Sunday, January 13, 2013

History and Mythology - 1066 and all that

  For a large number of years now, there has been a website entitled Secrets of the Norman Invasion. The site has grown and developed over the years as the author, Nick Austin, has developed his arguments, firstly, that the army of William the Conqueror did not actually land at Pevensey but at another site, and secondly, that the site of the Battle of Hastings is not the same as the site of Battle Abbey. Many of his arguments are quite persuasive, but there have been problems with getting the kind of historical proof that is required to convince heritage authorities and to fend off local councils which want to build roads all over the place.

  The game now appears to be getting hotter, with protesters and roadworkers facing off at what he believes is the site of the battle. You can read about it on his blog The Secrets of the Norman Invasion Blog. It has gone from historical detective work to political activism. Nick has produced a mass of material to read on the subject, should you want to get up to speed with it before joining the blockade.
  It leads me to a little philosophical rumination about what is history and what is mythology, and how the mythology is developed from history to serve various purposes. If William the Conqueror built the abbey that he had promised on a different site to that of the battle, despite his stated intention, he must have done it for a reason, but one that is lost to history. It could have involved suitability of terrain, or some political machinations involving landholding, of which there were many in the middle ages, or some shenanigans involving relations with the church, of which ditto. However, once a site of pilgrimage is established, and this is a kind of secular pilgrimage site, there are many interests in preserving the mythology. I mean, if Nick is right, the producers of commemorative crockery and teaspoons in Battle may suffer a severe economic downturn.
  To look at some other examples, Did the abbots of Cluny really believe that the remains of St James were miraculously transported to a remote spot in Spain called Compostella, or did they just think they were on to a good thing in setting up a lucrative network of pilgrimage routes? Perhaps the fact that the general pilgrimaging public fell for this ruse was considered a miracle in its own right.
  One of my favourite bits of historical mythology involves the Strasbourg Oath, as sworn by the grandsons of Charlemagne and their respective armies. It is solemnly represented as the earliest written evidence for the proto-French and Proto-German languages, based on having been written down in a Latin chronicle, the only extant copy of which is from several hundred years after the event. So how accurate is the transcription of these bits of proto-language, and how did the original chronicler acquire them? If he was there, how accurately did he hear them? If he was given an official transcript, how accurate was it given that these were non-literate languages? How accurately was it transcribed over the centuries? It all reminds you of the Sermon on the Mount scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian. Nevertheless, it is supposed to be a foundation charter for French and German linguistic identity.
  If you think it is important to separate historical fact from historical mythology, perhaps you need to be sitting down there on a roadworks site in Sussex. Right or wrong, if it is all dug up and tarmacked, we will never know. Mythology will win again.