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Why Have Societies Been Concerned To Construct Narratives Of Their Own Origins And Past Histories Notes

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Jonathan Lindsell 25/04/2011 Why have societies been concerned to construct narratives of their own origins and past histories?
Virtually every country or civilization studied has a history, whether written as such or arising from its art, its oral memory, documents and culture. Whichever is the case, the history is still "constructed", whether deliberately or not, with purposes in mind or not. A functionalist attitude would dictate that all narrative histories were created to serve purposes other than the mere positivist recording of "what happened". Anything created by a human must have his or her skew, traces of attitudes, censorship, fear, ignorance of certain events, and singular perspective. So history arises from societies with constructed boundaries, which serve one or several purposes, with the authors' knowledge or inadvertently. Some of the more blatant examples of this are the construction, or perhaps better amplification, of history to stimulate and promote the tourism trade of a region or country. Looking deeper, many histories serve to justify rulers, secure political situations or safeguard the viewpoint of a group. Sometimes running parallel to this is the function of helping create a social cohesion and a national unification through embracing a shared history, and at a more basic level, providing people with the pride and sense of belonging to a community that appears to be a base human urge. Fiscal needs have become almost universal in human civilisation, and governments are often inclined to exploit their countries' history for financial gain. Often this results in an intense focus on only a few small sectors of a country's history at the expense of the rest- for example, visitors to Italy would almost certainly be drawn in by the Roman remains, and the renaissance artworks of Florence, Pisa and Venice, missing out on, for example, Italy's part in world wars or the history of its unification. The lucrative tourism industry is often a force behind the construction of history, and this can go beyond selecting periods, to actual fabrication. The Cretan town of Rethemnos seems such an example, where tourists are directed to view all the architecture surviving from the previous Venetian rule (1210-1669) and Ottoman rule (1669-1898) at the expense of evidence of Greek culture, to the extent that in some cases the government coerces townspeople to remove their own plastering to reveal the old Venetian decoration, or buildings are "dressed up" to appear more classical than they in fact are, or the old Rethemniots are "forced to pretend to bear Turkish cultural traditions"1. The utility of history to justify or secure rulers or situations is such that history is frequently constructed tailored to those ends. In other cases, history not written with such intents is still suitable. A number of examples exist, perhaps the semi-mythical figures of Kings Arthur and Charlemagne being the most obvious to the Western world. Arthur, who, according to the widely read and believed history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, was at one point ruler of an Empire that encompassed the British Isles, Rome and France, and had conquered the Saxons, was a perfect justification for the claims to kingship of successive English monarchs. That he unified the diverse peoples cohabiting in the Isle, with apparent charisma and heroism, meant that virtually any king could claim some link to him, from the Angevin Edward I, who called himself "Arthurus revividus", to Henry VII, drawing on his Welsh ancestry to associate with the Briton king, to James I and IV, proclaiming to be Arthur's successor in reunifying Scotland and England. Charlemagne is a strong parallel to 1

A Place in History: Social and Monumental Time in a Cretan Town, M. Herzfeld, p15


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