Storytelling as an Historical Source


I live with a history raptor. Obviously all raptors are historical, but this one has also studied history which makes him a history² raptor. (Although not a square raptor. That would be weird.) Being a classicist myself, that gives us lots of common interest but there is one area where we fundamentally disagree: the use of literature in the study of history.

Just to clarify, we are making a definite distinction between works of ‘history’ – i.e. written as historical accounts at the time, such as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War – and works of ‘literature’, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Homer’s Odyssey. The former is clearly of use in the study of history, even if we don’t always accept it as accurate. Even the Father of History, Herodotus himself, can be accepted into the ranks of historically useful works, despite his crazy stories about the giant nocturnal gold-digging ants of Persia (Book 3:102-105).

No, what we fall out over is the relevance of contemporary stories to the study of contemporary society. The raptor says that fictional stories can tell us little or nothing about the events of the time. I disagree – they can offer fundamental insights into how people thought, what they were worried about, how society worked on a personal level, religion, politics and art.

Take fables as an example. The lessons they teach demonstrate the values of the time (although, to be honest, quite a lot of Aesop’s Fables seem to boil down to ‘don’t be an idiot’). The parables in the New Testament give a clear indication of the social morals of the time, and also insights into how society behaved (the attitude towards Samaritans, for example). Homer’s epics show all kinds of things about the structure of Greek society, the values of honour and fame, and how the gods were viewed.

I’m not suggesting they are the only source, or even (necessarily) the primary, but I do strongly believe that you can’t study history without studying the stories of the time. It’s a huge generalisation, but I’d go so far as to say that history is what people did. Storytelling is how they thought.

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