Writing about the Past
by The Very Rev Antony Bridge
Homer began the Iliad with these words: ‘The wrath of Achilles is my theme, that fatal wrath which, in fulfilment of the will of Zeus, brought the Achaeans so much suffering and sent the gallant souls of many noblemen to Hades, leaving their bodies as carrion for the dogs and passing birds.’ That is from the translation by E.V. Rieu, and I begin with it for two reasons; first Homer was one of the greatest writers about the past that there has ever been – Shakespeare and St. John may be as good, but I can’t think of many more; and secondly the quotation contains the four elements which, as it seems to be, are usually to be found in great writing about the past.
First, it contains historical facts; there was a war in which both Achaeans and Trojans suffered and died, leaving their bodies on the battlefield. Secondly, it contains my interpretation of that bit of history; the war was a result of the wrath of Achilles, who quarrelled with Agamemnon king of men anax andron Agamemnon – the whole thing being in fulfilment of the will of the father of the gods, Zeus. Thirdly, the story is brought alive by Homer’s own experience. When he sat down in Smyrna or Chios or wherever in the 8th century B.C. to write – or rather sing – about the exploiof the Bronze Age heroes of Mycenaean Greece some centuries earlier, Homer could not have known historically that the bodies of those killed on the windy plains of Troy had become carrion for the dogs and passing birds; but he knew well enough from wars in his own day in Ionia that such was often the fate of those who died in them. Fourthly, and lastly, as a poet he knew how evocative was that image of the bodies of the dead abandoned as carrion for the dogs and passing birds; even the word ‘passing’ heightens the imagery, the transience of the birds somehow underlining the transience of human heroism and nobility in the face of death and the immortal gods. So, one, facts; two, interpretation of those facts; or, if you like an evaluation of their significance; three, bring them to life by the use of present experience; and four, finding the evocative image. I’m going to try to say a little about each of those elements in historical writing, but – if you’ll forgive me – not in that order.
First, then. Number three; bringing history alive by seeing it in relationship to your own present experience – through the lens of the present, if you like. Isn’t this, some of you may be thinking, precisely what a true historian tries to avoid? It may be OK for Homer, Shakespeare or St. John, but what about the real historians, isn’t their over-riding aim to avoid looking at their past through contemporary spectacles; to be as objective as they possibly can be? This is true, and in an ideal world they might succeed, in which case I suspect that their works would be indescribably dull; but in fact, they seldom do wholly succeed, because contemporary spectacles are the only spectacles any of us own, and when we sit down to write inevitably we draw on our own experiences, our own loves and hates, our own relationships and knowledge of people and things to help us both to envisage and to understand the events of which we are writing and the people involved in them. But there is a right and a wrong way of doing this, and the wrong way can be very wrong indeed. Gibbon, looking at the Byzantine past through spectacles manufactured for an 18th century rationalist wrote off one of the world’s great civilisation as a dead loss because it was religious! - though it was only his judgements which were so wrong, his style and his erudition were magnificent.
A less celebrated example of the wrong way to write about the past was provided by a liberal Protestant theologian in Germany in 1900. His name was Adolf von Harnack and he delivered a series of historical lectures on the New Testament, which included an attempt to paint a picture of the historical man Jesus, stripped of all the later doctrinal interpretations and accretions which, according to Harnack had for centuries obscured the real man as effectively as a series of layers of old brown varnish can obscure the truth of a picture. But of Harnack’s Jesus an equally brilliant French theologian, a Catholic scholar named Loisy, said this: “Herr von Harnack, gazing down the long well of time and discerning at the bottom of it the pale reflection of a twentieth century liberal Protestant face had cried, ‘My Lord and my God!’ It was a devastating criticism, but with the best will in the world, Harnack had tried to uncover his own idea of what Jesus ought to have been like. Now, if this is an easy trap from a scholar and historian, how much easier is it for the ordinary bloke like you and me to fall into the same pit? I remember a splendid American bishop named Stephen Bayne, saying once, ‘The one thing the people of my diocese back in the States are quite sure about is that Jesus was the first exponent of the American way of life”. So, when writing about the past, if you are to be a Homer and not a Harnack, by all means bring the past alive by drawing upon your own experience of being alive, but don’t simply read the present back into the past.
