What is history?

Gloucs Cathedral 3 (2)

My wife and I have been watching DVDs of a televised version of Ken Follett’s novel The Pillars of the Earth. Essentially this describes the construction of a cathedral near a fictional town and priory called Kingsbridge. Prior Philip doesn’t just want a cathedral, he wants a new Gothic cathedral and after a great deal of battle, murder, and sudden death he gets it. The novel is set in the period of anarchy following the death of King Henry I from a surfeit of lampreys, a fish gratifyingly rare on modern menus. King Stephen and the Empress Maude (Matilda) feature as important characters but it is a fairly brutal portrayal containing a good deal more bloodshed, mutilation, and gratuitous sex than the Cadfael novels set in the same era.

I have probably lessened my wife’s already limited enjoyment of each episode by my constant repetition of ‘that never happened’ or ‘they would not have done that’. I’m not sure if the errors originated with the author, or during the TV adaptation, but they are frequent and irritating. The background to the story is that Henry I’s only legitimate son, William Adelin, was deliberately murdered rather than downing accidentally on the White Ship. Oddly enough I can tolerate this implausible scenario as an acceptable fictional device; it’s the little things that vex me.

The character of Stephen of Blois is constantly blackened whereas, despite his faults, he was brave, at least initially popular, and did not lack military talent. He could be generous, as his foundation of Furness Abbey indicates. Interesting contemporaries such as Henry of Blois and Robert of Gloucester scarcely feature at all in the series. Since the cathedral described is not the seat of a bishop can it even be truly a cathedral? An especially malicious bishop, Waleran Bigod, is constantly referred to as ‘your eminence’ although for many of the episodes he is not a cardinal. Both Stephen and Maude are anachronistically called ‘your majesty’, a sixteenth century title first assumed in England by Henry VIII.

They have the character of Maude about right, scornful and ungrateful, but you are allowed to believe she assumed the title ’empress’ whereas factually she obtained it by marrying, as a child, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. Stephen’s son Eustace is killed personally by the future Henry II in battle, rather than dying suddenly while busily plundering near Bury St Edmunds. My wife pointed out, quite rightly, that every time the malicious bishop persuades some minion to commit a dastardly deed with a poisoned knife he writes them a letter. Widespread literacy in English is not plausible in this period and successful criminals seldom commit quite so much evidence to paper. The fatal problem with the best historical fiction, which I’m afraid this is not, is that invention can be so memorable that it replaces fact. I enjoy Roman history but I am no longer sure whether my knowledge of the Julio-Claudian emperors owes more to Tacitus & Suetonius, or to Robert Graves & Derek Jacobi.

Consequently I have been wondering precisely ‘what is history’. In 1961 historian EH Carr delivered a series of lectures on exactly this topic which were published between the famous blue covers of a Pelican paperback. Carr points out that historical studies do not simply involve the acquisition of facts, which in any case he rates a duty not a virtue. Here I was just about to write ‘a historian does not simply lay out the corpse of history’ (Catullus) except that I now remember I got this quotation from Graves’s I, Claudius so it may be an invention! Carr’s analysis of the many difficulties implicit in the study of history often apply equally well to archaeology. The one distinction is that of causation. Archaeologists tend to describe an assemblage or a site as they find it. Historians ask, reasonably enough, what caused certain historical events. Can you determine the cause of the Great War or the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-49? The assassination of an Austrian archduke and the arrival of Phytophthora infestans were certainly contributory causes, but surely neither rendered the disasters inevitable. A slightly more sophisticated model would include general causes and immediate causes. Even so can chance events modify historical development, or are there ‘tides in the affairs of men’ which produce their effects eventually beyond the contributions of individuals to help or hinder?

Neither history nor archaeology can study the past directly, only those portions of the past that survive into our present. Unfortunately this means that we also see the past through the perspective of our present. Historians studying nineteenth century European Jewry could not possibly unlearn and ignore the catastrophe that would be inflicted on millions of its members within a century. Writing an account of the Russian Revolution in 1925 or 1945 or 1985 would inevitably come to very different conclusions, even if based on the same evidence. The past is not dead but still living in the present. I frankly do not know if the deaths of many Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, during the Great War, represented genocide or not. I appreciate that even today states wanting amicable relations with the Turkish government had better say not, officially.

