Saturday, June 29, 2013

Richard Fletcher, Historian

Richard Fletcher was a rarity among historians. A medievalist, Fletcher published books on Anglo-Saxon England and Moorish and Christian Spain prior to the actual beginnings of the Reconquista in the 11th century (which is usually dated to the 8th century). Another of his impressive scholarly accomplishments was The Barbarian Conversion (1999), which looked at Christian missions into the dark heart of Europe between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Reformation, with an eye to happenings in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Middle East, and North Africa. It is not hard to imagine Fletcher thought himself picking up where Edward Gibbon left off, only with a much less jaundiced eye towards events and persons who didn't obviously exude the material greatness and organizational power of the Antonine Dynasty.

It is my experience that history books can all be arranged on along a single axis stretching from a purely objective perspective on the historical subject matter to an investigative perspective that gives readers a glimpse of the difficulties historians encounter trying to interpret their sources. Most historians fit into the former category. They may talk a good talk about the multiplicity of perspectives from which the sources can be studied; but they rarely reflect on the limitations imposed on historians by the limited availability of materials. History textbooks assigned in undergraduate classes, as well as most survey texts, fit into this category. They tell what happened when, and why things happened the way they did. Narrative threads are woven together presenting 'the present state of the field of study'. Specialized historical studies also follow this general pattern. In their introductory chapter, the historian usually tells you what other historians have written, what new evidence they have found, and how it confirms what we have already discovered or how it should radically change how the field of study is understood.

Fletcher's Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England (2002) is one of those rare histories that let's you follow a historian reading texts, trying to discern where all the pieces fall. The roughly half-century stretch of time from the establishment of Anglo-Saxon rule in 577 until the Norman Conquest in 1066 comprises the England's participation in the Dark Ages. The earlier in the period one finds oneself, the more scarce the evidence becomes. Though in the last leg of the period, from the Danish Conquest in 1016 until its conclusion, much is left to be desired.

The northern-most English province Northumbria was ruled by Earl Uthred, celebrated with the title 'the Bold'. In 1016, Uthred came to pay his respects in the court of the Danish king Canute (or Cnut) at a place called Wiheal. The location of the meeting, Fletcher indicates, is part of the mystery. We don't presently know where it is. Uthred and forty of his clients and retainers died that day. His death set into motion 'a bloodfeud that lasted for three generations and almost sixty years'.

Bloodfeud patiently sifts through what evidence remains in an effort to discern the motivations behind the different persons involved. Sometimes all that we have to go on are single sentences carelessly dropped into The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a document contemporary to the period in question. Often we are drawing imaginative inferences from what we known generally about what life was like from more general studies of comparable materials drawn from elsewhere, what sort of commonly accepted rules bloodfeuds were prosecuted under, and so on.

Fletcher's gift was to convey the difficult constrains any historian, especially those who work from such a great distance in time, must work under. The gift is rare. The problem I want to think through is why the gift is rare.

A few of reasons come immediately to mind. The first is that most people are not trained as historians. Those who do pay some small amount of attention to the human past by reading survey texts or specialized studies are more likely to assimilate the historian's conclusions than they are the historian's experience coming to those conclusions. This occurred there and then; or this happened because that happened; but not our lack of certainty on this or that point. The second is that the immense amount of materials published on any one place and time in human history is likely to shore up erroneous assumptions about just how much evidence is available. Readers don't necessarily contemplate the fact that single lines in an ancient text can generate exponential growing amount of commentary, none of which can get around the simple problem of a lack of additional evidence needed to corroborate this or that interpretation. The third is that a majority of people, if they are interested in the past at all, are more likely to be interested in the recent past. And it is precisely in the recent past, especially the very recent past, that we encounter of glut of material evidence.

Put together, these give rise to what I will call an 'empirical fetishism'. For every question, there should in principle be an answer. If there isn't an answer, we allow ourselves to hypothesize about a 'best fit' answer. Empirical fetishism means that our knowledge of the world ought to be a seamless whole. We don't like holes in our seamless whole, so we fill them. Fletcher points out that the village of Wighill has been suggested for the location of Earl Uthred's murder at Wiheal, along with a number of other candidate whose name begins with W. Wikipedia names Wighill as the location of his murder, in fact, but without any comment on the interpretive dilemmas of identifying this particular place with that particular name in that hoary tome. History it seems, like nature, also abhors a vacuum.

Let's not make fun of Wikipedia on this point. They are only doing what most everybody else does in their situation: drawing conclusions, filling in blanks. Because of the impossibility of constructing a consistent account of the whole body of our knowledge about the world and its past. empirical fetishism itself gives rise to perspectivism. Everyone has their own perspective on things. You can think about things in as many ways as you want, of course. The interpretation of the human past, even the immediate past, but especially the distant past, however, often leaves a person with nothing to have a perspective on. That sort of empirical sensitivity is why we need more historians like Richard Fletcher, as it's very easy to assume a perspective on things can replace due attention to the things themselves.

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