Even so, it is no good hastening to the other extreme. An eminent professor of physics in Oxford University once said that – and I quote – ‘Science is not concerned with the mere collection of facts, which are infinitely numerous and mostly boring; it is concerned to discern significant patterns in those facts’. The same is true of history; facts are the raw material of history, not its end product. Even such an austere scholar as the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who dredges up vast shoals of facts from the depth of various abysmal French archives and then processes them through a computer in order to produce his severely academic studies, like that of a small 14th century French village community at Metallou in the Pyrennes, asks the computer to discern patterns in the facts he feeds into it; and the computer does the job very well indeed. In parenthesis, did you know that when the first Americans went to the moon, they took two identical computers with them in their space capsule? As time went by, however, one of them – to quote Dr Carl Sagan, the Professor of Astronomy and Space Science at Cornell University - “proved to be the smarter than the other, which was eventually switched off in favourr of its more intelligent brother”. Perhaps historians of the future will be able to blame any bad reviews which their books may receive on the fact that their computer was as thick as two planks.
But this is digression. I’ll come back to the whole business of collecting and selecting facts for a book about the past in a minute, but if you’ll bear with me for a moment, I want to go on to No. 2 and say a bit about the interpretation of the past which is closely allied to No. 3 – that of viewing it through contemporary spectacles. Homer interpreted the Trojan war as being the result of the will of the gods; ‘it was Apollo’, he says ‘son of Zeus and Leto, who started the feud’. And this was part of the zeitgeist of the society in which he lived – Ionian society of the 8th century B.C. - where human passions were ascribed to possession by – or anyway, to the instigation of – the gods. If there had been any Marxists around at the time, one of them would doubtless have pointed out that Troy was a city perched on its hill overlooking the mouth of the Dardanelles across the windy plains below in a perfect position to demand payment from the traders whose ships could not easily pass by up and down the extremely difficult narrow waters which join the Aegean to the Propontis, the Sea of Marmara, and whose goods therefore had to be transported overland, sometimes with their ships being dragged along that way too. This kind of blackmail – pay me X pounds sterling on every 100 pounds worth of good which you carry past this point – is levied nowadays by the officers of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. Thus an Ionian Marxist would probably have said that the Trojan war was basically motivated by economics, and there might well have been some truth in his contention.
Meanwhile, a contemporary bard with Freudian leanings would have made much of the sexual side of it all – Paris’s affair with Helen, his mother’s curious dream at the time of his birth, Hector’s jealousy and so on – and once again he would have been right to do so. History is many-sided, no one interpretation of it invalidates all others; on the contrary, they supplement each other – even Macbeth’s gloomy and nihilistic opinion that ‘life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ – even that is a possible interpretation of history – in fact, rather a fashionable one – though I think that it moves us precisely because Shakespeare intends us to see it – not so much as nihilism – but as a despairing protest by Macbeth against the working of the inexorable laws of retribution. It is man against the gods again. The wages of sin is death, was an axiom of the old, guilt-obsessed society of the middle Ages from which Shakespeare’s England was beginning to emerge – but only beginning – and the Thane of Cawdor’s cry of despair was not so much an affirmation of his nihilism as a terrified protest against the terrible working of divine law. And once again, who’s to say that he was wrong?
These interpretations of the past are more or less – and I say more or less advisedly and not colloquially – legitimate, as indeed are some of the ways of looking back at the past with our own experience in mind, because human nature doesn’t change very much. People tick in much the same way in the past as we do now; they were driven by passions of one kind or another, sought power, wanted to be rich, moved heaven and earth to get that girl or that boy in bed with them, feared death, were paralysed with guilt from time to time, and desperately needed a sense of purpose in their lives. But if their nature was much the same as ours, the world they inhabited, was very different from ours; and this is where we reach my number one; the historical facts, and the importance of getting them right.
