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
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.
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