The Reign of Karl XIII. Or Napoleon, the Swedish Revolution, and the Prince Who Fell Off His Horse

By far the most popular name for a Swedish king is Karl. There is Karl XII who lost Sweden’s Baltic empire and who according to legend is responsible for making stuffed cabbage a mainstay on Swedish dinner tables. There is Karl XIV Johan, the patriarch of the current royal dynasty, the Bernadottes. There is Karl XV who supposedly sired illegitimate children all over the realm. And last, but not least, there is the current king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf.

But what about Karl XIII? Who was he?

Charles_XIII_of_Sweden
Karl XIII of Sweden, painting by C.F. von Breda.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

Karl XIII (1748–1818) was king for a brief time. He ruled Sweden from 1809 to 1818 and Norway from 1814 to 1818. As king, Karl XIII has left few traces behind. I have only come across one public building mentioning his name. The building is a church tower belonging to a church located not far from where I grew up in Sweden.

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The church tower at Västra Tunhem, Sweden. The plaque above the door reads: “In the year of 1810 during the reign of King Karl XIII this tower was built from the ground up.”
Photo: EH Kern

To understand why Karl XIII’s reign in hindsight may seem to have been of little consequence, we have to go back to the year 1792.

In 1792, King Gustav III is assassinated and his son, Gustav IV Adolf, becomes king. However, Gustav IV Adolf was a minor. Karl XIII—at this point in time known as Duke Karl—expected to be appointed guardian since he was the brother of Gustav III. But the relationship between the two brothers was strained. On his deathbed, Gustav III made an addendum to his last will and testament, prohibiting the appointment of Karl as Gustav IV Adolf’s guardian. After Gustav III had passed away, Karl managed to have this addendum annulled and consequently became the legal guardian of his nephew and the de facto ruler of Sweden.

Karl’s guardianship lasted for four years. During those years, Karl was a weak ruler and instead his personal favorite and adviser, G.A. Reuterholm took the reins.  In 1796 Gustav IV Adolf came of age. Karl lost all of his influence and he retired from politics.

Gustav IV Adolf became king during the height of the French Revolution. His response was to explicitly distance himself from what happened in France. By 1796, France’s army, under the leadership of Napoléon Bonaparte, had begun its advancement across Europe in a military conflict that would spill over into the European colonies in North America and Africa and continue unabated until the defeat of France at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Because of his opposition to Revolutionary France, Gustav IV Adolf allied himself with France’s enemies. The result of this was war with Russia, at this time an ally of France. For Sweden this war ended in disaster. In 1808, Russia invaded Finland and advanced as far as northern Sweden. In the ensuing peace negotiations of 1809, Finland and the Åland Islands were handed over to Russia. Finland had been a part of the Swedish kingdom since the middle of the twelfth century and constituted half of the kingdom’s surface. Needless to say, the outcome of the war was crushing and Gustav IV Adolf took the blame.

In May 1809, following a military coup, Gustav IV Adolf was forced to abdicate. This coup is the only one of its kind in Swedish history and is viewed as the closest that Sweden has come to a revolution. In the aftermath of the coup, an extra-ordinary parliament (riksdag) decided that neither Gustav IV Adolf nor any of his descendants were allowed to ascend the throne of Sweden.

But the kingdom still needed a king.

Enter Karl.

Karl XIII was elected king in 1809 on the condition that he accepted the new constitution that regulated royal power in relationship to the power of the riksdag.

However, at this time Karl XIII was an old man without heirs. This meant that an heir to the throne had to be located.

In an attempt to convince Norway to become joined in a union with Sweden, Prince Kristian August was appointed heir to the throne. Everything seemed to have been solved for the best, when in 1810 Kristian August during a military drill fell off his horse and died from his injuries.

The search was on again. A new candidate was located, ironically in Napoléon Bonaparte’s France. The man was one of Napoléon’s Field Marshals who had fallen out of grace with the French Emperor. His name was Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, son of a middle-class lawyer from the town of Pau in southwestern France. Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was legally adopted by Karl XIII as his heir and in 1818 he ascended the throne in Sweden as Karl XIV Johan and in Norway as Karl III Johan.

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Jean Baptiste Bernadotte/Karl XIV Johan. The portrait was painted by Fredrik Westin in 1810, when Bernadotte was known as Prince Karl Johan.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

As king, Karl XIII showed the same traits of political weakness as he had as Gustav IV Adolf’s legal guardian. In fact, he was opposed both to the constitution of 1809 and to Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, but lacking political strength he had no other choice but to concede. Moreover, in 1809 he suffered from a stroke and during the final years of his reign he was incapacitated by health issues and incapable to rule.

