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.

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.

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.

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

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

Historical Science in Science Fiction

Say the phrase “science fiction”. What do you see? I would bet an image of the Universe has appeared in your mind. The science of science fiction is most often associated with the natural sciences – physics, chemistry, medicine, biology. The fiction of science fiction seeks to answer the seemingly eternal question of what it means to be a human being. However, the natural sciences do not primarily exist to answer the question posed by science fiction. The science that exists to answer the question of what it means to be a human being is historical science.

Historical science is an academic discipline dedicated to the study of human activity. The aim of historical science is to answer the question of why human society is organized the way it is and what role human beings, as groups or as individuals, have played in the historical process. Historical science does this by applying theories and historical methodology to written documents produced by human beings who lived in the past. The theories applied by historians are taken from a vast array of sciences. The most interesting application of a theory to an historical process, that I have come across, is the application of the theory of relativity to the creation of a feminist movement in post-communist Eastern Europe.

Historical science thrives on investigating and interpreting civilizations that are alien to us. Although these civilizations once existed on Earth, because they existed in the past their culture, laws, language, morals and ethics can be far removed from ours. My field of expertise is urban history in Europe and North America. To be able to understand how and why cities appeared in Europe more than 2,000 years ago, I have to step outside of myself in the 21st century and wrap my head around the civilization that existed at that time. As I have stated previously on this blog, this mind exercise is equivalent to time travel. Once the temporal destination has been reached, I then have to learn how to interpret a civilization different from my own. Truly, it is as if I am stepping out of a TARDIS.

Historical science offers a way to answer the question of what it means to be a human being. For example:

Historical science asks the question why past societies differ from ours.

Historical science asks why our way of interpreting our surroundings is different from the interpretations prevalent many centuries ago.

Historical science asks the question what it is to be woman or a man. The views have differed through the centuries and are not necessarily the way we choose to categorize gender today.

Historical science asks the question what is a criminal act. The value of human life has differed throughout the ages and the compensation for loss of life is not necessarily what we today would consider sufficient.

Historical science asks the question what is knowledge. It investigates on what basis we know what we claim to know. It points out that change in knowledge is not necessarily equivalent to progress.

In my work as an historian, I am an inter-disciplinarian. If an academic discipline different from my own can help me in my historical argument, I do not hesitate to utilize the results of that discipline. This is especially helpful when researching cities the way I do. Cities as objects of study are by nature interdisciplinary. By integrating the results of several different disciplines, such as archaeology, geography, oceanography, physics, and economics, I have come to appreciate the value that the interdisciplinary method adds to an argument.

Classic science fiction takes place in space. And so it should continue to do. However, in my opinion, by adding historical science to the sciences of science fiction, there is much to be gained.

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

This post can also be read at Suvudu Universe (8/1/13):

Al Gore and the World’s Oldest Corporation

Earlier this year, Al Gore published The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013), his latest book on what the future holds for planet Earth. In it, Gore outlines what he believes are the processes that will determine the future course of human existence. It is an interesting, as well as dystopian, read.

The reason for this post, however, is not for me to comment on Gore’s views on climate change or global development. As an historian who was written a dissertation and a number of research articles on Scandinavian medieval and early-modern history, one statement made by Gore gives me reason to discuss, from a Swedish perspective, the historical development of what dominates the world today. I am talking about the historical development of corporations.

In The Future, Gore states:
“The longest running corporation was created in Sweden in 1347, though the legal form did not become common until the seventeenth century, when the Netherlands and the United Kingdom allowed a proliferation of corporate charters, especially for the exploitation of trade to and from their new overseas colonies.”
(p. 105–106)

From an historical point of view there are three points in this passage that need to be discussed.

First, the statement that a corporation was founded in Sweden in 1347. When I first read this I was genuinely confused. If a corporation had been founded in Sweden in 1347, I would have known about it since the king of Sweden at the time, Magnus Eriksson, is a person whose reign I am very familiar with. What on Earth was Gore talking about? I went to the notes section of The Future and discovered a reference to an article published in TIME Magazine in 1963. The article in question discusses the copper mine at Falun, Sweden (Falu koppargruva). To find out about Magnus Eriksson’s part in the foundation of the mine, which during its peak-production years was responsible for two-thirds of the world’s copper extraction and is the reason why most buildings in the Swedish countryside are painted red, I then consulted the online database of medieval documents published by the Swedish National Archives. The result of that consultation showed that in 1347, Magnus Eriksson issued an official letter stating the terms for the labor organization among miners in the area. This letter is not a corporation charter. It is a ratification of local mining activity that can be traced as far back as the 11th century. Moreover, this is far from the first time the mine is mentioned in Swedish medieval documents.

Overall, during the Middle Ages it is not possible to speak of the type of corporation here implied by Gore. In the city states of Northern Italy there were financial organizations that displayed traits that would later appear in corporations of capitalist societies, but in Sweden at the time, the economics of society were not sophisticated enough to reach even to that level. Moreover, the information that is available regarding the economic system of medieval Sweden is too scarce for us to be able to say anything valid regarding financial organizations and enterprises. Even the existence of guilds, seemingly the most medieval of all organizations, is being debated.

The second point that made me react when I read Gore’s statement was the phrase that this kind of corporation, of which Falun Copper Mine supposedly was one, did not become common until the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. What Gore is referring to here are in fact companies, which were common-place during the economic system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, called mercantilism. Gore is correct in stating that the geopolitical entities today referred to as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom issued charters for companies in order to exploit colonies all over the world. For example, the first English colonies in North America were founded and run by a chartered companies.

However, these realms were not the only ones to issue colonial charters. In Sweden, the royal government issued several charters to various companies. The New Sweden Company (chartered in 1637) founded a short-lived colony on the Delaware River. The Africa Company (chartered in 1649) engaged in slave trade in present-day Ghana. The East India Company (chartered in 1731) traded with China and the West India Company (chartered in 1786) ran plantations on Saint-Barthélemy. However, Falun Copper Mine did not become a chartered company. Instead, the mine answered to a government department dedicated solely to mining, called Bergskollegium, which existed between 1637 and 1857.

The third point that needs to be discussed is the source of Gore’s information. Gore refers to an article with the title “Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, published in TIME Magazine on March 15, 1963. The article states exactly what Gore says, namely that Falun Copper Mine is the oldest corporation in the world and that this corporation was set up in 1347. However, the article states that the corporation in question was a “corporation of master miners”. In other words, a guild, which, as I pointed out above, regarding their existence in medieval Sweden, are being debated.

The greatest problem with the article in TIME Magazine is that it is hopelessly outdated. It was written exactly 50 years ago. At the time of publication, the information contained within the article was correct: Falun Copper Mine was one of the largest and most profitable mines in the world and had been so for centuries. Despite this, in 1992 Falun Copper Mine was decommissioned due to depletion of the ore. In 2001, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the site is a museum with guided tours.

Nationell Arkivdatabas Svenskt Diplomatariums Huvudkartotek:
Bishop Peter of Västerås, June 16, 1288, SDHK-nr:1406
King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden, Norway, and Scania, February 17, 1347, SDHK-nr:5394
Nationalencykopledien: Falu gruva Bergskollegium
“Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, TIME Magazine, March 15, 1963
Al Gore, The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013)
Thomas Lindkvist & Maria Sjöberg, Det svenska samhället 800–1720 (Stockholm, 2013)

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

Lenin Never Lived in Vienna

In his classic study on scientific paradigms and anomalies, Thomas S Kuhn writes about the issue of preconceived notions and expectations in interpreting our surroundings. He mentions a psychological experiment where a test group were shown a deck of cards where some cards had been slightly altered, for example a card of hearts was colored black instead of red. When shown these altered cards, the test group participants called the cards out as red, despite the fact that they were black. This misidentification was caused by the fact that from previous experience the participants anticipated the cards to be red since the symbol on the card was a heart. Therefore, the brain saw one thing but named it another.

For many years, I saw one thing and named it another. I saw Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870–1924), the leader of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Soviet Union, as being in exile in Vienna but I named it Zurich. Let me explain.

One of the first historical topics I took on with interest was the Russian Revolution. I was in high school, had just discovered literature through Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) was my favorite movie. By way of books and films, I discovered Russian history.

