What is history but a fable agreed upon?

We talk about the historian as storyteller, and the history, therefore, is made up of the stories being told about the past.  History is a grandfather recounting an event to a younger relative; a document detailing what work was done on one’s vehicle; a photo album of a now-ended relationship; an eyewitness account of an affair of state; the events that brought a civilization up and then to its knees; and it is all of these things, for and from all people, forever, making up a network of stories within stories.

It was the very idea of stories that drew me in.  My father’s office was filled with books, floor to ceiling shelves, stacks of books on the floor, under his chair, covering his desk. All of those books were stuffed with stories about ancient people, far off places, amazing adventures. How could I not fall in love with them?

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I left all of my clothes in Wales and Ireland in order to fit this library book in my backpack.

R.G. Collingwood suggests that history is not so much the events or actions that happened, but the thoughts and ideas behind them. To understand the thoughts which precede the actions is the historian’s path to understanding how events came to pass, and why. A historian records the events of the past, and attempts to interpret them and determine their importance/relevance.

The thing about importance or relevance is that it’s subjective.   Stories I find important are not of any consequence to others.  Sometimes when a friend tells a story we tune them out, focusing on our own thoughts and ideas. Where does that story go, when there is no one to hear it? What of the lost stories in the library of Alexandria? Do we not have some responsibility to keep thoughts and ideas alive, to fill the empty spaces in history with the minutiae of lives lived by those long dead?

Everybody has an angle. That old adage about there being three truths: mine, yours, and what really happened, has some merit. How do we record history when there are so many stories telling different truths about the same event?

It is expected that the historian holds knowledge and understanding of the past and of its impact on the present and potential effect on the future. It is expected that this knowledge shall be dispensed with truthfulness and without influence from the historian’s own beliefs or intentions. There is some room for making judgments on how information is put forth, as there is in every profession.  The madness of being a historian is deciding when to stop digging, upon what level of detail to settle. One of my favorite professors long ago told me that what is most important to know about doing research is when to stop.  At some point, he said, you have to start writing. You have to tell the story. Pick a truth, and make it your own.

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The mindblowing Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland.

 

So what was Napoleon (or, perhaps, Voltaire) getting at with the statement with which I have titled this post?  In my particular case, this blog is a series of stories, of histories, of a life lived, maybe a lie lived.  These are my own family’s fables, and over the years the details may have shifted slightly during transport. However, with only myself left standing to tell these tales, while I present truths here, MY truths, the truths are unchallenged — these fables are agreed upon.

Those silent gods

When I was young I visited a temple built into a mountain.

To get there we journeyed deep into the jungle, where we climbed a hundred stone steps  littered with large, frightening grey-brown monkeys.  Upon reaching our destination, the  mountain peak fell away on one side exposing the temple to the heavens, high in the sky yet within caverns.  Stone statues with gritty texture and fine features towered larger than life over smaller gilded icons set into alcoves and perched upon rock altars.  There beside the stone gods stood their blessed messengers, shaven monks in rough robes, lined in rows like sentinels and exuding such peace that for a moment the jungle stood still.

The smells of the jungle: the monkeys, the foliage, and the damp earth, mingled with the heady scent of incense and the odor of worshipful bodies pressing close to touch a god.  Closer to the main temple, the metallic smell of old rock and trickling cave water, oily to the touch, took hold of my senses.  It was late in the day, and the sun added that hot smell I have only found in the jungle, of photosynthetic processes happening on a grand scale.  Rotting vegetation and animal waste added a tangy edge to the cacophony of scents.

The screeches of monkeys defending the temple steps, jungle birds squawking in branches above, quiet hymns and prayers within the temple caves, and the sound of the quickening of my breath filled my ears as I gazed into those unblinking stone eyes looming over me.  Close to me a young monk whispered his thanks for another day of life.  The ground underfoot was rough cave floor and pebbles and dust shorn from the mountain out of which the temple was carved, a fine contrast to the smoothly polished steps I climbed from the soft jungle floor.  Suddenly alone in an alcove, I dared to put one hand to the face of a deity.  Like a pumice to my palm, that cheek and those lips appeared finer than my own features.  Such fine detail born of such rough material.  My throat was dry from the dust and incense, and a sip of water from a bamboo ladle tasted slick and woody, as though taken from a leaf after a rain.

Another glance, and we started down those hundred steps to the jungle below, and the path leading out of the deep, dark green to the bustling city beyond.

 

 

Is the Holy Grail in Wales?

I decided my career path whilst sitting in a theatre with my dad. I think I was 9.  I have always had a fascination with inter-war adventure films, and so we were watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  As Harrison Ford raced through the jungle with an artifact under his arm, being pursued by armed thugs, I turned to my dad and said that was what I wanted to do. My dad said, ‘Okay.’  That’s how it was with him; he never told me I couldn’t do something, or that it was impossible.

My current research is focused on formerly monastic lands, particularly those belonging at one point to Strata Florida Abbey in Wales.  Last year I stumbled across a reference to a relic once held there, which has been called the Holy Grail.  This immediately fascinated me.

So, the story of the Strata Florida Grail, or Nanteos Cup, is as follows:

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries at the hands of Henry VIII in the 1530s, supposedly a small number of monks from Strata Florida slipped away from the king’s men in the dark of night with this relic, to arrive at the door of a local lord, at a great house called Nanteos, seeking refuge.

It has been said that this cup was the actual Holy Grail.

It has also been said that the cup possesses healing powers, and that those who drank from it would be cured of their ailments.  Apparently they also chewed bits off and swallowed them, hoping for prolonged healing.  There is not much left of the mighty Cup these days.

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Is it really the Holy Grail?

The medieval world was awash in relics thought to hold supernatural means of healing the ill.  Some relics were bones of saints or martyrs, and some were items like the shroud of Turin, powerful for having been in contact with the aforementioned religious person.  Believers, or pilgrims, would travel great distances to look upon or touch these relics, to pay homage to the items or in hopes of relief from their sicknesses.  Of course the popularity of the pilgrimages led to the miraculous discovery of yet more relics, items with magical properties and dubious provenance, which increased pilgrimage traffic yet more.  Visitors purchased souvenirs and badges, churches were constructed to accommodate the throngs of people passing through to view their sacred items, and local economies depended heavily on the tourist trade, so were therefore keen to have a good relic that would draw a steady crowd.  The Knights Hospitaller were often established on pilgrim routes to offer safe places for weary travelers to rest. (This was true for the case of Strata Florida Abbey, which was a popular stop on the pilgrim routes.  The Hospitallers had a nearby estate along that route to house pilgrims on their way.)

The Nanteos Cup remains in the possession of descendants of that sixteenth century lord whose door the monks ran to in desperation as their abbey was ransacked.  It is currently on display at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, where I happened to be doing some research just over a week ago.

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Determining whether the Nanteos Cup really is, or is not, the Holy Grail is not part of my research.  I don’t keep a Grail diary as the elder Doctor Jones did, though I do in fact have a small notebook I carry around and fill with…notes.  And some of them are indeed about the Cup.  Some day it might be important.  If it’s good enough for Sean Connery, it’s good enough for me.

 

So, Grail seekers, check out Monty Python,  Alfred Lord Tennyson, and by all means, check out the National Library of Wales. I spend a lot of time there, and it’s an amazing facility.