Just around Christmas, my friend sent me an article that she had published on the perception of the Normans in English history. What caught my eye in this article, among other things, was the notion of translatio studii, "the art of rewriting". Early histories are not objective reportings of fact, but rather a cobbling together of the literary and the historical to create "a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts". She is referring to Anglo-Norman historiography, but it is also evident in earlier histories. In reading old Greek and Roman histories, we were often cautioned about the author's "tendency to exaggerate" the facts. Even poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey, that are considered largely mythical, are often mined for nuggets of historical fact. Do I also need to mention the Bible here?
Gem points to the old French term estoire, which can mean "history" or "story" (not to mention the modern French word for story, "histoire"). What is fascinating about this to me is the expansion of the idea of historical truth. I couldn't point to a place on a timeline, but I'm thinking that it was sometime post-Enlightenment that we developed the idea of objective fact reporting. There is nothing wrong with this approach, except that our culture has come to expect it from texts that don't have it.
I've seen a lot of examples recently of scientific (i.e., purely fact-based) approaches to mythical subjects. Here are three examples from the last year:
Physicists prove that vampires don't exist
Scientists determine that angels can't fly
Scientists cast doubt on the existence of Santa Claus
I see a lot of this as an absurd extension of the religion/science debate in our culture. Religion is about myth, and religious writings are often a mixture of historical fact, fiction, and guidelines for a community. Anyone who thinks they can read religious scriptures as historical truth in our modern "objective" sense is misguided at best. The scientifically minded who try to take on religious belief on this basis are equally misguided. Certainly there are those who think that they must believe religious scriptures literally or else face punishment from an angry God. I suggest that those individuals read this.
But even beyond this, there is the whole idea that we can objectively come across something known as "truth". I've talked about this before, but this is a particularly interesting spin because it is commonly believed that we can obtain "facts" about things by looking at the past--the whole notion of causality (cause and effect) is based on this idea, and at least part of how we make predictions about future events and behavior. When the past is mostly allegory that points to something rather than stating it directly, then finding "truth" is as much of a scavenger hunt as it is with present uncertainties. The absurdity of human attempts to "know" the past from archaeological documents and historical writings is obviously illustrated in this mock historical documentary on the Beatles from 1,000 years in the future. But even with recent history, where documentation methods are considered to be more sound, there is still room for deception, and there is still the whole problem of subjective spin.
Perhaps, then, truth is not to be found in documented collections of "facts". Facts are meaningless outside of context, and context will be interpreted differently by each person.