On New Year’s Eve in 1992 I was in Vienna for the annual New Year’s Day Concert at Musikverein. I remember watching CNN when the news broke that the Soviet Union had been dissolved. The week we spent in Vienna became an interesting blend of the beginning and the end of that Socialist colossus. The Soviet Union had just ceased to exist when we went for coffee at the Café Central, during the early 20th century a hub for the intellectual elite of Europe. Authors, artists, revolutionaries and philosophers frequented the Café Central, many of them Russian.

During the years leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lenin lived in exile in Europe. He moved between places, such as Munich, Bern, and Zurich. As I read about the causes behind the Russian Revolution and those who played a part in it, I saw all this before me. The only problem was that I always pictured Lenin at the Café Central in Vienna. Consequently, even though I knew intellectually that Lenin never took up residence in Vienna, that was where I pictured him. If someone had asked me about Lenin’s years in European exile, I probably would have begun explaining Vienna to them.

Not until I went to Zurich in 2001 and was taken to the building where Lenin lived and shown the historical marker, did I finally realize that Lenin actually lived in Zurich and not in Vienna. In other words, it took me more than a decade and a trip to Switzerland to be able to put to the side my preconceived notion of what the life of an exiled 20th-century revolutionary was like. It was not until it was pointed out to me that Lenin lived in Zurich, that I, in my mind, could fully comprehend that he did not live in Vienna.

Just like the participants in the psychological study, referred to by Kuhn, who realized that the cards were black and not red only when it was pointed out to them.

IMDB Doctor Zhivago
Encyclopedia Britannica Lenin
Thomas S Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (The University of Chicago Press, 1962)

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


Historical Truth vs. Historical Validity

Science is political. There are no two ways about it. One of the most political of all sciences is historical science. The reason for this is that historical science deals with human activities in the past. Depending on how societies relate to their past actions, those activities are either applauded, derided, revised or embellished.

In our relationship to history and the past, a wish to find out the truth about a certain event is often expressed. Therefore, we, the historians, attempt to recreate the event, as if we were crime scene investigators. We gather the evidence and through the use of historical methodology and theories reach conclusions based on what the evidence tells us. Almost by default, the evidence is scanty, contradictory and tainted. Consequently, the question inevitably arises: Is there such a thing as historical truth?

Merriam-Webster defines truth as

the state of being the case; FACT;


the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality

These definitions make it difficult for an historian to speak of historical truth. Once a moment has come and gone, there is no way of knowing exactly what happened. The truth has dissipated with the moment and the evidence left behind – be it a written document or an eye-witness report – only represents one perspective, often flawed or incomplete, of what has just occurred.

However, Merriam-Webster also defines truth as

a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true

This definition is closer to what the historian deals with, but still does not address the complexity of recreating an historical event.

An historical event consists of the actions of a human individual that has been left behind in writing for the after world. However, the written account that has survived to our time is tainted by the perspective and intentions of the writer. Moreover, when the text is read and interpreted it becomes further tainted by the prejudices and preconceived notions of the reader. So how can we even claim that an event has taken place? And how can we claim to know the course of that event?

Instead of historical truth, historians speak of historical validity. The reason for this is that although the past itself does not change, our knowledge of it does. Historical validity is based in the historian’s interpretation of extant written texts through the application of tools and methods developed by professional historians and by interpreting the texts in relation to other texts. Depending on the results of this type of textual analysis, historical validity, and consequently the knowledge of the past, is subject to change. The possibility for change in what is considered valid is what makes some people suspicious of historical science. More importantly, this possibility is what makes some people revise history to suit their own purposes. For example, it is through the abuse of historical validity that Holocaust deniers have found themselves a quasi-scientific niche.

As humans we have the need to organize, compartmentalize and categorize our surroundings. It is easier to live in a world that can be divided into truths and untruths. However, our world is much more complicated than that, and so is our past.  Therefore, historians speak of historical validity rather than historical truth.

March Bloch The Historian’s Craft (Manchester University Press, 1954)
Rolf Torstendahl “Metod och forskningsmoral. Reflektioner med anledning av Simon Larssons avhandling”, Historisk tidskrift 132:1 (2012)
Maria Ågren “Synlighet, vikt, trovärdighet – och självkritik: några synpunkter på källkritikens roll i dagens historieforskning”, Historisk tidskrift 125:2 (2005)

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