During his lifetime, Karl XIII was a dedicated free mason. His legacy as such lives on in the Carl XIII’s Order (Carl XIII:s Orden), awarded Swedish and foreign masons of Protestant faith.

Karl XIII passed away in 1818 and lies buried in the Riddarholm Church in Stockholm.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedin Karl XIII
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Gustaviansk tid (1772–1809)
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Nytt statsskick
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Tronföljarval och utrikespolitiskt systemskifte
Nationalencyklopedin Karl XIV Johan
Wikipedia Carl XIII:s Orden

Note:
In English, Swedish kings by the name of Karl are called Charles. Here, I have chosen to use the Swedish names.

 

 

 

History Judges But Who Is Presiding?

A commonly used phrase in political debate is “History will judge.” For example, in 2011, in a comment on ending the Iraq war, President Barack Obama stated that “History will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.” President Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, also used the phrase, for example in July of 2013 when he, according to The Washington Times, stated that “history will be the judge of his record in office.” Several others, ranging from journalists and pundits to politicians and writers, use the phrase on a recurring basis.

As an historian, the phrase intrigues me. It seems as if history somehow is seen as a person with a law degree.

Gavel_&_Stryker
Gavel and stryker.
Source: KeithBurtis

What does the phrase “History will judge” actually mean? And why would an historian worth his or her salt never use it?

First we need to take a closer look at what history actually is.

I define history as an academic discipline that researches the human condition through the study of written documents. History is the study of events connected to one another within the framework of human society, interpreted from the viewpoint of the individuals participating in those events as they happen.

Consequently, based on this definition of history we can determine what history is not.

History is not the same thing as time.
In other words, history does not begin when time begins. Neither does history end if or when (depending on your belief system) time ends. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there were voices who declared “the end of history,” as if historical research, indeed human society as we then knew it, had lost its reason for existing.

History is not the same thing as all human activity.
History is only interested in those human activities that contribute to the creation of human society, expressed in writing in a literate society. Study of the human condition and the creation of human society within a non-literary context belong to research disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology.

History is not the same thing as retrospect.
When looking at past events it is easy to take the outcome or result of those events and extrapolate them to a time before the events took place, as if the people involved would have known what we know. However, this is not possible when researching history. Neither is it possible to predict what events will become historical. At the same time as President Obama stated that history will judge the reasons for the Iraq war, he also said that ending the war after nine years is “a historic moment.” Unfortunately, this is something that not even the President of the United States of America can decide.

The phrase “History will judge” indicates that history is all-encompassing and omnipresent in human society. It also indicates that eventually it will be decided if actions taken and decisions made were right or wrong.

However, it is only possible to judge actions or decisions to be right or wrong if you base that judgment on a set of moral and ethical values. Such values, as we all know, change. For example, less than one hundred years ago it was normal that all women, as well as men below a certain level of income, were not allowed to vote in political elections. Less than fifty years ago it was normal for school children to be hit by their teachers. Today neither of these practices are acceptable. In certain parts of the world, I might add.

Ali G interviews Sir Rhodes Boyson on British Education (YouTube)

The phrase “History will judge” also indicates that sometime in the future there will be someone who makes the judgment as to what actions and decisions were right or wrong. When people say that history will judge, who do they envision making that judgment?

Based on the above definition of what history is or is not, I would argue that if history judges, those presiding will be the historians doing research at that time. The reason for this argument is that what we know about our past is based on information found, interpreted and analyzed by historians.

The only problem with this statement is that if the true judges of history are the historians, the bench will be empty when the court is in session. Any historian who takes his or her work seriously would never pass judgment on past events, processes, or individuals. In other words, an historian would never state whether something is right or wrong, but rather present the context in which an event took place and draw conclusions from there. However, this is not to say that historians accept or condone atrocities, such as, for example, The Holocaust or the Genocide of Rwanda.

Therefore, in public debate, whenever a biased statement on past events is made, that person is either not an historian, or an historian with an ulterior motive.

Next time you hear someone use the phrase “History will judge” or declare a moment to be historic, ask yourself: Who is saying it and why?

