Sins of History

I must confess to having committed a grievous historical sin in my post on the Fourth Crusade. Not about the Fourth Crusade; I went back and checked and, while some of the details are wrong, the broad outline is correct (I mixed up Joinville and Villehardoin, for instance, but it makes no difference to the story). This is because I've actually read Villehardoin's Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, a primary source on the subject, so my mistakes are only mistakes of memory.

On the Eighth, or Children's, Crusade I did something quite evil, however. I told the story of it based on half-remembered stories told to me by other people. I've never read about it in a second hand source, and certainly never read any primary sources on the subject. As such, when I went back to casually fact-check my post I discovered that my accounting of the Children's Crusade is, to use the parlance of our times, bullshit. Certain events happened which have now been built into the Legend of the Children's Crusade, but the version I related is apocryphal at best.

In fact, there were severl events that occurred around the same time. One involved a crusade led by a French child. This ended when certain of his prophecies failed to materialize. Another involved a crusade by a shephard who gathered a bunch of children to his cause, and claimed he would part the sea at Genoa. He didn't, and what happened after is unknown. It's quite possible the children were sold into slavery, but more likely they went home or re-settled in Genoa. A third related event was a movement by displaced peasants, who walked from town to town seeking alms and clamoring for better lives. They were referred to diminutively at the time as "Children," which may have lead later chroniclers to be confused and think that they actually were children on a crusade. In any case, the first explicit reference to the Children's Crusade was written fifty years after it was supposed to have occurred, and appears to be based on legend and hearsay rather than any actaul documentation. So, while it is theoretically possible that the Children's Crusade occurred as described, it is highly unlikely.

I'm particularly angry at myself because that's the sort of sloppy history-by-apocryphal-anecdote that I hate when reading older histories. History writing has gotten much more professional over the last century, and there was a time when almost all history was written as a series of anecdotes. Now things have gotten much better, at the cost of some of the entertainment value in history writing.

For instance, nowadays it's fairly rare to see anecdotes in historical writing. You see statistics, you see primary evidence laid out, analyzed, critiqued, and synthesized to create a broad sense of what happened. When anecdotes appear, they are generally examined not for their content but for what they tell us about the person who relates them. Even then, anecdotes are only examined if they come to us from contemporaries to the event. Anecdotes of unknown origin are considered too dubious to include. If entertaining, apocryphal anecdotes do appear, they are used sparingly and for rhetorical purposes, and with lots of warning signs and flags, e.g. "One anecdote told of this event, likely false, is illustrative of this general trend..." They are used to advance a point, but are clearly demarcated as fictional.

In contrast, historical writing once consisted almost entirely of anecdotes linked by a thin narrative thread. This is entertaining at first, but rapidly becomes maddening. It starts funny and amusing, but then you ask yourself "Alright, in what sense have I learned anything about this time and this place?" You come away knowing a lot of tall tales of the period, but you have no larger sense of how real people actually acted, what forces shaped their society, etc. You're left with a sense of having been entertained without having increased your knowledge of the subject.

Further, older historical writing generally made no attempt to distinguish the probably true anecdotes from the almost certainly false ones. It hits you when you read an anecdote that makes absolutely no sense, that nobody could possibly believe really occured. Then you step back and wonder what percentage of the stories you're reading are true, and what percent are just bullshit. This is why I haven't gotten past the first section of The Barbary Coast, by Herbert Asbury, yet. The first pithy story is fun. The tenth in a row is tedious. Eventually you wish he would just devote a chapter to the broad pattern of crime through San Francisco's development, rather than yet another chapter profiling the (fictionalized) exploits of some rakish, lively San Francisco villain.

I think the problem is that the anecdote is a poor tool for education outside of its illustrative value, and at the same time a string of anecdotes presented as a history is a poor means of entertainment. If you want fiction, you'll read fiction. Also, the anecdotal method of historiography feels immensely condescending. "I could give you the full academic analysis of this, but wouldn't you much rather hear another funny story? I thought so."

Another point: Anecdotal history is lazy history. As I showed above, it's very easy to ratlle off a story you heard second hand from someone who read a book about it once. When writing a history of a period, it's a lot of work to carefully gather your evidence, analyze it, and marshall it to make a point or convey a sense of the sweep of the period. On the other hand, it's very easy to read a bunch of books on the subject, write down as many funny anecdotes as you can find, arrange them chronologically and write a narrative thread to connect them.

Then there are ideological questions (I feel anecdotal history favors the "Big Man" view of history, while serious history favors "Movements and Groups" historicism) but, if I'm to get into those questions, I think I should do it in a seperate post.

To return to my subject: I apologize for failing to fact-check myself before posting. Having chastened myself, I shall endeavor not to make the same mistake again.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on October 16, 2005 4:25 PM.

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