Happy New History?

First, a very Happy New Year to all! The next few months will be particularly exciting, with The Mountain of Gold being published in North America on 31 January followed by The Blast That Tears The Skies in the UK on 13 March (also the publication date of the UK trade paperback of Mountain of Gold). Meanwhile I’ll be hard at work writing ‘Quinton 4’, The Lion of Midnight, and continuing the research for Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales. I’ll be using this blog to build up to the two publication dates by providing some new insights into the plots and historical contexts of both books, and there’ll also be some exciting news about the first Quinton ‘prequel’, Ensign Royal. Watch this space, and my Twitter and Facebook accounts, for further information!

Meanwhile, I’ve recently been reading two particularly thought-provoking books, Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms: A History of Half-Forgotten Europe. Both have really struck chords with me, and in my opinion, they express truths that really should be taken into account during the current (and rather fractious) debate over the place of History in the English National Curriculum. Essentially, Mortimer’s thesis is that historians are limited and often deceived by their concentration on the extant sources; that they have become obsessed with the analysis of those sources, rather than with the greater truths that lie beyond them; and that ‘primary sources’ are often just as distorted and partial as secondary ones. (I know one historian, a leading authority in his field despite having no formal training, who simply refuses to read secondary sources, stubbornly insisting on working solely from the original manuscripts alone – thereby missing all the insights and broader contexts that can be gleaned from wide reading and also entirely disregarding the vital point made by Mortimer and others that primary sources themselves mark the end of a process, i.e. they are often a reporting of an event that has taken place and are thus immediately subject to selective memory, skewed perspectives, omission, etc.)

As Mortimer writes in The Time Traveller’s Guide,

Academic historians cannot discuss the past itself; they can only discuss evidence and   the questions arising from that evidence…If Medieval England is treated as dead and buried, what one can say about it is strictly limited by the questions arising from the evidence. However, if treated as a living place, the only limits are the experience of the author and his perception of the requirements, interests and curiosity of his readers.

I’m definitely with Mortimer on this. In fact, being able to recreate a living, vibrant past is one of the liberating things about writing historical fiction after spending so many years within the constraints of academic history; it was also something I tried to do in my most recent non-fiction book, Blood of Kings: The Stuarts, The Ruthvens and The Gowrie Conspiracy, where I took a ‘virtual history’ line which argued that the threat to the life of King James Stuart at Gowrie House, Perth, on 5 August 1600, and the potential consequences of his death on that day, were far more important to British history than those of the over-hyped ‘Gunpowder Plot’ five years later.

Norman Davies, meanwhile, makes a similar and equally important point in Vanished Kingdoms, where he also argues that despite the platitudes trotted out in schools and the press, many of the books on which historians depend are often less reliable than the information available on the Internet, including the much-derided Wikipedia.

Historians and their publishers spend inordinate time and energy retailing the history of everything that they take to be powerful, prominent and impressive…Historians usually focus their attention on the past of countries that still exist…Whether consciously or not, they are seeking the roots of the present, thereby putting themselves in danger of reading history backwards….Our mental maps are thus invariably deformed. Our brains can only form a picture from the data that circulates at any given time; and the available data is created by present-day powers, by prevailing fashions and by accepted wisdom. If we continue to neglect other areas of the past, the blank spaces in our minds are reinforced, and we pile more and more knowledge into those compartments of which we are already aware. Partial knowledge becomes ever more partial, and ignorance becomes self-perpetuating.

Essentially, both writers are making the point that our view of the past is badly skewed by artificial boundaries of our own creation, and these desperately limited mindsets are all too apparent in the debate over History in schools. During my many years as a teacher, I taught hundreds of young people to distinguish the advantages and disadvantages of primary and secondary sources as this was the principal hoop through which they had to jump to achieve success at GCSE, the most utterly pointless set of examinations imposed on young people by any advanced society; yet all the while, I knew deep down that most of the ‘rules’ which students were expected to master ‘because that’s how historians work’ were either grossly over-simplified or just downright wrong. (My feelings upon the subject might have revealed themselves when I devised and taught the mnemonic BADCRAP as a way of remembering the principles of source analysis; ‘B’ stood for ‘bias’, but I forget what the other letters represented. Perhaps surprisingly, I received no complaints from students or parents with delicate sensibilities during the many years in which I used this system – but then, the exam results that BADCRAP consistently obtained probably insulated me against criticism!)

