Mission statements 2: custodians of memory

Logo of the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal

I was going to leave the previous post as a singleton, and then of course it was Remembrance Day. I might have thought the things I go on to say here when I came across Another Damned Medievalist’s post on the subject, but actually I was already thinking it because of, quite unconnectedly, having that evening watched an episode of Dr Who I’d not seen before in which they had cause to show part of a Remembrance ceremony. It was total coincidence that we chose that DVD this evening, as far as I can tell, but it contained the following words that may be familiar to you:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

This never fails to choke me up. And it’s not because of sadness for the loss of life, as such, or any of the more conventional tugs it’s meant to make at the heartstrings. I freely admit, I used to be a war geek, and I’ve made some effort to get an idea of what fighting in the wars of the last century might have been like, but it’s not even empathy that really gets me with that quote. I haven’t got much right to empathy anyway; I have no relatives who died in the war, indeed I exist only because of my father‘s clever ability to stay alive through it out of his own incompetence, as he told it. Somehow his incompetence made him a lieutenant who served at three invasions, so I’ve had my doubts about whether he, a lifelong pacifist, was really as useless a war sailor as he would have liked to think himself, ever since I read a really good article in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society about Australian Great War veterans and how they liked to remember their service.1 Meanwhile, it’s theoretically possible, though vanishingly unlikely, that my father’s landing craft may have ferried my maternal grandfather’s company onto a Normandy beach in 1944, long before they had ever had cause to matter to each other. They both survived. So it’s not even grief.

No, the reason that quote gets to me is because it’s not true. We won’t remember them, for the vastly most part. We’re already getting to the point where there aren’t enough veterans to hold memorial services for the Great War dead. Soon the media exposure those get will collapse as a result. In another century the Great War will be as distant from the people then as the Franco-Prussian War is now. Its history will probably still be taught in schools, but individual connections to the soldiers, whether by acquaintance or genealogy, will be the preserve of amateur researchers and real obsessives. After all, tracing one’s genealogy back as far as, say, the European settlement of the USA, is still fairly reasonable to our perspectives; but when you get people who claim to be descendants of English nobility from before the Conquest (which I have met twice already) you, or at least I, assume that they’re quietly and harmlessly mad, because we know what the evidence is like and that it basically can’t be done. It’ll be a good guess for most people that they had ancestors in the Great War, but for the most part knowing who they were or what they did or didn’t, won’t be an option without doing heavy research at Kew or wherever.

You may already have seen where I’m going with this. When popular memory fades, as it will, who remembers the fallen? Who, in fact, remembers anyone? We do. Historians are our cultural memory specialists. That sets all kinds of agenda that most of us would probably wish to disavow, but nonetheless we are the only ones who can. In the same way as I can’t bring back a full picture of Adalbert of Taradell, I haven’t been able to get a full idea of what, for example, Sergeant Edward Mott of the 1st Battalion, Border Regiment was like as a person: probably fairly frightening I would have to guess, because in my world people don’t charge German machine-gun nests single-handedly even after being wounded in the eye, but in 1915 actually some ordinary people did do stuff like that, because war is Hell. Similarly when I got my hands on the medal group of 2nd Lieutenant John Mitchell, RAF, my personal reaction was, “you madman!” but that doesn’t remember him as someone who knew him would have remembered him. We can’t do it perfectly; but when no-one else can remember them, we can at least pick up the bits and make something, and this is in some sense what we’re paid for (those of us who are).

Badge of Order of Saint Anne, awarded to 2nd Lieutenant John Mitchell, RAF

Now at the moment the Second World War is still close enough that memories are painful and we see the horror and the heroism with an unavoidable attachment. I read too many Biggles books when young and I still feel kind of the same way about the Great War although not to the extent of glamorising it I hope. But as I’ve argued above we seem now to be watching the Great War crossing that threshold of about three generations whereafter it will be difficult for people to be attached to its memory any longer. It will join the other stuff that we study in the past, where relevance is not immediately apparent and has to be argued, or else can even, eventually, be disowned because popular attachment is now so weak that just interest is a more powerful justification, which puts you about where I was with the previous post in this series. And it will be our job as historians, is already some of our jobs, to try and bring stuff like that back as far as it can be brought back, and to try and tell what it was and what it was like, with imaginative reconstruction where necessary and steadfast adherence to the evidence where possible and so on. Because no-one else will know how to do it well. We have been trained in where to look and how to evaluate. We are the memory experts; we’re boring compared to Beowulf’s scop, maybe, and it may be a toss-up as to who wins between us and Patrick Geary’s cartularising monks when it comes to care and disinterest,2 but for better or for worse, it’s we with the research Tardis whom society needs to hear these lost voices for them. I might have quarrels about whether we can improve ourselves by hearing them, but that’s what the previous post was about, why most of the uses for historians are dangerous or unhelpful in a situation where concrete benefit is demanded. This is the use for history that society will pay for least, though I suppose archivists have got it going on. But it might be the most important one.


