Memory and History: A Return to Something Meaningful

Now, to claim that memory includes genuine historical recollection is to repeat the arguments of past scholarship. What was true in the criticism of the historical value of oral tradition is just as valuable when it comes to memory studies. It is an illusion to believe that memory, a.k.a. oral tradition in early societies, preserves much of interest for the historians studying the past history of such societies.

See Also: Memory and the Knowledge of Things Past

By Niels Peter Lemche
University of Copenhagen
April 2015

Probably the essential sentence in Daniel Pioske’s “Memory and the Knowledge of Things Past”[1] is this: “I find the concept of memory to be of historical value.”

The question is, in what respect is memory valuable to historical studies? The answer, which seems self-evident, is that it is valuable as a testimony of those who wrote historiography in ancient times, i.e., it is a reflection of the beliefs and sentiments belonging to the age in which these memories were put into writing.

However, when Daniel Pioske formulates it this way: “Are literary memories ever to be considered ‘historical’ sources into the past they represent?” we are in trouble. How can it be decided whether a memory is historical or not? It sounds like a repetition of the old discussion about oral tradition in the center of a heated debate more than sixty years ago. Here the front lines ran between those who would put faith in the ability of oral transmission to remember the past and those who agreed that this is not possible. This writer, brought up within the tradition of the late “Uppsala School,”[2] was used to being presented with the argument that a society like ancient Israel was able to preserve genuine historical recollections orally over a long period of time. Modern studies of oral societies tend to disagree with this position. The studies of Jack Gulick (e.g. Gulick 2010) and Walter Ong (Ong 2012) are well-known examples of skepticism when it comes to extracting historical information about the past—in relation to the time of writing down of the “memory.” Gulick is very expressive in his argument that oral societies remember nothing. Or, it is the old case of uncle Remus: When the grandfather (today we would say: grandparents to be politically correct) dies, his recollections die with him.

Memory, Cultural Memory, Collective Memory, Social Memory

Now, to claim that memory includes genuine historical recollection is to repeat the arguments of past scholarship.[3] What was true in the criticism of the historical value of oral tradition is just as valuable when it comes to memory studies. It is an illusion to believe that memory, a.k.a. oral tradition in early societies, preserves much of interest for the historians studying the past history of such societies.

One of the basic problems with memory studies has to do with terminology, which is by all means an unsettled issue. In English we may talk about memory proper, or collective memory, or social memory, or cultural memory.

Here we are already in trouble, because the first two terms were coined by social anthropologists and sociologists like Maurice Halbwachs (Halbwachs 1925), himself a student of Émile Durkheim. Some sociologists use the term social memory (e.g. Namer 2000—Namer is the modern editor of Halbwachs: Halbwachs 1994; 1997; cf. also—trying to place Halbwachs in context—the contributions to B. Péquinot 2007). The term “cultural memory” was invented by Jan Assmann, an Egyptologist (Assmann 1999; 2011) and may have little in common with Halbwachs’ ideas about group memory, because that was exactly what Halbwachs meant when formulating his ideas about collective memory. The title of Halbwachs’ incomplete and posthumously published study on collective memory (Halbwachs 1950; 1997) may testify to a changing basic attitude to memory, if the title used for his second book was composed by Halbwachs himself. As is well-known, Halbwachs died in Buchenwald a few weeks before the end of the Second World War, and he accordingly had no influence on the final editing of his papers.

So what is the big difference? A cultural student like Assmann—and this also implies his brilliant wife Aleida Assmann, professor of English literature and civilization at the University of Koblenz, whose study of cultural memory is perhaps much more stringent than anything Jan Assmann has ever written about the subject (A. Assmann 2011)—works with written sources. And to be fair, the only specimens of cultural memory in existence from ancient times are in written form—of course. This is another example of the closeness between the discussion of memory and oral tradition among biblical scholars who are simply repeating the same arguments as their teachers used in connection with oral tradition, for the obvious reason that we are talking very much about the same phenomenon. It goes without saying that field studies, the usual practice among sociologists and social anthropologists, are out of the question when talking about dead cultures such as ancient Near Eastern ones. And no student of oral tradition will forget the impression made by students of Homer seventy years ago by Milman Perry and A.B. Lord, and made accessible by A.B. Lord (Lord 1960). The historian Geoffrey Cubitt considers Assmann’s position to be problematic: “it presents us with us with a dangerously idealized picture of social memory’s functions” (Cubitt 2007:223).

