HISTORY

New eyes on the past

Shona McKay May 2 1983
HISTORY

New eyes on the past

Shona McKay May 2 1983

New eyes on the past

HISTORY

Shona McKay

For the most part, the legend of Joan of Arc has travelled the centuries intact. Her life as the young French peasant turned military crusader has been chiselled in marble, dramatized in plays and captured on

film. The details of her death at the age of 19 are as vivid for today’s history readers as they must have been to the inhabitants of Rouen, France, who watched her burn at the stake as a heretic in 1431. Recently, however, the rendering of the saga has come under assault. In Jeanne d'Arc et la Mandra-

gore ( Joan of Arc and the Mandrake), published last month in Paris, French historian Pierre de Sermoise claims that Joan of Arc did not die in Rouen but that she married a French knight and continued to fight the English invaders. According to de Sermoise, St. Joan actually died in battle at the age of 44. Although it may take years to assess the new theory, the possibility remains that more than 500 years after the fact history could be rewritten.

Joan of Arc is only the most recent historical figure to undergo re-examination. To some extent, revision has always been an integral part of history. New knowledge led Galileo to question an Earth-centred universe, Darwin to doubt the Word in Genesis and Einstein to rule out many of the laws of Newtonian physics. “History is a moving subject,” says Rebecca Colman, a professor of medieval history at the University of Toronto. “It has always been the job of historians to knock off the accretions of the past.” Of late, however, history is being rewritten at an unprecedented rate. In the wake of the excesses of former president Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, historians—and the public at large—are exhibiting a new sense of skepticism. From Alexander the Great to John F. Kennedy, from the early Vikings to the 20th-century Samoan islanders, scholars are hard at work changing the shape of the past.

Several factors explain the new revisionist surge. “To begin with there are simply more historians out there,” says Arthur Silver, a professor of Canadian history at the University of Toronto. In 1982 alone, 1,928 postgraduate students across Canada wrote history theses. Notes Silver: “These people are asking new questions, and, inevitably, some of them will turn up new things.” As the number of new explorers of the past increases, so, too, does the amount of uncharted information. “There is a constant stream of new data emerging,” says Garry Wills, professor of American history at Northwestern University in Evanston, 111., and the author of a recent exposé on the Kennedy family called The Kennedy Imprisonment. “People leave public office, men die, archives open up and secret papers become available,” Wills notes. “It moves so fast that the material you have at your disposal this week is different than what you had last week.” The tools for deciphering information are also growing increasingly sophisticated. Scientists are currently using dating techniques, among other processes, to uncover the secrets of the Shroud of Turin, the alleged burial cloth of Jesus. Researchers are also testing strands of Napoleon’s hair to determine whether he died from arsenic poisoning rather than natural causes. Computer analysis

has determined that Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century Austrian monk whose work laid the foundation for the science of genetics, fudged his statistics about pea plants.

Nowhere have the effects of revisionism been more obvious than in matters of religion. After a 10-year study on part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, two Hebrew scholars argued in 1979 that the Christian equation of sex with sin resulted from the misinterpretation by early Christians of the views of an obscure and fanatical Judaic sect called the Essenes. In fact, in the search for holy truth little is sacred. Writing in their 1981 book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Henry Lincoln, Michael Baignet and Richard Leigh offer a wealth of circumstantial evidence to back up their theory that Christ escaped crucifixion. What is more, they contend that he married Mary Magdalene and begat offspring who grew up in France and whose descendants consorted with Leonardo da Vinci, Victor Hugo and Charles de Gaulle.

Just as historians scrutinize the secular past, so, too, are they turning a critical eye on matters of state. Not all great figures in history have managed to withstand the probing. According to research, Alexander the Great died ignobly from drink. Abraham Lincoln’s proud image, says Wills, has succumbed to evidence that he encouraged his agents to bribe voters in Chicago. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s past has been clouded in a book entitled Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath by John Toland, who speculates that Roosevelt knew the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor and chose to keep silent because he realized he could thus bring the United States into the Second World War.

Canadians have recently been forced to undergo some rethinking of their own history. The release of some segments of the Mackenzie King diaries since 1975 irrevocably changed the staid image of the former prime minister. The diaries unfolded a double life, filled with ghosts and prostitutes, and King became one of the most interesting figures in Canadian history.

As the lives of individuals are being rewritten, so are entire concepts of civilizations. The gentility and reserve of the Victorian era has been stripped back to unearth an age of perfidy and lasciviousness. The early American West, rather than epitomizing the spirit of freedom and adventure, is now thought to be an example of an age when man was at his savage worst. But not all societies have suffered at the hands of revisionists. Says U of T’s Colman: “Recent findings in archeology have done much to transform the Vikings from looters and raiders into a peo-

ple composed of explorers, traders and investors.”

In many cases, of course, the final word has not been written. A case in point is New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Freeman maintains that Mead’s previously unchallenged research into the sex lives of the islanders in the 1920s was faulty. Instead of free love and an absence of jealousy, Freeman claims, the Samoans have both cults of chastity and problems with rape. “The truth is not

hanging there like the Holy Grail,” says Wolfgang Weissleder, an anthropologist at U of T and a former student of Mead’s. “It is impossible to say right now whose theory will be accepted in 10 years’ time.”

While the reinterpretation of history conjures up Henry Ford’s adage that “history is more or less bunk,” many inquirers find the proof of the richness of the past in revision. “The complexities are so immense,” says Garry Wills. “We will never know the full truth about all of our history but, all the time, we are getting closer to that point.”