In which Keith Thomas says it for me

Professor Keith Thomas addressing an audience at Berkeley

I quote:

You often use literary sources as well as archival ones. What can they offer that the ‘documents’ cannot?

“… Well, they cover a wide range of experiences essentially, and clearly they present serious problems of interpretation, but no more serious than the traditional documents did. I mean, a play or a poem is a certain literary genre, is subject to certain conventions, and is influenced by certain models, and therefore you must be careful with what you are quoting. But if that is true, the same points can be made with equal force about anything in the Public Records Office. The documents there also need interpretation and sensitive handling…

Arguing, in 1988, that the distinction between fact and fiction is a matter of prevailing convention, you’ve urged, against powerful current trends, in favour of the reconciliation of history and literature. Would you say that in the last ten years this has gone too far?

“Yes, I do think it has gone too far. I believe that there is a difference between fact and fiction and that, no doubt, dates me. For me it’s true, and not fiction, that we are sitting here on this Thursday, the 28th of July. So I certainly think that the tendency to blur the genres is unhelpful. As is the new historicism, I welcome it to an extent, but their history, their historical dimension doesn’t strike me as very rigorous.

“I found most of the writings of Hayden White, La Capre and others ultimately a little disappointing because they don’t get to grips with the sort of historians we actually read. I mean, I don’t want to be told what particular tropes Michelet employs, for example, because I don’t use Michelet. But if they really got to work on the latest numbers of Past and Present and said something about the tropes there, then I would find that much more illuminating. The case with these writers reminds me a bit of the analytical philosophers writing on history. What they discussed was always far away from what historians actually did.”1

I haven’t read half of what Professor Thomas has of course, or even a tiny fraction, but I think that if I had it would not change my tendency to agree with pretty much all that. On the other hand that doesn’t mean that I reject the efforts of someone like Magistra to try and get some information out of literary sources, despite what she seems to think I think; the post of mine that she was protesting about was on a seminar where, it seemed to me at least, the conventions of the genre in hand weren’t being given enough space, because they might have considerably weakened the case being argued. I found the trope there easy enough to guess at…

1. Keith Thomas, interview with Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, Oxford, 27th July 1998, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Keith Thomas” in eadem, The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2002), pp. 80-105 at pp. 100-101.

3 responses to “In which Keith Thomas says it for me

  1. Of course this is where our discussion is in danger of getting self-referential: was what I was doing to your post simply gutting it by taking a quote out of your blog’s literary/historical context? Probably, but it was more because it was a good starting point to riff off than any specific dispute with your analysis.

    On a wider point, I don’t think you can talk about the role of literary/narrative sources in historical research without remembering the background of national historiographical traditions. In particular, there is a wonderful quote by Peter Brown on Oxford medievalists:

    So fierce, indeed, was the definition of ‘real’ history among Oxford medievalists that it amounted almost to a gender-category. ‘Real’ history, in the world of Oxford medieval studies, was basically ‘man talk’. It was talk about concrete things that lay as close to the hard earth of medieval reality as they
    could drop. It depended on evidence of brutish but reassuring solidity, stored in the Public Record Office in London and scattered throughout the land in the muniment rooms of castles and of cathedral chapter houses…Texts, of course, existed. They were printed in many volumes of the Rolls Series. But they did not count. They were the work of monkish chroniclers, whose tendency to exaggeration, whose moral bias and whose pervasive Catholic ideology made them as distasteful as they were unreliable. As sources for the history of the middle ages they had long been relegated to oblivion…


    And at an even more basic level, what historians think are suitable techniques of analysis depend initially on what they’ve got as sources and what they haven’t got. English medievalists could be like that about ‘real’ history because there was so much in the PRO. Merovingian scholars are insistent on the usefulness of hagiography because they have so few ordinary narratives, just as large chunks of German research on early medieval family consciousness comes from an urge to do something with all these damn necrologies. I study literary texts not because I have a literary background (I probably have less than most medievalists) or from any pomo tendencies, but because they talks about the things I’m interested in and charters by and large don’t.

  2. I definitely see the force of the last point. I wanted to know how frontier societies were organised on the ground so I wind up with Catalan charters, but it’s not because I wanted to work on charters specifically however well I now get on with them. But as to the Peter Brown quote, I would happily accept it for Oxford, but as a `national’ trend I’d dispute it. This is speaking of the same period in which Sussex’s school of history was pretty much being rebuilt to do ‘new’ history, and generally I think that the Oxbridge institutional approach has dominated only to the same extent that Oxbridge itself has, or thinks it has. As is so often the case, it does we Oxbridge types the world of good to go somewhere else once in a while. You know this of course, as like me you did…

  3. Pingback: Take note(s): a miscellany of how-to posts « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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