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THE BASIS OF HISTORY
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Only the smallest fraction of the human race has ever acquired the habit of taking an objective view of the past. For most people, even most educated people, the past is merely a prologue to the present, not merely without interest in so far as it is independent of the present, but simply inconceivable except in terms of the present. The events of our own past life are remembered, not as they seemed to us at the time, but merely as incidents leading up to our present situation. We cannot persuade ourselves—in fact, we make no attempt to do so—that undertakings which ended in failure or fiasco were entered upon with just as much forethought and optimism as those which have profoundly affected our lives. We suppose our beliefs and mental processes to have been ever the same as they now are, and regard the story of our lives not as a crosscountry walk upon which we are still engaged, but as a path, cut deliberately by fate and ourselves, to the positions which we now occupy.
In our consideration of the story of others, our minds work in the same way. We judge every event by its consequences, and assume that those consequences must have seemed just as inevitable to those who took part in it as they do to ourselves. We find it difficult to believe that when the ship went down, those who were to be drowned felt just the same as those who were to be saved. We say that coming events cast their shadows before them, but what we really mean is that later events cast their shadows back over earlier ones. This lack of mental perspective, from which we all suffer, displays itself in the saying: "Call no man happy until he is dead," which implies that a few hours or days of pain or misfortune can outweigh long years of happiness and success. All this is characteristic of our study of history. We regard the events of the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI as leading up inevitably to the French Revolution, though Voltaire and Gibbon saw no sign of an impending catastrophe. We regard Stonewall Jackson as having fought in a losing cause, though at the time of his death the Confederates were getting the best of it. In a word, even those of us who take a genuine interest in the facts of history tend, either by our mental limitations or by the defects of our education, to see them in a false perspective.
Before discussing history any further, I ought to follow what should be a universal practice by defining the term. History, then, is the recital in chronological sequence of events that are known to have occurred. Without precise chronology there can be no history, since the essence of history is the relation of events in their correct sequence. We might know something of the Battle of Marengo and something of the Battle of Waterloo, but we could not attempt to compose a history of Napoleon unless we knew which came first.
Why do people study and transmit historical facts? It cannot be with the sole object of studying and transmitting historical facts. Educated people study history for a variety of reasons—because they hope to find in it an explanation of the present and an indication of the future; because their curiosity is aroused by survivals from the past; because the classics were long regarded as the source of all knowledge, and a knowledge of the classics involves some knowledge of history; because the Bible and other religious works contain historical references; because they get a living by it; because for these and possibly for other reasons some knowledge of history has come to be regarded as part of the mental equipment of an educated person. Our interest in history, however, is inseparable from books. It is very remarkable that our dependence upon books is so little realized, even by teachers and writers, who live by books. An illiterate person, if he were interested in history, could learn it only from the lips of a historian, or from a person who could read a history book to him, and if he forgot a fact he could regain it only by having recourse to his teacher. The amount of historical knowledge that he could acquire would be limited by the fact that he would have no means of tabulating or classifying it, and could therefore have no idea of chronology outside the very limited range of his own experience. All history depends, as I have said, upon chronology, and no real idea of chronology can be obtained except by seeing facts tabulated in chronological sequence.
This was brought home to me when I was showing my five-year-old son round the amphitheatre at Caerleon, and telling him something of the Romans in Britain. He looked rather puzzled, and asked: "Were you there then, Daddy?" When we read of the Irish blacksmith who said that his smithy was much older than the local dolmen; it was there in his grandfather's time, and he died a very old man—or of the English rustic who said that the parish church (thirteenth century) was very old indeed; it was there before he came to the parish, and that was over forty years ago—we are apt to suppose the speakers exceptionally stupid or ignorant, but their attitude towards the past is similar to that of the Australian black who began a story with: "Long, long ago, when my mother was a baby, the sun shone all day and all night," and is the inevitable result of illiteracy.
