Tolkien on History

“And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge.” ― Galadriel in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Eliade on Oral History

One more piece on oral history. I think this is probably the first place I encountered the basic idea that oral tradition tends to “improve the story”. Sometimes, though very rarely, an investigator chances to come upon the actual transformation of an event into myth. Just before the last war, the Romanian folklorist Constantin Brailoiu … Read more

More Oral History

Here’s another story to illustrate the malleability of oral history. We should not trust our family stories, but always look behind them for ways they might have been elaborated over time. This story comes from Mircea Eliade, a Romanian historian. “Sometimes, though very rarely, an investigator chances to come upon the actual transformation of an … Read more

Burden of Proof

Some people just love fakes. When I was working on medieval genealogies at I was bowled over by the number of people willing to go to the mat for information they found online or got from Grandma. No other evidence to back it up. Most often their reasoning was something along the lines of … Read more

History is a pack of lies

Napoléon said history is a pack of lies, agreed upon. Actually that’s not exactly right. He said, “Mais qu’est alors cette vérité historique, la plupart du temps? Une fable convenue.” Translated, that would be “What then is the truth of history, generally? A fable agreed upon.” But he didn’t claim originality there. It’s been a popular … Read more

Defining Public History

Maybe it seems odd to call someone a historian who is not a professor of history giving lectures and writing books. It’s not odd at all. There is academic history, and there is public history. Not really different things, but broadly different ways of engaging with history. “Academics tend to think of public history as … Read more

Old Ballads; Oral History

Milman Parry was a Harvard professor. In the 1930s he traveled through Yugoslavia, collecting ballads and folk songs. As a result of his research into these particular forms of oral history, he developed the idea that Homer’s poems have a formulaic structure that shows they were originally oral compositions. This is one of the stories … Read more

Copyright Problems: A Dysfunctional System

We watched Sita Sings the Blues the other day. Haven’t seen it? Picture this. A cartoon that tells the story of the Hindu goddess Sita set to 1920s Blues music. Cool stuff. And it turns out to be a famous instance of copyright problems. Everyone knows copyright can be a pain in the butt but … Read more

Learning the middle ages

I pulled this old article by James Palmer out of my bookmarks last night. I’ve found my interests wandering lately from the Middle Ages to the American West. Don’t know why that is. If I had wanted to do western history, my parents were total geeks. I was mysteriously attracted more to medieval stuff, and … Read more

We Love Stories

Have you ever thought about the ways all stories are the same? They’re all about a “descent” followed by a “return”. Think about Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey.  Genealogists love stories. They’re the very essence of why we collect our kin, so I think it’s worth pushing our skill and understanding. We should want … Read more