Why I try to explain how historical investigation actually proceeds

I posted a quote about the vitality of the High Middle Ages. The person quoted, Robert Bartlett, is Professor of Medieval History at St. Andrews. The book I am quoting won a top history prize. He has written several other books on the Middle Ages, and produced a number of BBC documentaries on the period. And he has spent the last 40 years of his life studying this period. He has spent that time pouring over original documents from the era, and tracking the work of other historians working on the era and of archaeologists excavating the period. He almost certainly can read original documents in at least Latin, middle English, old French, and Italian.

He notes that the High Middle Ages were a period of intense creativity. After I posted that quote, several commenters showed up. One says that he prefers the view of the Middle Ages that he learned when he was young. But this view did not change because, with a given set of facts, historians simply decided to put a different spin on them. Historians do not start with facts, they start with evidence, and deduce the facts based on that evidence. And their understanding of what the facts were has changed based on a wealth of evidence about that time.

Another commentor asks why, if the High Middle Ages were really so vital, did they simply accept what Aristotle had written centuries before on his authority? The answer is that they did not do so. Aristotle's works were lost to Western Europe for many centuries. But as soon as they were rediscovered, although he was recognized as a genius, his works were being critiqued and his conclusions modified. For instance, Buridan and Oresme developed a new theory of motion, that essentially was a halfway point between Aristotle's theory and Newton's. In fact, the Scientific Revolution was well underway in the High Middle Ages. (See, for instance, Grant's The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: note that I am not here citing some fringe work putting forth a questionable thesis like a book that claims the Chinese discovered America: this is a standard work assigned in advanced history of science classes around the world.)

But if that is true, then what happened? Well, it was a little thing called the plague. Europeans in the Late Middle Ages had little attention to devote to science, as they were quite busy dying in droves. by the time you're up recovered, there were "new men" on the scene: the humanists. They reacted against the learning of the High Middle Ages -- not without some justification, as no age is perfect and every one has its characteristic errors -- but, as with most reactions, they went too far. They threw out the baby with the bathwater, and said we must start over again from the Greeks and Romans. So Galileo had to reinitiate the mathematization of physics, which had already been occurring in the Middle Ages. Descartes had to reformulate "Cogito ergo sum," which had already been formulated in the Middle Ages. Napier had to rediscover logarithms, which had already been discovered in the Middle Ages. Francis Bacon had to reassert the importance of empirical investigation, which had been pointed out centuries before by Roger Bacon.

With the Protestant Reformation and the political movement led by the philosophes against the Catholic Church (and by the way, Samson, "philosophes" does not mean the same thing as "philosophers"), this history became politicized. It served the interest of both groups to portray the Middle Ages as a period of unbroken intellectual ignorance. And so arose the myth of the stagnant Middle Ages, which 100 years of historical scholarship has barely been able to budge in the popular imagination.

But back to my original topic: it is the popular misunderstanding of what historians do that leads my commenters to reject their findings based on what they learned from a high school textbook or a TV show featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson. If the facts are simply what is written in old books, and all historians do is invent interpretations for them, then why can't I invent my own interpretation?

But that is not at all how historians work. What was written down at some time may be self-serving propaganda, mistaken memories, or simply a lack of understanding on the part of the writer of what was really occurring. Historians use this evidence that did survive to ferret out the facts of a past that has not survived. Augustus claimed that he was restoring the Roman Republic, but we know that he in fact was ending it, not because of what was written at the time, but because of what historians have concluded based on the evidence surviving from that time. The claims of Augustus were propaganda.

Imagine someone rejecting all of quantum mechanics, because in school he had learned the Bohr model of the atom as a little solar system, because he learned it in school, and he really likes it. Surely, anyone who is passingly familiar with modern physics would tell him, "But there has been a massive amount of evidence unearthed that demonstrates that that model is too simple!"

But, when it comes to history, the idea that it is merely the historian's interpretation of "given" facts blocks such humility when confronted with new historical findings.


  1. (By the way, my comment in the Middle Ages thread never got posted.) Gene, thanks for this post. I wasn't aware that there had been such progress in physics in the Middle Ages; in my physics classes I always learnt that medieval thinkers just made minor changes to Aristotelian physics, like introducing a "vis insita" which prefigured inertia, rather than making dramatic changes of the kind Galileo and Newton made.

    Can you elaborate on this: "They reacted against the learning of the High Middle Ages -- not without some justification, as no age is perfect and every one has its characteristic errors" What were these errors?

    Also, in my previous comment I mentioned Euclid. Why was it that 2000 years' worth of geometers failed to recognize the lapses of rigor in Euclid's Elements, but Immanuel Kant and later thinkers were able to find them so easily?

  2. Dan McCarthy sends in the following:

    What an informed layman finds exasperating depends on his context: Gene is accustomed to dealing with folks who have a decades out of date view of the Middle Ages, and when I see him write about this topic, I have a hard time believing anyone really thinks the Middle Ages were entirely stagnant--even though the evidence is quite clear that such people are still numerous.

    I on the other hand encounter a lot of Christian apologists and Whig Germanicists who go too far in the other direction, who want to pretend nothing bad happened as Rome collapsed and/or that the Middles Ages were a utopia of faith and reason united.

    Of course, the Middle Ages cover about a thousand years of European and Mediterranean history, during which there are all sorts of developments good and bad. The High Middle Ages as a term denoting the later period should be a tipoff even to the miseducated that there must be something regarded as highly developed about them.

    One thing that should temper exasperation, though, is the knowledge that more fine-grained examination may change the picture even more. You say, Gene, that Augustus's talk about restoring the republic was propaganda. Well, what would restoring the republic in the conditions prevailing when Augustus became princeps have looked like? You can't restore a republic unless you restore stability first. But anyone capable of restoring stability was likely to be a more-than-republican figure. Could Augustus have done what Cincinnatus did? Probably not, given the conditions of the first century. Did Augustus intend to inaugurate centuries of monarchy, what we now know in hindsight as the Roman Empire? Certainly not. Just what he intended and what was possible are hard questions, and while "propaganda" is still a respectable scholarly explanation of Augustus's republican pretenses, it's not a view that stands without serious challenge.

    There's no substitute in historical thinking for grappling with important questions for oneself, using the best sources, certainly, but understanding that active engagement, not just reception of the right authorities, is the nature of the art.

    1. Of course Augustus could not have really restored the Republic: what he actually did was probably the best thing that could have been accomplished at that time. But, as Voegelin notes, this was accomplished at the expense of the murder or suicide of everyone who opposed him.

    2. And, by the way, I make the point in my book Oakeshott on Rome in America that the republic was certainly dead by at least 80 BC: I certainly do not blame Augustus for its demise. But his pretense that he was sustaining it certainly was mere propaganda.

    3. Why couldn't Augustus have restored the Republic? Rome had had previous civil wars and dictators in the past, and yet republicanism survived. What was so different about this civil war?

    4. May I recommend a book to you called Oakshot on Rome and America?

    5. Keshav, did you also hear once in your physics class that republicanism was doing fine in Rome until 31 BC?

  3. Augustus quite deliberately introduced constitutional change after constitutional change that resulted in him becoming the Emperor. That is, in fact, what Rome needed at the time (although perhaps without all the deaths). That he was "restoring the republic" was clearly just a cover story for his takeover.


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