A student of ancient culture often makes the mistake of identifying those who created traditions—memories if you like—with themselves, and at the same time forgetting how different ancient societies were construed in comparison to modern ones. First of all literacy was negligible—even in Greece and Rome. 90% were unable to read and write. Second, there were no mass media to distribute the message. The target of an elitarian composition which we may call cultural memory was shallow, and did mainly embrace those in contact with the elite. Outside of this minority—a few percent of the society—no such thing as a cultural memory was in existence, or we have at least no traces of its existence.

When moving to the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, it must be stressed that he never was a social anthropologist. He was a sociologist following the lead of Émile Durkheim, his teacher. His object was not foreign exotic people but social groups in his native France. This is exactly the reason why his first book on the subject carries the title Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (Halbwachs 1925). A social group may be everything. Thus it could be a single family preserving traditions relating to this family. Most people possess such traditions—or memories, but only a few of them survive the third generation, as I already mentioned. A few people are able to absorb more of this kind of memories than others, or they are more interested in such recollections, but it is only to postpone the inevitable, which is oblivion. Thus I know that my great grandfather, born in 1835, was the author of the children’s song “the little sandman,”[4] but he died in 1901, 44 years before I was born. So memories about this person are stories told by my mother who herself was born in 1909, and who therefore had these recollections from her family. However, when I tried to trace the family myths about the Italian countess, my great-great grandmother who eloped with the Swiss manager in charge of her father’s estate, it turned out that she was born in Copenhagen as the daughter of a Swiss baker. As my brother said: You can be glad that our mother is dead! History and memory need not go well together. I shall return to the theme of history in memory in a moment.

A social group defined as a discrete social group could, however, just as well be the supporters of a football club. Maybe academic arrogance will deny such a thing but anyone who has witnessed the tribal wars in connection with European football matches would know that everything relevant to the description of such discrete groups are operative here, including speech, and dress. You don’t go to a match between, say Manchester United and Manchester City, as a supporter and dressed up as a supporter of the first mentioned club, in order to take a seat among the adherents of the second club—or you will soon be in severe trouble. Groups like these are kept together by a collective memory going back, again, no longer than three generations.

Collective memory is a myth, just as well as cultural memory, if we mean a memory shared by the whole population of an ancient society moving far back in time. Assmann has, however, done something to defend his position by arguing for the importance of festivals for the maintenance of the national memory (Assmann 2011:41-4; 1992:56-9). Many will probably follow him there, as it is exactly what is asked for in the OT traditions about the festivals when all of Israel had to go to the common sanctuary to hear the stories about the past. Especially Deuteronomy comes to mind, opening with a long speech by Moses reviewing the past history of Israel, and including many admonitions to listen and hear.

Society and memory in the Ancient Palestinian World

However, to understand how collective or social memory worked in an ancient Palestinian society, you need to present an analysis of the sociology of this society. Such an in depth examination is not possible here, but briefly put, generally two phenomena dominated. On one hand a village-culture including basic agriculture and husbandry, and on the other the patronage system (cf. Pfoh 2009): Two kinds of loyalties not necessarily in conflict. The daily life of the peasant was dominated by mundane occupations, never changing and shared by all other peasants living in the same village. Such a society would be exclusively oral. The patronage element linked such villages to more influential “great men” living either in one of the villages belonging to his patronage, or in the main city close to the authorities of the state, including the king. Communication in a patronage society would be vertical, not horizontal. Members of one patronage group would not communicate freely with members of other similar groups, but vertically between the peasants living in the village and their patron living perhaps in the capital. Treason, i.e., communicating outside one’s own group, was always considered a primary crime.

