I’ve been reflecting a bit on the epistemological nature of historical study. I was prompted in this line by two items. The first and best is the historiographical reflections in Ian Mortimer’s Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies (2012. London: Continuum). The second was last night as we viewed a documentary by Arnon Goldfinger entitled The Flat (2011. Ruth Diskin Films).
In his introduction, Mortimer explores the question of historical objectivity, the question of biographical history, and presents his thinking around the use of biographical and information analysis to arrive at a better understanding of history. In this discussion he says:
If we are interested in an individual event, be it political or routine, then we are concerned with the individual (or individuals) who took part in the event, and that ultimately means we are engaged in a biographical enquiry. When we study an individual biographically, we adopt a deliberately narrow or sympathetic view, in order to try and understand shy he or she did something from his or her own point of view.Mortimer, 8-9.
This question of point of view is interesting and for the historian should raise questions about what is knowable. Mortimer reports the words of Janet Nelson that I think speak to this challenge:
I take life-writing to involve trying as hard as possible, even if that means sailing close to the imaginative wind, and certainly into the eye of the speculative storm, to make the acquaintance of my subject as a person, to guess plausibly, if no more, at what made him tick — as Frank Barlow did with Becket…Bates, Crick and Hamilton (eds), Writing Medieval Biography 750-1250, 16; Harriss, Cardinal Beaufort, v.
In Goldfinger’s documentary, The Flat, he explores this question in some detail when he discovers evidence of a lasting friendship between his Jewish grandparents and a German couple with ties to the Third Reich. The documentary went a bit off the rails for us as Goldfinger apparently failed to understand the significance of point of view. It was interesting how he appeared to not understand that his point of view was not, and could not be, identical to that of his grandparents.
This is an important point, I think. As we study the past, and “make the acquaintance of [our] subject as a person,” it can sometimes be challenging to put aside our own preconceived notions and listen to what we can know about how people moved through their own lives. In many respects, as Mortimer discusses later in his book, we can become trapped in the histories we believe to be true. This can leave those same histories impoverished as we find mitigating or altering information streams. In Mortimer’s case, his research of the information streams around various accepted historical events, creates questions about those events. The questions are often not acceptable to those who have invested emotionally in the accepted history. In Goldfinger’s historical investigation, he appeared to flounder at the point where the information streams became apparently conflicted and certainly conflicted with the typical pattern. He seemed to tap the edges of awareness that there were parts of the history that were inaccessible. In the end, however, he seemed to lose a sense of objectivity and expressed a need to force people to see a perspective without reference to the limits of his knowledge.
I am fascinated by this tension between the established history and the limits of our knowledge. I find Mortimer’s historiographical approach very attractive as it provides a way to analyse the evidence we have and perhaps come closer to understanding the point of view of the subject of our study. In this case, our learning is more complete and can better inform our understanding of the world and the society in which we live.
Originally published to Literarytech.com and retrieved via the Internet Archives.