It would be almost impossible to make an illiterate person realize that the date A.D. 1600 had any meaning at all. Calendar sticks are used by tribes of both Africa and America to keep a record of events within living memory, but there is no means by which such a record could be preserved longer. Bundles of sticks convey nothing except to those who tie them together, and if you were to tell your illiterate that a stick represented a year, and then count out 335 sticks, he would be little the wiser. And if you were to tell him that Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare both lived then, he would find it difficult to believe you, since if Shakespeare were really connected with some ancient monarch, which since a play of his was performed quite recently seems highly improbable, it should be King Lear, whom he tells us all about, rather than Queen Elizabeth, whom he hardly mentions.
The fact that chronology depends upon reading and writing seems quite unknown to historians. Thus, according to Professor Chambers, "it is probable that, even in heathen times, despite the absence of written records, the succession of monarchs and the length of their reigns may have been committed to memory with considerable exactness." Yet he suggests no motive for committing such facts to memory, nor any possible machinery for transmitting them, and he asks us to believe that the Anglo-Saxons of the Settlement had conceptions of chronology which were quite foreign to their descendants even a thousand years later. The editor of the Paston Letters tells us that "the mode in which the letters are dated by their writers shows clearly that our ancestors were accustomed to measure the lapse of time by very different standards from those now in use. Whether men in general were acquainted with the current year of the Christian era may be doubted; that was an ecclesiastical computation rather than one for use in common life. They seldom dated their letters by the year at all, and when they did it was not by the year of our Lord, but by the year of the king's reign. Chronicles and annals of the period which give the year of our Lord are almost always full of inaccuracies in the figures; and altogether it is evident that an exact computation of years was a thing for which there was considered to be little practical use." That the exactness of chronology which Professor Chambers postulates for the illiterate Saxons of the fifth century was quite foreign to the literate English of the fifteenth indicates that his postulate is nothing more than an ill-considered guess.
That English illiterates have in fact no sense of chronology at all has been noted by several writers. "The folk have no sense of history," says Mr. Fox Strangways; "there would be nothing improbable to them in St. George meeting Napoleon in the same ballad." Sir E. K. Chambers tells us that in the Mylor (Cornwall) folk-play the battles of Agincourt and Quebec, and the capture of Porto Bello by Vernon in 1739, have all been mixed up together.
"There is another characteristic of the folk-play," says Mr. Tiddy, "which has an interesting connection with popular taste. The absence of any historic sense ... cannot be passed over. For us it is quite impossible to realize the state of mind to which a century, let alone five hundred years, means nothing at all; and yet that is the normal condition even of the majority of those who have been subjected to the modern elementary education. Thanks to this state of mind our village ancestors a century ago could pit St. George against Bonaparte without the least sense of incongruity; and even without the evidence of Chaucer we should have good reason to believe that our ancestors of the Middle Ages were liable to the same kind of absurdity. To the folk, it might almost be said, 'a thousand years are but as yesterday.'"
These plays are acted and ballads recited by members of what is at any rate a semi-literate community. The ideas of St. George and of Agincourt, if not derived originally from books, have certainly been reinforced by book-learning. In a semi-literate community all the members, including the illiterate, not merely benefit from the existence of books, but learn to understand something of the meaning and purpose of books and written records generally. In totally illiterate communities, however, such as still exist in central Africa or northern Australia, the whole structure of society is based upon a system from which reading and writing are completely absent, so that the purpose of writing is not merely unknown, but totally inconceivable. And since the purpose of writing is inconceivable, the idea of any form of knowledge which might be preserved by writing is also inconceivable. Forms of knowledge which depend, even in part, upon written record, can have for the savage no existence at all. Since history depends upon written chronology, and the savage has no written chronology, the savage can have no history. And since interest in the past is induced solely by books, the savage can take no interest in the past; the events of the past are, in fact, completely lost. We shall realize this fact better if we consider how soon the past is lost among ourselves whenever it is not recalled to us by books. How many women of today know, for example, what is meant by a sprunking, a palatine, or a farthingale? Yet it is not a great many years since these words were as familiar as the word jumper is now.
Even the most familiar facts are soon forgotten. In the Neolithic Age polished stone axes were made by the thousand, but soon after they were superseded by the introduction of metal all knowledge of them was lost, and a few centuries later it had come to be believed that anyone who happened to find one had come upon a thunderbolt.
