The original concept for the Gonzo History Project was something akin to the gonzo journalism movement of the mid-to-late 20th century. The idea behind gonzo journalism, as I understand it, is simply that there’s no such thing as journalistic objectivity. The journalist’s presence in the story is part of the story, and pretending that it isn’t is bullshit. So there’s no attempt at detachment.
Gonzo history was meant to be history in the first person, history written from the point of view of its participants, history that rejected historical analysis as a facile categorisation of raw experiences that resist those limits.
It hit a snag almost immediately. I was writing about the First Crusade, a subject that remains dear to my heart, and in particular I was looking at the accounts of the Battle of Antioch. See, the First Crusade is one for which — on the Latin side at least — we have pretty reasonable historical sources, including accounts written by people who were actually involved and more by people who had easy access to the eyewitnesses. And when it came to the Battle of Antioch, the preponderance of the sources support the idea that the Crusaders won because of, well, God. Saints came down from the sky, the pagans fled in disarray, huzzah, huzzah. That’s the conclusion of the closest sources we have.
Now I have read a lot of analyses of how the battle of Antioch actually played out, and of course they are full of talk about how the emirs of the Muslim army were divided, or the Crusaders pinned them against their camp, and so on. All perfectly reasonable. But what were the crusaders thinking?
Maybe they thought they saw saints. It was hot — summer in Syria — they were wearing heavy armour and they’d been fasting and praying for days. People will see some shit under those circumstances, no doubt. But it’s very hard for us modern readers to accept that for these medieval guys everything was a story, a fraught and terrifying story of spiritual conflict that was going on all the time.
See, in some ways, the gonzo movement itself corrupts and confuses what we think about when we think about history. We think about history as the unvarnished record of some thing that happened. But that is basically something that no premodern person thought. If you read Roman historians, they’re always reporting the speech the barbarian chief before the final battle. You think their readers thought there was a journalist standing behind Caractacus scribbling away and then taking the speech off to be translated from the original Brittonic? Bollocks they did.
So if the narrative history is just all polemic all the time … what can we really say about the past?