1. Alastair Thompson, “Making the most of memories: the empirical and subjective value of oral history” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series, Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 291-303.

2. I refer here to Patrick Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985), which is actually really quite relevant to the whole question I’m attacking here.

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15 responses to “Mission statements 2: custodians of memory

  1. In my Islamic civilization course I have a lecture on WW I but none specifically on WWII.
    One year I had reasonably intelligent students writing on the exam in such a way that they may have confused them. For today’s students WWII is a long time ago. The survivors are in their 80s and 90s, great-grandparents rather than grandparents. I’ve asked big classes how many students felt a family connection with the second war and had only a handful respond.

  2. I think it’s something that’s still emphasised very heavily at school level here; it used to be a joke among my university contemporaries that A-Level History was actually A-Level Hitler Studies, in the same way as the History Channel is really the WWII Channel. So I expect that the UK school population have a fairly clear idea of the separation at least, even if they do still all think that WWI started because an Arch-Duke got shot. I’ve no idea how large a proportion of Canadians actually fought in the war, although I’m aware that Canadian units, especially the Navy, were vital to the war effort. I could understand if it had actually affected a smaller part of the population there, though.

    One piece of metalwork I’ve catalogued touches on this closely however: I wonder if any of your students’ great-grandparents have one of these?

  3. A very large % of Canadians were involved in both wars. In Ontario, at least, you needn’t take any European history in high school.

  4. It is interesting, though not unexpected, that you should mention this topic in the context of the historian. I am (or will be after grad school) an Anglo-Saxonist, but I have done a bit of work in Holocaust\Genocide studies. The biggest issue facing this field is the inevitable death of the survivors. The population of Shoah survivors is decreasing at an alarming rate. Even those who were children, too young to really remember anything, are reaching their seventies by now. What researchers are struggling with is how to teach the Holocaust without those survivors. Spielbergs Shoah foundation, Yad Vashim, and the American Holocaust Museum have been frantically trying to document and video the stories of survivors. That is still no comparison to sitting across from one. It is eerie to think that in a few short years, they will all be gone.

  5. Prof. Muhlberger, does avoiding European history mean that one can just miss out the world wars? Surely their local effects need context? Or can one just dodge the modern period? It may be a terribly insular view, but I can’t see how one would characterise the history of an ex-Dominion without reference to its erstwhile dominator.

    Michael, an interesting contemporary viewpoint that I hadn’t considered. I’ve seen the difference that personal stories can make in genealogical research, the details that explain why that person wound up there doing that strange thing that one devoutly wishes one had when staring at a medieval chronicle or similar, but your example has serious implications, not just for the history of the Shoah but by implication what we have already lost of other world or even local events.

  6. I think genealogists are an overlooked resource to most historians. Not helpful to medievalists really, but for modern historians. I guess you could see some hagiography supported by family monasteries as a medieval form of genealogy. The monastery is the new family and this is their collective history.

    One of my other hobbies is genealogy and we genealogist will keep the memories of those regular soldiers active and most of all recorded. Military records are a treasure trove for genealogists. When I go back 5-6 generations, I know more about my American Civil War soldier ancestors than any others. For the most part they are regular soldiers, most of whom didn’t see much if any combat. I think I have more ancestors and relatives who were guards at POW camps than active combat soldiers. Just the way it goes in a real wartime, not everyone is put on the front line but that is probably why most of them survived.

  7. Definitely! It’s just as I was saying about my father and grandfather possibly having been on the same landing craft at Normandy. My mother was born by then, so Grand-dad could have met an end and I still be born (though as it was he shot at a bush and otherwise had a quiet campaign till coming home sick, he told us—but he really didn’t like to talk about it). But if the enemy had managed to drop a shell on the craft on the way back, Father would have been in trouble, because despite being in the Navy he couldn’t swim; and I wouldn’t be here to write about it. Not just winners that get to write the history; it’s the winners who survive.

