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Monday, 18 September 2017

How We Know Things

Around the seventeenth century, a funny thing called 'The Enlightenment' was happening. One of the effects of this movement was that sundry gentry from all over Europe suddenly decided that a productive use of their time would be to dabble about collecting odds and ends from the deep past and either construct elaborate fantasies around them, or simply label them and shunt them into vast private collections. These people were called 'antiquarians', and one of them, Sir Robert Cotton, had what was possibly the biggest collection of Anglo Saxon documents extant at the time. This collection was eventually willed to the British nation, and was moved to the ironically named Ashburnham Manor for safekeeping. Ironic because the house burnt to the ground on the 23rd of October, 1731. The fire destroyed many of the the 563 manuscripts in the library, but one which was miraculously preserved was Beowulf, labelled as such, and bound, for some reason, within a collection of mediaeval bestiaries. Another antiquarian, Icelandic scholar G J Thorkelin, translated and copied Beowulf, then took it to Copenhagen. Unfortunately, Copenhagen was occupied by Napoleon's forces at the time and the translation, along with Thorkelin's house, was destroyed in a British bombardment in 1807. Luckily, Thorkelin himself was not destroyed, and he did a do-over, thus ensuring that the earliest full version of a British literary work was preserved, by the skin of its teeth.

Years later, a grand, crazy old widow called Edith Pretty, left alone in a big house in Suffolk, became interested in attempting to contact her dead husband through spiritualism - a movement that was big in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and one which couldn't be more different from The Enlightenment. Spiritualist 'thinking' prompted Mrs Pretty to decide that she'd had a bunch of prophetic dreams about the collection of artificial mounds on her property. So she toddled off to the local university, hired a self-taught archaeologist (the amusingly named Basil Brown), and told him to get digging. This was in 1938. Over the next few years, subject to minor interruptions owing to WWII, it was gradually determined that these mounds were dark age ship burials containing the richest hoard of Anglo Saxon treasure discovered then or since. Amongst the finds were two objects - a drinking horn and boar helmet - which exactly matched descriptions of objects found in Beowulf. The boar helmet is the only one of its kind that has ever been found, helmets from dark age Britain being about as common as honest parliamentarians, and is the best and most dramatic evidence that the world described in Beowulf has firm anchors in reality - is, in fact, a real world.

The survival of the Beowulf manuscript, and the attestation of its world in the Sutton Hoo burial, account for a worryingly large proportion of all that we know about Britain between 600 and 1000CE. If the folks fighting the fire at Ashburnham had been just a little less assiduous, or that random Icelander just a little less dogged, that old lady just a little less crazy; there would be a yawning gap in our knowledge of a period which is pretty dark to us as it is. Which is why we used to call it 'The Dark Ages'. Without these two random and tortuous narratives of exploration and discovery, the history of English literature and the Anglo Saxon period would be dramatically different. And wrong. And there's the thing. We know we're not as wrong as we might have been, thanks to all kinds of dumb luck, but what we don't and can't know is how wrong we still are. This isn't limited to obscure aspects of British history, either. If Schonky Schliemann had never met that spy, he'd never have dug that huge trench in Hissarlik and found the city variously known as 'Wilusa', 'Ilium', or 'Troy'. If Bedouin shepherd Mohammed Edh-Dhib hadn't fallen into that cave, our knowledge of the Hebrew Bible would be missing one thousand years of its history as a manuscript. If anonymous bad boys hadn't burnt down the palace at Hattusas, we would never, ever have been able to confirm the existence of an entire empire (Hittite), which vanished from the record in around 1200BCE, its memory surviving only in a handful of casual mentions in a bible story about someone else (Abraham).

Given, then, that what we know about ourselves is based in large part on what we know about our past, and that what we know about our past is governed in large part by random chance, it's difficult to see how anyone goes around being certain about anything. People who know this are of course aware of the very tenuous and probably wildly unreliable thread that connects us to the origins of the present, and thus are born those rather fatuous aphorisms about knowledgeable people being aware of their ignorance. There is a mad tendency to try to reduce the sum of our knowledge into what I like to call 'Dinner Party Facts'. All people came out of Africa. The Jews have always lived in Israel. The Bible forbids [insert thing here]. None of these things, taken as hardened, absolute information, is entirely true. Simple narratives and certain facts are the playthings of the ignorant and the stupid. The acquisition and application of knowledge is not and cannot be the philatelogical process of collecting 'facts', as there really is no such thing. 'Knowing' things consists of the much harder, much less comfortable endeavour to understand and synthesise what little we have, and above all, to maintain an awareness of the dark immensities of ignorance which form the shifting basis of all our knowledge.

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