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Politico Obama: “History will judge Iraq” war
The Washington Times George W. Bush: History will be the judge; as for opinion polls, “I could care less”
Wikipedia End of history

Note:
Image of gavel and stryker downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Previous posts on related topics:
The Historian as Time Traveler
Historical Truth vs. Historical Validity
Historical Science in Science Fiction
Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History
Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History

 

 

 

World War Z and the Definition of War

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Zombies are all the rave and no one knows the zombie apocalypse better than Max Brooks, lecturer on zombie apocalypse survival skills and author of the best-selling books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. An Oral History of the Zombie War.

World War Z is a compelling read, inspired by the journalism of Studs Terkel. But there is something that bothers me with this book and that is how the story brings the zombie apocalypse to an end. The brave, new post-apocalyptic existence is difficult to believe in because the solution to end the war is not plausible.

As an historian I study what it is that makes us human. One of the things that separates human beings from other living creatures is that we wage war against one another. In other words, a big part of an historian’s job is to study warfare.

World War Z chronicles the world war against a zombie infestation through survivor testimonials. We follow the spread of the global epidemic from its outbreak until its fragile containment through stories told by all kinds of people, from the teenager who watched her parents’ reaction to the outbreak to the government representative who was given the task of finding a solution to an insoluble situation.

To understand the problem we must first look at what war actually is. On the surface level “war” is two entities fighting each other with lethal means by using specialized groups. In other words, war is soldiers, guns and ammo.

PEO_Fires_Inaugural_Light_Machine_Gun_Shot
Source: http://www.pica.army.mil/PicatinnyPublic/news/images/highlights/2011/Maddux_gunrange.jpg

But for there to be soldiers, guns and ammo, there needs to be a society whose sole purpose is to support the ongoing war. That is to say, a society’s entire economic and political structure needs to be geared towards war. Industrial production, food distribution, financial investments and recruitment of the work force need to be adjusted to provide a steady supply of soldiers, guns and ammo until the conflict ends. This is why we talk of a society being in a “state of war”.

The turning point of the zombie war in North America comes when the government decides to change its war tactic. Backed up against the wall of the Pacific Ocean, what remains of the United States of America decides to strike back by supplying unlimited guns and ammo to those of the remaining population who are willing to fight. Piece by piece the lower 48 are reconquered from the zombies and the United States then goes on to offer other countries help in their fight against the plague.

The problem with this end to the war is that the zombies have turned North America into a wasteland. In other words, there are few soldiers and there is no industry, no agriculture and no financial sector to secure the production of guns and ammo.

Brooks admits this to be the case but goes ahead with the solution anyway, drawing a parallel to World War II. According to one of the testimonials, during the zombie apocalypse, the United States were in the position of the Axis Powers (Japan, Germany, and Italy) whose resources were limited in comparison to the Allies (mainly the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Soviet Union), here represented by the zombies. However, this parallel is not sustainable since the Axis Powers did have resources to maintain an offensive war strategy as long as the United States and the Soviet Union stayed out of the conflict. The Axis Powers ran into trouble after 1941 when new strength and new resources (combined with Italy defecting to the Allies) were added to the already ongoing conflict. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the Allies took over or destroyed Japanese and German industrial facilities, some of which were located in areas taken by force and staffed with slave labor.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/PERSONALITIES
The leaders of the Allies — Winston Churchill (UK), Franklin Roosevelt (USA), Joseph Stalin (USSR) – at Yalta, Crimea, 1945.
Source: DefenseImagery.mil (US Department of Defense)

In World War Z, it would be as if the North American reconquest began at the point in time when the Red Army was knocking on the door to Berlin and the United States were about to launch their final offensive against Japan. By that time the days of the Axis Powers were numbered and everybody with their heads screwed on right knew it.

It is obvious that Brooks has a passion for history and I’m glad that he has chosen this way of expressing it because World War Z is a good book. But still, as a writer of fiction you can’t skip over certain facts. In this case that the state of war engages a society’s entire structure and that soldiers, guns and ammo are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Note:
Images have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane

That Sleepy Hollow‘s Ichabod Crane is a fish out of water with a close relationship to history is a well-known fact. For an historian with an interest in supernatural entertainment this makes Sleepy Hollow one of the most exciting shows on TV right now. Not only does Crane present a different view on the twenty-first century, but by being more than 200 years old he has the authority — and the audacity – to do something every historian at one point or another wishes to do. He calls out the inaccuracies of the historical tour guide.

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Abbey Mills (Nicole Beharie) and Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison)
Source: tvguide.com

In the episode “The Midnight Ride” (Season 1 Episode 7), Abby brings Ichabod to the Sleepy Hollow Historical Museum. When they arrive, a guide takes a group of children on a tour around the museum, telling the story of Paul Revere’s infamous ride to warn the populace of approaching enemy troops.

