Memoria, Oratio, Scriptura: Truth and Method in Local Histories

By James Johnson

It would seem that History, in subject terms, from every culture and ethnic group, has memory as its precursor to contemporary method, utilized for documenting and understanding linear time, ancestry, and even ethnographic boundaries in retrospect. Memory can externally form in expressive traditions through song, chant, verse, and other articles of art and culture.

Spiritual, artistic, or physical articles of importance manifest a People’s group or individual memories. Transcribed in coastal red cedar totems by some aboriginals of the Pacific Northwest, or in tribute to nature and death carved upon neolithic cairns of some of the first Irish, these exist as tangible artifacts. Artifacts arguably at the crossroads of extinction and resurgent significance.

Oral history, unique to no ethnic group, appears as a cataloguing schema of the natural world, familial genealogical group-sets, and ritual spiritualism. Often perceived as an inferior form of historical collection and dissemination, Oral methodologies are the probable human default. Oral history can serve a culture of “illiterates” with no written language just as well as the culture where class structure dictated one’s likelihood of literacy. Where invention and technology arose to become the barrier breakers to monograph making and acquisition, literacy rates increased. There was an undeniable drive within the medieval peasantry to attain and share knowledge in this new way. Why? Written word, painfully transcribed by hand and in various languages – an ordeal obviously suited to the patience of priestly monks – long predated the German inventor’s newfangled printing press. Of course the sentiments of an illiterate European peasantry furnished with enough gumption to avoid utter despair will permanently be beyond my knowing, but I am willing to make the presumption that literacy was purpose-driven in the pursuit of Truth.

Truth, for some reason or another, is a core ethical tenant embedded in the institutions which I value. Truth in justice, truth in marriage. Truth in the knowledge that I’m buying beef and not man-meat from the grocery store. So imagine now the dichotomy of literate and illiterate groups sharing consensus as to what is Truth based on writ of law. How could anyone expect the disenfranchised not to seek this levelled plane? In the Western Hemisphere, this inequity has been routed with functional literacy rates increasing over time. The proficiency with which the growing or diminishing number of individuals developing critical analysis skills through literacy is a topic for another time.

Truth is a value in the bones of the rural community. The importance of reporting on the dull or exceptional true lives of people is evident in the abundance of early newspapers under various monikers: gazette’s, gleaners, standards, dispatches, and heralds. Keeping and distributing journals of record shared the union of clans, civil administrative machinations, and vociferation’s of the mourning. These isolated publications, those few issues salvaged by forward-thinking preservationists of their respective times, provide for us now an avenue of exploration much deeper than any oral tradition could aspire to. If you wanted to know the price of a pound of bacon or stew chuck in 1841 Upper Canada, and I were to share anecdotally that my great, great, great Grand Pop told his kid, and he told his kid, and so on and so forth, that it cost $0.10 cents a pound, how would you or anyone else know it for truth? Or that coinage wasn’t dollars or cents but pounds, sterling, and pence at that time?

Obviously, written and oral history share a common aspect. They are subject to the experience and subsequent opinion of scribe and speaker alike. The confounding nature of this truth, obfuscating the notion of Truth itself, remains an area of personal interest. However, preferring to adopt a First Nations approach to challenge this hypocrisy; listening to the speaker’s (or writer’s) experiences and respecting their stories as lived experiences. Or some version of it, if you like.

European settlements have a longstanding practice of recording their lives in minute detail. A direct impact of written versus oral histories is evident in the range of volumes produced by counties, townships, and historical societies throughout North America. This abundance of record serves a community in many ways, provided a community acknowledges that it may not represent all contemporary subgroups, a fact apparently less self-evident the more our mindsets shift progressively. It is apparent to most sincere researchers that written records, including census documents, were apt to inconsistency or outright error. This is a reflection of the relationship between oral and written traditions, rather than a condemnation of either. Whether reciting from memory or recalling events in testimony, the potential for error appears for both. Nevertheless, I could tell you the tale of the Sandyford Mystery, a cold blooded Scottish yarn of greed, betrayal, and murder! I might even get half the story right from off the top of my head, and that might be enough for some. For others, there is the near 500 page court proceedings, digitized from microfiche and available here. I value this information, and the method it is presented by, due in great part to my general distrust of strangers. Acknowledging biases in printed opinions, the factors of information processing in person are just as impactful, if not more. These include body language, intonation, level of voice, language or accent barriers, and physical location apprehension. Not to mention the challenge of returning to the materials for clarification.

Nevertheless, regarding either as inferior or superior is not the point. I remain convinced that the two methods are connected by progression. Spoken words become written. Ethnographers and anthropologists embark on fieldwork collecting and cataloguing oral histories and myths as a matter of survival, not some misplaced sense of superiority, though I’m sure the latter sentiment exists, however limited it may be. These oral histories aren’t necessarily the mythological origin stories of the Indians in North America either. Diminishing language and culture in some groups in the British isles is a growing concern for their respective Governments and local leaders.

The banner image for this article displays a collage of local history monographs. Township councils, historical societies, and sometimes impassioned local members, collect records and primary source material to tell the tale of their community’s past. Photographs and land purchase agreements, birth, marriage, and census data. And of course, the stories. Oral stories, parallel the hard data, adds the human element, and in many case confirms doubts or supports beliefs. These books and more like them are critically endangered. The growing ranks of rural ghost towns supports this prediction of doom. Young people can’t write local histories if they aren’t living the reality of them.

I suppose in a way that should be my pitch to counsel. That little town comically presented on the brink of insolvency, victims of Tommyknockers or invading body-snatchers, needs an archivist. A town preservationist, with ties to the community and desire to maintain stories, engage youth, and advocate for funding from all levels of government. Is that the solution to the ghost town epidemic? Not in and of itself but in revitalization efforts, paramount.

Find these old books if you can, while you can. Primary and secondary source material like no other. Specifics will vary by location so ask a Librarian in the geographical area you are interested in researching. For Ontario researchers, listed society websites often sell their own publications or provide tips on where you can find them.

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