The elite, living mostly in the capital, formed a parasite group, with no obligations to till the land and provide food for the society. The communication within this group would be very different from the one in the patronage groups. However, they would form a discrete group of their own, most likely with the ruler (king) as their patron. It would, in most societies, like the ancient Palestinian one, be very restricted as to numbers but it would also be mainly literate, and if at all having the leisure time for occupations such as putting a cultural memory, an official version of the history of their society, together.

History and memory

Now back to the question of history and memory. I published an article about this subject a couple of years ago, in Danish (Lemche 2013). The main argument had to do with the character of history writing in ancient times, and the difference between modern history and ancient. The ancient historiographer possessed none of the critical tools of modern historians. History in our sense of the word is a newcomer to our civilization and hardly understood outside it. It may be illustrated by the following quotation from one of the founding fathers of biblical criticism, Richard Simon:

“Moreover, those same prophets that one can call public scribes to distinguish them from other private writers, had the freedom to create compilations of ancient documents that were preserved in the archives of the republic [of the Hebrews], and to give these same documents a new shape, adding or taking away what they judged necessary to be treated in this way. Thanks to this principle, one will find solid grounds to justify the additions and changes that are found in these sacred books, without diminishing their authority for this reason since the authors of these additions or changes were true prophets led by the Spirit of God. Therefore the changes that they may have introduced into the ancient documents will have the same authority as the rest of the text of the Bible.” (Simon 1679)

In spite of his critical attitude to the biblical text, Simon was still embedded in past historiography where the story had to be adjusted to get the message through. The meaning is obvious: History was, as late as the 17th century, the teacher of life as expressed by Cicero, magistra vitae,[5] and for that reason it was more important to present history as this teacher than to care about historical exactitude. We find this attitude everywhere in classical historiography, never better formulated than in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, in the opening of his biography of Alexander:

“… if I do not record all their [Alexander & Caesar] most celebrated achievements or describe any of them exhaustively, but merely summarize for the most part what they have accomplished, I ask my readers not to regard this as a fault. For I am writing biography, not history, and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing about the virtues or vices of the men who performed them … in the same way it is my task to dwell upon those actions which illuminate the workings of the soul, and by this means to create a portrait of each man’s life.”[6]

We could also say that ancient historiography was, as a matter of fact, cultural memory, not impeded by concerns like “did this really happen?” This is a modern concern and part of the development of modern historical studies since the end of the Enlightenment. Nobody in ancient times sharing a cultural memory would question the content of this memory, and most likely consider it to be true, simply because it was the story told by trusted men as stressed by Simon in the citation above.

When modern historians desperately try to extract historical information from whatever ancient document in their possession, they are led by modern concerns, not ancient ones, concerns there were foreign to the people who put their historiography together not only to entertain their contemporaries but certainly also to instruct them about the good and bad aspects of life.

This means that cultural memory on its own cannot provide historical information about the past. It may be there or it may not. In each case it is the task of modern historians to decide, and no modern historian can ignore the problems involved if no other sources exist; which has been the nightmare for many students of ancient Israelite history. The original enthusiasm among biblical scholars when the subject of cultural memory came up soon evaporated when it became clear that cultural memory, or memory studies, have very little to tell us apart from the reconstruction of the authors of, say biblical historiography, and their readership.

The frustration is so much more serious while it is clear that historical recollection and traditions from the past are evidently present. So much more problematic that we have little idea about how it happened. An example being the opening lines of Isaiah 27 and a couple of lines from the Ugaritic Ba’al epos (KTU 1.5:I.1-2) with virtually the same text. How these Ugaritic lines were transmitted into an Old Testament text normally dated to the 2nd century BCE is totally unknown and cannot be reconstructed in any meaningful way. But the link is there, spanning more than a millennium. Sometimes we can get closer, as is the case of the flood story in the Old Testament which is indeed rewritten Gilgamesh (Lemche 2012). Sometimes we can see how an annalistic Assyrian note is expanded in absurdum as in the case of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 (2 Kgs. 18). It would be wise to say that each case is different. Putting together their cultural memory, biblical historiographers were not afraid of composing fiction, quoting documents if available, and transforming everything to fit their own purpose.