Listening to what the tour guide is saying, Ichabod is so upset by the amount of inaccuracies that he runs after the group and in a loud voice interrupts the tour. And corrects the guide.

Believe it or not, but so far – headless horsemen, Sin Eaters, undead police officers and walking bundles of roots to the side – this is probably my favorite moment of the show. As an historian, there have been so many occasions where I wish I had the audacity of Ichabod Crane.

Being a historical tour guide is something that can be done as a volunteer, as an extracurricular activity or for some extra money. The information the guide is supposed to convey to visitors is handed to him/her by someone at the museum and most likely hasn’t changed since it was first written.

Which is why the information the tour guide gives the group includes inaccuracies.

At the same time, tour guides do a great job. They bring history to life. They bring out the excitement in historical developments. But to do so they need to simplify and embellish. As a professional historian, I write historical research articles that would put most people to sleep. For the general public to be interested in the content of those research articles, it needs to become sexy. That’s where popular history, historical fiction and tour guides come in. However, when simplifying, embellishing and making something sexy there is always a risk of going too far.

Which is why the information the tour guide gives the group includes inaccuracies.

In my opinion, Ichabod Crane is a bit of a stickler. Yes, the tour guide was wrong in calling Paul Revere a dentist and claiming that he, as the only messenger, shouted his message all around the countryside and that the message contained the word “British” as if the British already in the 1770s was different from “Americans”. However, in regards to the general outcome of the Revolutionary War, these details matter very little. But they do make a great story to tell a group of schoolchildren.

Going all Ichabod Crane on a tour guide is justifiable (although perhaps the conversation should be done in private after the tour is over) when the guide changes information that is of importance to the understanding of the overall historical process.

Calling medieval castles built in the same region over a period of 500 years a Maginot line of military defense, is reason for a conversation.

Saying that a Queen was ousted for robbing the treasury when in fact she abdicated and converted to the religion of the enemy, is also reason for a conversation.

Saying that a king was a great warrior when in fact he lost the entire empire, is yet another reason to bring out the Ichabod Crane inside of you.

Even before the pilot aired in September, I anticipated that Sleepy Hollow would be a great show. And I was correct. For each episode the show reaches new heights.

But still, my favorite moment will always be at the Sleepy Hollow Historical Museum.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

5 Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and Not an MFA

When querying an agent, what should you include in your letter? The answers to that question are as many as there are literary agents. But one thing that most responses have in common is, If you have an MFA (in creative writing), mention that. At first I was intimidated by this. I don’t have an MFA. But then I realized that I have something better.

I have a PhD.

If you want to become a writer, especially a writer of historical fiction, in my opinion a PhD is a wiser way of spending your money.

Here are five reasons why.

1) Language and style.
In historical science a writer’s language and style are of utmost importance. Historical science is dedicated to the study of human activities through the written word. These studies are conveyed to the rest of the human population through the writings of the historian. Language and style are important in historical science because if an historian abuses his/her privilege as a scholar, historical facts can be distorted, as in the case of Holocaust deniers and believers in exogenesis. Therefore, when writing historical research, the scholar needs to choose his/her words very carefully, consequently developing a close relationship to the written language.

2) Editing.
When writing a research article or a dissertation, the scholar needs to be able to determine what pieces of information are important to the argument and what pieces are not. Moreover, all academic publications, except perhaps the dissertation, are limited to the amount of words allowed. Whenever submitting an article or a chapter, you need to follow the guidelines of the editor or the publisher. If an article cannot exceed a certain amount of words, that rule becomes your law. Moreover, that limit often includes the footnotes and references, as well as the actual text.

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Daguerrotype of unidentified woman, possibly Mrs. Knox Walker, c. 1844
Photographer: Mathew B. Brady (c. 1823–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Daguerrotypes

3) Thick skin.
Just like the publishing business, the world of academia can be both tough and rewarding. While writing your dissertation, your results will be heavily criticized by people who care about you and by people who don’t give a damn about you. Your research results will be scrutinized in minutest detail, questioned and picked apart. These reactions can have just as much to do with the quality of your work as they can be completely unrelated to anything you have written. As a graduate student you will learn how to discern the honest critics from those who play at politics. And you will learn how to incorporate the criticism in your work and improve it.

