I learned, just the other day, that for archaeologists ‘the present’ began in 1950. Which is a very odd idea, considering how we usually think of the ‘present’ being now, now, now (not then), now (you get the idea), and 1950 as the past. The reasoning behind this is that, since radio-carbon dating is rather important to the field, such a method of dating is useless after 1950 because of the amount of radiation we have ejected into the atmosphere through nuclear testing and accidents. It would be as if we could somehow calculate the age of the posts in a wooden house from the specific type of water contained within, only to turn around and find out someone went and threw them in a lake. Not very helpful. So, the past ends, and the present begins for archaeology in 1950. Which makes me wonder…
When Did It Begin?
History, as an academic field, has a quality which is often overlooked; it has a beginning. Strange as it may seem, the History of Ireland began on a specific year, as did the History of Britain, some of the Americas, all Australia, and large swathes of Asia and Africa. The other swathes of Africa and Asia, and big chunks of Europe and America are harder to define historically for reasons that I am about to tell you very soon, possibly in the present, though it may be history when you read it… Anyway, moving on.
So, the History of Ireland began in 431AD, when Prosper of Aquitaine reported that a certain Palladius was dispatched by the papacy to Ireland. The History of Britain began around 55BC when Julius Caesar invaded, but it didn’t take, and they had to start again in 43AD; it was a real success, and soon the British were wandering all over the world introducing History (and Flags) to everyone they met, whether they liked it or not. The beginning of the History of Rome, or Egypt, or any such ancient empire, is slightly more difficult to pinpoint. Why is this? Well, for something to be History it must first be written text, and it must be authenticated, verified, and rigorously investigated. ‘Things’ are material, and material is archaeology, and archaeology goes way farther back in time than History, but History relies on the written word, on documents, manuscripts, letters, books. By this very simple fact the History of a nation can have a beginning, the moment someone mentions somewhere in a letter our interest is piqued, the second we find an alternative view the heart begins to race, and when we find controversy, dissent, disagreement in texts, oh how the angry ink does flow!
Prosper of Aquitaine was not the first to write of Ireland, but he was the first to give us a name, a date, and an event that could be corroborated: the dispatch of a bishop from Rome. With Christianity came writing, and with writing came the recording of events, of history. The History of Rome begins with murky myths, hyperbolic propaganda, and, well, lies, so we have to be very careful. In fact when dealing with Romans, if History has taught us nothing else, it would be very wise to be cautious and suspicious. While the History of Central and South America was recorded by such peoples as the Maya and Inca, North American History began with Columbus, simply by virtue of the fact that the Native Americans didn’t write anything down. Hopefully some of you are sitting there shocked, how can this be true? Well, it isn’t completely true; oral history is a valuable resource, but it is highly prone to alteration so it is often judged very harshly. We who have lived in a culture that has worshipped the written word for millennia sometimes forget that our earliest histories are oral, that our nations’ foundations are often hidden in myth. Which is where archaeology comes in; history, literature, and archaeology working in harmony create a far more vibrant image of the past than any could alone.
But then you might wonder, how can we trust these ancient writers and chroniclers? Caesar was a propagandist, the Crusaders believed in angelic manifestations, and the British love Marmite, how can we rely on any of them to give us an honest account of history? The answer is quite simple: we don’t. This is a crucial fact, this is what divides breathless myth-hunting Scotsmen from real historians: we don’t actually believe a source until we have thoroughly investigated it. Some historians have spent their entire lives working on specific texts or individuals, let alone periods of history. Manuscripts are poured over, analysed for every little scrap of information; we can garner an astonishing amount of data from what the words were written on and with, in what script and style, how the language is used and constructed, from the mistakes and omissions, and that’s before we even bother to read the text! You’d be surprised how much you can tell from a manuscript from the way the letters are formed, let alone the texture of the page. Just looking at the image above, an expert could immediately tell that the script is Insular, most likely from a wealthy Irish or Irish-influenced monastery, sometime in the 7th century just from the way it is written (it also helps that this book is rather well-known, sadly it’s rather difficult to find images of the more fun obscure texts, but if I could find them online they wouldn’t be obscure). Real historians, when faced with a difficulty or conundrum, don’t resort to aliens or Templar Knights (unless of course you are investigating the Crusades) to provide a quick and easy solution; no, they go back to the text, they start again, and again, and examine more texts, and yet more again. And then they die of old age.
History, or Historical?
Where then does history end and the present begin? I study the early medieval period, so anything after 1100 seems terrifically new to me, in some respects (Printed books? Lame. Manuscripts are what all the cool kids examine!), but I enjoy reading about pretty much any historical period, so at this point (and things may change later) I am at a bit of a loss as to say where history ends. A historian I know once declared to me that anyone who studies the 20th Century isn’t a historian, they are just a news-reporter who’s running a bit late. I thought him a bit harsh, but it made me wonder, is the Second World War history? It must be, right? It happened ages ago, before either I or my father was born. My grandparents lived through it, so I am only one generation removed from the most destructive and violent conflict in history. But at the same time, there are still quite a few people living who either fought in, or lived through, the war; if there is somebody still living who remembers the events first hand, is it history? And we are still living through its consequences, but then aren’t we living with the consequences of all of history? Iraq and Libya have both lost their dictators in narrow sewers, discovered them, and then executed them in my lifetime, but I don’t think that I am living in history. The terrorist attacks on London or the US don’t feel like history to me, they are part of my life, but only in a minute fashion; they hold a far greater and lamentable grasp on the lives of so many others. Even the first Iraq war, or the Falklands, hardly seems like history, they only just happened. But they may be historical. Could that be a way to skip around the issue? These are historical events, we are living through historical moments in time, which will become history once everyone who has witnessed them is dead.
Does History begin with the written word, and end when the last survivor of a specific event dies? Or does it begin with the first witness, and end when the consequences of an act have passed? Or from the earliest memory to roughly a week ago? What you may consider as History is (or indeed, was) somebody else’s life, their present, their memories. And for me, that is what makes the study of History so fascinating; it’s not the examination of dry facts, of mulling over great battles, it’s the recreation of a life. In my work, I get to read the private letters and thoughts of people who died over a thousand years ago, I try to tease out what facts I can to see how they lived and died, what they hoped and worked for. I work with comparably little information when you consider the tsunami of sources available to a historian of the Modern Period (newspapers, diaries, letters, government documents, written accounts, news broadcasts, films, radio, novels, comics, art, laws, the list go on…). It may be easier for them, but I, at least, expect more of them.
History is a tremendous puzzle, especially the further back you go, which is what makes it so bloody interesting. So I don’t really care when it ends, only that it doesn’t. And if you don’t find the investigation of the past at the very least interesting, there is something very, very wrong with your world perspective.
“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” – Oscar Wilde
(The quote is somewhat tangential to the essay, but the man is not wrong)