The history of history - analysing the way we shaped our picture of the past

DrStrangelove

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Some time ago, during my research on the late antiquity and what we sometimes use to call "The Dark Ages" I came around a fascinating book by J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, dealing with the subject of late roman fallacy to distinguish between citizens and barbarians in a world where people inhabiting the far frindges of the Roman Empire were hardly different from germanic tribes living on the other side of the border.

It also showcases how much our own view of the fall of the Roman Empire shifted during the past centuries, with new theories (ranging from the typical barbarian migrations to lead aqueducts to Christianity) mostly created to suit our own, contemporary problems and constantly allow us to remain the heirs of Rome, and not really explain why it fell in the first place.

Do you know other literature that concerns itself with the history of history? What are your favorite picks for events that, as the years pass, are reinterpreted for our own needs?
 

CupofJoe

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Many years ago I did a degree module on the History of History. I came away with the knowledge that there may be FACTS [and even these are open to interpretation] but there is never one TRUTH. That is a construct that changes over time. There is only PERSPECTIVE.
But as it was years ago, even that has probably be updated...
 

svalbard

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One of my favorite bit's from the fall of the Roman Empire is how their very success created the elements for the Germanic tribes to grow in power. Let me explain and it is not my theory but one I have come to believe in firmly.

As far back as Arminius the tribes along the Rhine numbered in their 100s. It made it easy, apart from Arminius's brief victory at the Teutoborg forest, for the the Romans to divide the tribes.

However over the centuries as the Roman frontier on the Rhine became a huge trading area for the both the Romans and Germans, the tribes began to merge as their wealth grew from trading with the Legions.

It meant fewer tribes but they were far more wealthy, organized and powerful. A bigger threat that erupted across the Rhine in the early 400s.
 

Venusian Broon

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One of my favorite bit's from the fall of the Roman Empire is how their very success created the elements for the Germanic tribes to grow in power. Let me explain and it is not my theory but one I have come to believe in firmly.

As far back as Arminius the tribes along the Rhine numbered in their 100s. It made it easy, apart from Arminius's brief victory at the Teutoborg forest, for the the Romans to divide the tribes.

However over the centuries as the Roman frontier on the Rhine became a huge trading area for the both the Romans and Germans, the tribes began to merge as their wealth grew from trading with the Legions.

It meant fewer tribes but they were far more wealthy, organized and powerful. A bigger threat that erupted across the Rhine in the early 400s.

We're going a bit OP, but I just recently read a book on the Vikings (By Neil Oliver - it was okay and was interesting, but I found him forcing his own 'tv personality' bits in too much - a bit too much pandering to a populist historical text, I think I prefer a slightly more academic style!) and he points out that after the disaster (for Rome) in the Teutonburg forest, they clearly thought about the German problem a bit and tried a variety of solutions. So there was a huge increase in trading with the tribes in Denmark and the North (the 'proto-vikings') and Rome. My enemy's enemy is my friend sort of thing.

They were never going to invade the North, so they used soft power to trade, to arm, to hire mercenaries, and perhaps to incentivise to raid south into the Gemanic tribes. Which of course would probably also helped the Germanic tribes to coalesce from this external threat.

Not just trading, if there is a culture of raiding in your society - for example going off and taking cattle and valuables from other peoples (there certainly was in Celtic society probably well into the 17th Century CE, it surely must have been happening in pagan Germany first century CE! Then having a larger force to raid or blackmail a wealthier territory should ensure a better chance of success - see Attila the Hun, for example. Power = wealth = better ability to recruit and keep more warriors = better chance at getting more wealth next time etc...
 

svalbard

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We're going a bit OP, but I just recently read a book on the Vikings (By Neil Oliver - it was okay and was interesting, but I found him forcing his own 'tv personality' bits in too much - a bit too much pandering to a populist historical text, I think I prefer a slightly more academic style!)

Again off topic so forgive me. I have just started Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price. It is a history of the Vikings and may offer you more than what Oliver's book did.

I think you can find echoes of what you describe in the legends of Siegfried and the Ring Cycle with the raids up and down the Rhine.
 

Venusian Broon

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Again off topic so forgive me. I have just started Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price. It is a history of the Vikings and may offer you more than what Oliver's book did.

