October 02, 2010

Names

Another wonderful article in the London Review of Books from last week caught my eye recently. It concerned Greek names. A set of classicists have since the 1970s being publishing a glossary of every single Greek name mentioned in a classical source. The undertaking is formidable as it begins with the earliest poetry of Homer and Hesiod if not before, and runs all the way forwards into Byzantium. Its a brilliant idea though as even the list of names tells us so much about the way that the Greeks thought and what they believed in. Names are an indicy of what parents want their children to be. I have my grandfather's middle name for example, reflecting the close relationship between my mother and her father. But its not only family affection that names can immortalise: the famous Praise-God or Unless-Jesus-Christ-had-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebone was no atheist and nor were his parents! The LRB article has plenty of examples from Greek literature of this kind of thing.

The other wonderful insight that something like a name gives a historian or anyone else for that matter is a window into another life. History is about people who left records. So for example the most famous Roman governor of Bithynia- Pliny the younger- is so because he left his letters behind to immortalise him. I doubt that many people could name many more governors of Bithynia off the top of their heads. If you like history studies the small circle of those who left records behind them. But there is a wider circle who left fragments of their lives in other's records: so for example Pliny's letters might mention a corrupt local official, we know about him because of that and that alone. There is an even wider circle who left nothing but their name behind them: one of my tasks during my PhD was to try and work out who served in the New Model Army and how they related to each other, you could do that in part from looking at petitions sent in to the headquarters, signed by as many as a dozen or two dozen people, whose names are all that we have left of them. Names therefore are the only thing that signal the intentions of these people and their parents, they are the obscured trace of a fingerprint they left in history.

What names can tell us is always a bit of a guess. Along with all decisions in human life assigning motivation is always harder than it appears at first sight- why did x do y? The only way to assign motive is to look inside someone's head as they make their decision, and sometimes even that as Michael Frayn warns us in Copenhagen might not be enough. So when we look at those finger prints, the contours are faded, the texture is eroded, but we still have something from their lives to try and learn about the past from. The fascination of history is its incompleteness, we don't know why or often when or what things happened, we only guess in an educated fashion: we grope in the dark towards the past and occasionally our hands hit something, like a Greek name in a letter.

1 comments:

James Higham said...

The other wonderful insight that something like a name gives a historian or anyone else for that matter is a window into another life. History is about people who left records. So for example the most famous Roman governor of Bithynia- Pliny the younger- is so because he left his letters behind to immortalise him.

That's right so what are people to make of our writings in one thousand years?