Keith ThomasTimes Online
, London, October 11, 2006
In 1966, the TLS devoted three issues to “New Ways in History”. They were orchestrated by the restless medievalist Geoffrey Barraclough, who had turned from the Middle Ages to contemporary history in the belief that recent world events had made irrelevant the austerely remote tradition of scholarship in which he had been raised. Many of the contributors must have been chosen in the hope that they would adopt an aggressively forward-looking tone; and they did not disappoint. M. I. Finley, one of the few classical historians in those days whom modern historians would have recognized as deserving the name, deplored his colleagues’ intellectual isolation, their ignorance of sociology and their failure to confront “central human problems”. E. P. Thompson, whose book The Making of the English Working Class
had appeared in 1963, attacked “the established constitutional and parliamentary-political Thing”, in the name of history from below. The anonymous author of the leading article (Barraclough himself) asserted that historians should align themselves with the social sciences by tackling the questions “which ordinary people wanted answering”. Sir Isaiah Berlin, he added unkindly, was wrong to dismiss “scientific” history as a “chimera”; a younger generation of historians had passed him by.
The opening article was even more confrontational. It asserted that the first half of the twentieth century was “a time when most historians temporarily lost their bearings”, and declared that “academic history, for all its scholarly rigour, had succeeded in explaining remarkably little about the workings of human society or the fluctuations in human affairs”. The remedy, it suggested, was not to “grub away in the old empirical tradition” but to forge a closer relationship with the social sciences, especially social anthropology, sociology and social psychology, to develop a more sophisticated conceptual vocabulary and to employ statistical techniques. The future lay with the computer, which would replace the “stout boots” worn by the advanced historians of the previous generation. In the United States the new econometric history was already “sweeping all before it”.
Forty years later, the author of these brash words still bears the scars inflicted in the resulting furore. Not only did Isaiah Berlin take some convincing that I was not the anonymous leader-writer, but, by an unfortunate piece of timing, I had invited that outstanding grubber in the empirical tradition, G. R. Elton, to an Oxford college dinner in the week after my article appeared. It was a chilly evening. My guest went back to Cambridge to write The Practice of History
(1967), a robust rejection of all new ways in history in general and of my views in particular. It was a faint consolation to find, in the “index of historians” appended to that work, the name Thomas making an incongruous appearance between those of Tacitus and Thucydides.
How do the confident predictions and prescriptions of 1966 look now? Some were patently off target. Econometric history has not swept all before it; on the contrary, its intimidating formulae and rebarbative style have been partly responsible for the regrettable lack of interest shown by many of today’s historians in economic history of any kind. Social history has not become a central subject around which other branches of history are organized, but has in its turn been overtaken by the newer genre of cultural history. There is more cooperative scholarship and organized research than there used to be, but the “individualist, prima donna tradition”, against which the polemicists of 1966 inveighed, is, in the age of stars like Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, more alive than ever.
On the other hand, the computer has out-performed all expectations. Who in 1966 would have guessed that today’s historians would order their library books online, take their laptops to the archives, scroll through searchable databases and become highly dependent upon on such electronic aids as Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century-Collections Online (ECCO)?
Quantitative history has some spectacular achievements to its credit, like the anthropo-metric studies of changes over time in human height and weight, or the reconstruction of British population history in the pre-census era by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. William St Clair’s work The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period
(2004) shows that counting can illuminate the history of culture no less than that of the economy. Nevertheless, it is obvious that only limited aspects of the past can be understood in this way, and the precision offered by figures is often spurious. The thrust of most modern historical writing is qualitative rather than quantitative. The dream of historians in white coats who would bring scientific certainty to the study of the past now seems just another delusion of the 1960s, that optimistic decade, when Harold Wilson invoked the “white heat” of technology.
Yet though history has not become a social science, it is much closer to adjacent disciplines than it used to be. Roderick Floud and Pat Thane recently lamented that “there is little sign of the partnership between history and sociology which seemed in prospect forty years ago”. But even if sociologists remain resolutely unhistorical, many historians are firmly sociological. In his Classes and Cultures: England 1918–1951
(1998), for example, Ross McKibbin draws on the work of almost every prominent British sociologist from Ralf Dahrendorf and J. H. Goldthorpe to A. H. Halsey and W. G. Runciman.
Social and cultural anthropology are now accepted as part of the everyday equipment for investigating the history of such subjects as religion, kinship, ritual, or gift exchange. There is a greater sense of the otherness of the past; and many historians conceive of their subject as a kind of retrospective ethnography. Who would have guessed, in 1966, that the history of witchcraft would become a staple topic on the undergraduate curriculum? The influence of social anthropology is equally evident in the widespread preoccupation with “the native point of view”. Instead of trying to classify and order human experience from the outside, as if historical actors were butterflies, and historians entomologists, much imaginative effort has gone into the re-creation of the way things appeared to people at the time. This shift from the etic to the emic, as the linguists would call it, involves an enhanced concern with the meaning of events for those who participated in them, and a new respect for what people in the past thought and felt. Back in the 1950s, it was common to disparage ideas as mere rationalizations of self-interest. Today, even the hardest-nosed historians seek to recapture the vocabulary, categories and subjective experience of the historical actors, rather than anachronistically viewing their behaviour through modern spectacles.