Here, for a moment, I think it might be better to be specific rather than waffling on in the abstract; better to ask ‘What was it like to be born in the last quarter of the 11th century and to grow up at the time of the First Crusade – to be a Frenchman, say, aged 23 or 24 in 1096 to 1097 than to speak of “the past” in general.’ His world was astonishingly different from ours. I choose this date and time because I’ve recently done some work on it. Europe was just emerging – only just and imperceptibly – from the dark ages, very dark indeed. The civilised world of Rome had taken a surprisingly long time to succumb to the various waves of barbarian invasion which swept over it, chiefly because the last thing that the barbarians themselves wanted to do was to destroy it; they wanted to share in its riches and in its way of life. Even as late as the century after the first invasions, a young man – a patrician named Paulinus Pellaneus living on his own large estate, near Bordeaux – invariably sent to Rome for his tennis balls. But as the century went by, the glory that was Rome faded, and the great edifice of civilisation in the West, crumbled into dust. Charlemagne delayed the coming of total chaos for a time, but in the ninth and tenth centuries the blanket of the dark fell over northern Europe. Cities fell into ruin, fires devastated them, they were damaged in war, their inhabitants were massacred or wiped out by disease, and they became the haunt of owls; people avoided them for fear of the bands of robbers who sometimes hid in the wreckage of their houses. Other places survived but with reduced population of a few thousand people where ten times that number had lived in Roman days, and they survived only behind massive city walls where before, they had been open and peaceful. The great network of Roman roads decayed, trade virtually ceased though a few Jews and Levantines maintained a precarious commerce in luxuries such as jewellery, carved ivory, and works of art for the nobility and incense for the Church. The amount of land under cultivation shrank drastically because people did not dare to live in exposed places; swamp and forest came back into their own, population increased as famine spread, and more land was left untilled for want of hands to till it. In the hundred years before the first Crusade there was famine in 48 of them, and when famine spread, there was no length to which some starving people would go to keep alive. Travellers dared not put up in the few inns available in case they should be killed by their hosts during the night, and eaten next day.
I mustn’t go on too long about this but perhaps you’ll bear with me for another moment or two, for in some ways, it is fascinating – at least it is to me – to discover how incredibly different Europe was in those days. Packs of wolves were commonplace, roaming the woods and hills in Germany and France and northern Italy; the European bear was often seen; wild boar rooted for truffles in the outskirts of Paris and on the hills around Florence, while huge herds of deer were everywhere. Huddled together for safety, people lived either in one of the fortified towns I have described, or in the shadow of a castle or a fortified manor house surrounded by a moat and a wooded stockade; and each little tiny, embattled community had to become self-supporting, for everyone was at war with everyone else.
The Church tried at about this time – a bit earlier in 1043 to be precise - to enforce a so-called Truce of God, which forbade private wars except on three days a week, but this failed hopelessly. Later, they tried to ban war on Sundays and Holy Days, and even this was not very successful, for the nobles’ only occupation and pleasure was making war on each other. There were three classes, nobles, clergy and peasants, and it is difficult to determine which led to the most uncomfortable life. Castles were cold, damp, and virtually unfurnished; so were monasteries, while the peasants lived in squalid turf or wattle and daub huts with their domestic animals. No one washed; it was considered effeminate, unnecessary, and verging on being sinful. As a result everyone stank and was verminous. Wives, mistresses, and lovers de-loused their menfolk as a sign of mutual affection. There are records of Cathar heretics – peasants in the Pyrenees – de-lousing each other in the sun in summer and by the fire in winter. Meanwhile, of course, death was ubiquitous – an ever-present reality – and a constant companion. Infant mortality was huge; one particular medieval Pope was one of 22 children in an Italian family, only two of whom – the Pope and one sister – reached the age of 20.
Those who succeeded in running the gauntlet of the dozens of diseases which killed the young, those who actually reached maturity, were lucky if they survived to the age of forty. When the holy Roman Emperor Henry VI of Hohenstaufen died, he was mourned as an experienced, much feared, and deeply respected elder statesman; yet he was only thirty-two years old. In fact, people died like flies. They died of fever, quinsy, colic, a burst appendix, a growth, of falling off a horse out hunting, of wounds suffered in war, of gangrene, leprosy, and the plague. One Crusader king of Jerusalem, Amalic II, died on All Fool’s Day, 1205 of eating too much white mullet. The effect on men’s minds of this extreme uncertainty of life was to create an atmosphere of radical insecurity, in which everyone had to live their lives whether they liked it or not; and this had far-reaching effects on the way in which they lived them. The prophet Isaiah might have condemned a philosophy based on the words, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die,’ but it had its attractions when the word ‘tomorrow’ might mean the next day instead of some vague and distant date in the geriatric future as it does to us; nor was feasting the only thing which men enjoyed when they could; they married young, bred families, grasped power, killed their rivals and acted on the spur of every passing moment for fear that their moments might be few; the urgency of living released great fountains of energy in them, which drove them through life in a way that looks both marvellously vigorous and enterprising and yet at the same time incredibly restless and reckless, when viewed from the more leisurely vantage point of our own assurance of longevity. It also made them bewilderingly volatile; at one moment they were loving, chivalrous, noble, and filled with the loftiest of lofty ideals, while at the next they behaved with callous and murderous brutality, shrinking from no violence and respecting neither old age nor women and children.
