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Chasing the ghost of von Ranke

22 June, 2011

So I’m writing a Leeds paper about a ghost. It’s the ghost of “everybody says” or “people used to say” or “common knowledge.” It’s a paper that came out of a few conversations, conversations where people said, “But X couldn’t do Y,” or,”But that wasn’t supposed to happen,” or, “but you can’t trust this source because it: isn’t what you think it is; is possibly (or is) a forgery; is not the original, but a 12th C recreation; probably didn’t have that witness list (which by the way might not really be a witness list) attached to the original, etc.”

So I thought, “let’s try to figure out what it is we know, and what it is we don’t, and who told us this stuff that is common knowledge.” I thought I needed to know this because not to know it, and more importantly, not to discuss the historiography and the arguments scholars have had before sticking in my own oar, seemed shoddy work.

Then I talked to a colleague who said, “if it’s old and obviously wrong, I just ignore it! Why document that someone else argued against what you are now going to demonstrate?” Well, that’s a good question. I think that we need to trace the arguments a bit, if only because people like me, who are to some extent self-taught, would like a bit of help.

But the more I look at things, including articles by a single scholar that say one thing 20 years ago, then suddenly don’t, and perhaps mention the reason for their change of heart in a very small footnote, the more I wonder if I have to worry quite as much.

So my paper will be methodological, and will likely focus on the evidence for what seems to have been true.

And the conclusion? History is complicated. Carolingian history is packed with people who say one thing and do another. Theory is fine, but practice often diverges from it. Basically, if you are a historian who does the job at all well, you’ll use the evidence honestly, draw your conclusions, and point out where we have to use the sources with big chunks of salt, and why.

It’s not going to be wie es eigentlich gewesen. But I think (or at least this is how I am justifying it to myself) that sometimes, the best we can do is present the evidence, explain why we think it means what it does and how it fits in, and admit there are big holes that other people may interpret differently. Sometimes, it’s not about knowing the answers, I think. Sometimes, good history is about pointing out where and why there are questions we might not be able to answer. Or so I hope.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 June, 2011 6:49 pm

    The ghost of von Ranke.a.k.a. The Zietgeist PoltergeistWhoooooooo es eigentlich gewesen.

  2. 22 June, 2011 6:50 pm


  3. 22 June, 2011 9:16 pm


  4. 22 June, 2011 10:57 pm

    I think what you're doing is what we need to teach our students too; that 'received knowledge' isn't definitive, but shaded. After all, that's what history is, right?

  5. 23 June, 2011 10:00 am

    I'm with Belle — we don't discount evidence because it defies conventional wisdom (or even the conventional wisdom of professional historians). I cannot TELL you how many times that, while working on the dissertation, then later the book, I heard "But women couldn't *do* that in the Middle Ages." And yet, here I had not one, but dozens of cases of women doing whatever that thing was. And then I finally realized that the conventional wisdom was based on a sampling from one particular region, and that outside that region, conventional wisdom needed to take a flying f*** at a rolling donut.

  6. 23 June, 2011 1:36 pm

    I think that my problem here is that I have no idea where conventional wisdom comes from. And this bothers me. Because I don't like the idea that I'm arguing against something I can't pin down. It's too much like a straw man. Moreover, as a colleague pointed out at Berks, there is a point at which we all know that the conventional wisdom isn't true, and we need to just ignore it. Except that I think we need to have a clear articulation of it somewhere. We need a Peggy Brown, but I don't necessarily want to be that person for this topic. And yet, I realize I need to somehow at least put it out there for people to think about — how do we get past the ghost of conventional wisdom so that we don't have to pose our evidence against it?

  7. 24 June, 2011 2:51 am

    First, Kurt Vonnegut reference / Thanks, Notorious, that made me inexplicably happy!I think ignoring the conventional wisdom is a mistake. Because then that ignoring becomes conventional wisdom. And so on, and so on. I would suspect that digging into those "everyone knows" truths could get very, very interesting. Or not… but should still be poked at. If the untruth can be documented (or at least legitimately questioned), then it's one less that someone else needs to tackle in the future. Sounds a bit like a great class project — Medieval Mythbusters.

  8. 24 June, 2011 2:50 pm

    This is also what I'm writing about at this very minute (for my dissertation). It's totally unavoidable, I think, going through that stage of questioning to find out what has gone on and what's going on.What I love about the Middle Ages is that you *can't* assume that what works for one region will work for another. It has to be demonstrated clearly, in every single case. When i get the chance (which is not very often at all) I teach the whole sad story of 'feudalism' as an example of the daftness of assuming that all people think the same and do the same in a period before mass communications. I'm not sure we can assume sameness even now, to be honest, but we ought to be assuming it even less for the Middle Ages.

  9. 25 June, 2011 7:40 pm

    You know, I'm a little weirded out that this is the first I've heard of von Ranke…. Which may be simply a reflection of how many history classes I've never taken.

  10. 26 June, 2011 9:27 pm

    I finally realized that the conventional wisdom was based on a sampling from one particular region, and that outside that region, conventional wisdom needed to take a flying f*** at a rolling donut.I didn't recognise the Vonnegut so I'm not going to allow that fact to diminish my ever-increasing admiration of Dr Notorious even slightly. This is a much better version of the conclusion of several of my papers. I wish I could get away with this version in a piece that I've done for a Festschrift. The recipient would probably laugh, but only in private…(Also Zeitgeist Poltergeist argh etc.)

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