Where do historical individuals come from?

Sentences end with full stops, but for some reason we don’t punctuate the beginnings.

Like sentences, historical individuals are suddenly just there. They emerge into our field of vision, they walk on stage, they emerge from some vague fog of the unknowable to become historical. They marry, or inherit, they pick up a gun or write a book.

The thought is provoked by my unease when dealing with participants in criminal court cases. Who are they really? Where did they come from? Too often, the answer feels like ‘no-one’, ‘nowhere’.

Almost as soon as I have got these words down, I regret writing them.

What, I suddenly realise, about birth certificates? In the quest to know who someone ‘is’, I feel a sense of completion when I have seen that textual proof of origin. Mother’s (and sometimes father’s) name, a place, a date, a true name.

The French state records are thorough and consistent on these things. There, after all, the person is. Not so much a full stop, as a semi-colon. Mother-father; daughter.

But I am not sure about this, either.

The Spanish have punctuation marks that come before the words even start, signalling if a sentence will be a question or a declaration. History does not. In some senses there is no document more useless for understanding a life than a birth certificate.

It was easy to mistake these documents for certainty. This was how I felt when I looked at thousands for my PhD research, searching of a few hundred individuals. What I quickly realised was how little certainty they give.

People lie, of course. Mothers lie about fathers. Fathers lie about fathers. Do they even lie about mothers? It seems improbable. In any case, everyone lies about ages. So people lie. I can deal with that.

It’s the mistakes: the wrong names, the wrong addresses. Even worse, the facts that were true at the time, but that are no longer true. A man is christened ‘Pierre’, but for all his life he is ‘Jean’, not just to friends, but on official documents.

There is no correcting for these false starts. What does it change of what you think of a man to know his name is not his own?


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