Shifting views of the past - Sarah Woodbury

Shifting views of the past

On a history forum I frequent, someone asked a question about why historians’ views of the past have changed over time, particularly in reference to the ‘Dark Ages’.

My novels are set in ‘Dark Age’ and medieval Wales, and this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Dark Age Britain, as one example, was conquered first by the Romans, who delighted in contrasting their ‘civilized’ society with the barbarity of the native tribes.  Next, the Saxons moved in, then the Normans who came in 1066. All of these conquering groups spouted continually about the brutish, uncivilized lives the native British people led (the Scots are included in this too). It’s not uncommon to have English media TODAY speak of the Welsh as some sort of less-than-civilized ‘other’ (I blogged about this here).

Compare this to a similar situation: Native Americans in the United States. My husband works for an Indian tribe here in Oregon, and when they were conquered, they too were viewed as the ‘other’ and less than human. Native Americans in this country have gradually recovered over the last 100 years from the decimation of their population and society and certainly within academia, there is a strong push to emphasize the complexity of their culture: that they were (and are) neither barbaric savages nor nature-loving, peaceful natives, but people.

That change has gradually seeped into other disciplines, history being one as historians begin to look not only at what happened in the past, but the agenda of those writing about past events. No longer do they take the writings of Gildas or Bede, or some Roman functionary at face value. I don’t know that they truly ever did, but if the historian already has a life-long prejudice against the Welsh, for example, it is really easy to pass that on to their academic work. The other thing that has happened, certainly within anthropology but also other social sciences, is that the native peoples (wherever they reside) are writing about themselves. No longer is it an English historian pontificating about Welsh culture, but a Welsh historian writing about his/her own. Or a Native American, or a Kenyan.

As a final comment, when I was at Cambridge, we studied the works of E.E. Evans-Pritchard, an English anthropologist working in Kenya in the 1930s. He wrote an incredibly long and boring monograph about kinship systems among the Nuer people. He wrote this tome without once mentioning that the English government had sent soldiers to the Nuer lands TO MACHINE GUN THEIR CATTLE FROM THE BACK OF TRUCKS–in an attempt to force the Nuer people to abandon their herding lifestyle in favor of farming or city life.

But just looking at the text, without knowing anything else, you have a totally different (and distorted) picture of what life was like among the Nuer. Because other accounts of the 1930s are available–including from the Kenyans themselves–we are able to piece together a more complete picture of what was going on at the time.  In the case of historians, however, when all you have as a source is a Gildas, or a Bede, or an apologist for Edward I–and no Welsh historian at all–it makes it far harder to get at the ‘other’ side of the story. The attempt to do so–and the belief that it is important to do so–is another thing that has changed since the 1950s. 

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