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

sknox

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>I think the problem is that (capital H) History is a narrative
>The historian always starts with facts.
History is inquiry. The word is Greek, we encounter it first in Herodotus. Facts--let's say documents and other evidence--form the raw material for that inquiry, but that is no more history than molecules are chemistry. History is a discipline. The past is what historians study.

Narratives are one thing historians produce but is not the only thing. Sometimes all we produce is a critical edition of a manuscript, or proper dating of a document. Explaining Roman indictions isn't a narrative or an interpretation, it's an explanation.

>spotty and largely undependable
Spotty is not a synonym for undependable. In a sense, all collections of documents are spotty, compared to the total volume of documents (and other artifacts) produced by a given culture in a given year.

As for undependable, that doesn't render the historian helpless. As I said above, history is inquiry, so the inquiry can always be made. For a very long time we thought Homer's account of the Trojan War was entirely fictional. It had gods in it, after all! But it turns out there really was a Troy and it was found--and by an amateur, no less. The most recent account of the life of Alexander of Macedon we have dates from about 300 years after he died. That means neither that is it unreliable nor that it is reliable. It's a document, subject to the same inquiries historians make all the time.

It's easy to talk about prejudice and propaganda when the subject is empires and revolutions and such, but many historians work in other fields. Carlo Ginsburg wrote about the beliefs of an Italian miller. Marc Bloch wrote a wonderful essay about the various ways in which the word servus was used in the early Middle Ages. Miriam Chrisman wrote a book on book publishers in Strassburg. In each of those one can find interpretation. In subsequent works one can find discussions and re-interpretations. That's called the scholarly dialogue, and it's vital to the discipline.

The same line runs through all of it: history is inquiry.

BTW, to return to the OP, a really fine bit of historiography can be found in Walter K. Ferguson's The Renaissance in Historical Thought. There have been excellent books on the topic since then (it's quite old), but none that were better written.
 

Mon0Zer0

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you're writing about ideology again.

That's because history is a body of knowledge that exists after-the-fact as a narrative, and therefore is inherently ideological.

Juxtapositions create significance. Even the process of presenting just the facts is fraught with political and ideological problems due to ways we perceive things like the order of events, choice of words, emphasis or attribute causation.

A simple sentence like "She hit him because he looked at her funny," carries implications about blame, responsibility and so on that go beyond stating a causal relationship between these two events.

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.

The problem is that its not possible to know what exactly happened. We piece together our knowledge from evidence, but that evidence is not infallible. It's often contradictory, unreliable, distorted, incomplete or a downright lie. Much of history is speculation - even now with the huge amount of data being collected it's more difficult to know what's actually going on in the world today.

A recent example is the discovery of a Viking burial casket that contained a female skeleton alongside artefacts that were usually reserved for warriors. This narrative was included in a journal citing this as proof of the existence of shieldmaidens, and this was widely reported as fact. Yet there was doubt around the significance of the artefacts, and why they were in the burial casket, and the idea that the skeleton belonged to a venerated warrior didn't match up with the condition of the skeleton - which had none of the tell tale knocks or damage that was usually found on a warrior. I'll come back to this in a bit.

You can present the facts to people. But history is not a list of factual events, it's a narrative that connects factual events together. Its purpose is to understand the relations between past events.

It's not possible to present exactly what happened because of the mind boggling complexity of causality. Our brains just aren't set up to see the entire causal chain between a butterfly flapping its wings in Idaho and the resultant tornado in Tokyo.

Instead, we use a simplified narrative to create interconnected causal relationships between events and give them meaning. In doing so there are inclusions and omissions, and weight is given to certain facts according to who is telling the story. As the narrator is born into a culture their understandings of how events transpire is formed, in part, by their knowledge and value system - the ideology of the culture.

The secondary purpose of history is to understand the relationship between the past and the present. It creates connections between the way we see ourselves and where we come from, and is a foundational part of our identity. This utility colours the way we perceive the past, and the weight we apply to aspects of that narrative that relate to us, now.

Returning to the shieldmaiden's skeleton from earlier, the significance of the find was hotly debated. The context in which it was found influenced the interpretation by the historian. At the time in the early 2010's there was a lot of internet debate about women's rights. Fuelled by blogging, women writers were engaged in a battle for rights to be recognised as men's equals - the idea of a shield maiden was attractive to feminists of the time because it symbolised that women could be equally capable warriors, and that there were other ways of organising society other than (what they perceived as) the patriarchy of the modern day. The discourse around women's rights undoubtedly influenced the narrative emerging and the claims it was a female Viking warrior.

However, some historians disagreed. They pointed out the lack of damage to the skeleton - there simply wasn't enough evidence to claim this was a Viking warrior even though all the symbols and artefacts married up exactly with other prestigious Viking warriors. These historians claimed that the rush to jump to conclusions is a kind of wish fulfilment, to bolster modern concerns.