But if the actual world of the 11th century in which western Europeans lived their lives was very different from our own world, it was nothing like as different as the notional world they carried around in their heads. The landscape of their minds bore no relationship to the mental image of the universe which we entertain. First and foremost, their world was flat; it stretched out around them like some infinite extended plain towards edges which no man had seen, but which every man in his senses knew must exist somewhere vastly remote and hidden in the mists of unknown lands. It was both a far bigger and a much more mysterious world than ours; bigger because distances were unthinkably long, and more mysterious because so much of it was uncharted. A pilgrim to Jerusalem and there were lots of them until the Turks stopped them and provoked the first Crusade – a pilgrim to Jerusalem from say St. Albans or Frankfurt or Coutances might take anything from three to seven years to do the round trip.
We fly from Heathrow to Lydda in five hours. The same pilgrim had probably never travelled more than twenty miles from his birth place; even the next county would have been a mystery to him, and he might never have seen the sea. As for people speaking a foreign language, they would have been almost as strange as visitors from outer space to us. But of course he would have soon got used to travel and foreigners; the thing which never lost its mystery was the huge unexplored portion of the earth beyond the confines of the known world, from which rumours of strange beasts and strange people filtered through to him. The Prester John legend, which had an incalculably great effect on the conduct of affairs in the Crusader kingdoms of Outremer and in Europe during the 13th century probably started when rumours of a Mongolian chief named Onghkhan was easily corrupted to Johann, and the Nestorians were Christians; so the story spread of a great Christian Empire in the east which would come to the rescue of Christendom in its on-going war with Islam; and indeed the Mongols did favour the Christians and hate the Moslems, and hopes ran immensely high that an alliance might be concluded with them. Ambassadors were despatched to Karakoram on the edge of the Gobi desert – three years to get there – and they duly reported that many of the Mongols were indeed Christians of a sort – a Dominican monk named William of Rubruck who arrived at the great Khan’s court in 1254 was somewhat taken aback when he met his wife, the Empress Kutuktai, a most devout Christian, coming back from High Mass one Sunday morning so drunk that she could hardly stand up. But that, too, is a digression.
In fact – and this is very strange to us – the everyday world in which medieval man lived was in many ways more mysterious to him than the next world to which he knew that he would inevitably go after death; the geography of that future world was perfectly clear in his head and doubted by no one – or very few – heaven was above, hell below, and everyone had to go to one or the other. What would happen to them when they arrived was well known too – pictures found in that marvellous but terrible crucible, the medieval imagination, covered the walls of churches everywhere with vivid descriptions of the eschatological geography which awaited them. Indeed – and this is difficult for us to realise or imagine – for medieval man in general the primary reality was not that of everyday living, but the reality of birth, the mortal race for immortal stakes, sin, forgiveness, judgement, and redemption. He lived his life in the perspective of eternity, and this, too, intimately affected the way in which he lived it.
But I have gone on too long about my hypothetical Frenchman in the late 11th century, and I must begin to stop. Before I do so, however, if you’ll bear with me for another five minutes, how does one select the facts you want to use from the immense mass of facts which go to make up the past – make up your own chosen period? I imagine every writer does so in a slightly different manner – Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie with his computer, for example, Marxists with an eye to economics and doctrinal orthodoxy, and so on; but one thing they must all do: namely, read and read and read – soak themselves in their chosen period. You can’t read too much; I sometimes think that all writing about the past is a result of years and years of (a) living and (b) reading. During this reading, I can only say that as far as I am concerned I try to spot the evocative facts above all – and this brings me to my Number 4 – Paulinus’s tennis balls, the Cathar peasants de-bugging each other, and the Mongolian Empress reeling home from High Mass as tight as a tick. Details like these do more – I think – to bring a period alive, to conjure up a past age in all the intimacy of its daily life than a long and learned demographic analysis of the time couched in abstractions. They turn up – these vivid little evocative details – in the most unlikely places.
In a collection of essays, most of which I couldn’t even read, written in Greek, Russian, Arabic, French and English, which I took out of King’s College library in a rash moment when I was researching the period of Justinian’s reign and that of his wife the Empress Theodora, I came across a description by a Greek traveller – of arriving in a typical small Byzantine town in Bithynia; outside the main city gate, he related, there were great piles of town rubbish and also human and animal dung, thrown there by the inhabitants, and with them the dead bodies of cats, dogs, donkeys and mules, and over which black kites, sea gulls, and crows were squabbling, while live dogs scavenged amongst the offal. In another unlikely moment, I read an essay by the President of a learned historical society – it had been a presidential address – entitled ‘the Papal Scandal’, in which the hatred of the eastern orthodox clergy for the Church of Rome came alive for me in a way it had never done before, when I discovered that they believed that Roman Catholics christened their infants in spittle, ate the flesh of wolves, drank their own urine, and washed their dirty trousers in their cooking pots. This was later, after the Crusades.
