On Too Little of a Good Thing
Updated: Apr 14
After failing in numerous attempts at opening an external drive (the tiny white light on the side lit up and flickered like a distant refuge and my hopes were momentarily raised, but nothing appeared on my laptop screen), I sent it off to a company in Tel Aviv that resolves such issues, but the cost they estimated for extracting the material was exorbitant and far beyond what I was willing to pay. My fear that there might be some irreplaceable material on it was not as great as was the feeling of this being daylight robbery, and as I have multiple backups of most of the material I did not lose a great deal of sleep over it. But the experience has motivated me to reorganise my stored digital materials, and what has become clear to me from this little episode is that I have been overly careful in preserving material and have often created excessive multiple copies of files, far beyond what I require. I may have become a digital version of those people who fill their houses and yards with piles and piles of unnecessary items, never throwing anything away for fear that it might one day come in handy. Time, I think, for a major digital decluttering.
It seems that for future historians the quantity of materials preserved by modern storage methods will provide them with much more raw material for writing their histories. But is that necessarily a good thing? Might they not find themselves overwhelmed with insignificant information? Certainly, there will be a need to reconsider how to deal with the vast quantities of written, audio and pictorial material. Like most things, this will have both negative and positive aspects, but it is probably better to have too much than too little. I often feel that historians studying the Latin East are at a disadvantage. I recently watched a documentary by Mary Beard in which she discussed Roman funerary monuments, and how they provided a fascinating and informative mine of information on the lives of unknown individuals who would otherwise have been forgotten. Roman history is particularly rich in the quantity and variety of its sources. How nice it would be to have a similarly broad coverage of the Latin East. It seems, by and large, that the Frankish settlers were ungenerous and unimaginative when it came to documentation. There are, true enough, some very good chronicles, but they deal with major events and central characters. For a broader scan of the period and the people, there are still untapped sources in the archives, and pilgrims have left useful writings, though these are quite limited in number.
Archaeology is bound to provide useful material in the future, but to date it has been in many ways disappointing with regard to the written word. Only a single example of a Latin text, a letter composed by the Templar seneschal, Gerard de Ridefort (c. 1184), has been found. It was discovered in the al-Aqsa Mosque in the 1920s. Nothing similar has come to light since then. Building inscriptions are almost non-extant, and if we compare the Frankish tombstones to those found at Roman sites, they are sadly uncommunicative, and rarely enlightening on anything more than the name of the deceased and the year of his or her death. Two sites that I have excavated illustrate this paucity in written material. At the Teutonic hospital in Acre, other than usual inscriptions found on coins we discovered only a single fragment of an inscription carved on a piece of marble, consisting of a single letter – ‘p’ or ‘b’. At Montfort, where the Teutonic archive was located until it was carried away by the departing garrison in July 1271 (later preserved in the Central Archives in Berlin and published in the 19th century*), there is almost nothing. The archive itself contained almost no information at all on the castle and its inhabitants. Excavations in 1926 and since 2006 have found no written material apart from a hardly decipherable Arabic inscription on an Islamic glass beaker and those inscriptions on a not excessively large number of coins, mainly Lusignan Cypriot deniers of mid-thirteenth century date displaying only the names of the kings and the kingdom – HUGO REX/CYPRI or HENRICUS/REX CYPRI.
* Tabulae Ordinis Theutonici, ed. E. Strehlke, Berlin, 1869 (reprinted Jerusalem, 1975)