When, therefore, we attribute to the savage an interest in the past comparable to our interest in the history of England, we are attributing to him a taste which he could not possibly possess, and which if he did possess he could not possibly gratify. The savage, again, has far less than we have to remind him of the past. There may be ancient ruins, but since he has no means, even if he had the wish, to learn their history, he contents himself with attributing to them a supernatural origin, by which he means little more than that they must have been made by people whose customs were unnatural, since they were different from his own. He thinks about them to this extent, if they thrust themselves upon his notice, but if they have no use they have no real interest. The attitude of most Europeans to relics of the past is very much the same.
In illiterate communities all transmitted knowledge is traditional, and tradition is strictly utilitarian. There are so many things that must be remembered—all the means of procuring, storing, and preparing food; the ways of building houses and canoes, and of making weapons, tools, clothes, and ornaments; all the magical rites, songs, dances, sacrifices, and purifications, as well as the relationships, upon which depend marriage, inheritance, and social obligations. All this would mean a good deal to a literate person, who could make a note of the facts, file it for reference, and then banish the matter from his mind, but in an illiterate community nothing that is of any value can be banished from the mind, since once lost, it can never be recalled. It is not that the savage is mentally incapable of transmitting the events of the remote past, but that there is no inducement to transmit them, no machinery by which they can be transmitted, and a great deal of other matter which has to be transmitted and remembered. He may remember that there was a great drought in his grandfather's time, because his village still has a claim to lands which were then vacated; he may remember that there was a war with the next village in his father's time, because it led to a blood-feud which has not yet been settled. But when all the participants have died, and all the feuds have been settled, then the war is forgotten. There is no inducement to remember it, and no machinery by means of which its memory could be preserved.
"When a man grows old and feeble," says Colonel MacNabb, writing of the Chins of Burma, "and is unable to exact his dues by force ... and when at the feast his voice is no longer the loudest and his hand no longer the strongest, then his son gradually begins to take his place. Instead of the son deferring to the father, the father defers to the son, and finally he is turned out of his house and made to end his days in a small hut. Before death claims him he is forgotten and set aside ... and a man who in his prime may have been a power in the land, the hero of a hundred raids, and the owner of much property, is, in his old age, a nonentity." The Chins, it seems, completely lose interest, not merely in the remoter past, but in the events of thirty years ago, and in my belief this is the case with illiterates in general, except in so far as their own personal exploits are concerned.
Speaking of the Jukun of Nigeria, Dr. Meek comments on "the singular absence of any interest or pride in the past, or of any knowledge of events prior to the beginning of the last century.... There is no clear tradition among the Jukun relating to the "destruction of their principal city," and even its site is uncertain, though the Fulani conquest is believed to have happened only about one hundred and twenty years ago. Things are much the same in Europe. We are told that within fifty years of Napoleon's death the French peasantry had completely forgotten the facts of his career, and that ten years earlier it was difficult to find anything surviving of the songs about him which had once such a widespread popularity.
Most illiterate communities have, of course, traditional stories, and these stories may seem to be memories of historical events. They tell of the journeys and victories of heroes, and with some rationalization and rearrangement these journeys and victories can be made to represent historical migrations and conquests. These stories, however, are really myths. What a myth is we shall consider later; here I may note that, according to van Gennep (the writer whom I have just cited), the leading heroes of French tradition are not Charlemagne and his successors on the throne, but Roland, Gargantua, and the Little Red Man.
If illiterate people really took an interest in the events of the past, we should expect to find that when people began to write, they would soon begin to make records of past events. So far is this from being the case, however, that it is doubtful whether the ancient inhabitants of Egypt and Mesopotamia had any history at all in our sense of the term. Such records of fact as were kept seem to have been merely the by-product of a system of drawing up elaborate calendars for the purposes of ritual. "Religious and magical factors," says Dr. S. A. Cook, "have also been prominent in the rise of history-writing, and Mesopotamian astrological tablets record, for the warning of all concerned, portents, signs, catastrophes." Kings may have recorded their victories as a charm to secure further success; at any rate they seem never to have recorded the victories of their predecessors.
Excerpted from The Hero by Lord Raglan. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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