This week I attended a brilliant one-off lecture by Professor Michael Bentley on ‘Historiography: What It Does, Why It Matters’, one of the few I’ve heard so far on the theory of history. I won’t do justice to it (particularly as historiography is still one of those things I have yet to entirely untangle in my own brain), but here’s the 60-second version.
Historiography, according to Prof. Bentley has been “on a roll” since the 1980s, when the focus moved away from ‘Historiography No. 1’, the historiography of a particular topic or event (e.g. historiography of the French Revolution) which concentrated on description and the problem of the sources, and towards ‘Historiography No. 2’, which begins with a far more theoretical basis, examining the nature of history and the past.
This second type of historiography, influenced by shifts in the discipline of history itself like the new cultural history, views histories as produced from a given present that is always changing, examining the relationships between “presentness” and past”. In this view, the past in historical writing serves as the screen on which present concerns are projected. Change in history is no longer contingent upon a progression of fresh discoveries, but happens anyway, as one present gives way to the next and historical study reveals an infinite number of emerging present-pasts (e.g. a present view of the Middle Ages) and past-presents (e.g. an 18th century view of its own time).
There’s a benefit to this, beyond the fascinating potential for historical understanding. In the broader temporal view which this type of historiography bestows, we may actually find ourselves better equipped by our forays into the past to evaluate and critique our own present.