The Virtuous Archive: crucial to writing good history?

Over the last two centuries the archives, those repositories of records collected over time, have almost become seen as the preserve of the historian. They offer a mass of often systematised information about most historical periods which the historian can exploit to illuminate aspects of the past that would otherwise be incomprehensible. Yet the archives are not everything, as any “good” history will acknowledge.

Such history writing must be based on reliable sources, inclusivity, and sound interpretation of the evidence gathered. It is seldom that these three things can be achieved purely by basing one’s work on archival research. This piece will focus on the content of history writing, with an acknowledgment of the importance of form. It will begin by examining the undoubted merits of archival research in framing written history. However, it will then argue that a broader knowledge base than purely archival research is necessary to enable greater inclusivity and reliability in history writing, as it allows cross-examination of sources. This will be followed by the suggestion that other research methods are required for some historical inquiries where consulting the archives is simply not an option.

Throughout, emphasis will be placed on the importance of writing history in a well-structured manner based on reasoned interpretations of the information gathered, no matter what knowledge sources are used. It is important to recognise that both content and form will vary significantly based on the type of historical inquiry undertaken and therefore all “good” histories will by no means look alike.

The secret archives of the Vatican
The secret archives of the Vatican

 

The Virtuous Archive

The collection and preservation of records has been a preoccupation of humankind for thousands of years, as highlighted by the extensive legal, administrative and military orders inscribed on stone tablets from the ancient city of Ebla in present-day Syria, dating from around 2250BC.[1]

Archives have developed in form and quantity since this time, culminating in the digital age where electronic archives have become increasingly prevalent and represent the latest attempt of the human race to efficiently catalogue its past.[2]

Despite these progressions, some of the functions of archival research for the historian have remained the same. One of the most important aspects of writing “good” history is attaining an accurate chronological framework in order to place events in their “true” context. Historians have partaken in archival research for this purpose for centuries. For example, Thucydides, considered as one of the founders of history in the Western historiographical tradition, used archival records of officeholders to determine the start date of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC.[3] As contemporary historians still use Thucydides’ work as a starting-point when studying the war, it intimates at the importance of archival research in establishing the chronology of events from the distant past.

As Clanchy warns us in regards to archives in medieval England, dating is not a formality. Many of the documents retained in such collections are undated or intentionally dated inaccurately for personal motives[4], making it difficult and contestable to construct a chronological framework from these particular records. Nevertheless, the able historian should be able to distinguish which documents are both reliable and properly dated through studying their contents and by triangulating records with other archival deposits. This is essential, as a discernible and understandable chronology is central to effective historical writing.  Other sources of knowledge perhaps do not offer the same dating potential in this respect that archives do.

Many fabulous texts from Medieval England survive in the archives. But their origin and purpose are not always clear
Many fabulous texts from Medieval England survive in the archives. But their origin and purpose are not always clear

 

Another merit of basing historical writing on archival research is simple logistics. As Michel Foucault argues, “history is…possibly the most cluttered area of our memory…history has become the unavoidable element in our thought.”[5] The complex nature of historical inquiry, with its unending possibilities and extraordinary breadth of subject, makes order a problem. “Good” history writing requires focus on aspects of the past relevant to the author’s particular line of inquiry. It is easy to be side-tracked into including narratives of past events that do not contribute to the purpose of the history being written. Take for example Bartolomé de las Casas’ Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542) in which the Dominican friar and historian digresses from a narrow aim of highlighting native exploitation by Spanish Catholics on the island of Hispaniola, to a sprawling, incoherent diatribe berating Spanish torture methods and gold lust throughout the New World.[6] This lack of order simply results in an anti-Catholic polemic and evokes little sympathy for the natives, neither of which were Las Casas’ intentions.

