Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The history thing.

First, a bit of background. I'm married to a guy in the military and I have seen a good bit of 'what really happened' vs. 'what was on the news', and I always remember that when I'm reading history books. So I concentrate on contemporary documents, firsthand accounts, and archeology and take most official historical accounts with a big grain of salt, because I suspect historians are often as accurate as Fox News.

In the same vein, I'm going to have to dip a toe into politics here, and I'd like to get it out of the way first that I take people as INDIVIDUALS, so there's no need to flame me and inform me that most Arabs or Europeans or Christians or whatever are nice people. I KNOW that. (Believe me, I would not have survived ten years in Hawaii, let alone enjoyed it, if I had a chip on my shoulder about any specific group of people. It's one hell of a diverse culture they've got going out there. I loved it.) Unfortunately the current political climate in most of the world does not reflect it. In fact, much of my annoyance with modern historians in general is, they sing the current cultural song and ignore facts sitting under their noses if they conflict with whatever people want to hear. (One reason I so enjoy archeology is because it's constantly disproving what's in the history books, and drives historians insane.)

All right, then.

A while back I wrote an article for Knitty on the history of knitting. (Yes, that was me.) I did my best to avoid any of my more unusual conclusions, becauce I was expecting to be attacked anyway, for saying Arabs invented knitting (due to our lovely political climate). While I was not attacked, I did recieve a lot of very lameass e-mails with lameass reasons why the Arabs could not have invented knitting, most of it boiling down to 'I don't like it that way' or 'some other historian said so'. Unfortunately for the readers AND the historians, the archeology is almost like X marks the spot - a really amazing amount of knitting found in Egypt that pre-dates knitting found anywhere else in the world, and as obvious a trail as you're going to get (eight, ten hundred years after the fact) leading from the Arab world at the time - including Spain - up into Europe. Not to mention Europe was burning people at the stake for thinking while the Arab world was encouraging thought, learning, and experimentation. Ditto, the Arab world had enough excess to support scholars and other specialists like textile makers, while most of Europe was living hand-to-mouth doing subsistence farming. Given all these things, which culture was more likely to turn out a revolutionary idea?

Here, then, are facts as we know them:
- There are a bunch of "Coptic" socks from Egypt, dating from about 1000 to 1200 CE. All are knit with cotton dyed with indigo, and all have Islamic motifs in them, up to and including things in Arabic spelled out.
- The first chunk of knitting found in Europe is from Spain (then an Arab-held territory) dating to the 1200s. It has a combination of Arab and European motifs on it. (Arabic blessing, European heraldry.)
- The next bits of knitting in Europe are from France and Italy (adjoining Spain, see a trend here?) dating to the 1300s.
- Fancy knitted trade items (stockings and undershirts and gloves) thought to have been produced in Spain (they are usually made of silk or cotton, not common fibers in most of Europe at that time) are found all over Europe starting in the 1300s.

Do knitting historians face these facts? Why, no. They ignore them. Or make up outlandish, unlikely stories to explain them.

Richard Rutt (growl, snarl) is an ANGLICAN BISHOP for his day job, and will never, in a million years, admit that Arabs/Muslims invented knitting. This does not mean Europeans invented it, it means that Rutt is a Eurocentric, racist dipshit. His history book is one of the worst examples of ignoring facts that I have ever witnessed. He lays out all those facts stated above, and then claims there is no reason to believe Arabs invented knitting. ??!

James Norbury, I think, just made shit up. His 'Traditional Knitting Patterns' is full of unfounded rumor and other things that make me go "Wha??!!??" when I read it. According to him, Copts in Egypt invented knitting (all those first socks found in Egypt have "Allah" knit on them in Arabic - knit by Christians? Yeah. And I'm Hatshepsut) and then took knitting to England when they Christianized it. (Er... every history book I've ever read, the Catholics Christianized the British Isles, and the Copts never did any missionary work I ever heard of.)

Somebody competent needs to re-examine all the artifacts found, and write a real history of knitting. I'd love to do it, but I don't have the credentials or the rep to get into museums and lay hands on all the pieces. So I will continue brooding and snarling and ranting.

This concludes today's history rant, er, lesson.


Netter said...

It's not just knitting that we like to deny other cultures credit. But that's just the white euro-centric centers of "thought" and "history" exerting their hegemony.

debsnm said...

I was a history major in college, and one thing I noticed is that "history" is written by the conquerors, not the conquered. And, for some reason, there's this great, big, giant, HUGE ego-thing going on in Roman Catholic/Spanish/European thought. Just think about it for a sec - here come all these white people to this new continent they didn't even know existed a few years before, and they said "I CLAIM THIS LAND IN THE NAME OF THE QUEEN!" Wha? there's people already here? Well, we're better!
No wonder the world's in the shape it's in - they shoulda stuck with the women.

Vivienne said...

Does the fact that Richard Rutt spent most of his working life in Korea make hime more or less Eurocentric? (That's not meant to be in any way snide, I'm interested in your view, because it could be argued either way - and on the front cover of the original edition all the books on his shelves were in Korean, so he must have had some engagement with the culture).

And he himself has recently said that there needs to be a better book - but at 80-something (he stopped bishoping 20 or so years ago) he isn't going to be the one who writes it. It says something about the status of knitting that after 20 years a general book by an amateur is still just about as good as it gets.

Julie said...

Some Europeans have managed to live among other cultures and remain completely Eurocentric their entire lives, even getting worse as time went on in several cases. (Read some memior selections from East India Company employees in the 1800s, or settlers to Africa. It's apalling.) So the fact that Rutt lived in Korea most of his adult life doesn't really mean much to me, when compared with what he actually wrote in his history book.

I'm interested to know, however, that he does think another book needs written. He wasn't so bad on the European portion of the book (naturally). In fact what blows me away about that book is how he DOIES diligently record the facts - including graphs of 'Coptic' socks and the works - and then STILL denies what's staring him in the face.

ScotSkipper said...

Add the history of history, too. What's accepted as "history" changes through time.

Alwen said...

Random thoughts:

It wouldn't surprise me at all if knitting originally developed in the Arab world.

If Rutt, an amateur, can write a knitting history . . . :) you have no excuse. Credentials, schmedentials. It's all about uncredentialed lay history fanatics here. (Uh-oh, am I talking to you or myself?)

And Norbury. Ah. He's one of the "sources not to use" in clothing history circles. Him & Mrs. Bury-Paliser. I think he did make stuff up. What drives me wild is people who quote him to refute you, and they are totally sure they're right, because "they wouldn't print stuff that was wrong". Gah.

Amy Lane said...

God(ess) love you. That was totally interesting--I've heard bits and pieces of it, so I've never really gotten the 'Christianized' version of it, but I'm with you...(it's why Aristotle said Poetry is More Important Than HIstory or PHilosophy--the only real truths we will ever know are the truths of the human heart. Unless you're an 'Historian' where you make up truths to fit the mentality of the mob masses, and ignore both truth AND the human heart.)

Arianne said...

When I get my degree in Archaeology and Conservation of Objects in Museums from Cardiff University I'll cut you in on my research deal.

Please note that I erm, am not enrolled and cannot afford to do it for some time. But I've decided it's what I want to do when I finally go back to school.

nettlefly said...

I know this is an older post, but I stumbled into it and I had to say that I agree so much with you! I had been thinking I was the only one who saw problems with the Rutt book for example.

I would love to see peer-reviewed research on the topic. Or perhaps at least some more divergence in the argumentation by different researchers. (I don't mean to imply that only academics can do this research, just that discussion with many viewpoints represented would be important.)