4) You will be published.
The question of graduate students publishing research while still working on their dissertation differs from university to university and from country to country. During my years as a graduate student I published several articles while I was working on my dissertation. By doing that I learned how to submit manuscripts, deal with editors, and, most importantly, wait for editors. When I graduated, the dissertation became my first book.

5) You have proven yourself.
When you graduate and receive your doctorate, it is the same as if you would become a master craftsman. You have created something and been rewarded. You have been allowed entrance to a community of peers. If you have a PhD in history with the ambition of writing historical fiction, the PhD is your ticket to archives, libraries, universities and university faculty expertise. You do not need to convince them of your skills. Your PhD will take you wherever you want to go. And once you get to the archive or library where your source material is located, you know how to find your way among the shelves and the documents. You know how to conduct sustainable research.

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Crimean War cavalry camp, 1855
Photographer: Roger Fenton (1819–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Fenton Crimean War Photographs

Graduate studies are tough. There is a reason why I say that my dissertation was written in blood, sweat and tears. At the same time, writing my dissertation and receiving my doctorate was the best thing I have ever done. Graduate school may be hard and demanding, but it is a safe haven where you are allowed to fail and pick yourself up again. You are allowed to make mistakes. In fact, it is expected of you. When you graduate you have already gone through many of the emotional ups and downs of writing and publishing. When the agent doesn’t respond to your query or when a book critic tears your work to pieces, you will doubt yourself, your heart will be broken, but you know that you have the strength to continue. Because you have been there before.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return. 

Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History

There are some books that are eye-openers. They hold the promise of a good read and then they end up being so much more.

My previous blog post was on the topic of historical science in science fiction. The books that made me realize the possibilities, and relevance, of connecting the two were those included in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation-trilogy where the science of psychohistory plays a vital part.

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992) was born in Russia and moved to the United States at the age of three. He pursued a career of a university professor of biochemistry while he simultaneously was a highly prolific science fiction author. Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics and in 1966 received the Hugo Award for best all-time science fiction series for Foundation.

The plot in the Foundation-trilogy centers around so-called Seldon Crises. A Seldon Crisis is a crisis in society which has been mathematically predicted by Hari Seldon within a scientific discipline called psychohistory. Asimov’s psychohistory is not the same thing as can be found in historical biographies written from a psychoanalytic perspective, utilizing methodologies and theories as brought forward by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Instead, Asimov defines psychohistory as follows.

Psychohistory dealt not with man, but man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a billiard ball. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Foundation and Empire (2010) p. 205)

Also:

Psychohistory was the quintessence of sociology; it was the science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations. [—] The individual human being is unpredictable, but the reaction of human mobs, Seldon found, could be treated statistically. The larger the mob, the greater the accuracy that could be achieved. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Second Foundation (2010) p. 411)

What these quotes demonstrate is that psychohistory in Foundation is quantitative methodology and historical determinism taken to its extreme. Let me explain.

To explain certain developments in society, historical science uses what is called quantitative methods, most often in the form of statistics. When doing so, the main subject of historical research, the human being, is reduced to a number that can be used in mathematical calculations. By using statistics the historian can explain patterns of, for example, mortality and nativity and how these patterns changed throughout history. The peak of quantitative methods within historical science came in the 1970s and 1980s when seemingly everything could be explained through statistics. For example, the role played by the development of the US Postal Service in the emergence of towns and cities in North America during the 18th century was explained through the use of quantitative methods.

Historical determinism means that history is set on a predetermined course that was decided at the outset of the development of human society. This determined course of development cannot be changed. For example, Marxism, created by Karl Marx (1818–1883), is a historically based theory which is deterministic. According to Marxism, society develops in predictable stages where the slave societies of Rome and Greece by necessity were replaced by the feudalism of the Middle Ages which by necessity was replaced by industrial capitalism of the modern era which by necessity will be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, in other words Communism. That a parallel can be drawn between Marxism and Seldon Crises is not a coincidence. Asimov took the totalitarian ideologies of his time – Communism, Fascism, and Nazism – and extrapolated them into space.

Asimov’s psychohistory also leads one to think of the theory of structures, which divides human actions in two categories: subject versus object, with emphasis on object. In psychohistory, it is not the individual human being, the subject, that is of interest but the masses of human beings. When human beings are referred to as masses, all the individuals that constitute the human masses become objects. Objects lack free will and their behavior can be predicted by analyzing the structures that uphold human society.

