Friday, September 19, 2008

What historians have trouble knowing

Many womens' studies history complain that history -- traditionally understood -- focuses on outward, state-based history, often meaning the history of war and that of governments. I think they're usually correct.

I'm fascinated by the smaller aspects of history, such as how people lived, what they ate, where they lived, and how they interacted with each other. (One of my continuing interests is private confession and absolution in the Bible. Private confession is by its very nature not well-documented, but I'm intrigued by hints at private confession in the Bible: such as I Samuel 1.9-18: "So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk. Now Eli the priest sat upon a seat by a post of the temple of the LORD. And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head. And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli marked her mouth. Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken. And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee. And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD. Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial: for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto. Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him. And she said, Let thine handmaid find grace in thy sight. So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad." Eli was seated, and I wonder what he was doing there. Waiting on folks who needed absolution, counsel, and succor). Such studies usually get short shrift in classrooms.

If we don't have documents (or something similar, such as archeological artifacts), we don't have history. Language -- the way we actually talk on a day-to-day basis -- is difficult to document, although recording devices over the last 50 years have made it easier. What we have trouble knowing is when certain speech habits and patterns changed. (In the novel The Doomsday Book, a historian travels from 2048 back to an English village in the 14th century. One of her purposes -- only historians used time travel then -- was to record if a certain glottal stop was still used in speech).

Spoken language is ephemeral, and not always closely related to written language. I suspect that historians a thousand years from now will study our language. I hope they understand that a lot of what is recorded -- say, political speeches -- are formal speech, and not what teenage girls said to each other at McDonald's.

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