I like to keep you up to date when I read a book I think is worth your time. I’m now reading Marc Morris’s The Norman Conquest, which is very good. I recommend it. At the simplest level it’s just a good read on a subject of immense historical importance and one with sufficient drama to allow a good writer to keep the reader engaged. But what I really like about it is how Morris approaches a comparatively ancient period with the uncertainty of our knowledge not simply addressed or hinted at but made part of the story itself.
History is always open to interpretation. What is happening today right in front of our eyes is open to a vast degree of interpretation. But for most of the past what we know is inherently suspect and limited. Think of our knowledge of the distant past like a rope bridge stretching across a great chasm. The bridge probably gets you to the other side. But almost every step is a potential weak link that can bring the whole thing down. We have this documentary source or chronicle, this history that was written three or four generations later, a few coins that have very limited information but are firmly tied to a specific date, letters that were written by people who may or may not have known what they were talking about. From these shards of information historians weave together what happened by weighing relative reliability, the character of the sources, how close they are in time to the events in question, how reliably they have been passed down to the present day – all to create a reliable chronology of events.
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