What is interesting about Asimov’s psychohistory and its mathematically predicted Seldon Crises, is that it indicates that time is both linear and absolute. History can only develop in one direction, namely forward. And there is only one chronology that is possible, namely a clock ticking from one Seldon Crisis to the next. Asimov wrote the first Foundation short-story in 1941. By that time the Theory of Relativity was established among scholars and the ideas of a linear and absolute time, which had permeated the natural sciences for centuries, had been abandoned.

After he had finished writing Foundation, Asimov continued to keep an eye on history and how human beings related to it. This fact can be demonstrated by a quote from his book And the Gods Themselves…

[…] there are no happy endings in history, only crisis points that pass.
(Asimov, The Gods Themselves ([1972] 1990) p. 292)


In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Isaac Asimov, Foundation Foundation and Empire Second Foundation
(Everyman’s Library, 2010).
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves (Doubleday/Bantam Books, 1990).
Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society. Outline of the Theory of Structuration (University of California Press, 1984).
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1998).
Allan R. Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information. The United States System of Cities, 1790–1840 (Harvard University Press, 1973).

Note:
This post has also been published at Suvudu Universe.

Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History

In his essay “Farther Away”, Jonathan Franzen discusses how he, during his life as a writer, has come to experience his own life as a story. The way he expresses his relationship to his own story made me think about how we, as human beings, relate to history. It made me ask the question: When does history begin?

Franzen writes as follows:

Even at fifteen, in Idaho, I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it, and now, all the more so, the stories that mattered to me were the old ones – selected, clarified – in retrospect. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

What Franzen discusses is his relationship to the past, in this case his own past. For him to relate to his past, Franzen states that a certain time has to pass before stories can be told based on his life experiences. Franzen’s relationship to his past is similar to the relationship of the historian to history.

Simply put, history consists of all events that have occurred in the past. However, although the terms “history” and “past” are used more or less interchangeably, they do not refer to the same thing. The past consists of events that have already taken place. History is the interpretation of those events.

If history and the past are different things, the consequence of such a statement would be that only sections of the past are included in history.

History is the academic research discipline that interprets and organizes the past with the purpose of increasing our understanding of it.  Swedish historian Göran B Nilsson has called history “retrospective process analysis”, which indicates that for history to be written, a course of events in the past needs to have been finalized so that the process as a whole can be interpreted. In the words of Franzen: “[…] selected, clarified – in retrospect.” Put together, the statements of Nilsson and Franzen would indicate that the answer to the question when history begins would be that a period of time needs to have passed between the present and the completion of the process of which the event was a part.

In other words, history seems to begin in the near past. However, such a conclusion can only be reached if one writes history backwards. Here on this blog I have argued for the necessity of writing history forwards. Consequently, the search for the beginning of history needs to be undertaken at a different place in time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Rune stone at Botkyrka Church, Diocese of Stockholm, Botkyrka kommun.
Source: Håkan Svensson (Xauxa)

The academic discipline of history interprets and organizes the past using written documents. Therefore, the beginning of history is connected to the introduction of writing, but the introduction of writing is not equal to the beginning of history. For history to happen, society needs to be literate. In other words, society needs writing to function. Furthermore, enough written material needs to have survived to the present day for the historian to be able to perform a systematic analysis of its contents. This is the reason why the Scandinavian Viking Age with its runic scripture is not considered part of history. Viking society was based on an oral culture and the writings that have been left behind for us to read are mostly short statements, for example on rune stones or weapons. These messages tell us about the people who inhabited Scandinavia during the seventh through tenth centuries, but they do not convey enough information for a process analysis to take place. Consequently, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, when literacy is introduced through the conversion of the region to Christianity.

600px-Chinese_-_Scroll_for_Zhang_Datong_-_Google_Art_Project
Scroll for Zhang Dong (c.1100).
Current location: Princeton University Art Museum

If history begins when a society can be said to have become literate, it would mean that history begins at different points in time in different parts of the world. As stated above regarding the Scandinavian Viking Age, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, in this case dated to the middle of the eleventh century. Compared to, for example, China, Scandinavian history is short, due to the fact that China has been a literate society for so much longer.

In conclusion, history can be said to begin both in the distant past and in the near past. It begins in the distant past when a society turns to literacy to function. It begins in the near past because for a process to be interpreted, that process, or at least parts of it, needs to have reached some kind of conclusion. Or as Franzen said:

[…] I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it […]. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Jonathan Franzen Farther Away (Picador, 2012)
Göran B Nilsson “Historia som vetskap”, Historisk Tidskrift 2 (2005) pp. 189–207

Note:
Images of the Botkyrka run stone and the scroll for Zhang Dong have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.