I think you can find echoes of what you describe in the legends of Siegfried and the Ring Cycle with the raids up and down the Rhine.
Cheers, I will put it on my Amazon wishlist, because I'm currently reading Noam Chomsky, Osprey book on the Hittite Warrior and a book on Witchcraft (And I've still got about two dozen history tomes I've physically got and still to read :giggle:. I may come back to the Vikings in 2023!)
 

paranoid marvin

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I think that history is being reinterpreted and re-evaluated all of the time, and is often a reflection of society at that time. It can also depend on the historian themselves; anyone publishing a book/tv show will have their own agenda and beliefs, and (usually) will have to offer something different to make their opinion stand out.

One of the podcasts on the BBC show 'In Our Time' focuses on the 'history of history' and is worth checking out.

The best way is to look at several sources and come to our own conclusions, but as time is short and precious I will usually prioritise the entertaining option. So whilst 'Waterloo' by Bernard Cornwell is not the most exhaustive account of the battle and is told largely from the British perspective (and is quite opinionated in places) it is also the most enjoyable factual account I have read.
 

sknox

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What you are asking about is called historiography, and there's a huge literature under that heading. Pretty much the history of anything has its own history. If you want to search something specific, you could search on
<subject area> historiography site:edu
and find academic works on that subject. Witchcraft, serfdom, Portugal, naval technology, you name it, there's a historiography for it. Not least because every scholarly work is expected to devote a chapter (or more) to the historiography of that specific area. Late medieval guilds? There's a historiography for that!

Historiography is distinct from the philosophy of history, which has to do more with some of the points raised above: how we interpret the past, scholarly dialogue, the relationship between history and society, that sort of thing.

Both are in turn distinct from methodology, which ranges from general subjects like how and whether we know facts, to particular methodologies such as chronology, numismatics, diplomatics, historical demography, and so on.
 

Valtharius

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I haven't read it, but Jeffrey Herf wrote a book on the interpretation of Nazism in East and West Germany, Divided Memory.
If you're looking for (potentially) fun research rabbit holes to go down I could recommend lots of other stuff.
 

Parson

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Historical "facts" are only as good as the records they depend upon, and it's very recent times indeed before the records even occasionally approach factual accuracy. And their interpretation is as malleable as play dough. In my lifetime I've seen the story of early American colonization go from being mainly a beautiful, wonderful opportunity for freedom, to mainly a mixed blessing, to mainly a horrific colonization, and wouldn't be surprised one day to find it considered mainly a genocide. History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
 

Venusian Broon

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Historical "facts" are only as good as the records they depend upon, and it's very recent times indeed before the records even occasionally approach factual accuracy. And their interpretation is as malleable as play dough. In my lifetime I've seen the story of early American colonization go from being mainly a beautiful, wonderful opportunity for freedom, to mainly a mixed blessing, to mainly a horrific colonization, and wouldn't be surprised one day to find it considered mainly a genocide. History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Surely though there can be facts that are well-attested. Things that clearly did happen and had many witnesses that reported upon them etc.

But the interpretation of why events occured as they did (the ones that we can clearly attest), the motivations of people, why societies responded in the ways that they did, is fluid and changing - because generally speaking the 'real' reasons things occured were complex and multifaceted. It is therefore tempting to simplfy and pick out an 'answer' that explains the facts, or at least some of the facts, (although really we should all know that such simplification does not correspond to reality.)

Furthermore this leads inevitabley to bias, as all interpretations will be subjective. Putting on my cynical hat, usually those who hold power at the time have the opportunity to propagate an interpretation that justifies their position or puts their forefathers in the best possible light. This can mean that other truths and facts, taking your example, say the treatment of the native Indian population during the period of manifest destiny would be/was ignored or misinterpreted etc.
 

Mon0Zer0

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Surely though there can be facts that are well-attested. Things that clearly did happen and had many witnesses that reported upon them etc.

But the interpretation of why events occured as they did (the ones that we can clearly attest), the motivations of people, why societies responded in the ways that they did, is fluid and changing - because generally speaking the 'real' reasons things occured were complex and multifaceted. It is therefore tempting to simplfy and pick out an 'answer' that explains the facts, or at least some of the facts, (although really we should all know that such simplification does not correspond to reality.)

