of the world.

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Post by SarahWoodbury » Sat December 18th, 2010, 3:07 am

My novels are set in 'Dark Age' and medieval Wales, and this is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. With Dark Age Britain, as one example, they were conquered first by the Romans, who delighted in contrasting their 'civilized' society with the barbarity of the native tribes, to the Saxons, to the Normans who came after them. All of whom spouted continually about the brutish, uncivilized lives the native British people led (the Scots are included in this too). It's not uncommon to have English media TODAY speak of the Welsh as some sort of less-than-civilized 'other' (I blogged about this here).

Compare this to a similar situation: Native Americans in the United States. My husband works for an Indian tribe here in Oregon, and when they were conquered, they too were viewed as the 'other' and less than human. Native Americans in this country have gradually recovered over the last 100 years from the decimation of their population and society and certainly within academia, there is a strong push to emphasize the complexity of their culture: that they were (and are) neither barbaric savages nor nature-loving, peaceful natives, but people.

That change has gradually seeped into other disciplines, history being one as historians begin to look not only at what happened in the past, but the agenda of those writing about past events. No longer do they take the writings of Gildas or Bede, or some Roman functionary at face value. I don't know that they truly ever did, but if the historian already has a life-long prejudice against the Welsh, for example, it is really easy to pass that on to their academic work. The other thing that has happened, certainly within anthropology but also other social sciences, is that the native peoples (wherever they reside) are writing about themselves. No longer is it an English historian pontificating about Welsh culture, but a Welsh historian writing about his/her own. Or a Native American, or a Kenyan.

As a final comment, when I was at Cambridge, we studied the works of E.E. Evans-Pritchard, an English anthropologist working in Kenya in the 1930s. He wrote an incredibly boring monograph about kinship systems among the Nuer people without once mentioning that the English government had sent soldiers to the Nuer lands to machine gun their cattle--in an attempt to force the Nuer to abandon their herding lifestyle in favor of farming or city life.

By just looking at the text, without knowing anything else, you would have had a totally different (and distorted) picture of what life was like among the Nuer. Because other accounts of the 1930s are available--including from the Kenyans themselves--we are able to piece together a more complete picture of what was going on at the time. But when all you've got is a Gildas, or a Bede, or an apologist for Edward I--and no Welsh historian at all--it makes it far harder to get at the 'other' side of the story. The attempt to do so--and the belief that it is important to do so--is another thing that has changed since the 1950s.
Last edited by SarahWoodbury on Sat December 18th, 2010, 3:15 am, edited 5 times in total.

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Post by Miss Moppet » Sat December 18th, 2010, 8:37 pm

[quote=""SarahWoodbury""]

By just looking at the text, without knowing anything else, you would have had a totally different (and distorted) picture of what life was like among the Nuer. Because other accounts of the 1930s are available--including from the Kenyans themselves--we are able to piece together a more complete picture of what was going on at the time. But when all you've got is a Gildas, or a Bede, or an apologist for Edward I--and no Welsh historian at all--it makes it far harder to get at the 'other' side of the story. The attempt to do so--and the belief that it is important to do so--is another thing that has changed since the 1950s.[/quote]

Good example, Sarah, and I agree with you. I have to add more cynically though, that there are fads in academia as there are in everything else, and changing fashions frequently lead to new perspectives, as does the need for the next generation to make their mark and say something different to what the last lot did. In the long run this benefits the historical record as different generations approach it from different angles, although it can cause problems for individual scholars whose subject doesn't happen to be flavour of the month.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Sun December 19th, 2010, 12:51 am

I remember EC saying something similar under another thread several months ago, with regards to the Saxons vs. the Normans, how the pendulum of academic opinion has swung back and forth other the years.

Thanks you guys for your interesting responses.

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Post by EC2 » Mon December 20th, 2010, 1:11 am

I think as well as what everyone else has said, especially with reference to trends, that more information is turning up all the time. Technology means we are better able to examine archaeological finds. So we can now find out what the stuff was in the bottom of the thrown away cooking pot. We can X ray blobs of metal and find out what they originally looked like - or mummies. We can find out how people lived and died with a lot more accuracy than earlier generations could. This in turn will inform out views on the windows of the past. There is still massive amounts of material out there untranslated and not enough scholars to do the translating - and certainly not enough paid ones. I think there is still tons of material to be discovered, and many theories that will end up being refined or changed. I was talking to a medieval prof friend last week and she said to me that our view of Medieval Christian religeon tends to be coloured a certain way that's not necessarily correct because many of the pieces on religeous thoughts were written by extremists rather than the priest next door. So her opinion is that we should look closely and caveat emptor.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

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Post by Margaret » Mon December 20th, 2010, 2:56 am

It's really a credit to historians and archaeologists of the present day that they have been able, to as great an extent as they have, to set aside the natural human tendency to think of one's own civilization as superior to any other, in order to look at societies of the past with more objectivity.

In Down the Common, where I would be most inclined to differ with the author would be in her acceptance of the assumption that medieval men and women were less capable of crafting warm and watertight shelters and clothing, good boots, etc., than we are today. What is easy to forget, with our modern factory-produced goods, is what exceptional handcrafters people often were in the pre-industrial era. Modern people have lost those skills to a very great extent, so it's hard for us to imagine what really fine and serviceable goods could be produced by craftsmen and -women who learned their trade from childhood, working at a parent's knee. Nevertheless, I do recommend Down the Common - it's a true feat of the imagination which immerses readers in what life was possibly like for at least some of the medieval peasantry. One can go too far in the other direction, as well, forgetting the dangers and discomforts people of the past probably took for granted, as we take for granted the need to look both ways before we cross the street and the prevalence of our modern diseases of affluence.
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Post by SarahWoodbury » Mon December 20th, 2010, 5:06 am

I absolutely agree about the 'flavor of the month'. My daughter, a history major, has informed me that we don't say 'Dark Ages' anymore, but 'Early Middle Ages'. I completely understand why and that's fine as far as it goes, but I still think it would be useful to have a special name for that time in Britain after the Romans left and before 1066.

Our perspective on the past has been so colored by Hobbes' "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". What's really ironic about that is that Hobbes was postulating about something that didn't exist and never had. The phrase was in reference to what he believed life would be like without government (the state of nature), fostering a condition where every person would feel he had a license to everything in the world. This, in turn, would lead to a "war of all against all" and thus lives that would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

But it is also a product, as Margaret points out, of a natural tendancy to think that your country, government, time, condition is 'better' than any other. Why is it that every Indian tribe's name for itself was 'The People', or that China is the "Middle Kingdom", meaning that they are between heaven and earth, and thus elevated above everyone else? It's nearly universal and something that we need to overcome if any kind of objectivity is possible (which lots of people will argue isn't, but that's for another day).

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Mon December 20th, 2010, 7:09 am

If you want a view of a culture without government, where life was unbelievably 'poor nasty, brutish and short' watch the documentary 'beyond gates of splendor' about Ecuador's Waodani people. (known to the dominant Quichua tribe as the Auca-- literally, 'enemy'.) Since their dominant ethic was egalitarianism (I'm just as good as you) and autonomy (I can do anything I want) it became a culture run entirely on strength, meaning by young males. There were no old people, and children didn't last long either. In fact, they were wiping themselves out a good deal faster than the Quichua and the government of Ecuador, who were doing their part.

Until 1953, when five young men went in to bring them the gospel of peace--and were martyred for it. And then their widows took up the task, and today the Waodani are an independent, peaceful tribe--and for the first time in anybody's memory, there are grandparents and old people.

I got a chance to speak to the Waodani Mincaye when he was here in the Bay Area (through a translator, although he understands English, he cannot form the words himself very well) and it was very moving, especially the part where he talked about the experience of being a grandparent, something he had never known. Mincaye, by the way, was one of the men who killed the missionaries when they first came.

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Post by Margaret » Tue December 21st, 2010, 5:08 am

That's fascinating, MLE. It particularly intrigues me that the widows were able to succeed in converting the tribe.
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