This week we look at oral history…
According to Auntie Mavis…
Oral history is becoming rather popular these days. And why not. With the many recording devices and methods we have at our disposal, we should make every effort to get our thoughts and memories down on paper, CD, or whatever other fancy digital format may come along. Thing is, though, oral history isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
By their very nature, tales, stories and ‘evidence’ passed down to us by word-of-mouth are surely the least reliable of our family history facts. Where’s the paperwork to support it? Do other family members back auntie’s version of events? Is there even any circumstantial evidence? Is there, in fact, any corroborative data at all?
By academic standards, oral history stinks, frankly. It is unreliable, cannot for the most part be substantiated, and an unhealthy percentage of it is simply wrong. That is not to say that all of it is misleading, of course – indeed, most of it is probably perfectly fine. It’s just that we usually can’t prove it to be true, even if it is. And time and time again enough of it proves to be horribly wrong.
One of the most famous of these genealogical wild-goose chases was that which bedevilled John Hurt in the 2007 series of Who Do You Think You Are? (see here and here). During the exercise, the actor was led a merry dance by tales passed down through the family – nearly all of which turned out to be false leads.
But we’ve all been ‘had’. My mother’s family line, the Lothians, hailed, of course, from
– or so I was always told. So off we trotted to ‘genea HQ’ in Scotland to chase
back her line (this was back in the late 1980s) – only to find not even the
slightest sniff of Celtic blood. Turns out they were all from Edinburgh – every piece of 'proper' evidence I could turn up confirmed this. To this day, I have no
idea where the 'Scottish link’ came from – other than that someone, perhaps,
looked at the surname and made an
assumption. I have some absolute howlers on my father’s side, too, which I
could fill a book with. Cumberland
There are all sorts of other reasons for oral ‘porkies’, too, of course – primarily, fanciful links to the aristocracy and, of course, family ‘cover-ups’. After all, society wasn’t always as broadminded as it is today, and bending the truth was a good deal more preferable than leading an ‘honest’ life of shame and embarrassment. Even a little white lie is likely to become, over time, a whopping great fairy tale as a story changes with each retelling.
Deliberate mistruths are plentiful enough – and in some instances understandable. But then there are the little misunderstandings that become accepted as the truth over time. Oral histories are no different to other forms of evidence: this implies, too, that the further the teller is from the source of the story, the less reliable their version of events is likely to be. And in fact, evidence which is first-hand is only marginally more likely to be accurate than that which is second-hand – for one thing, is the teller being objective or subjective? It’s important. Ditto diaries, personal accounts and memoirs.
Personal accounts of the old days are great. But remember that oral history is not actual history – unless it is backed up by strong documentary evidence.
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