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Tools of the Trade

The search for truth in Medieval and Renaissance History

by Melissa Snell

The modern historian has a great advantage over those whose purview lies more than a hundred years ago: much of what he studies has actually happened in front of the type of witness who cannot be mistaken. By this I mean radio, television and film. We can hear once again FDR's fireside chats; we can see Joseph McCarthy raging at communism; we can see, too, what Allied Forces found in Nazi concentration camps. Much of the physical evidence is also still in existence, and we can pick up a paper from 1912 and read an account of the Titanic tragedy, or hold a WWII-era revolver in our hands.

Of course, even what we see with our own eyes is open to interpretation, and the modern historian has no easy task. Research and investigation is always called for; no historian worth his salt can simply accept what an earlier historian has set down without checking facts for himself. Then, too, it's important not to let the truth get lost in "revisionist history."

Imagine, then, how difficult it is for medieval and renaissance historians. How can we possibly know what did and didn't happen? To find the truth, the historian must use a variety of tools.

The first step is often to examine what other historians have written. But when we do this, we must also examine the historian. What do we know about the author of any given chronicle? Is he a contemporary witness? If so, did he actually see the events he reports? Had he any reason to twist the facts? If he did not live during the time the events were taking place, how and from where did he get his information? If the story is hard to believe or contradicts other contemporary works (such as Procopius of Caesarea's Secret History), does he tell it persuasively, and back it up with verifiable facts?

Next we should look at any documents available from the period being studied. Legal records are of course excellent sources, but letters and account books also provide helpful clues. It is most often events mentioned in passing that can solve a mystery or settle a historical question. If Lord Knobbly writes in a letter dated February 14th, 1340, to his beloved lady, "The bestowal of your favor last May at the Chumley Tourney is a moment I shall long remember," then we can assume a Tournament took place at Chumley in May of 1339, and that Lord Knobbly participated (because he was given his lady's favor or won it as a prize). Since the letter is not about the tourney but about private matters he expected no one but his lady-love to read, it's extremely unlikely that he would deliberately misstate the date -- although he could have been in error. Such clues are the kind of evidence on which a chronicle can stand or break apart: For example, any account that states there was never a tourney in Chumley would be called into question by Lord Knobbly's letter.

Literature of the times can be surprisingly instructive. While the stories cannot be accepted as absolute truth, many clues to life at that time can be found in casual descriptions. The Alliterative Morte Arthure contains a passage describing a magnificent feast the king has prepared for the Roman dignitaries; check it out to see what foods were considered delicacies. Beowulf often mentions items in passing, such as mail armor and other military paraphernalia, that were used in the eighth century when the poem was most likely composed. And let's not forget Chaucer's portraits of the many different people sharing a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Of course we must take all descriptions and narratives with a grain (and sometimes a whole shaker) of salt; but by careful study of many different works, a general picture of the times will become clear.

Archaeological evidence is another important tool, and our best source for discovering what life was really like in the past. The study of something so apparently mundane as a garbage dump can tell us volumes about the people who used it, such as what foods were popular and what materials were common and considered "disposable." Skeletal remains -- when examined across a spectrum of samples -- can tell us the general health of the people in question and their average height. Dendrochronological examination can date the construction of a house; dated coins found in a particular building can give a general idea of when that building was used. And, of course, artifacts such as mugs, plates and cutlery, jewelry, clothing and shoes, and other household items can tell us a great deal about how people lived.

Living history in its various forms is an excellent way to understand the past. Try a medieval recipe using only medieval utensils, and you can begin to understand a day in the life of a medieval woman. Put on a suit of chainmail and pick up a sword (even a reproduction), and you're on your way to discovering what it must have been like to be a knight preparing for battle.

Finally, the most important tool a historian must use is his mind. We not only need to question the evidence we see but use our judgment, deductive reasoning, and imaginations in forming sensible conclusions. The truth about our past will always remain an incomplete puzzle, and our picture of that puzzle is constantly changing as new evidence is discovered and new theories emerge.

That's one of the many reasons that I find history so fascinating.


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Tools of the Trade is copyright © 1997-2003 Melissa Snell. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for personal or classroom use only, provided that the URL below is included. For reprint permission, please contact Melissa Snell.

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Keywords: historiography, historicity, research, investigation, historians, revisionist history, judgment, deductive reasoning.


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