    And genealogy is very useful to medievalists too! It’s just that, as almost the only people we can do it for are nobles, we can call it prosopography and make it sound élitist :-) You should see the ancient family tree file I have for the kingdoms of Northern Britain that I put together for my Masters; my most glorious exercise in hypothesis ever! I am very much alive to what you’re saying, and it’s one of the reasons I read Heavenfield indeed.

  8. No doubt some of those northerners will show up as the person of the week sooner or later. In some ways they open up such a can of worms that I’ve been a little hesitant. I don’t know why there isn’t more study of those medieval genealogies. I know they are “creative” but they still contain all kinds of information, even if they reflect alliances more than actual genetic ties.

    The upper levels of the Anglo-Saxon genealogies with mythical ancestors should have all kinds of information. Anglo-Saxonists complain that too much of their literature is Christian and then they don’t follow up on the information they do have! A little pet peeve of mine…

  9. Wow Michelle, were your ancestors Yankee or Confederate? I only ask because my great-great grandfather could have been under the guard of one of your ancestors. I have his (unpublished ) Civil War diary. If I were an American Historian I would have a great dissertation project!! He was a Captain in the Confederate army, saw a ton of action, including Shiloh, and I know more about him and his thought through that diary than I do about my grandfather. But…getting back to A-S royal genealogies, I agree with you both. They are indeed very important, especially for noticing how these people viewed their kings, and how kings viewed themselves. For instance, why are the Kentish kings the only ones on the Island that do not trace their lineage, pre-Christian, back to Wodan? (At least I think it is Kent, I will look in my notes and retract if necessary)What was different about how Kentishmen saw their king than, say, the East Saxons. Perhaps it was tribal influence from the continent. Either way, without the survival of that “family tree,” we MIGHT not know to even ask the question.

  10. I think that one of the reasons that work on the Anglo-Saxon genealogies has stalled rather is that they were particular targets of the 1970s revisionist strain of work that called into question the value of so much evidence.1 They’ve become controversial texts to work with since then, and most of what can safely be said was said by Kenneth Sisam a long time ago.2 In other fields the ‘Dumville moratorium’ seems to wear off after about twenty years, but it’s lasting longer here.3

    1. Thinking mostly of David N. Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists” in Peter Sawyer & Ian N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 77-102.
    2. Kenneth Sisam, “Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 39 (London 1953), pp. 287-348.
    3. For example, after Dumville said in his “Latin and Irish in the Annals of Ulster, AD 431-1050″ in Dorothy Whitelock, Rosamond McKitterick & Dumville (edd.), Ireland in Early Mediaeval Europe: studies in memory of Kathleen Hughes (Cambridge 1982), pp. 320-341, that he was going to publish a definitive study of the manuscript transmission of the Annals of Ulster any day then, work more or less stopped for twenty years, but has now been resumed and advanced by Daniel McCarthy, for example in “The chronology and sources of the early Irish annals” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 10 (Oxford 2001), pp. 323-341. Not so much for the genealogies, though a quick prod at the Regesta Imperii OPAC produced this: Craig Robert Davis, “Cultural assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 21 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 23-36. That seems quite short: maybe there was some heavy editing in the ASNC Faculty by one of the then senior staff there…

  11. I thought that Dumville’s chapter (that you cite) opened up lots of avenues for research. I think Dumville talks some about the Kentish genealogy and some thought that it is the most undevloped. The addition of Woden to the genealogies was a fairly new innovation from around the 7th century.

    As for being afraid of working on Dumville’s topics, its most pronounced on the Historia Brittonum. People act like he owns it and its the inheritance of his grad students (who notably haven’t published anything on it that I know of). For that matter, I don’t think Dumville has published on the Historia Brittonum in years, that I know of.

  12. Btw, Union blue all the way. :-)

  13. If I recall what Dumville says about the genealogies, which I probably don’t, a lot of the Kentish bit is reprising Sisam anyway, but there is a lot of other meat in there. As for the Historia Brittonum, I do know what you mean, but it’s worth noticing that although he insisted stridently in 1977 that it was evidentially valueless, by 1988 he’d started sneaking it in as support for his own theories. If you can, have a look at his “Early Welsh poetry: problems of historicity” in Brynley Roberts (ed.), Early Welsh Poetry. Studies in the Book of Aneirin (Aberystwyth 1988), pp. 1-16, and ask yourself what happened to the revisionist terror of yore…

  14. Pingback: 964, 1978, who’s counting? Of monks, canons and new toilets « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  15. Pingback: Leeds 2011 report two at last « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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