Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Jonathan Jarrett supplies a useful term for a phenomenon I have also noticed, and also scorned, protochronism:

I think that perhaps all historians, once they have found their speciality, should then be forced to take a course on the period before it. It’s so often tempting to emphasise a particular phenomenon of one’s field and then say that it started with your subject population, but as with rock music (which all goes back to Chuck Berry, really, except that which he stole from the blues, which is quite a lot, and wherever the bluesmen (and blueswomen) got it from…) there’s always someone out there working on an earlier period going, “but I could point you to twenty of those from my stuff!” or similar. I’m most used to this with high medievalists claiming the discovery of the individual, or autobiography, or sovereignty, which could easily be paralleled from Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon source material if they wanted to ask anyone, but that might challenge their unique selling point…1 But it happens in my period too, and then the answer is usually “the Romans got there first”. And often the Greeks before them. And hey, if we had sources from Mesopotamia, who knows? Obviously at various times people have actually originated stuff, but not half as often as it is alleged.

Hey, Jonathan, we have mountains of sources, literally, from Mesopotamia...but I suspect you know that and simply jest. (Lots of those sources, BTW, concern sovereignty, or something that looks a lot like it.)

One thing I didn't see spelled out in this little essay is that the moment of the origination of whatever key feature is identified with a dividing line between real history (right up to the present) and a prehistory of slope-browed troglodytes who don't really count. The protochronistic moment isn't an isolated innovation, however important, but the origin of MODERNITY! And US! In ALL OUR PRE-DEPRESSION GLORY!

Yeah, I tend to be skeptical of such claims.

1 comment:

  1. Thankyou as ever for the link, Professor! I know nothing of Mesopotamia's sources, though I probably should, and therefore stand corrected; but somewhere more unknown would do to make the point, in that case. I don't want to risk puns about Ur-sources, that's all. (Er. Sorry.)

    As to the latter point, that process is very much what the Davis book I mentioned reviewing is focusing on, albeit I think in too narrow a time-bracket. But my thoughts on that had probably better wait till the review...