Las Casas had no access to archival sources, which had yet to be properly established in the New World, and consequently his history is chaotic. Archival research can provide a foundation from which the historian can order their work. Modern archives collate the documents and images relating to the same subject matter or function and systematise them chronologically. From this the historian can remain focused on their specific question or inquiry, as they have clear access to the sources relevant to their study. This benefit is seen in Virginia Lunsford’s comprehensive Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands in which she provides great focus and depth on a fairly narrow aspect of history, largely as a result of guidance by archival research.[7] Whilst some authors have argued that increasing specialisation on narrow inquiries limits our understanding of important historical processes[8], it is only through in-depth studies such as Lunsford’s that we can begin to understand the past, which should be an aim of all written history.

 

This desire to understand the past as it was at a given point in time, what Arthur Marwick terms genetic relationism, was central to the work of the greatest proponent of archival research, Leopold von Ranke.[9] Von Ranke’s desire to “show what actually happened”[10] led him to base his history writing on archival research. In his eyes documents offered an impartial window into the past, allowing the historian to remain objective in his study.[11]

Of course von Ranke’s big failure here was his reluctance to subject the archives he studied to the external and internal criticism that Langlois and Seignobos emphasise is crucial when determining the reliability of documents.[12] Whilst von Ranke may have been misguided in his belief that the archives he trawled represented the “truth”, he recognised the importance of original evidence, which remains one of the archive’s greatest contributions to historiography. As Clanchy argues, the effort and cost of committing records to parchment in medieval times suggests they were supposed to “make a lasting memorial” and this alone offers the historian an insight into what was attributed importance in past cultures and societies.[13]

Even for more contemporary periods, archival research offers the historian an insight into political interactions, legal systems, social relations, religious affiliation and a whole range of other phenomena. What is crucial for writing history is selecting relevant and reliable information from the archive and accepting that archival evidence does not hold all the answers. It may be possible to write fairly reliable and inclusive histories from archival evidence alone – especially in regards to the particular institutions that house such records – yet such research needs supplementing. Von Ranke did not recognise this need, claiming in his Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes of Rome: “the imperial archives [of the Vatican] contain…the most important and authentic documents illustrative of German and of general history.”[14] Whilst his contribution to historiography is immense, to claim that von Ranke wrote comprehensive histories of his chosen subjects is somewhat dubious given his neglect of the other sources of knowledge on which such writing must also be based.

Von Ranke was an unapologetic advocate of archival supremacy
Von Ranke was an unapologetic advocate of archival supremacy

 

Stepping Out of the Archive

Basing a history predominantly on one source of knowledge, such as archival research, is notoriously dangerous and can lead to the manipulation of evidence through two main means. Firstly, historians can use archival evidence for political reasons, usually relating to nationalism and xenophobia. This has long been a practice, exemplified by Edward I’s use of historical writing based on monastic archival research to claim Scotland as his territory in 1291.[15] More recently, Japanese revisionist historians have pointed to a lack of archival evidence to deny the occurrence of the “Nanjing Massacre” in China in 1937.[16] These written histories can cause severe tensions within and between countries, as highlighted by the “textbook controversies” that often destabilise contemporary Sino-Japanese relations.[17] Such claims can only gain credibility because of the emphasis placed on archival research in writing history. Secondly, distorted or biased histories can be produced (not always deliberately) by relying primarily on the archives because of the problem regarding impartiality alluded to above. As Carolyn Steedman pertinently reflects:

 

The archive is made from selected and consciously chosen documentation from the past and also from the mad fragmentations that no one intended to preserve and that just ended up there.[18]

 

Archival evidence is certainly not impartial and cannot automatically be seen as a “true” representation of the past. Records are not often preserved for the sake of future historians and should they be then it is likely that they are trying to portray a manipulated version of the past for the benefit of particular individuals or institutions. For example, it is widely believed that the papal archives, whilst enormous in content, have been collated selectively with the omission (at least to the public) of documents potentially damaging to the reputation of the Vatican.[19] Consequently, relying on archival research can lead to impartial and inaccurate publications, naturally contributing to inferior histories.

