Monday, 24 August 2015

History needs to be more than the written and oral record these days

Few of us would choose to consult an 1840s doctor for a physical complaint, no matter how well regarded by his peers.  Phrenology and blood letting have been superseded by modern medical diagnostics and pharmaceutical treatments.  Historians routinely cite Victorians as authority, however, only rarely questioning their assumptions and evaluating their biases.

Historians are bound by the fetters of the past to a degree unknown in other research disciplines.  Few medical researchers even bother citing 20th century texts and articles as the pace of medical discovery has rendered most of the research of the 20th century already archaic.  It was valuable in advancing science at the time, but further scientific advance is no longer tied to that body of work.

I think something like that must happen to the study of history soon.  Digital humanities is making a dent by introducing better tools to structure, study and compare complex historical data.  As that progresses, many of the assumptions of the past will be shown to be inaccurate.

This is already happening with our understanding of Romans and Vikings.  Viking itself is a made up word popularised by Victorians as a catch-all for the barbarian raiders of the migration age.  They were depicted as uncivilised, tribal, infidels whose only interest was the theft of booty and women from the civilised, Christian kingdoms of Europe.  Science is now showing most of the Victorian history of Vikings was inaccurate, or at least incomplete.

Similar revolutions in historical thinking are underway regarding Roman history.  There were very, very few Italo-Romans relative to the size and population of the Roman Empire, yet Victorian historians liked to think that Britannia as a province was ruled by Rome - ignoring all the middlemen as ignorant auxiliaries following orders from Rome.  Science is showing a different picture as the complexity of military organisation gets supplemented by a better understanding of provincial civil and financial administration.

I started my career as an historian three years ago when I ordered digital images of the only manuscript of the earliest account of the Norman Conquest from the Royal Library in Brussels.  Transcribing and translating the ancient Latin script brought the Norman Conquest to life for me.  While translating I began to question the story I had learned in grade school, but the words were not enough to explain where the Normans sailed to, camped and fought the Anglo-Danish rulers of England.

It was images of geomorphology in East Sussex that revealed the great port in the Brede Basin where ancient Peueinsel and Hastingas can be found, a port known to the Romans and Belgian Gallic tribes as Novus Portus.  It was name frequency data which demonstrated that Godwin and Harold were Anglo-Danes, not the great and noble Saxons that Edward Bulwer Lytton depicted in Harold, the last of the Saxon kings.  Academics still cite the histories of Augustin Theirry and Edward A. Freeman, historians who popularised the study of British history in the Victorian era, but we should supplement what they wrote with much better science and analysis today.

Despite 500+ years of thinking we knew the Normans landed at Pevensey and Hastings, we were wrong.  We forgot that the barons of Peuenisel and Hastingas had been forced to move to the coast by inning and shingle shift which closed their ancient port to the sea.  We ignored King John's 1207 charter for a new town to the barons of Peuenisel, and ignored the navigation guide of 1170 that says the port of Hastingas was at Winchelse.

I could cite the thousands of misguided historians beginning in Elizabethan times who wrote that the Normans landed at Pevensey and Hastings, but life is too short and my time is too valuable.  Why should I bother citing and refuting everyone who has ever made the same mistake by repeating each other's misguided conception?  I would rather write and depict the accurate geography of the Norman navigation, landing, encampment and battle, reconciling modern geomorphic science with the original texts in Latin, and then move on to the next mystery offered by history.

Manuscript digitisation, coin databases, DNA databases, charter databases, name databases, archaeology and geomorphology are showing us a picture of the past which will change our understanding of trading, raiding, conquest and settlement.  It's an exciting time to become an historian.

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