Oral vs. Written Family History: Not the Only Options

Which is the better way to preserve memory, stories told or stories written?  The debate is a long-entrenched one, with written documents claiming ascendency over the oral tradition in the western world.  So suspicious are we of oral testimony, even when you swear an oath in court, you do so with your hand on the Bible, a written text.

As anyone who has ever lost the contents of her computer’s hard drive or suffered a flood or a fire or an over-zealous co-habiting purger will know, written documents are exceptionally vulnerable.  The written record is only as good as its ability to survive the elements and the whims of fate.

My husband is an avid Franklin expedition historian, and he has been writing about the search for the missing ships of the ill-fated English captain for years. When researchers finally found the lost ships of the Franklin expedition, they were right where the Inuit had said they were all along.  I admit to feeling delight at that confirmation, not least because it validated the oral tradition.  I felt an odd sense of satisfaction in knowing that the written tradition that I hold so dear had not come through in this case.  I am overly dependent on writing and on photographs for recording history, and I like to think that something like a needle in a haystack could be found with stories that have been told for hundreds of years.

The oldest piece of English literature, Beowulf, is a marvel to me.  How did the bards manage to pass that poem down through time and generations?  How many hundreds and thousands of times did people gather to hear it before it was written down?

How do we know that what got written is definitive?  Does definitive matter?

It does in court, which accounts, perhaps, for covering both bases by swearing on the Bible.

There are other ways to confirm a spoken promise, though.  We also seal deals with handshakes, and it’s that tactile element of history that’s got me thinking these days.  In last week’s posts, Beth-Anne, Carol, Kerry, and I all chose objects to illustrate our family history that we can touch, and even though some of these are out of reach of small hands, some of them do get frequent handling.  I like the idea of capturing history in things that get frequent handling.

As poor as my memory is (Very poor.  For my own purposes, I’m squarely in the written and photographic record camp because I cannot be relied upon to remember anything.  I hoard books not just because I’m a bibliophile but because they are a (false) security blanket.), I do remember a designer on a TV show once saying about a very expensive front door handle that it was worth the price.  “It’s something that you will touch every day.”  That has stayed with me.  Something you will touch every day is worth paying more for, and something you touch every day would also surely be a wonderful piece of family history.Data dump Sept 15 2015 134

How does a tactile record of family history look?

I’m about to find out.  For Eldest’s Grade 8 graduation, I am having a quilt made for him from a selection of his old hockey, camp, school, books, movie and sports t-shirts.  They tell a story of who he was as a kid, a story that he will throw over himself every day, whether he sits to watch next season’s hockey games or read the next Hunger Games-like series that captures his imagination.  I picture him bundled up in it, and that’s the kind of (security) blanket in which I have full faith.  It is a gift I plan to give to his brothers, too, and to all three of them I will say the same thing:  If you ever tire of this and are tempted to throw it away, don’t.  Bring it back to me, and I will give it a home until the stories it tells speak to you again, as I hope they will for many, many years to come.

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