Knowing We Will Never Know

Chora Church in Constantinople (from Choramuseum.com)

               Richard Winston’s Charlemagne is educated and politically savvy.  Charles Russell’s is more open and emotional.  William Manchester’s is an illiterate warlord. 

               Considering the range of interpretations of Obama and Reagan, it is not surprising that historians would have different views of a man who ruled forty-seven years.   

               Did Charles connive to seize the lands of his cousin Tassilo or did the Duke’s behavior leave him no choice? 

               Was Charles’ second wife angry about leaving a marble castle to live with a pigsty out her window or was she really half-witted and boring? 

               Did Charles invite 4500 Saxons to dinner and have them slain suddenly or did he conduct a court, gathering evidence of sedition, and then order executions?

               Learning to live with uncertainty, knowing one will never know, is an important lesson of history.  I never had any interest in textbook history—all those names, dates and places, the provable stuff.  It was only when I read two accounts of the fall of Byzantium did I become hooked.  One said that Constantinople fell because the overly-naïve residents trusted to God for their defense and gathered in churches to pray.  The other said that the people held out bravely for months of seige and, finally—hungry, weak and diseased—they gave their warriors permission to stand down and gathered in the churches to await the invaders.  The first said that we are smarter and will never have to worry about such a fate; the second,that these people acted with grace and civility in the face of defeat.    

               Later, I was researching Chile when my professor advised me to read one book first and then an article. The book by the wife of a U.S. ambassador during World War II told of great parties and the embarrassments of living among a number of German sympathizers.  The article analyzed the the extent of malnutrition among the Chilean work force.  It hit with tremendous force.  Both accounts were factual—the great parties and the malnutrition existed side by side—but the generalizations readers might take away about Chilean society would be vastly different.      

               I know the point Professor Johnson was making; historians perform a valuable service in giving substance to those who never had the leisure to write.  I think he would have liked to see me doing serious research on woman’s history—perhaps even women in Latin America.  I had no concept, however, of where one found the money to do such a thing—and I was meant to teach.

               My writing about the age of Charlemagne allows me to continue my teaching, to encourage understanding of an age largely forgotten to America—a time in the early Middle Ages when neighboring nobles did not fight one another and education, art and music flourished. Yet, for all its parallels with today, still an age of conflict and uncertainty.