Furthermore this leads inevitabley to bias, as all interpretations will be subjective. Putting on my cynical hat, usually those who hold power at the time have the opportunity to propagate an interpretation that justifies their position or puts their forefathers in the best possible light. This can mean that other truths and facts, taking your example, say the treatment of the native Indian population during the period of manifest destiny would be/was ignored or misinterpreted etc.

I think the problem is that (capital H) History is a narrative, and narratives are unable to encapsulate complex causal phenomena and remain intelligible, so they end up being tools to serve whatever the concerns of the time are. These aren't always in the service of the powerful as the adage goes (the victors), but can be in the interests of other groups (such as the resistance-based oral narratives of suppressed groups - if you've ever been to Norn Ireland it'll take you five minutes conversation with a local to hear a narrative in opposition to those in English history books).

One of the challenges of teh interwebs is that increasingly, multiple narratives are being given importance, so you end up with Q and the illuminati and shapeshifting reptilians.

Surkov's non-linear warfare is probably the most prescient example of this effect. (Prior to working for the Kremlin, Surkov was a sci-fi writer, and his story Without Sky lays out his realisation of non linear war:

This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all

…The simple-hearted commanders of the past strove for victory. Now they did not act so stupidly. That is, some, of course, still clung to the old habits and tried to exhume from the archives old slogans of the type: victory will be ours. It worked in some places, but basically, war was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important

A major part of his strategy is to fund any and all voices in society - Putin's friends and his enemies. To perpetuate as many competing narratives so that they remain divided and managed factions, unable to challenge Putin's power. Surkov is an OG Dischordianist.

We live in a complex causal web that doesn't map one to one on the stories we tell ourselves. If you believe Thomas Metzinger, even the idea of a single phenomenal self is an illusion, so the idea that events arise from one single cause or intention is a false one.

Rather, history is part of a process in which every particle in the system participates and in which none could be said to have greater causal weight than others, and so is written in the material aspects and structures all around us.
 

Parson

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Surely though there can be facts that are well-attested. Things that clearly did happen and had many witnesses that reported upon them etc.
Without doubt this is true. But I suspect that these are far fewer than most of us imagine. Records of things are spotty and largely undependable before the 18th century in the best of places in the world. For a lot of the world it takes until nearly the 20th century before dependable facts were kept for many things.
 

JohnM

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Some replies here are truly strange, and superficial. The historian always starts with facts. He should mention that some pieces of what happened may be lost. In other cases, due to archaeological discoveries, for example, some additional information is found. History today is never about opinions. The perspective of the writer/filmmaker should always be based on facts. And just because some records are lost, it does not mean that good reconstructions are not possible.

The Second World War is still being analyzed. New, meaning unpublished, photos and documents continue to appear. But a subject as vast as this cannot be viewed except in pieces. Part for the Army, Air Force, Navy and so on. One can specialize in a few parts but the available material is great and some records are still classified. Actual artifacts are also good substitutes for missing documents.
 

Mon0Zer0

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Some replies here are truly strange, and superficial. The historian always starts with facts. He should mention that some pieces of what happened may be lost. In other cases, due to archaeological discoveries, for example, some additional information is found. History today is never about opinions. The perspective of the writer/filmmaker should always be based on facts. And just because some records are lost, it does not mean that good reconstructions are not possible.

The Second World War is still being analyzed. New, meaning unpublished, photos and documents continue to appear. But a subject as vast as this cannot be viewed except in pieces. Part for the Army, Air Force, Navy and so on. One can specialize in a few parts but the available material is great and some records are still classified. Actual artifacts are also good substitutes for missing documents.

Historians don't always start with facts, and they don't end up with facts, either. History is a collection of narratives. Facts and artefacts inform the story being told in order to make sense of the passage of time and the key events within. They're not just random fragments existing independently.

Even in a 100% factual account, the overall narrative is going to be interpreted as to the meaning, importance or relations of these facts within a coherent narrative. These meanings and interpretations will change, too, in accordance with contemporary ideology.
 

paranoid marvin

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Without doubt this is true. But I suspect that these are far fewer than most of us imagine. Records of things are spotty and largely undependable before the 18th century in the best of places in the world. For a lot of the world it takes until nearly the 20th century before dependable facts were kept for many things.