Carr points out that historians collect what they are pleased to call ‘historically significant’ facts from among the huge amounts of data available concerning the past. They happen to have decided that William the Conqueror’s visits to Pevensey Bay were significant, whereas mine were not. But they both occurred in the past, and both are factual. In the unlikely event of my eventually being rated a saint or a significant politician my visits too might somehow acquire meaning. Archaeologists are nearly as bad. They decided long ago that manufactured artefacts (flints, bronze axe heads and so forth) were significant and started collecting them. An interest in biological materials (bones, pollen, seeds) is not much older than the Second World War. Even with today’s technology available nobody screens excavations for synthetic radioisotopes, although the presence of plutonium on a Neolithic site would substantially transform our views of that period. For the moment, I imagine, we have to allow both disciplines to be choosy but does a process of ‘natural selection’ operate here? When I was a child King Alfred burning the cakes was a premiership fact, now it is decidedly second division. in the future will it face total relegation?

History tends to be written by the winners. Those people who feature in it are very generally those who are literate or who have close contact with others possessing this skill, men of power in essence. Groups that are always poorly represented include: the third world, rural poor, the working class, women, and children. In such ways our individual picture of the past is pre-selected for us. In classical Greece we do not know what the Spartans thought of the Athenians, nor later the native British picture of the Romans. Especially we are ignorant about what the slaves in both societies thought about their masters. Archaeology is much less selective but there it is very difficult to tie its discoveries with named individuals. The Leicester skeleton of King Richard III is probably a recent and rare exception to this principle.

Truth is the first casualty of war but there are many other circumstances under which contemporary documents are less than frank about the events they record. Julius Caesar wished to portray himself as a great war leader for political considerations back in Rome. Suetonius was far more interested in scandalous anecdotes concerning the emperors than in making a careful appraisal of their strengths and weaknesses. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts early medieval English history from the point of view of the Kingdom of Wessex; great Mercian leaders like Penda and Offa hardly rate a mention. Figures such as Napoleon, or the Bradford textile magnate Samuel Cunliffe Lister (Lord Masham), had a view of themselves that they wished to see enduring in the future. As a result I’m not sure that any of Lister’s public statements can be taken entirely at face value.

History inevitably means interpretation, and interpretation is inevitably affected by our personal views. My background would probably make it impossible for me to write an impartial account of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, destructive and self-indulgent ritual dining not being at all my thing. Considering today’s anniversary, is a century long enough for a catholic nationalist and a protestant unionist to write an agreed account of of the events of Easter 1916 in Dublin? I rather imagine not. The best one can hope for is that historians should be aware of their prejudices and inform their readers in advance. What they are supposed to do about the prejudices of which they are not aware I am far from clear.

My main interest is in the history of technology but I am not unaware that progress in the industries I study came at considerable human cost. In the nineteenth century Yorkshire the rural poor were driven into factories and crowded, unsanitary, housing. Some employers were humane but many were exploitative. Foundries, mines, and textile works were dangerous places, where little thought was given to worker safety. Those who paid the price of progress seldom reaped its benefits. It is all too easy for me to forget this when enthusing about a new pattern of brick kiln or an innovative steel-making process.

I’m very much afraid that, having re-read all this, the best I can suggest is that if art is what artists do then history is the process which historians undertake. If anybody can direct my further reading please advise me, but I probably won’t be going back to Ken Follett any time soon.


One thought on “What is history?

  1. Excellent as ever. Personally I like ‘history’ that permits space for the curious and my own subjectivity. I remember a history lesson at school which told of a mysterious man who lived in the depths of Wales post the Norman Invasion 1066. He lived for twenty years and eventually died surrounded by courtiers and faithful Saxons, he was blind in one eye. 😉


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