Friday, April 07, 2006

Histories of historians instead of "what actually happened" ?!???

What if the study of pre-modern Thai or Burmese history received as much attention as the European middle ages?

Over the weekend I found the great book "Inventing the Middle Ages" by the late medievalist Norman Cantor. It’s a collection of biographies of 20th century medievalists and the variety of different methodological approaches they've applied to this limited geographical and temporal focus. As one reviewer summarizes the book's content:

"Tolkein and Lewis, whom Cantor grouped with Powicke as ‘The Oxford Fantasists’, disliked the ‘modern’ world and yearned for a return to (or remodelling on) a better age, one they saw in Medieval times. Bloch, hero of the Resistance, granted too much influence to the peasantry. Strayer and Haskins advocated Medieval law for the present, while Huizinga, Power, Postan, Mommsen and Erdmann saw in the Middle Ages a terror in one form or another (the repression of women for Power, decades ahead of other feminists) that had to be surmounted in order to arrive at a more tolerant, reasonable today. Thus the way we look at Medieval times was born of ‘learned research, humanistic theory, assumptions about human behaviour, and the ever-present ingredient of the personal experiences of medievalists…’ Once set, the prestige and power associated with the academic positions occupied by the great Medievalists ensured that their views were perpetuated" (Source).

The reviewer goes on to indicate why Cantor’s approach may be important:

"…the role of the individual historian is very much relevant to the overall study of history, which cannot be considered a solely empirical discipline…the historian is working with traces of the past that were recorded (in whatever form) by people with ideas, hopes, goals, ideological positions and influences just as the historian has still others as he or she selects and interprets them – two layers of theory-ladenness, as it were. The question of why a particular historian chose to emphasise some at the expense of others is one that can be addressed (at least in part) by biography – studying the historian instead of supposing that history is all about determining wie es eigentlich gewesen from the available evidence."

It’s a little scary though that the reviewer claims that post-modern historiographical trends have not gone far enough:

"The second point is that the so-called postmodern (actually anti-representationalist) critiques of traditional historiography barely (if at all) touch on this sociological dimension enumbrated by Cantor. His methodology does not seem to have significantly influenced either side of the current debate, which is puzzling because it would seem to be devastating for the empiricists and indicative of not going far enough for their opponents. Noting that a Catholic scholar may have approached the events in seventeenth century Rome and Florence with an apologetic motive is unsatisfactory because it only touches the surface: apologists are not identical, after all."

I'd just like to add one wee little qualification though, Herr Professor:

Doesn’t the historian have a responsibility to see how far she can go with what actually happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen) before she jumps to the next layer and starts looking at the history of the historian?

The 1418 map that supports Gavin Menzies pseudo-history of Ming China makes this abundantly clear.

I have to admit though, that if U Kala used Razadarit Ayeidawpon to write his coverage of the same events, if you take Razadarit as the base of rich events and historical narrative from which U Kala edited out a much shorter, more abbreviated version, well I would agree with the above that U Kala may have irretrievably determined what we can know about long periods of Burmese history.