Byzantine records are a treasure store of unlikely and immediately evocative little facts; an Emperor choosing as his bride the winner of an Empire-wide beauty competition, and the lady spoiling her chances by giving too pert and clever an answer to the embarrassed young patrician’s tentative question to her, so that he inevitably chose the next girl in line; Byzantine parents deciding to castrate their sons because certain high-ranking posts in the government were only open to eunuchs, so that operation gave them a good start in life – like going to Eton; a Byzantine statesman boasting that he had know the Iliad by heart at the age of 11 and the Odyssey six months later; the Patriarch of Constantinople riding through the streets on an ass, his normal means of transport; and in an obsessionally religious age, perhaps as vivid as anything else, the public transport system – the posts in fact - breaking down because they were carrying so many bishops from (a) to (b) to debate minute points of doctrine that no one else was able to travel. I shouldn’t like to claim that any of these few instances of what I have called evocative facts come up to Homer’s corpses of the Greeks under the walls of Troy being treated as carrion by the dogs and the passing birds, but perhaps they are in the same category – are humble relations of those evocatively transient birds.
And now I really must stop; and perhaps I may be allowed to do so on a provocative note suggested by the expression I have used several times ‘evocative facts’. A fact is a fact is a fact – a logical positivist would doubtless say – with apologies to Gertrude Stein – and so, I imagine, would a straight materialist – but a historian cannot do so. Oh, I suppose it would be possible to find some brute facts, wholly without significance or apparently so, in the records of the past, facts which would rouse no ripple of interest in our minds; but with such things the writer about the past is not primarily concerned. Of course, trivia can be immensely significant of the way people lived their lives for instance. But I think that history is primarily concerned with those significant facts and events which can only be separated from their significance at the cost of wildly distorting them.
May I give you an example of what I’m getting at. Here are three versions of the same event; the first is an attempt to reduce it to bare factuality – here it is. Number One. A man shot a man on July 28, 1914. Full Stop, You can’t have anything more of a bare fact than that – and on the whole it is pretty dull.
Number Two. A Serbo Croat fanatic assassinated the Archduke Charles of Austria in Sarajevo in July, 1914. Note please that this is not barely factual; it contains a mass of implicit interpretations. The words ‘fanatic’ ‘Archduke’, and ‘assassinated’ are heavily loaded words; they have overtones of passion, social structure, and hidden struggles. Yet this statement, number two, is a far more adequate description of the event being described than number one, which is a travesty of it.
Now, Number Three. A minor incident in the Balkans triggered off the accumulated tensions, prides, and rivalries of the great European powers, and plunged the world into the biggest blood bath it had ever known. The assassin, the Duke, the fatal shot, even the place – Sarajevo – have all disappeared from this statement, but surely it is far the truest of them all – far the most adequate. So what? So, a writer about the past cannot reduce it to bare factuality without gravely distorting it; his job is to discover the significance of past facts, not to make a catalogue of facts stripped of their significance; but to do so he must first know those facts backwards and then discover their true significance if he can, not invest a false one. Gibbon said of the thousand years of Byzantine history which I have mentioned that – and I quote – ‘It was an unbroken tale of misery and weakness– and thus distorted men’s view of one of the world’s great civilisations for two hundred years’. That was a case of pure prejudice. Harnack, trying to discover a barely factual Jesus by stripping him of the significance given to him by subsequent generations, discovered neither Jesus nor his true significance; that was a result of selection of the facts he liked and of discarding those that didn’t fit into his prejudices and presuppositions.
But, as to the Crusades, which I have also mentioned – and there is no clearcut answer to this – who was right? The 19th century Germans who interpreted them as the romantic flowering of the ages of faith, full of gentle parfitt knights, chivalry, and noble adventures? Or Runciman who sees them as the last barbarian invasions of the civilised Graeco-Roman world? I think personally, Runciman came nearer to the truth than the Germans, but perhaps it is your freedom to disagree with me that lends the past its endless fascination, and makes writing about it so exciting.