But those who advocate less emphasis on such a skills-based approach to History are in danger of falling into the trap identified by Norman Davies. Why study an overwhelming diet of British history, when the days of ‘Britain’ as we know it might be numbered if the Scots decide in favour of independence? Why the ongoing obsession with the Tudors and the Nazis, when the seventeenth century (OK, I declare an interest) and Chinese history are arguably more interesting and more ‘relevant’, that dreadful killer word which dominates the entire debate about young people’s interest, or lack of it, in History? So it seems to me that both sides of the debate on school History are trapped within indefensible ideological straitjackets – the one advocating a set of ‘skills’ which perpetuate the delusion that historians exist primarily to analyse sources, rather than to recreate a vision of the past as a living, vital place, the other advocating narratives based on the unthinking assumptions that certain countries, individuals and time periods are innately more important and worth studying than others. Come to think of it, BADCRAP seems like a pretty apposite description of the entire state of the debate.

 

4 Comments

  1. Sam McLean says:

    I know exactly what you mean – when I was doing my MA many of my colleagues were.. almost monomaniacal regarding their examination of First and Second World War canadian military history – it was rather impressive how they could reel off lists of battalion and brigade commanders, for example. However, my questions regarding the influence of infantry and cavalry culture on the creation of the Royal Tank Regiment was met by blank stares and shrugs and “well we’re not really talking about that”.

    I guess that’s one reason I love studying the 17th century – I can get away from a lot of that trend of historical study and really have a discussion of the influence of culture.

    On another note – everything I learned about being a practical historian I got from my fourth year and graduate level classes- It was about doing what I want with historical discussion and creating a discussion, rather than rote learning and then vomiting information onto exams.

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  2. Nick Kingsley says:

    Whilst it is true that the historian needs to be alert to the limitations (bias, perspective and comprehensiveness etc) of his sources, those sources are all he has to go on. Sources may be archival, oral, archaeological, artefacts or landscapes; we need to recognise that every use of them is an interpretation; but we still have to use them. Our sources are the stays which connect the balloon of historical imagination to the historical reality we can never directly experience. Without them, ‘history’ becomes mere fiction, an unconstrained retro-projection of contemporary preoccupations and perspectives. To imagine that a history based on sources can be no more ‘true’ than one that is wholly invented is to fall into a post-modernist fallacy.

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    • I agree with you about the fundamental indispensability of sources – as I hope the pages upon pages of references in my non-fiction books demonstrate. (Indeed, my personal belief in researching as widely and deeply as possible explains why I’ll be spending next week in the archives in Scotland for a book on the naval history of Wales!!) However, it seems to me that one of the problems with the study of history at all levels these days is that historians are working on narrower and narrower topics, consulting an equally narrow range of principally primary sources, and are either too time-constrained or too inflexible in their thinking to consider the broad range of sources/contexts that you mention. Obsession with the sources themselves, rather than with the historical realities that lie beyond them, seems now to be the order of the day, and if saying so is post-modernist, I accept the label gladly. (It’ll make a change; one of the reviews of my first book labelled me as an out-and-out Thatcherite, which caused much amusement in my left-leaning Welsh family.) The other issue I was trying to highlight in this post is the way in which many of those involved in the delivery of History at secondary level, from successive Secretaries of State of both principal parties down to classroom teachers, have developed a view of sources and their analysis that is remarkably blinkered and bears little resemblance to what ‘real’ historians actually do (or should actually do); if we’re concerned with the relatively pitiful takeup of History post-14, as we all should be, then I suggest that this attempt to convert History into a pseudo-science is one of the principal causes of it (and probably also a cause of the inflexible thinking of the few students who survive GCSE and A-level History and make it to universities, where they adopt the narrow mindset I mentioned earlier and persist in happily trotting out the same old cliches they learned in earlier years).

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  1. […] crucial factor in indirectly determining the fate of Wales. One of my favourite books of last year, which I mentioned on this blog almost exactly a year ago, was Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms, a brilliant study of some of the lost states of […]

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