We Are Moderns

Top 5 Things to Consider When Reading an Historical Text as a Modern Scholar.

1. Don’t Commit the “Historian’s Fallacy”

After the Scientific Revolution (ca. 1500s) we moderns depend on evidence and facts in ways that generally didn’t occur to ancient or medieval people. They did not ask the same questions we ask and could not have anticipated our questions from their perspective (cf. Historian’s Fallacy).

2. We have an inescapable modern worldview.

Our perspective is that of an early 21st century modern worldview. We live in a society that differs greatly with what came before us.

  • 500 years ago, most Europeans would never leave the town of their birth or the job chosen for them as children.
    • They could not read a Bible, had never voted, or eaten a potato.
  • 400 years ago, it was still common practice for European women to cover their hair in public.
  • 200 years ago, no one knew Antarctica existed or that dinosaurs had ever walked the earth.
  • 175 years ago, slavery had always been a “normal” part of life.
  • 150 years ago, no one had ever travelled faster on land than a galloping horse.
  • 100 years ago, no one had ever heard of “antibiotics.”
  • 50 short years ago, it was perfectly “normal” and even legal to deny basic rights to certain Americans because of what they believed in, their skin color, or where they came from.

3. Knowledge from the past must be put in its proper context.

All of the words uttered or written throughout history come from a given perspective. As scholars, we aim to contextualize the historical record by taking notice of the ‘lenses’ through which others have seen the world (i.e. their world view, interests, assumptions, biases, limitations, etc.), and by exercising the best methods of analysis we now have available.

4. Meaning changes over time.

When we look at the meaning of concepts, we must understand that meaning changes and evolves over time. When we read the word “religion” in a 1500s Spanish Conquistador journal, it means something very different than when the word appears 200 years later in an English Puritan tract. In this way, concepts do not have a universal meaning, but are instead conditioned by their time, place, use, and authorial “lens.”

5. We have better sources now than at any single point or place since antiquity.

The development of textual and historiographical analysis has evolved by leaps and bounds—even in just the last several decades. We have several times as many copies of ancient texts now than we did just 100 years ago, much less a millennium ago. Moreover, the tools we use in exploring texts and archeological sites, as well as the international cooperation, shared digital research, and informed scholarship we now enjoy, is the best it has ever been.