The Arrow in Harold’s Eye

November 7, 2007

I’ve always enjoyed reading history, but have never had the discipline it would take to be a professional historian; I would never be willing to spend the necessary thousands of hours poring over manuscripts in dusty libraries and the like. But increasingly over the years I have been unhappy simply reading the cut-and-dry accounts meant for a general readership or even for, say, undergraduate courses. So I’ve been delving at least a layer or two beneath that, seeking out more specialized books with thick bibliographies, tracking down papers in scholarly journals, getting to know the controversies, getting at least some sense of how history gets written.

Thus it happened that when a few days ago I stumbled upon Frank McLynn’s 1066: The Year of the Three Battles, in which the author boasts of demolishing the schoolboy version of Hastings, I had already read several articles in the Proceedings of the Battle Abbey Conference which touched on several of the precise sources he was dealing with, and could see that his version of events, while well written and plausible, represents after all just as much an oversimplification of the arguments as the schoolboy history – his reliance on the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, and his dismissal of the scene in the Bayeux tapestry traditionally taken to depict Harold grasping the arrow, are positions that have been argued both for and against with a lot more vigor and with citations of a lot more evidence than you would know from just reading McLynn.

Conservative Christians often accuse opponents of treating the Bible with greater skepticism than they do any other comparable book. Those who say this probably just don’t know how skeptical the scholarly-minded are towards all sources.


2 Responses to “The Arrow in Harold’s Eye”

  1. nickzi Says:

    Frankly, I’d treat anything McLynn says with deep suspicion. His biography of Napoleon is so inconsistent and lazily written that it deserves an entry in the Hall of Bibliograpic Shame all to itself.

  2. Jim Says:

    It’s a hard line to walk, this between interested amateur and committed hobbyist/actual historian. The intellectual dilettante is perpetually out of his/her depth and yet in water too shallow to swim.

    Still, it’s fun, innit? You’re going a good bit further than I have in my own flirtations (with history, philosophy, politics, pretty much everything, actually).

    I’m going to add you to my blogroll, just to give you another reason to update from time to time.

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