The long memory

Sources are essential to the writing of history. Because of this, they will be a primary focus of this blog. After all, no matter what tools or techniques you choose, the history that you write will only be as good as the sources upon which you base your research. In time I will address such issues as different types of sources, where historians find their sources, and how to evaluate sources. For this first post, I am going to focus on a kind of historical source that is often ignored and dismissed.

Ask any historian or student of history what kinds of evidence is used for historical research, and they will probably point immediately to the documentary record. By this I mean that the vast majority of sources that historians base their research upon are written records. These records take many, many forms – something that this page will address in the future.

But historical records are not exclusively taken from the written record. A great deal of important history comes from what the late great U. Utah Philips called ‘the long memory’.

The long memory describes traditions of knowledge and memory transmitted orally from person to person and from generation to generation. As stories are told, songs sung, and poems recited, we collectively gain much more than entertainment. We can gain a sense of community, an awareness of our collective past, and perhaps most importantly, we can gain insights into the past that are simply not available in the written record.

To return to the example of Utah Philips, our knowledge of 20th century labour struggles in America would be much the poorer had he not preserved and passed on his songs and stories. The full story of the struggles of people like Joe Hill, Ammon Hennesy, Mother Jones, and the shingle weavers of Everett, Washington would be lost to us. That is not to say that there exist no official records of the lives of these people. Such records do exist. What often does not exist in the ‘official’ record are the stories, experiences, thoughts and inner lives of these people. If our role as historians is to understand past human society, then to ignore these oral traditions is to ignore a potentially rich source of information and understanding.

Some historians simply discredit and dismiss oral sources and traditions. They are mistaken to do so out of hand. Some of these same historians will dissuade students from even considering oral sources while at the same time encouraging students to rely exclusively on written sources without considering where the written sources got their information. What they forget is that a portion of our written record is itself based on oral traditions.

For an example of this, we are going to go all the way back to 6th century Britain. A fellow by the name of Gildas was probably the first person ever to write history in what we now know as England. Apart from this bit of trivia, he is also significant as many regard him as having given the most reliable account of the Anglo-Saxon migration to England. This is due largely to the fact that he was the only British historian even remotely contemporary to those events. Because of this, when one looks for a written record of the Anglo-Saxons and their arrival in England, one naturally turns to Gildas. But where did Gildas get his information?

Gildas did not personally live through the tumultuous years that witnessed this influx of foreigners that so changed the social and political landscape of Britain. But when he was writing, it is most likely that people were alive whose grandparents had lived through that time. While Gildas did make use of some written records, he also relied on the long memory of these people to create his history.

Think if you can of a significant, life-changing event that your own grandparents lived through. Would you value their version of events? Were my own grandparents still alive, I would love to have the chance to talk to them about the great depression and the war years, and how these events shaped their lives in Canada. While they would not be able to give me statistics from the stock markets or unemployment figures, they would have been able to tell me what it was life to live through the depression and WWII. How did people survive day-to-day? How did people deal with economic devastation? How did they and their communities react to the loss of so many friends and family members during the war? Memories and insights such as this can flesh out the bare bones of ‘official’ history and allow us to gain a much more complete understanding of the past.

Does that mean that we can accept orally transmitted knowledge of the past at face value? Of course not. We cannot accept the written record at face value, so it should come as no surprise that non-written sources must also be approached with caution. But they should at least be approached, and the long memory should not be dismissed out of hand.

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One Response to “The long memory”

  1. Primary vs. Secondary Sources for History Says:

    […] But if you are studying the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, you will find that contemporary British accounts simply do not exist. In cases such as this, your primary sources may not be exactly contemporary to the events they […]

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