The first duty of a historian is to produce works of art. By this I do not primarily mean works that are finely written, but works that are emotionally and intellectually satisfying, that combine a clear unity of conception with a vivacity of detail, and portray people whose actions are intelligible within the framework of their circumstances and character. It is thus that one might describe as the aims of a Balzac or a Tolstoy: I say therefore that a historian should aim at satisfying the same emotional and intellectual needs as a novelist or poet. How he is to do this within the limits of the available data is the great question.
R.W. Southern, ‘Aspects of the European Tradition of History Writing’
Le nez de Cléopâtre, s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
[As a child] I assumed that medieval people all believed what popes told them to believe, or got burned as heretics. Some historical misconceptions are 100 per cent fantasy. Other have an infinitesimal grain of truth and blow it out of proportion. My own view of the Middle Ages hovered between these categories.
Then doubts began. Putting the medieval church in a black bin bag to throw it away could do it no harm. The people concerned were long dead and out of harm’s way. But we might do harm to ourselves, I reflected, if misconceptions about the past were to distort our views of own places in the world, and where it was going.
So I encouraged the doubts.
– Alexander Murray, introduction to Conscience & Authority in the Medieval Church
According to modern physics, nothing is as solid as it seems. Things that seem so turn out to be tiny points of energy, in precarious equilibrium, giving our rough senses only an impression of solidity … This truth in physics holds also in the fields of politics, law, and economics. There are plenty of things that seems solid enough, like ancient empires or modern armies or (in the economic field) money. But on careful inspection these, too, turn out to be points of energy, in temporary equilibrium, in the beliefs and feelings of individuals. When these change, the seeming solid dissolves into its constituent points, which then reassemble in new forms—with an equally deceptive appearance of corporeality.
– Alexander Murray, ‘Excommunication & Conscience in the Middle Ages’
Time is fickle to historians. They spend their lives trying to rescue other people’s achievements from oblivion, only to see their own vanish into it with humiliating speed.
– Alexander Murray
I have been panning in the river of Historiography this week. The experience has been intriguing, confusing, and entertaining, but I’ve yet to come up with nuggets of gold.
The immediate goal is to complete my historiography essay. I had more-or-less completed my first draft over Christmas Break, but the very thorough comments I received on my draft have sent me back the drawing board to deconstruct and attempt to build it up again. My primary difficulty is finding something useful of my own to contribute – at this point in my studies, I have a long way to progress along the spectrum of mimicry to originality. And the murkier the waters of historiographical theory, the easier it is to cling to the floats of previous critiques rather than push out on my own.
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.
I am instinctively wary of formulaic approaches that risk imposing patterns on—and hence, in my judgement, doing violence to—the sources . . . [This does not] mean that I accept uncritically whatever our sources tell us. While no disciple of Postmodernism, I have tried to stand outside the source material and to remember that historians can never hope to retrieve ‘what actually happened’—though that does not, in my view, absolve them of the responsibility of trying to get as close as possible to it.
Peter Jackson, Introduction to The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410
An essential limitation of history is that, while it is almost entirely concerned with elucidating and analyzing the lives of people through the ages, it is constrained by the sheer enormity of the task into dealing with those people in bulk.
Outside the privileged genre of biography, the historian’s cast of characters generally resembles the dramatis personae of a Shakespearean play, with a few major characters (often royal) nicely fleshed out with dialogue and perhaps even a soliloquy, a handful of minor characters adding colour, and then the whole rest of the troope relegated to the last line of “Lords, Ladies, Officers, Soldiers, Sailors, Messengers, and other Attendants.” Add in “Peasants, Knights, and Priests”, and you essentially have the makings of a medieval history.
No one historian can capture the lives and doings and motivations of each of the thousands or millions of people within his or her selected place and time. Often the best the historian can do is to flesh out a few key characters and then capture the rest into groupings which can convey the most amount of significant information about their constituents as possible.
Which is why history can never claim to fully reproduce the past, at least not in anything close to entirety, and why all histories will by definition be informed by theory and selectivity in a manner that does sometimes resemble the blind men from the old tale investigating an elephant, each concluding the animal resembles that part of itself available to their own inspection.
The difference is, of course, that in history, blind men will sometimes talk.
Writing history is like W C Fields juggling. It looks easy until you try it.
A. J. P. Taylor
Why does history matter? It is sometimes suggested that we should study history to learn lessons for the present. This strikes me as problematic. If we mean by this that history (or History) presents us with lessons to be learnt, I have yet to see any example of anyone paying attention in class.
John H. Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction
History has its peculiar aesthetic pleasures. The spectacle of human activity which forms its particular object is, more than any other, designed to seduce the imagination – above all when, thanks to its remoteness in time or space, it is adorned with the subtle enchantment of the unfamiliar . . .
Let us guard against stripping our science of its share of poetry. Let us also beware of the inclination, which I have detected in some, to be ashamed of this poetic quality. It would be sheer folly to suppose that history, because it appeals strongly to the emotions, is less capable of satisfying the intellect.
Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft