Long ago, a very obnoxious history teacher of mine insisted that we should look beyond the words on the page at the author. Every author’s writing is based on the biases formed by the author’s social position, political beliefs and so on. That was my introduction to hidden history.
History is the written record of human life and activities. Of course, a nanosecond after writing was invented, people had to decide what was worthy of being recorded. History is not a record of everything that people do; only what is deemed important to the people of the day.
In ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Syria), cuneiform tablets contain lists of livestock and grain that were bought and sold in an ancient version of our commodities markets. A cuneiform tablet also contains the oldest known warranty by a jeweler to his customer, promising to repair a ring if it should break.
In medieval Europe, ordinary people had few legal rights or protections so their lives weren’t considered worthy by the few literate people. That’s why Froissart’s account of the Hundred Years war recorded only what happened to kings and queens and the aristocracy. About 500 years later after the creation of academic disciplines like sociology and psychology, Eileen Power’s Medieval People finally gave us the story of Bodo the Peasant.
The historical record also skimps on the lives of women and minorities. Margery Kempe dictated her autobiography in the 1430’s but it was never published and was eventually forgotten. In 1934, the manuscript was discovered in an English country house by a researcher looking for unrelated materials. Thanks to this accident, we can laugh at Margery’s adventures in Memoirs of a Medieval Woman, edited by Louise Collis.
Of course, memoirs may contain information that contradicts accepted wisdom, like the de la Pena diary which surfaced in the 1950’s. Jose Enrique de la Pena was an officer in the Mexican Army that attacked the Alamo in 1836. His diary says that David Crockett surrendered and was then shot. Needless to say, the Texas version of the Alamo (a “shrine to Texas Independence”) story is that all the heroes died on the barricades. Bitter fights continue around the efforts to authenticate the diary.
My old history teacher may have been obnoxious but I still remember his advice. Look beyond the surface of the author’s words and find the hidden history.
About Norma Shirk
My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers (with up to 50 employees) to create human resources policies and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary back office administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy. To read my musings on the wacky world of human resources, see the HR Compliance Jungle (www.hrcompliancejungle.com) which alternates on Wednesday mornings with my history blog, History By Norma, (available at http://www.normashirk.com). To read my musings on a variety of topics, see my posts on Her Savvy (www.hersavvy.com).
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One response to “Hidden History”
I’m going to look up that book memoirs of the 1400s woman. Interesting! Thank you for sharing.