September 24, 2007

Guessing at the Past

When writing about distant history, especially when nothing or very little is written down, you've gotta rely on some educated guesswork to give the reader a sense of place and time. I can think of no better example of this difficult work than the exposition of 1066: The Year of the Conquest by David Howarth. Even though there are more than a dozen written sources to look at in the research, nobody knows what really happened. Rather than give you a blank page before the action begins, Howarth focuses in on the small, the personal, and puts you right there in southern England, in the calm before the Norman Conquest:

Within his own village, an Englishman knew everybody and almost every tree and animal. He knew his rights and duties, the favors he could ask of his neighbors and the favors he could offer in return. He knew the view from the tops of the nearest hills, and the tracks to the neighboring villages, and from the sun he knew the direction of things, the north, south, east and west. He thought of himself and everyone he knew as English, and of England as the demesne of English kinds, surrounded by sea except where the faraway hostile lands of Wales and Scotland joined it...

...the news of the outside world that came into the village was vague, brought by pedlars, or filtering down from mouth to mouth from the house of the lord, or rumored at the occasional district meetings. The great events of the time were written down by monks in their chronicles and so became history; but to the men and women who were living in the villages of England then, they were only oral tales of distant happenings, more or less twisted in the telling. Battles, the deaths of kings and rivalries of earls, were only important if they seemed to threaten the stable tenor of the village life, and the mutual kindness and custom that held it together; or worst of all, if they suddenly threatened to bring ferocious strangers tramping through the place, burning and slaughtering like the Danish and Norwegian Vikings in the bad old days.

Then he focuses in on one village:

It is hard to describe any social system in general terms; the generalities get lost among all the special cases and exceptions. Besides, most people do not have to understand the whole of the social system they live under, on the bits of it that happen to affect them. For this ancient system, it is more illuminating to choose one ordinary village and see how the system appeared to the people were living there on that New Year's Day. With all England to choose from, I have picked the village of Horstede in Sussex...

...Horstede was on the slopes of a shallow marshy valley. To the north and east, and to the west beyond the valley, it was sheltered by the great forest of Andredeswald, stretching forty miles northward towards the town of London and over a hundred miles from east to west, a natural self-sown forest untouched by man, of native oak, beech, chestnut, ash, birch, and holly, and conifers where they were favored by the soil. To the south from Horstede, down to the river valley, the land was more open, and you could see the bare grassy ridge of the chalk hills that run otu to the cliffs that are now called Beachy Head. The hills hid the sea, which was twelve miles away as the crow flies.

Horstede is still there, named Little Horsted to distinguish it from another Horsted farther north. Now, a line of electrical pylons marches straight across the ancient village and the valley; but shutting one's eyes to that, it is still the kind of verdant scene that English exiles dream of. And now on a summer day there is always the distant hum of traffic which is hard to escape in the southern parts of England; it is an effort to recall the native silence of the fields and woods, broken only by the hum of bees, the sounds of birds and animals, familiar voices, the wind in the trees, or the almost equally natural sounds of an axe in the forest, or a sickle being sharpened in the fields.

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