Biographical Literature in Premodern Eurasian Historiography: The Individual in the Grand Sweep of History

AHA Session 214
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Nassau West (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Stefan Kamola, Eastern Connecticut State University
Rewriting Tang Dynastic History through Biography
Anna Shields, Princeton University
The Blessed History of Ghazan Khan: The Biography of a Dynasty
Stefan Kamola, Eastern Connecticut State University
Manan Ahmed, Columbia University

Session Abstract

All historians struggle with their sources. One constant challenge is how to interpret the elaborations, omissions, and outright falsifications of narrative sources, and how to use those sources despite the discrepancies they exhibit when compared to other bodies of evidence. This is particularly true since narrative sources have often been written and appreciated at least as much for their literary qualities as their factual accuracy. Sometimes minor deviations or gaps in the record can be corrected through critical reading of parallel sources or by recourse to documentary evidence. Other times, the seeker for “history as it actually happened” can only throw up her hands in despair. However, those same literary elaborations provide some of our most candid windows into the anxieties and preoccupations of their authors, often shedding light on “history as it must have been.”

In this panel, we propose to explore a series of case studies where the form of historical writing expands our understanding of the individuals and societies that created them. We will examine narrative sources whose form is integral to their composition, particularly with regard to their use of literary strategies designed to heighten the dramatic or moral quality of the history they relate. In particular, the papers of this panel investigate the role that biography plays in historical chronicles from across medieval and early modern Eurasia. The authors of the sources examined here narrate their subjects’ lives in order to clarify, expand, or fabricate historical trajectories on a scale much longer than one human life. This is a comparative panel, placing examples from medieval Japan, China, and Iran alongside one another to expose common strategies of literary historiography as well as culturally specific ones.

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