Ah, said the feminists, but if this was a man's skeleton you would have had no problem recognising it as a warrior. Isn't this just misogyny? You've grown up in a society where women are expected to behave in a certain way, so believing that a woman could be a celebrated warrior is unthinkable to you. Why couldn't a woman be a warrior?

Both sides are claiming that their opponents interpretation of events is biased by their own ideological foundations, and both have a point.

vis-a-vis "objective" history - If there were shieldmaidens then the historical record would be false. The takeaway here is that history is more about probabilities than certainties, and how we assess probabilities is founded on our understandings of the world as it is, today.

These kinds of cases happen all the time, and the historical narrative is intertwined with contemporary understandings and values.

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

Oliver Stone provides another perspective, but it's a reach to say he provides a full and accurate account.

The dimension missing from "objective history" is the subjective one. You can tell a sequence of events, but unless it encompasses the subjective realities of the actors in those events, then the history is incomprehensible.

A purely factual account of a murder would never tell you the whole story. "The woman stabbed the man because he killed her sister," gives you a whole different set to the purely factual "The woman stabbed the man." The second sentence only tells you the man is wounded. The first tells you why he's wounded - revenge.

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.

You'd have to be extremely reductive to state that with any certainty - to the point that the traits associated with heroism or villainy might be abstracted to absurdity a la "the seven basic plots".

I'd say that the reason statues in the US and UK were torn down last year were precisely because the kinds of people venerated 200 years ago are the kind of people vilified today.
 

Mon0Zer0

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>I think the problem is that (capital H) History is a narrative
>The historian always starts with facts.
History is inquiry. The word is Greek, we encounter it first in Herodotus. Facts--let's say documents and other evidence--form the raw material for that inquiry, but that is no more history than molecules are chemistry. History is a discipline. The past is what historians study.

Fair point, I think Parson, Venusian Broom and I were using history in a broader sense than you were.

I don't think it's fair to say historical texts like "Guns, germs and steel" or "The world at war" are just inquiry.

Would you agree that the object of study - the discipline of inquiry - is in service of a narrative? That the research is intended to create a field from which a coherent narrative can eventually emerge - even if the individual researcher might be motivated purely out of personal interest? Interested to know your thoughts on that.
 

Robert Zwilling

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History is written by people and is slanted in a positive direction towards the accomplishments of what transpired. Sometimes it can only be described as a well documented parade, here today, gone tomorrow. I have seen very few historical accounts that spend an equal amount of time honestly examining what happened to those who gained and to those who lost. Even fewer that follow over time what happened to all the groups involved after a particular event was documented. I guess that could be called negative impact history, something that isn't all that popular. When there are moving events, the initial event moves forward in time, while the impacted area stays behind, seemingly less connected to the forward moving event. Following up all the events uses up more and more energy, resulting in a massive document that becomes impossible to read.
 

sknox

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>Would you agree that the object of study - the discipline of inquiry - is in service of a narrative? That the research is intended to create a field from which a coherent narrative can eventually emerge - even if the individual researcher might be motivated purely out of personal interest?

This is a pretty standard point of discussion in classes that deal with the philosophy of history. It's the tension between the general and the particular. The particularists caution against the twisting of research to serve a cause, or at least being shaded by preconceptions. There's even a term--microhistory--to describe the sort of publication that looks very closely at a single event or question. Carlo Cipolla's The Cheese and the Worms is a classic in the field.

The generalist in turn argues that all those bits and pieces must be assembled into a larger narrative if history is ever going to be anything more than a form of navel-gazing. And dead navels at that! This can run to the extreme that the only "important" history is the grand narrative.

I used the word "tension" above deliberately. I don't think this is something that gets resolved, except at the individual level, for every historian must decide where to spend their time. Across the broad field, though, the tension remains. I would like to say there's room for both--and in a practical sense there is--but that feels a bit like dodging the question. Certainly in my own work I've come down more on the particularist side.

My MA thesis, for example, was on the conversion to Christianity of the Wends (a Slavic people living in northern Germany). It is easy, and has been done by others, to weave or extend the story of the Wends into a larger story of exploitation and destruction, or of conversion and progress. I hesitate to do that for this reason: one of the primary duties of the historian is to understand people in their own terms. In this case, to understand the preachers and lords and villagers who comprise the story in the terms of the 12th rather than the 21st century. That takes quite a bit of work in itself, including learning other languages, reading massive amounts, etc. The usual workload of a historian. Generalizing from that would take more than just some extra work, it would take a career, and I chose to spend subsequent years on other projects.

But I start with the particular. I start with understanding people or events in their own terms, so far as I can. Extrapolation--generalization--is a separate, though related, task. It's not a pendulum or a spectrum, it's a dialectic.
 

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