Thursday, July 31, 2008

Written and unreliable/ Oral and viable

In a post on the Mahram M' Rotenberg's captivity, Bein Din L' Din quoted the following statement from Dr. I Agus:

"We must draw a clear distinction between R. Solomon’s Responsum 29, where he inserts a copy of an historical document that was written by a contemporary of R. Meir, and this statement in the ים של שלמה, which was based on an oral report, notoriously subject to error. An oral statement made almost three hundred years after the event is usually devoid of historical truth."

Although the above is virtually a dogma among historians, one must always keep an open mind. This is illustrated very nicely by one of my favorite authors, R. Kipling. In an article on his book Puck of Pooks Hill and its sequel, Lisa Lewis remarks:

The many ways history is recorded and interpreted are another major theme that permeates Puck of Pook's Hill. Written evidence is shown as less reliable than it seems. In "Old Men at Pevensey" an ambitious monk deliberately slants the record for political reasons. The manor rolls can also be falsified--De Aquila says of a girl "write her free," yielding to her family's importunity without examining the facts.

In "Hal o' the Draft" a magistrate decides not to prosecute villagers guilty of gun running, so that this crime would not be listed in the trial records for Henry VII's reign. A letter written by one character to another, but which may be read by hostile eyes on the road, carries an opposite message between the lines. When Maximus writes to Parnesius that he should not heed defeatist rumours, Pertinax comments: "He writes as a man without hope." [1]

The oral tradition represented by old Hobden, though it may seem full of superstitious nonsense, contains hints and suggestions that can carry more than symbolic meaning, as the Marsh, which looks so flat and plain, is full of hidden dykes. The land itself, with its traditional place names, its hills, fords and pathways, bears true witness to the past. Little Lindens farm, the parish church and the ruins of the old forge each contribute to the unspoken record.

At the end Dan refers to G. M. Ballantyne's adventure stories, in which he found his information about gorillas, offering an explication of the "Devils." "All people can be wise by reading of books," comments Puck. "But are the books true?" asks the knight. (27) Puck then leads him on to tell the third story in his cycle, "Old Men at Pevensey," in which writing is used to deceive: "tricked out and twisted from its true meaning, yet withal so cunningly that none could deny who knew him that De Aquila had in some sort spoken those words."

[1] This is the passage in question:

"Tell your Father that my destiny orders me to drive three mules or be torn in pieces by them. I hope within a year to finish with Theodosius, son of Theodosius, once and for all. Then you shall have Britain to rule, and Pertinax, if he chooses, Gaul. To-day I wish strongly you were with me to beat my Auxiliaries into shape. Do not, I pray you, believe any rumour of my sickness. I have a little evil in my old body which I shall cure by riding swiftly into Rome."

Despite the triumphal tone of the letter, he writes "as a man with out hope".


MYG said...

"An oral statement made almost three hundred years after the event is usually devoid of historical truth."

Is this statement provable or disprovable? And if not, does it mean anything?

Anonymous said...

Not exactly sure what you are saying. If oral traditions generally don't fit with what is otherwise known about a period then one can say that they are much less reliable. I am only pointing out that the evidence needs to be seen in its context. In certain contexts Oral traditions might be more useful then written.

MYG said...

I'm just saying that it seems that we can't, in most cases, prove or disprove an oral tradition. Yet some traditions are probably true. So if we can't prove that it isn't true, we should assume it might be true.

Anonymous said...

Maharshal's traditions are taken quite seriously by historians; see for instance Avraham Grossman's work on Hahmei Ashkenaz.

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Anonymous said...

good points and the details are more specific than elsewhere, thanks.

- Thomas

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