Saturday, March 31, 2007

Vickery on Coedes' history of Cambodia

Vickery, Michael (2000) "Coedes' histories of Cambodia," Silpakorn University International Journal, 1, 1: 61-108, cited in Baker, Chris (2003) "Ayutthaya Rising: From Land or Sea?," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 34 (1), pp. 41-62 February 2003. [Sadly, the only paper I can find citing it]

I bought Coedes' The Indianized States of Southeast Asia (1968) a long, long time ago and subsequently lost it and really didn't miss it much at all.

I bumped into it again recently and was quite impressed by its regional approach to history during the Mongol era (c. 1250-1350)(Luce, 1958, 1959). It seemed, to my undiscerning eye, to be striving for some overall cross-regional coherence in the interpretation of this period. It even seemed to me that Vickery might have been adulating Coedes regional perspective, based on the following quote:

"In studying the Hsien-Ayutthaya-Martaban-Pegu-central northern Menampolities and the relations between Ayutthaya and Cambodia, it might be helpful to bracket out entirely conceptions of modern boundaries and think rather of an area of ancient common cosmopolitan culture and constantly shifting alliances." (Vickery,2004, 23-24)

Then it came as quite a surprise to me to find that Vickery had written a whole paper on Coedes where he picked him apart, albeit mercifully, and exposed his faults. So I am beginning to do what I vowed to do (after my work at the newspaper each day):

Start systematizing Vickery's approach to the socio-cultural imformation embedded in inscriptions and apply them to Burmese history.

There seems to be an essence of methodology for dealing with the socio-cultural dimensions of inscriptional evidence in Vickery's work that is applicable to the Burmese history of the Ava period (c. 1364-1555) (that I am working on) as well. There is a wealth of admonitions about the way that sources should and should not be used from a scientific standpoint. The inscriptional evidence should probably in some sense provide a foundation or infrastructure for the abundant chronicle evidence for the Ava period.

I know the word "scientific" would make the more deconstructionist historians bristle with contempt and horror, but Vickery’s work, though based firmly on traditional Rankean "what actually happened" or "the way it actually was" also admits that historical sources are contingent artifacts of their creators that makes historical interpretation for many periods intrinsically indeterminate.

Vickery likes science. He notes, that new information must be integrated and our theories adjusted, even if it forces a change in our preconceptions. (Vickery, 2000, 102) One can even entertain more than one theory, Vickery often does, ranking them relative to their likelihood. This is a Bayesian model of science.

Narrative history can also be adjusted. There is no real reason for narrative history to be a mere linear rendition of battles from the perspective of one court. Braudel by layering history into levels of short-term to long-term causal factors (infrastructure; structure – economics, politics, social organisation; superstructure, see Ferguson, 1998) provides a framework for writing thick history in the sense of Geertz’s thick descriptio, thick narratives of events, thick in the sense that background information about economics, politics, culture, and social organisation are interleaved with the narrative.

Vickery holds that students should be "introduced directly to the primary sources, rather than having to guess at what they record via the interpretation of Coedes [general history]." Translation accompanied by critical assessments and annotations need to be valorized above historical interpretations. “I refer to Coedes but teach original sources," he notes.

The fact that Burmese history still relies on Harvey (1925) and Phayre (19th century) is quite sad. Vickery makes a distinction between "academic works" and "popularizations."

"…popular treatments …should present, in non-specialist language for the general literate public, the results of the best scientific work. They should not simply seek to entertain or be vehicles for speculative reconstructions which would not past muster if presented the same way in an academic journal." (63)

He provides an example of over-synthesis from the history of Funan (page 71-72) that I will have to untangle in the future. Remarking of Coedes' books:

"They are monuments of uncritical synthesisation, some of which belongs in historical romance, not in history. Coedes was a great synthesizer – indeed that may have been his greatest talent when functioning as a writer of historical accounts; and he had to find, or imagine, a connection between every detail and some other detail in time and place." (63)

"The problem was in assumptions and presuppositions, not in any lack of sources. Coedes’ historical syntheses, which were the basis for most subsequent work, including Soviet studies, contains defects which were of course not because he was unaware of the content of the inscriptions, but because of the theoretical framework, possibly unconscious, which he imposed on them. This was a view in which history genealogical, narrowly political, and narrative, and it would not be sufficient, in fact, it would probably be impossible, to extract the additional information from the inscriptions in a coherent manner without a new theoretical framework." (64)

No doubt, he would find my attempts at synthesis too thin on the critical side. Vickery’s work certainly provides an abundant corpus of examples of source criticism. His magnum opus (Vickery, 1998) is the best place to begin.


Coedes, George (1968) The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. [Google Books]

Ferguson, Brian R (1999). "A Paradigm for the Study of War and Society," cited in Raaflaub, Kurt and Nathan Rubinstein (eds.). (1999). War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Asia, The Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica, Center
for Hellenic Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Luce, Gordon Hannington (1958). "The Early Syam in Burma’s History." Journal of the Siam Society 46 (1958): 123-214.

Luce, Gordon Hannington (1959). "The Early Syam in Burma’s History: A Supplement." Journal of the Siam Society 47.1 (1959): 59-101.

Vickery, Michael (1998) Society, Economics, and Politics in pre-Angkor Cambodia, Tokyo: Toyo Bunko."

Vickery, Michael (2004) "Cambodia and Its Neighbors in the 15th Century," ARI Working Paper No. 27, June 2004,