History is the record-taking of past or present events for the benefit of future audiences. In A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman states that modern scholars have a particular difficulty discerning precisely what occured in medieval times:
The chronic exaggeration of medieval numbers—of armies, for example—when accepted as factual, has led in the past to a misunderstanding of medieval war as analogous to modern war, which it was not, in means, method, or purpose. It should be assumed that medieval figures for military forces, battle casualties, plague deaths, revolutionary hordes, processions, or any groups en masse are generally enlarged by several hundred percent.
Tuchman explains the reason for this inflation:
This is because the chroniclers did not use numbers as data but as a device of literary art to amaze or appall the reader.
Modern scholars have a difficult time discerning precisely what occurred because medieval scholars were not concerned with recording precisely what occurred. They practiced an alternative mode of history.
To the modern, western mind, the method of the chroniclers seems corrupt. We use history as a means to preserve true records of cause and effect in social/ecological systems. Realism in history helps us understand our actions in a historical context, and better guides our decision-making. Fantasy in history corrupts our decision-making.
The medieval mind used history to a different purpose. The chroniclers provided their histories as a means to inspire action through emotional effect. Some realism would have been required to provide a shared context between a chronicle and the experience of the audience. But embellishments, which strengthened the emotional persuasiveness of the histories, were well suited to the medieval uses of history.
The modern decision-maker relies on realism in record-keeping to make logical decisions, while the medieval mind relied on fantastic embellishment in record-keeping to inspire action through emotion. These historical traditions conflict with each other, but are well suited to the purposes of their creators and their intended audiences.
In future posts, I’ll build two threads that generalize on idea:
- If you impose a perspective of realism on a historical tradition rooted in ethos or pathos, you destroy that historical tradition. If the audience of that historical tradition is still alive, you have impovershed that audience.
- That logical arguments carry cumulative effects that do not diminish with time. Emotional arguments are more persuasive individually, but do not build upon each other and decay in persuasiveness over time. The accumulation of logical arguments is a component of the effectiveness of Western civilization.