A Note on Literature

It is a problem with Daniel Pioske’s article that the literature quoted is somewhat dated. We find nothing newer than Ricœur 2004, which is in fact in its French original somewhat older (Ricœur 2000), and the rest of the titles quoted in his article are from the late 1990s and the first couple of years of the 21st century. For some reason, Jan Assmann is only remembered because of his Moses book (Assmann 1997). Assmann’s new study on the Exodus is not found here (Assmann 2014), nor his classic on Cultural Memory (Assmann 2011) or his wife’s brilliant essay on Cultural Memory and Western Civilization (A. Assmann 2011). Maurice Halbwachs is not mentioned at all, although he should be read in the French original, easily available today (Halbwachs 1925; 1997), and not in abbreviated English translations.

For those who plan to move into the field of memory studies the introduction by Anne Whitehead (Whitehead 2009) is a good place to start, as is Geoffrey Cubitt’s book of History and Memory (Cubitt 2007). But it can especially be recommended that one should study the excellent readers available to the student, such as Rossington & Whitehead 2007, Boyer & Wertsch:2009, Ertl & Nünning 2010, Radstone & Schwarz 2010, and Orlick, Vinitzky-Seroussi & Levy:2011.

Thus there is no doubt about the bright future of memory studies, although it is to be recommended that the student—apart from getting acquainted with the relevant literature—understands what kind of answers to be found in ancient cultural memory as represented by the historiographical output of ancient literati.


Assmann, Aleida, 2011: Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives (Cambrige: University Press, 2011; German ed. 1999).

Assmann, J., 1997: Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Assmann, Jan, 2011: Jan Assmann, 2011: Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge: University Press, 2011; German ed. 1992).

Assmann, J., 2014: Exodus: Die Revolution der Alten Welt (München: C.H. Beck, 2014).

Cubitt, Geoffrey, 2007: History and Memory (Manchester: Manchester University).

Boyer, Pascal & James V. Wertsch, eds., 2009: Memory in Mind and Culture (Cambridge: University Press).

Gulick, Jack, 2010: Myth, Ritual and the Oral (Cambridge: University Press).

Erll, Astrid & Ansgar Nünning. Eds., 2010: A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies (Berlin: De Gruyter).

Halbwachs, Maurice, 1994: Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire. Postface de Gérard Namer (Paris: Albin Michel ; first edition, Paris: Librairie Alcan, 1925).

Halbwachs, Maurice, 1997: La mémoire collective: Èdition critique établie par Gérard Namer (Paris: Albin Michel; first edition, Paris, Presses universitaires de France)

Lemche, Niels Peter, 2012: Gammeltestamentlige tekster som genskrevet litteratur, in Jesper Høgenhaven og Mogens Müller (eds.), Bibelske Genskrivninger (Forum for Bibelsk Eksegese, 17; København: Museum Tusculanum, 2012), 51-73.

Lemche, Niels Peter, 2013: “Historie og Kulturel erindring i Det Gamle Testamente,” Dansk Teologisk Tidsskrift 76 (2013), 18-30.

Lord, A.B., 1960: The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University).

Miller, Robert D. II, 2011: Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel (Eugene, Or: Cascade).

Nielsen, Eduard, 1954: Oral Tradition (London: SCM).

Namer, Gérard, 2000: Halbwachs et la mémoire sociale (Paris: L’Harmattan).

Olick, Jeffrey K., Vered Viunitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, eds., 2011: The Collective Memory Reader (Oxford: University Press).

Ong, Walter J., 2012: Orality and Literacy:The Technologizing of the Word. 30th Anniversity Edition with additional chapters by John Hartley (London: Routledge).

Péquignot, Bruno (ed.), 2007: Maurice Halbwachs: le temps, la mémoire et l’émotion (Paris: L’Harmattan).

Pfoh, Emanuel., 2009: The Emergence of Israel in Ancient Palestine: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (London: Equinox).

Radstone, Susannah & Bill Schwarz, eds., 2010: Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates (New York: Fordham University Press).

Ricœur, Paul, 2004 : Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago : University Press).

Ricœur, Paul, 2000: La mémoire, l'histoire, l'oubli (Paris: Seuil).

