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Old February 5th, 2016, 11:00 AM   #1

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Question Things forbidden to the historian


Salutations:

One of the things that I find troubling about being a historian is whether or not you're forbidden to state certain things.

We know that a historian is supposed to base his/her claims on evidence, but are you forbidden from stating certain things?

For example:

-Using the term "France" when referring to something that was far from the modern French state in the 11th century.

-Comparing recent US Presidents with those of earlier times.

-Using value judgements towards a particular historical figure (eg. Henry II was a terrible king, Edward I was a great king).

-Talking about whether or not an historical event could've been prevented from happening.

-Talking about how things could've turned out differently if an event hadn't happened or had happened differently.



I guess I'm frustrated because discussing history at a level of higher learning can feel like you have a thin line to thread and can easily be not taken seriously by your peers.

Thoughts?

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Old February 5th, 2016, 04:47 PM   #2
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It can helpful, or convenient at times, to generalize when discussing history.

"The Romans had a government and empire that was ruled by emperors."

The above statement is true, but not for all of Rome's history.

France may have only been "France," for a few hundred years, but I don't think anyone referring to "France," taking part in the Crusades should have their head taken off.

It should really depend on how in-depth the conversation or discussion is. If there's a class focusing on Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire, then it would be wrong for the students taking part to refer to Alexander as "Greek."

Last edited by Menshevik; February 5th, 2016 at 04:54 PM.
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Old February 6th, 2016, 04:12 AM   #3
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"Forbidden" is too strong. Forbiddenhow? It's just that the texts of acedemics need to stand up to a kind of "destruction test" by his collegues. By all means, make the argument you think is valid as an historian. It will be — or at least should be (you can just be professionally ignored if the collegial process decides your argument is just too dumb to vaste effort on) — tested to destruction, in particular if it is felt you're adressing something agreed to be important. Don't build obvious weaknesses into your own argument — anachronisms like talking about "France" well before times it si accepted France is a relevant term — unless you have a clear idea what for, and is prepared to argue for it.
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Old February 6th, 2016, 05:38 AM   #4

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Undisputed credibility...
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Old February 6th, 2016, 07:20 AM   #5

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Menshevik View Post
It can helpful, or convenient at times, to generalize when discussing history.

"The Romans had a government and empire that was ruled by emperors."

The above statement is true, but not for all of Rome's history.

France may have only been "France," for a few hundred years, but I don't think anyone referring to "France," taking part in the Crusades should have their head taken off.

It should really depend on how in-depth the conversation or discussion is. If there's a class focusing on Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire, then it would be wrong for the students taking part to refer to Alexander as "Greek."
Pretty much. It's mostly for convenience.
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Old February 6th, 2016, 10:11 AM   #6

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Saying France to describe the Merovinigians or Charlemagne is fine if it makes things simpler for people to understand. It's like saying Italy for medieval period italy (when it didn't exist then) or England during King Offa of Mercia's time. It's just simplification.

But the deadliest sin for me is that each society in each period has its own moral system. what we do today in 21st century is not the absolute standard everywhere.
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Old February 6th, 2016, 10:14 AM   #7

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Quote:
Originally Posted by purpleguy89 View Post
Salutations:

One of the things that I find troubling about being a historian is whether or not you're forbidden to state certain things.

We know that a historian is supposed to base his/her claims on evidence, but are you forbidden from stating certain things?

For example:

-Using the term "France" when referring to something that was far from the modern French state in the 11th century.

-Comparing recent US Presidents with those of earlier times.

-Using value judgements towards a particular historical figure (eg. Henry II was a terrible king, Edward I was a great king).

-Talking about whether or not an historical event could've been prevented from happening.

-Talking about how things could've turned out differently if an event hadn't happened or had happened differently.



I guess I'm frustrated because discussing history at a level of higher learning can feel like you have a thin line to thread and can easily be not taken seriously by your peers.

Thoughts?

Why not? Many historians do rate the effectiveness of leaders. to some extent it's part of the point. And there is broad agreement over which king or emperor was better and thus contributed negatively or positively. Such as Athelstan and Edgar over Athelred II or Harthacnut. Or Augustus, Trajan or Constantine I, over Commodus, Nero or Honorius.
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Old February 6th, 2016, 10:38 AM   #8

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I don't see a problem with any of those; we think (or at least I think) about those things when thinking historically, so I see no problem with saying it. I would add the qualification that notgivenaway has raised: that is, we shouldn't judge historical figures' morals by 21st C. moral standards. But we certainly can judge their effectiveness in whatever role they played by our standards.
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Old February 6th, 2016, 06:44 PM   #9
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I am in two minds about the 'France' thing.

On the one hand, we shouldn't pretend that the France of even two generations ago is remotely the same thing as France today. Countries are a bit like dead plants; they're constantly being broken down and reconstituted into similar but different entities. They're just narratives we all agree to tell each other until we forget that. But a history textbook isn't a post-structuralist essay. If it's easier to use 'France' and explain in the footnotes what 'France' is in that context, then so be it.

A problem arises when things get lost in translation between then and now. For instance, Lords of the Isles - my specialist subject - are called ri in native sources. That is 'king' in English. So people assume a feudal king, a sovereign lord of land. Thus, they get it totally wrong and all kinds of misconceptions are born. That kind of thing, historians should take great care to notice and explain. Or they'll export a lot of errors to their readers and do lasting damage to historiography.

Last edited by Domhnall Balloch; February 6th, 2016 at 06:59 PM.
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Old February 8th, 2016, 12:28 AM   #10
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About the France thing. If you go that way (e.g. that the entity referred to as Francia in medieval text is not the same thing as nowadays France), there is no end to it. Because a 11th c. vinea is not the same thing as a contemporary vineyard, a domus is not the same thing as a house, a dominus is not the same thing as a lord etc. Unless you write half your dissertation in latin, the full-blown attention to words in their medieval setting is impossible. Better, as Domhnall said, to use a modern term and precise its use.
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