Hello everyone,

Research is a constant, ongoing process while writing historical fiction. Sometimes a fascinating tidbit surfaces that might be of particular interest beyond its use in a novel. As I continue to work in the historical fiction field, I will post those occasional points of interest here. Occasionally I muse on the writing process as well along with news to keep readers informed of what's going on with my books and other writings.

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The photo above is of Snowdonia in North Wales, which plays a large part in the setting of the Macsen's Treasure Series.


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Thursday, September 15, 2011

What is History?

It’s been quite a while since I posted on my blog—too occupied with researching my next book and taking graduate classes in history. Currently I am in the midst of a historiography course. Not to be confusing—this is the history of history writing and historians. Required for the masters degree, it looked a bit more technical than the rest of the program, but it is turning out to be quite interesting. This post is inspired by this week’s class forum loosely based on the question, “What is History?”

One aspect I’ve learned from this class that amazes me is how differently history was viewed in previous eras. To our knowledge, the Greeks were the first to write history. Yet these beginning works by Herodotus, Thucydides and a few others were not considered any more important than a low subcategory of philosophy. Most often, it was taught as literature, an example of how to write, or as rhetoric, not as the separate idea of history.

According to one of the textbooks for the class, until Herodotus and his history-writing heirs gave a sense of the length of other civilizations compared to the Greeks’ civilization, people apparently had no concept of past vs. present or a sense for the dimension of time. The best known previously written works are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer and which touched on the Trojan War and its aftermath. Neither epic poem had any dates or allusions to events that could place the stories somewhere in time, though modern scholars place them in the Mycenaean period, perhaps in the twelfth century BC.

If the textbook is correct in stating pre-Herodotan people had no sense of the progress of time, was their mindset so narrow that they never wondered what had come before them? What about their ancestry? Or who had built the crumbling buildings from hundreds of years earlier that were still visible in Athens?

The textbook is silent on people who kept their history orally. It is also silent on cultures that were not of the so-called great civilizations. Why not at least acknowledge some, like the Celts, who existed concurrently to the Greeks? Their druid class memorized their ancestry, mythology and history so it could be recited accurately to the people to whom it belonged, generation after generation. In fact, to write it down was taboo. Many other tribal people across Europe before written history took hold embraced similar customs. Did they not have a sense of time? They certainly had a perception of their ancestry.

Or is my own sense of history getting in the way of understanding this mindset? History, the written kind, has been subservient to many other disciplines since its inception: to philosophy in the classical period, theology during the middle ages, science, law, literature and art from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. With each age it is reassessed and redefined. Finally, towards the end of the nineteenth century it became a discipline of its own and professionalized, although it ran through a profound number of additional readjustments called “schools.” So the next question is, in another hundred years, will it change again, needing another reassessment? And what will it look like?

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