Rossington, Michael & Anne Whitehead, eds., 2007: Theories of Memory: A Reader (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press).

Simon, Richard, 1679: Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (Paris: Billaine) quoted in Jean-Louis Ska, “The Study of Genesis: The Beginning of Critical Reading,” in Craig A. Evans, Joel N. Lohr, and David L. Petersen (eds.), The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception, and Interpretation (VTS, 152; Leiden: Brill, 2012), 3-26.


[1] Biblical Interpretation March 2015,

[2] The principal methodical opus of this school, counting scholars like Ivan Engnell and H.S. Nyberg, and also the young Gösta W. Ahlström, is Eduard Nielsen 1954. I am the student of Eduard Nielsen.

[3] This to say that Robert D. Miller has little to support his defense of the historicity of oral tradition (Miller 2011).


[5] Cicero, De Oratore, II, 36.

[6] Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, in The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 252.

Comments (3)

Corrections: Gulick, Jack, 2010: Myth, Ritual and the Oral (Cambridge: University Press).
It should of course be Jack Goody ...

#1 - Niels Peter Lemche - 04/21/2015 - 17:46

I had hoped that someone maybe better informed would comment - however!!
I'll venture to suggest that you are moving closer to the position suggested, maybe proved, by Locke.
Memories, part of present consciousness directly caused by past events and therefore a basis for a true description of them, exist and so cease to exist with each consciousness that possesses them. So they do indeed'die with us'.
A grandparent, to be politically correct, may recount exploits from memory to a grand-offspring (how's that for correctness!). But this will not give the GO a memory of the event, only a memory of being told about the event. This experience is compatible with doubts about the event itself which genuine memory would exclude.
Records are to some degree trusted because they may, though they are not always, written down close enough to the event for memory not to be damaged by lapse of time - and sometimes we trust a record because we think that any error would have been detected and denounced.
When an organising force has created systematic memorials - records read, monuments studied and stories told over the generations - highly critical or sceptical examination is needed. Your own work on ancient history is a good example of this.
When the grandparent tells those stories there may, even in the mind of the teller, be a nagging doubt: is this really how I remember? Am I gilding the lily? The grand-offspring may sense these doubts or personally develop some doubts of his/her own, perhaps without open acknowledgement - and these doubts, like memories, are personal experiences, but are still not direct experiences of the past in itself.
It may even be that the 'official' memorials of the past continually provoke a sense of nagging doubt - even a commonly felt, though rarely and shamefully mentioned, sense of what the true story might be.
Freud appeals to this possibility in respect of Moses and suggests an analogy with repressed memories of a personal past. This is all very well and interesting but in the end it is not true that even if all hearers of the Moses story secretly suspect, from certain features of the story finally identified by Ernst Sellin, that Moses was murdered this is not an experience or memory, even a repressed memory, of the event.
Assmann is taking his cue from Freud and like Freud is a fascinating writer. He thinks that Freud compares individual and cultural memory too closely but does not seem to me to distinguish them fully enough. But it is still misleading to contrast M and Akhnaten as figures of memory and history. Contemporary Europe may be 'haunted' by ancient Egypt but what no one has of the remote past is memories.

#2 - Martin Hughes - 04/28/2015 - 16:57

Dear Martin,

I agree that commentators have been missing. A number of people have written about the subject but few are well-read within this area.

Memory and history are interelated in many ways, but if you look at the present debate among historians, they are extremely divided as to how to distinguish memory from history. My own position is bluntly that memory has no responsibility to present the past in any organized way, history has, but that is modern history as present probably since the beginning of the Romantic Period. Pre-modern history is cultural memory, understood as the elitarian task of creating ethnic identity (to distinguish it from another modern concept, that of the nation). Pre-modern history writing has no responsibility to be "true", modern history has, at least in principle.

But speaking about memory, people should really begin with Plato, and continue via Aristotle to the Enlightenment and see Locke as a continuation also of Descartes, and modified by Hume, and then they will be prepared to move on to modern identity discussions (different varieties of constructionism)

#3 - Niels Peter Lemche - 04/30/2015 - 10:53

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