A Meditation on Narrative and Sources

I originally thought this through in a twitter thread, adapted here in my preferred style with minor changes for grammar, spelling, and clarity. Asterisks denote discussions too big for this post, some of which can be found in my MA Thesis.

In grad school I did extensive research on the Shanghai Jewish refugee community, specifically, by way of reading memoirs. Now I’m doing extensive research on the Warsaw Ghetto, specifically the Jewish resistance in, once again by reading memoirs.

Memoirs are a deeply fallible source, further complicated by their status as published or unpublished, with oral histories requiring a different set of questions altogether. But the strength and joy of working with memoir as primary source for a small, specific, closed communities is that memoir/oral history/diary/ego-narrative can be a surprisingly telling source.

Yes there will be self-aggrandizement, flaws in human memory, repression, mis-ordered remembrance, flattering portrayals of those who do not deserve it, but as a group, as a body of literature, they can come together to tell on odd sort of truth. They can tell the patchwork story of a community, through vastly different points of view, each with their own, unique reason for existing.

Especially in regard to Holocaust narratives, you will see people writing, or speaking, about their experiences for a very specific set of reasons: they understood that they lived through something Big and wanted to record it; they needed to cope with their trauma; they want their children and grandchildren to know their story; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the Shoah Foundation asked for and took their oral histories; they realized many years after the fact that their story needed to be told, etc.

Their motivation for telling/writing will shape, or inform, their narrative. A woman writing for her grandchildren may not write about the time she slept with a Japanese man in return for food money. A Polish man writing for History may not notice that his female comrades in the Jewish resistance had to slip off into the woods for an abortion.

Their motivations for writing, and, of course their gendered experiences and national socialization issues*, will inform the narrative the historian ends up seeing in front of them.

So even though these sources are deeply flawed, and shaped by so many factors and biases on the part of the writers, together they still tell a fairly cohesive story as long as you know how to analyze and interrogate them appropriately.

And, honestly, it’s such a thrill when the same figures and events pop in different narratives; when the same events occur through so many sets of eyes. There are couriers in Aryan Warsaw. The Nazis are liquidating the ghetto. Traumatized camp survivors are disembarking in Shanghai. American planes are bombing the part of Shanghai where the Jews had to live.

Through one point of view, one recollection, these are just stories. But through the eyes of many, they approach something a little bit closer to a cohesive narrative, to a form of truth, perhaps.

It’s not for the Weak

Don’t study history if you’re too weak for cognitive dissonance. Don’t study history if you’re unwilling to face that your core beliefs are built on a shaky foundation. Don’t study history if you’re unwilling to grasp that your heroes are fallible, and your ideals just violence disguised as altruism.

Before Europe: The Christian West in the Annals of Medieval Islam

“Is it possible, then, to write a history of Europe using only Arabic sources? König’s answer is still a resounding yes, albeit with a caveat. He recognizes in medieval Muslim historians an impressive ability to trace the roots of Latin Christendom in the Roman Empire, follow the rise of the Franks, and record the development of the many kingdoms that made up the western world of the High Middle Ages. At least by the late-medieval period, they ‘undoubtedly’ had the notion of a distinct Latin-Christian sphere. But if their writings ultimately lack the sense of a coherent, uniform entity called Europe when viewed from the outside, then it was just “as vague and imprecise as their ‘Latin-Christian’ contemporaries’ sense of cohesion.’”

Love this! This is post-modern historiography done beautifully! Not rejection of narrative and contextualization abilities, but re-framing of narratives in a challenge to Euro-centric constructs and modes of thought!

Before Europe: The Christian West in the Annals of Medieval Islam

Given that history was written by the winners (i.e., men), where do you find your primary source material about women? I’ve done some work around women in the middle ages, but it seems to me that you’ve taken on some rather more daunting periods. How do you look for what’s invisible?

It is not a given that history was written by “the victors.” History was written by historians; primary sources were written by those in privileged positions (“the winners”). I have written about this quite a bit, so you might want to peruse the archive. I have also made quite a few posts about historical methodology.

The short answer is that historians look at primary sources only after mastering the era. We know what was happening, who was in power, how power was wielded, etc. Then we look at the document and ask who was writing, what place in society this person held, why they were writing it, who they were writing it for, etc. We then analyze it, or attempt to determine its meaning through the bringing together of our contextual knowledge and our documentary analysis.

Secondly, sources written and concerned with women are most certainly not invisible. For more modern periods there are letters, memoirs, photos diaries, legal documents, etc. For less modern periods there are occasional letters and diaries, writings, law codes, observational literature, religious commentary, and so forth. All of this can help historians understand what women were doing in varying periods.

I can’t really give you an answer more specific than that because there are so many historical periods and so many different types of source material. Every field and subfield have their own sub-methodologies depending upon the available source material.

If you can narrow your query I may be able to give a less generalized response.

On Nationalist Historiography

Nationalist historiography is a way of looking at or studying history with the preconceived notion that a modern nation exists as a result of history, or, with the preconceived notion that history has being leading up to the existence of a modern nation. So if you are French, this means that you read and/or teach French history with the perspective that everything which occurred in the geographic area which is now France before the present happened because it was leading up to modern-day France.

I’m not picking on France here, because literally every nation/group that wants to be a nation does this. And often, they don’t even realize that they are doing it because it is a logical thing to do. People instinctively center their world view on themselves, so why shouldn’t they center their world view on their nation? The study of history is so challenging because, if you want to truly understand it, you have to have to be able to de-center yourself from your view of the world.

Image courtesy of Bill Watterson and gocomics.com

History is the study of past political, social, and economic interactions, and the effect of those interactions on subsequent events and interactions; it is like a gigantic never-ending web, and it is the job of the historian to try to understand and trace that web in really really tiny increments. If you are a proponent of nationalist historiography, then the web has an end, and all the threads were leading up to you. In erasing and discounting those other threads that didn’t lead directly up to you, you are erasing people, perspectives, lives, and interactions.

Thus, as a historian, I look at the present as a product of past interactions, and as the creator of subsequent interactions. I look at today as part of the whole; something which will grow and change and one day be as completely foreign to people as the Middle Ages are to us, and I try to base my personal actions and my political attitudes on this fact (I even succeed occasionally!). I am not naïve enough to think that everyone should, can, or will take up/aspire to this decentralized view of the world, but I do think the world would be a less violent place if they did. If that ever happens, you guys have to buy me a unicorn, okay?

even if a source is one sided why is it still useful to an historian?

Historians are experts in their fields. A historian whose field is, say, Euro-African relations on the West Coast of Africa in the seventeenth century will know exactly who all the major players are, why they are there, where they came from, their motivations in being there, their relations with each other, etc. That information is called context. Context is used to make sense of primary source documents.

Primary source documents are often one-sided, but because the historians studying the document in question understand the context from which it came, they are able to productively analyze and ask questions of the document. This allows them to read between the lines of the document and strip away the document’s bias to see what the document is actually saying, or, what the document really means within its context.

Primary source documents are the lifeblood of the historical discipline. Without them history as a discipline would not exist. The majority of primary sources are one-sided, thus, if historians were to reject the historical importance of one-sided documents, our understanding and knowledge of the past would be severely limited.