Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gorged With Gobbets

Mary Beard on the "gobbet" (aka "throwing an unidentified piece of [writing] at students, and expecting them to identify it and say something sensible about it."):

In Ancient History, as in most other historical disciplines, the gobbet still holds an honoured place, as the best test of the novice’s acumen and skill. The student is confronted with a few sentences of text, the more apparently unremarkable the better: perhaps part of Cicero’s list of names of those senators who assisted his recall from exile in 57 BC, or Tacitus’s casual reference to the death of some second-rank Roman noble, or the career of a senator as recorded on his tombstone. The answer has to show that you know what the passage is about, where it comes from and why it might be more important historical evidence than it seems. But to get top marks you have to be able to explain why we might not wish to take the text concerned at face value. Could Cicero have been economical with the truth in constructing his list of helpers? Is there more to the Roman noble than meets the eye? Can you detect a mysterious, and significant, gap in that senator’s CV? Is there some other piece of evidence you can drag out (from memory) which gives a subtly different picture?

The gobbet is, in other words, an exercise not only in showing that you know the sources well, but also in showing that you know better than them. It is an adversarial kind of exercise, which pits the historian against the ancient evidence, and challenges him or her to prove their superiority. As such, it encapsulates the two competing tendencies that lie at the very heart of the study of Greek and Roman history: the first is a tremendous reverence for the evidence, especially the literary evidence, that gives us access to what happened in the ancient world; the second is a simultaneous distrust of the reliability of that evidence and a sense that the expert historian must find a way to transcend the bias and loaded agenda of the ancient writers themselves. This is a conflict which goes back to the nineteenth-century origins of ancient history as a modern discipline, and continues even now.

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