 

Even when archival evidence can be established as reliable and valid to a particular line of historical inquiry the historian should still try and make use of other sources of knowledge to supplement their research. It has already been noted that not all archival evidence is available to the public and, furthermore, the perishable nature of archives means historians are unlikely to get the full picture from this knowledge source alone. China in particular has seen the destruction of numerous archives dating back to the Ming dynasty of the fourteenth century and before, either as a result of political sabotage or natural disasters.[20] To counter both archival manipulation and shortfalls, it is preferable to corroborate such research with other forms of historical inquiry.

 

One way to supplement or test archival research is by making use of archaeological excavations. As Tabaczynski suggests, “historical cognition is situated between that which is material…and that which is non-material.”[21] The idea that we understand the past best with a balance of material and non-material evidence places a degree of importance on archaeology being able to add to our archival knowledge in pursuit of more inclusive writings. It is essential to note that much of our archival evidence pertaining to ancient civilisations, in particular, is only available because of archaeological excavations, as highlighted by the numerous findings of prehistoric Near Eastern texts.[22]

The archaeological investigations at Palmyra are under threat from ISIS terrorists. They have provided a great insight into the history of the Middle East over the past few decades
The archaeological investigations at Palmyra are under threat from ISIS terrorists. They have provided a great insight into the history of the Middle East over the past few decades

Archaeology can contribute to our historical writing in two primary ways. Firstly, it enhances our understanding of the past by adding to and correcting archival research already undertaken on a particular subject. For example, considerable archival information exists relating to the size and composition of naval forces in Renaissance Europe, yet few, if any, accurate drawings exist of the ships used.[23] This knowledge gap can be filled by archaeological studies of shipwrecks and technology found at Renaissance shipyards to give a more complete portrayal of ship design during the period[24], correcting the dubious pictorial evidence and providing an insight into regional variations.

The merits of combining archival and archaeological research are further evident in Charles Hudson’s Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun in which he gives an expert account of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s expedition through Florida in the early 1540s and the natives he encountered, which could not have been written based on one research method alone.[25]  Secondly, they can prevent inaccuracies derived from the archives from being included in historical works. For instance, archival evidence derived from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of medieval England refers to the “kingship” that existed in the country from 500AD, suggesting the existence of an early state-society. However, the archaeological record suggests that such a state-society only began to emerge under Alfred in the ninth century, based on coin findings across the country.[26]

Conversely, archaeologists have excavated mass graves around the Nanjing area to confirm execution sites that undermine those histories denying the “massacre” (based on a lack of archival evidence) committed there by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937.[27] Archaeological evidence can therefore help improve the reliability and inclusivity of written histories although it must be acknowledged that it cannot be applied to all historical inquiries.

One does need to make reference to the archives to prove the Nanjing Massacre
One does need to make reference to the archives to prove the Nanjing Massacre

 

A further source of knowledge that can contribute to good historiography  is documentary evidence obtained from outside the archives. There often appears to be an implicit belief amongst historians that only documents held in designated repositories are worthy of research, although we have already determined the limitations they can have.

Chinese scholars, especially, have referred to ancient and medieval histories that made use of archival research long since perished .[28] These works can supplement the limited contemporary archival research (as well as archaeological evidence) relating to ancient and medieval societies, although they must be open to the same levels of interpretive criticism regarding their reliability.[29] Indeed, ancient histories are seen by some as primary sources in their own right in Western historiography as the works of the likes of Herodotus reveal information not available in the contemporary archival record.[30]

Published memoirs and diaries can be similarly illuminating as they offer additional information of events and historical periods that cannot be gleaned from “official” archival records. Memoirs like Winston Churchill’s The History of the Second World War are being frequently exploited by Australian political historians in order to support their archival research into the recent past.[31] Non-written memories in the form of oral communication should also be consulted before writing contemporary history for, as Coffman argues, it “provides a human touch and a richness that one cannot get from paper documents.”[32] Forrest Pogue based his history on the Allied Expeditionary Force during WWII on oral research by conversing with relevant soldiers and commanders, which was supplemented by archival evidence. His Supreme Command is widely regarded as both accurate and detailed and explores the emotive impact of the War that could not have been attained from the archives alone.[33]

Whilst the impartiality and inaccuracy of memory cannot be guaranteed either, it is just another example of how historians can, and should, corroborate and collate their evidence by using a variety of knowledge sources. The archive alone will seldom produce the most comprehensive and accurate histories.

