Imperium Romanorum Project: Part III (History & Historiography; Theme)

Submitted by Tyr on Thu, 2011-08-04 14:24

In my first post, I discussed briefly the setting for the game, and in my second, I talked very briefly about the "feudal anarchy" which was said to have spread across Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries. I'll talk a little bit more about that here, and will get into more depth about the history of 12th-century Europe, as well as some of the reasons why I chose this period and not, as I discussed in my first post, the 10th or 11th centuries. As I've mentioned, this game grew out of my own historiographical research, and so a brief introduction to some of the problems encountered by historians and historiographers, as well as a brief overview of the historiographical consensus, will be necessary to frame the discussion that follows properly.

Since most people are not familiar with the distinction between history and historiography, it seems useful to begin there. In some sense, there isn't a distinction; historiography is the scholarly study of history. It's a professional discipline with certain methodological principles and practices, which determine how the historian/historiographer works with his/her material. However, in another sense, historiography can be distinguished from history-writing, in that simple history writing is more journalistic or annalistic in character, whereas historiography is scholarly; again, there are standards of scholarship and methodology that determine what the historiographer is able to do with the sources with which he/she works. The historian, in this sense, is simply reporting facts; the historiographer is engaging in a critical study and analysis of those facts and their relationship with reality. The historiographer is concerned not only with what happened and why, but how history is constructed, the intellectual exercise of writing about events.

One of the most crucial and basic distinctions that historiographers draw is that between primary and secondary sources. At its simplest, a primary source is a contemporaneous account of the subject with which the historiographer is concerned, or an account by a participant therein or witness thereto. Examples include newspaper articles, diaries, letters, annals, public records, photographs, audio or video recordings, etc. Primary sources are the most authoritative documents we have about the events of the past. A secondary source is an account by someone who was not proximally connected with the subject of the historiographer's inquiry. Journalistic accounts, although technically a type of primary source, sometimes straddles the line, as journalists often work from primary sources and do not directly witness or participate. Essentially, a secondary source is an account by someone working from primary sources, particularly one which offers an interpretation or analysis of the subject of inquiry and does not simply relate the account of an actual witness or participant. Secondary sources can guide the historiographer's work, but primary sources are the bread and butter.

Anyone doing research into Medieval Europe quickly runs into several serious problems, especially Anglophones attempting to research continental Europe, or England prior to about the 13th century. The most serious of these problems is language: all of the primary sources are in languages other than English, and the further back one goes, the less source material in the common tongue there is. All official documents and the majority of correspondence preserved is in medieval ecclesiastical Latin, the language of the Church and therefore of government, and the majority of correspondence preserved is between the medieval equivalent of government officials (the nobility). On the continent, anything not in Latin is in Middle French, Italian, or German; in England, a language which is recognizable to use today as English (albeit very strangely spelled and with a lot of what we would consider grammatical archaisms) essentially does not appear before the 13th century.

Another problem is political boundaries and labels. Quite simply, the political boundaries of late-20th- and early-21st-century Europe did not exist yet, nor did the nation-states which they delineate. In the mid-12th-century, "Germany" was a geographic label which was applied to the lands north of the Alps and east of the Rhine, inhabited by speakers of Germanic dialects, which existed in a broad continuum of intelligibility. Although we commonly refer to the area in which the game is set as the "Holy Roman Empire," this is an anachronism; it was not officially known as the "Holy Roman Empire" until 1512, and even then, it was the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation." Although the appellation "Holy" was applied to the Empire during the reign of Frederick Barbarossa (it was called the "Holy Empire"), at this time it is still known simply as the "Roman Empire." There is no standard label for the medieval Empire, as "Roman Empire" seems too credulous by modern standards (was it actually Roman?). German scholarship often calls it the "Roman-German Empire" (Römisch-Deutsches Reich), and a common term in English-language scholarship is "Medieval Western Empire" (on Imperium Romanorum, we'll just call "The Empire"). Internal boundaries, too, differed; the modern German States, Swiss Cantons, French Regions, and their subdivisions, did not exist. Many towns and cities have their origins in this period, but they were much smaller, and have swallowed what were once distinct communities.

Of similar significance is the fact that we simply lack a great deal of direct testimony as to the lives of large segments of the population,