Yes, I think that the further back in time you go, the more accounts are biased towards what the ruling elite of the day would have wanted to see recorded. I suppose the most (only?) independent records are those kept by those folk who could read and write, and much of what they knew would have come by word of mouth.

Even ambassadors to countries such as England would have framed their accounts in a way that was favourable to their masters by home.
 

JohnM

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Historians don't always start with facts, and they don't end up with facts, either. History is a collection of narratives. Facts and artefacts inform the story being told in order to make sense of the passage of time and the key events within. They're not just random fragments existing independently.

Even in a 100% factual account, the overall narrative is going to be interpreted as to the meaning, importance or relations of these facts within a coherent narrative. These meanings and interpretations will change, too, in accordance with contemporary ideology.

I completely disagree. I know historians and I know where they get their facts. Original documents in archives and contemporary accounts. What was the weather like on June 10, 1944? I know people who can answer that question and new information continues to appear. History is not the same as propaganda. I know published historians. Yes, the material has to be set in context but the information does not change. It can be added to and sometimes, the veil of half-truths can be replaced by full truths.

History used to further some ideology is just another form of propaganda. The goal is to report to posterity what actually happened.

For early history, it has to be kept in mind that empires and important people tended to trumpet their triumphs and victories and leave out the failures and flaws. Original paintings on vases from the period depicting sporting events or warriors. Carved monuments to important heroes and events. Written words may be lacking but these depictions remain. And no matter where in the world you go, heroes tended to be quite alike, as well as the villains. The clothing, language, and geography varies but the motivations are broadly the same. The same for many human beings throughout the ages.
 

Mon0Zer0

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I completely disagree. I know historians and I know where they get their facts. Original documents in archives and contemporary accounts. What was the weather like on June 10, 1944? I know people who can answer that question and new information continues to appear. History is not the same as propaganda. I know published historians. Yes, the material has to be set in context but the information does not change. It can be added to and sometimes, the veil of half-truths can be replaced by full truths.

History used to further some ideology is just another form of propaganda. The goal is to report to posterity what actually happened.

For early history, it has to be kept in mind that empires and important people tended to trumpet their triumphs and victories and leave out the failures and flaws. Original paintings on vases from the period depicting sporting events or warriors. Carved monuments to important heroes and events. Written words may be lacking but these depictions remain. And no matter where in the world you go, heroes tended to be quite alike, as well as the villains. The clothing, language, and geography varies but the motivations are broadly the same. The same for many human beings throughout the ages.

I'm not really saying that history is being used to further propaganda (although it can be), more that history doesn't exist outside culture, and culture is inherently ideological. Facts are a text that we interpret, and in interpreting it we form a narrative and understanding that is shaped by the ideas, concepts and relations around us at the time.

History and culture are inexorably woven together that it's impossible to separate them.

And no matter where in the world you go, heroes tended to be quite alike, as well as the villains

I don't agree with you on that point. In liberal countries that have a capitalist culture, particularly in the early days of film, villains in film were often thieves - people who seek to deprive you of property. Heroes were often people who fought to protect their property or the property of others - cowboys, coppers, businessmen etc. In communist regimes villains were often those who withheld property and exploited others - namely landowners, capitalist exploiters, enemies of the workers etc.

You only need to look at someone like Ayn Rand for whom selfishness was a moral virtue, and Oliver Stone, for whom it's a vice.

The nature of heroes and villains changes throughout the world, and through time.
 

JohnM

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You're writing about ideology again. I know people who experienced certain historical events and I've seen accounts of events written the same day it happened. The Atheist/Communist Soviet Union had its reasons to twist history. This top down - who's in power now - view of history is rubbish.
I watched the Soviet Union fall, and what remained? The people. The memory of the people. Pamyat naroda.

It is entirely possible to present facts to the people. Not because the king/czar/President said so but because what actually happened is what actually happened. Ayn Rand? I've read her rubbish. 'Do it wrong and end up in trouble? Too bad. I won't help.' Inhuman.

Oliver Stone. Aside from some flaws, he told it like it was.

Heroes have defined traits that span the ages and geography. The same with the villains. That is why we can read an ancient play and see the heroes and villains clearly.
 

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