 

In addition, there are occasions when an effective history should not be based on archival research at all; when no archives exist relating to specific historical subjects and periods. This is most applicable to the study of non-literate societies where archives did not emerge until colonisation by a foreign power.[34] Indeed, A.P. Newton commented in 1923 that Africa had no history prior to the European arrival because of the absence of written documents and archival evidence.[35] Such elitist sentiment has thankfully been eliminated from most academic circles.

Histories can still be written without direct archival research and contribute hugely to our understanding of the past. For example, the utilisation of oral tradition, which varies significantly from epic poetry to detailed narratives, can give the historian great detail and relative chronology of pre-archival history in non-literate societies.[36] Whilst oral tradition is somewhat unreliable in its accuracy over long periods it can be subjected to the same cross-examination that archival research should be to improve accuracy. Irving Rouse makes use of oral tradition, archaeological excavations and linguistic studies to give a well-reasoned interpretation of pre-Columbian Taino society in the Caribbean and then compares his findings with the early documentary evidence provided by the Europeans to confirm Taino social practices.[37]

Oral history needs to be critically evaluated but it should not necessarily be overlooked
Oral history needs to be critically evaluated but it should not necessarily be overlooked

Indeed, similar methods can be employed when writing about marginalised groups within literate societies, such as the peasantry and women of medieval Europe, whose “voice” is often absent from the elitist archives of the time. Lisa Bitel studies oral heritage, literary works and archaeological evidence in Women in Early Medieval Europe to present a reasoned interpretation of daily life for women at a time when their archival presence is non-existent.[38] Without using alternative research methods “good” history cannot be produced for a whole range of societies, especially those in which archival evidence is not sufficient or absent altogether.

 

Concluding Thoughts

The foundation of history writing is reliable and inclusive content related to the historian’s field of inquiry. Archives are undoubtedly essential in providing some of this content for many (though not all) written histories, as they offer an unparalleled level of primary source material which can enhance our understanding of even the narrowest historical subjects.

One of the fundamental roles of history should be to further our understanding of past events, as more often than not they shape our contemporary world. The ordered nature of modern archives allows historians to focus their writing to begin to produce studies of great depth on specific subjects that allow us to achieve this understanding.

However, “good” history writing does not always have to be based on archival research. It should be predicated on an inclusive research methodology that makes use not only of archival evidence but other forms of knowledge gathering that are relevant to the history in question.

Whilst many historians still loathe the idea of engaging in research practices outside “traditional” historical inquiry, such as archaeology, it is crucial for reliability and levels of understanding that these knowledge bases are used wherever possible. It is reliant on the judgement of the historian to use the research sources appropriate for their study and their interpretation of the evidence to produce the most compelling writings. When this is achieved, reliability and inclusivity are attained and this, ultimately, is what we should strive of.

 

Endnotes

[1] R.J. Cox, Closing an era: historical perspectives on modern archives and records management (Westport, 2000) p. 24

[2] B.W. Dearstyne, Managing historical records programs: a guide for historical agencies (Lanham, 2000) pp.139-40

[3] E. Breisach, Historiography: ancient, medieval and modern (3rd ed.) (Chicago, 2007) p.11

[4] M.T. Clanchy, From memory to written record: England 1066-1307 (London, 1979) pp. 237-8

[5] M. Foucault, The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences (Abingdon, 2002) pp.237-8

[6] B. De Las Casas, A short account of the destruction of the Indies (London, 1992)

[7] V. Lunsford, Piracy and privateering in the golden age Netherlands (Basingstoke, 2005) especially pp. ix-xi

