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History Super Bowl

By Daniel Hubbard | February 1, 2015

Earlier this week I listened to a podcast about Thucydides. Another one of those names that isn’t going to actually appear in anyone’s family tree (he died about 2400 years ago), but what was said about him, and his older contemporary Herodotus, got me thinking about genealogy anyway.

As founders of history we can see in them some of the principles we ought to follow. Herodotus has actually been known as the “Father of History” for over two thousand years. If Herodotus was the first historian, then Thucydides, only about twenty years younger, was the second. They even knew, or at least knew of, each other, yet the two of them are very different.  On Super Bowl Sunday,* I’m tempted to pit the two of them against each other.

The Big Game

Thucydides commented that it was difficult work to extract the truth from the stories that people told. He took the evidence he could extract, distilled it down to what seemed to him to have been the truth and related that narrative. Sounds like what we should do as family historians until one realizes that he didn’t let us know what his sources were. No source citations is not good practice. Also, in giving us his distillation, we don’t get a view into the contradictions that he resolved. We have no way to know if his resolution was a good one or if some of the evidence that he did not use might have actually been enlightening.

Herodotus told some pretty crazy sounding stories. Not a best practice in genealogy. Yet, he didn’t see it as his duty to believe the stories he related, but he did see it as his duty to preserve them. That actually sounds quite a bit better. I often tell people that just because a family story has been disproved doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be preserved. The belief in that story is, in and of itself, a part of the family’s history. Even family stories that are “wrong” can have a kernel of truth that is a clue to something not yet discovered. Throw away the story and you throw away the clue as well. Because he told those stories, we at least have an idea of where Herodotus found his information.

Thucydides saw history as an effort that concerned itself with politics and armed conflict between real people, not strange tales of quarreling, intervening gods. Sticking to likely explanations and steering clear of flights of fancy sounds like good advice for a genealogist. Touchdown Thucydides.

Herodotus’s history wasn’t immune from the effects of meddling supernatural forces but he also saw history in much broader terms and included geography and ethnology in his writings. Those are things we must often include to make our ancestors’ lives understandable. Touchdown Herodotus.

So who should inspire our genealogical inquiries? Both and neither, I would have to say. Both their styles have things in them we should emulate and things we should avoid.

* If you happen to be reading this post on your phone during the game, remember that it is a ten yard penalty to try to pronounce Thucydides with a mouth full of chips and salsa. That is the people in front of you will insist you spend the rest of the evening at least ten yards back from them.

 

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