Monday, November 21, 2011

History (mildly revised)

I think a lot about history.  Well, sometimes I think a lot about history.   I studied history in college - got a bachelors degree, did most of the work toward a masters degree, but ran out of money & motivation (I think motivation was the balance of the issue), joined the Army learned strange things and went to strange places and the rest, as they say is, uh, history.  But that's not the kind of history I was thinking about.

A couple of things I know about history is that you frequently know more about an event the farther away in time you are from that event, and you have to know your sources.   History is written by the victors, so the story goes, but that isn't always true.

Take William Rufus, for example.  Good old King William II of England, 3rd son and successor to William the Conqueror,  King from 1087 to 1100.  In high school world history classes William Rufus merited maybe a sentence or two, I can't really remember.  In college survey courses he might get a paragraph.   He's one of those characters who if you really want to get to know, you have to put some effort into finding out about it.  There is information out there, but he is not prominent amongst the post Anglo-Saxon kings and queens of England.

William died in 1100 as a result of a hunting accident.  He was with several members of the nobility at the time (who else would he be with), including his brother Henry, and the scuttlebutt was that he was murdered.  But that's just conjecture.  It's quite possible that some near sighted member of his party mistook a rather broad man with long flowing hair and a full beard sitting astride a large horse for a deer and let fly an arrow in his general direction.  There were no corrective lenses in the 11th century, not even for nobility or royalty, so it's possible, I don't know.  It could be that he just conked his head on a low lying limb.  But what I do know is he died while hunting, and when the members of his party realized he was dead, they scattered.  Not out of fear, but because they knew there was going to be upheaval and they needed to get control of their property and lands before anyone found out.  Henry - the good King's brother - made a beeline for London and managed to get himself crowned King, even though I don't think he had the strongest claim. But he was there, so he was able to do it. 

Anyway, anything you read will tell you William Rufus was a brutal ruler & his subjects were happy to see him go.  It's in all the history books.  Sometimes you have to accept things, after all there just isn't enough time to question everything that comes along, so this was one of the things I just accepted as part of my education - that William Rufus was a brutal ruler.

But now I have some time to think about it, and I wonder how do all the history books know this?  Where did they get their information?  Well I think they got a large part of their information from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, a series of documents started long before William Rufus and continued long after.  They were written by priest type people (they were pretty much the only people who could read and write at the time), and they did not like William Rufus one bit.   They had lots of reason to not like him - they had a vested interest in making him look bad.

The early Norman Kings of England could have cared less about Anglo-Saxon language and culture.  They caused a pretty massive upheaval amongst the higher echelons of Anglo-Saxon society, but pretty much ignored the lower classes, especially the language. They just didn't care.  They didn't speak English and didn't bother to learn it, didn't out law or direct how it developed in any way. The Norman kings generally had large holdings in what is now France, and much of their efforts and energies were directed towards that.   The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were like an underground subversive newspaper being written right out in the open, and the Kings either didn't know or didn't care (or both). Who the heck was going to read it anyway?  This went on for a long time, and I believe this is the main source for William Rufus being seen as such a brutal person.

My suspicion is he was pretty brutal.  It was the 11th century, and I don't think he was among the "enlightened". This is no Edward the Confessor we're talking about. But there's a good chance that he was no more brutal than any other King of his era.
Anyway, a part of learning stuff, of thinking critically is questioning the sources.  You have to ask where the money is coming from, so to speak.  So when you read something, or see something on TV, even if you agree with it, it pays to ask what the motivation is.

Frequently things boil down to money, and there is a good chance the Chronicler's, when you pulled away all the layers, were no different.  These were church people for the most part, and I bet anything William Rufus (and his father) confiscated church lands for this or that, and in the 11th century, especially, land was money.  

At any rate, the history of William Rufus was written largely by the vanquished.

And that's all I've got to say about that.

1 comment:

Patti Anne said...

Once again you have me in stitches reading your unique view of the world.

Motivation of the source - money, cash, moolah, and/or filty luchre. Or fame.