[8] This trend is outlined in D. Thelen, ‘The profession and the Journal of American History’, The Journal of American History, 73 (1986) pp. 9-14

[9] A. Marwick, The nature of history (2nd ed.) (London, 1981) p.37

[10] F. Stern, The varieties of history: from Voltaire to the present (2nd ed.) (New York, 1973) p.528

[11] B. Stuchtey & P. Wende (eds.), ‘Introduction’ in British and German historiography: traditions, perceptions and transfers (Oxford, 2000) p.17

[12] C-V. Langlois & C. Seignobos, Introduction to the study of history (New York, 1904) pp. 66-7

[13] M.T. Clanchy, From memory to written record: England 1066-1307 (London, 1979) p.116

[14] L. Von Ranke, The ecclesiastical and political history of the popes of Rome volume 1 (Philadelphia, 1841) p.viii

[15] M.T. Clanchy, From memory to written record: England 1066-1307 (London, 1979) p.132

[16] See Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, New history textbook (Tokyo, 2005) p.49

[17] Y.R. Chu, ‘Historical and contemporary roots of Sino-Japanese conflicts’ in J.C. Hsiung, China and Japan at odds: deciphering the perpetual conflict (Basingstoke, 2007) pp.31-2

[18] C. Steedman, Dust (Manchester, 2001) p.68

[19] For example see O. Chadwick, Catholicism and history: the opening of the Vatican archives (Cambridge, 1978)

[20] P.E. Wilkinson, Chinese history: a manual (Cambridge, Mass., 2000) p.889

[21] S. Tabaczynski, ‘The relationship between history and archaeology: elements of the present debate’, Medieval Archaeology, 37 (1993) p.1

[22] K.L. Sparks, Ancient texts for the study of the Hebrew bible: a guide to the background literature (Peabody, 2005) p.25

[23] R.W. Unger, ‘Four Dordrecht ships of the sixteenth century’, Mariner’s Mirror, 61 (1975) pp. 113-116

[24] L.R. Martin, The art and archaeology of Venetian ships and boats (Rochester, 2001) pp. 3-4

[25] C. Hudson, Knights of Spain, warriors of the sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s ancient chiefdoms (Athens, 1998)

[26] P. Bahn & C. Renfrew, Archaeology: theories, methods and practice (3rd ed.) (London, 2000) p.183

[27] I. Hanson, ‘Forensic archaeology: approaches to international investigations’ in M. Oxenham, Forensic approaches to death, disaster and abuse (Sydney, 2008) p.19

[28] P.E. Wilkinson, Chinese history: a manual (Cambridge, Mass., 2000) p.490

[29] For example see H.C. McCullough, Yoshitsune: a fifteenth-century Japanese chronicle (Tokyo, 1966) pp. 5-6

[30] J.M. Hall, A history of the archaic Greek world, ca. 1200-479 BCE (Oxford, 2007) p.18

[31] S. Scalmer, ‘The rise of the insider: memoirs and diaries in recent Australian political history’, The Australian Journal of Politics and History, 56 (2010) pp. 82-95

[32] E.F. Coffman, ‘Talking about war: reflections on doing oral history and military history’, The Journal of American History, 87 (2000), p.589

[33] F.C. Pogue, The Supreme Command (Washington, 1954)

[34] See J.D. Fage, ‘The development of African historiography’ in J. Ki-Zerbo, General history of Africa 1: methodology and African pre-history (Berkley, 1981) p. 25

[35] K. Shillington, Encyclopaedia of African history, volume 1 (New York, 2005) p.627

[36] J. Vansina, ‘Oral tradition and its methodology’ in J. Ki-Zerbo, General history of Africa 1: methodology and African pre-history (Berkley, 1981) pp. 143-157

[37] I. Rouse, The Tainos: the rise and decline of the people who greeted Columbus (New Haven, 1993) pp.105-137

[38] L.M. Bitel, Women in early medieval Europe, 400-1100 (Cambridge, 2002) pp. 1-12

 

