Chasing the ghost of von Ranke
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.