Bibliography

Books

Bahn, P. & Renfrew, C. Archaeology: theories, methods and practice (3rd ed.) (London, 2000)

Bitel, L.M. Women in early medieval Europe, 400-1100 (Cambridge, 2002)

Breisach, E. Historiography: ancient, medieval and modern (3rd ed.) (Chicago, 2007)

Chadwick, O. Catholicism and history: the opening of the Vatican archives (Cambridge, 1978)

Chu, Y.R. ‘Historical and contemporary roots of Sino-Japanese conflicts’ in J.C. Hsiung (ed.), China and Japan at odds: deciphering the perpetual conflict (Basingstoke, 2007), pp. 23-42

Clanchy, M.T. From memory to written record: England 1066-1307 (London, 1979)

Cox, R.J. Closing an era: historical perspectives on modern archives and records management (Westport, 2000)

De Las Casas, B. A short account of the destruction of the Indies (London, 1992) (Edited and Translated by Nigel Griffin)

Dearstyne, B.W. Managing historical records programs: a guide for historical agencies (Lanham, 2000)

Fage, J.D. ‘The development of African historiography’ in J. Ki-Zerbo, General history of Africa 1: methodology and African pre-history (Berkley, 1981), pp. 25-42

Foucault, M. The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences (Abingdon, 2002)

Hall, J.M. A history of the archaic Greek world, ca. 1200-479 BCE (Oxford, 2007)

Hanson, I. ‘Forensic archaeology: approaches to international investigations’ in M. Oxenham, Forensic approaches to death, disaster and abuse (Sydney, 2008), pp. 17-28

Hudson, C. Knights of Spain, warriors of the sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s ancient chiefdoms (Athens, 1998)

Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, New history textbook (Tokyo, 2005)

Langlois, C-V. & Seignobos, C. Introduction to the study of history (New York, 1904) (Translated by G.G. Berry)

Lunsford, V. Piracy and privateering in the golden age Netherlands (Basingstoke, 2005)

Martin, L.R. The art and archaeology of Venetian ships and boats (Rochester, 2001)

Marwick, A. The nature of history (2nd ed.) (London, 1981)

McCullough, H.C. Yoshitsune: a fifteenth-century Japanese chronicle (Tokyo, 1966)

Rouse, I. The Tainos: the rise and decline of the people who greeted Columbus (New Haven, 1993)

Shillington, K. Encyclopaedia of African history, volume 1 (New York, 2005)

Sparks, K.L. Ancient texts for the study of the Hebrew bible: a guide to the background literature (Peabody, 2005)

Steedman, C. Dust (Manchester, 2001)

Stern, F. The varieties of history: from Voltaire to the present (2nd ed.) (New York, 1973)

Stuchtey, B. & Wende, P. (eds.), ‘Introduction’ in British and German historiography: traditions, perceptions and transfers (Oxford, 2000), pp. 1-24

Vansina, J. ‘Oral tradition and its methodology’ in J. Ki-Zerbo, General history of Africa 1: methodology and African pre-history (Berkley, 1981), pp. 142-165

Von Ranke, L. The ecclesiastical and political history of the popes of Rome volume 1 (Philadelphia, 1841) (Translated from the German by Sarah Austin)

Wilkinson, P.E. Chinese history: a manual (Cambridge, Mass., 2000)

 

Journals

Coffman, E.F. ‘Talking about war: reflections on doing oral history and military history’, The Journal of American History, 87 (2000), pp. 582-592

Scalmer, S. ‘The rise of the insider: memoirs and diaries in recent Australian political history’, The Australian Journal of Politics and History, 56 (2010), pp. 82-104

Tabaczynski, S. ‘The relationship between history and archaeology: elements of the present debate’, Medieval Archaeology, 37 (1993), pp. 1-14

Thelen, D. ‘The profession and the Journal of American History’, The Journal of American History, 73 (1986) pp. 9-14

Unger, R.W. ‘Four Dordrecht ships of the sixteenth century’, Mariner’s Mirror, 61 (1975), pp. 109-116

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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