This approach has been reinforced by the declining appeal of Marxism, with its tendency to dismiss conscious thought as mere “super-structure”, and by a revived interest in the philosophy of R. G. Collingwood, who saw history as the re-enactment of past experience. It is as evident in the enterprising attempts of social historians to reconstruct the values of the semi-literate as it is in the historical study of political thought by Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock and the high intellectual history of scholarship practised by polymaths like Anthony Grafton, Ian Maclean and Noel Malcolm.
During the past forty years, historians have learned from many other disciplines. Geographers have taught them to study the physical environment and to map patterns of human settlement. Archaeologists have stimulated students of all periods into looking beyond written sources to the physical remains of the past, whether artefacts, buildings, or landscape. Art historians who have moved from high art to the study of visual culture have fostered a much greater sensitivity to history’s visual dimension than was evident forty years ago, when it was highly unusual for a serious history book to carry any illustrations at all, leave alone the coloured ones we expect nowadays. Literary scholars have accustomed historians to the notion that plays, poems and novels, sensitively employed, can yield insights just as rewarding as those derived from state papers or pipe rolls.
The plea made in 1966 for greater use of theory has also been abundantly answered. Much of the historiography of the late twentieth century can be explained in terms of the delayed impact of Malthus, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Keynes, Freud, Collingwood, Evans-Pritchard, J. L. Austin, Lévi-Strauss, Bakhtin, Elias, Geertz, Kuhn, Foucault, Habermas, Bourdieu, Benedict Anderson and others. This is unsurprising, for what happens in one generation in economics, psychology, sociology, philosophy, or anthropology will usually be reflected in the history-writing of the next, even if its authors have never read a word by the theorists concerned. The great change during the past forty years is that historians have become much more self-conscious about their borrowings. It is difficult to open a work of academic history these days without encountering a reference to “discourse” or “thick description” or “paradigms” or “bricolage” or “the public sphere” or “path dependency” or “the civilizing process” or “imagined communities”, none of them terms which would have meant very much in 1966. Nowadays, when young practitioners review the works of their elders, their most frequent criticism is that they are “under-theorized”, a charge which would once have evoked mere puzzlement.
No one in 1966 foresaw the impact of the various linguistic and literary theories known as “post-structuralism” and “postmodernism”. Their adherents caused some perturbation in the 1980s, when it seemed that these modern sceptics were denying the possibility of achieving any certain knowledge of the past. But that nihilistic doctrine has been tacitly rejected. Most practising historians today take a commonsensical view. They are critical of their sources and do not need to be told that they are not a mirror of reality. They know that the categories they use, and the periods into which they divide up history, are expository devices, not intrinsic features of the past. They are aware that many so-called “facts” are contestable, and that events look different to different observers. But they also know that things really did happen in the past and that historians can often find out what they were. The outcome can be seen in acute methodological self-consciousness of the kind displayed by C. J. Wickham in his prize-winning Framing the Middle Ages
(2005). Every term employed is carefully defined; the first person singular is frequently used, by way of disclaiming any pretence to oracular authority; and the very title indicates that the book records a continuing process of “construction”.
British historians have been less afflicted than some of their North American colleagues by epistemological uncertainties about the difference between fact and fiction. But the so-called “linguistic turn” has made them more sensitive to the rhetorical conventions and ideological presuppositions which shape the books they write and the documents they study. The boom in studies of past historiography has alerted them to the way in which self-interested groups construct versions of the past to serve partisan objectives. The Invention of Tradition
, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983), and Les Lieux de mémoire
by Pierre Nora (1984–92) are the two great landmarks here.
Many historians now believe, perhaps rather perversely, that what happened in the past is less important than what people thought had happened. This conviction helps to account for the decline of “hard” economic history. It is also the reason that social history, once envisaged as the detached study of supposedly objective groupings like families, households, communities and classes, has, since the 1980s, been mutating into cultural history, seen as an account of the mental assumptions and linguistic practices of the people involved. The change, lucidly chronicled by Cambridge’s first Professor of Cultural History, Peter Burke, is admirably exemplified in Stuart Clark’s meticulous study of a totally vanished system of thought, Thinking with Demons
All this helps to explain the reluctance of most present-day historians to embark on large-scale narratives mapping the course of historical change over long periods. Despite the efforts of today’s television historians, the genre has been discredited by the teleological triumphalism and ideological intent with which such narratives are usually infused. An even greater discouragement is an enhanced sense of the sheer complexity of the past and the impossibility of embodying in a single, selective account the infinitely numerous points of view from which it can be legitimately surveyed. Few manage to achieve the magisterial objectivity of J. H. Elliott’s recent Empires of the Atlantic Worlds, a comparative history of the British and Spanish Empires over more than three centuries. Hence the recourse to microhistory, the attempt to see the world in a grain of sand, by the intensive study of small communities, single events or even individuals, on the model of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou
(1975) or The Great Cat Massacre
by Robert Darnton (1984).
The greatest triumph for the polemicists of 1966 has been the way in which the subject matter of history has broadened beyond recognition, so that it now embraces all those topics of human concern about whose neglect they had complained. In the early 1960s, history still meant politics, the constitution, war and diplomacy, with economic history a poor relation, often in a separate department. (When I examined in the Oxford History School in 1961, one of my co-examiners, Dame Lucy Sutherland, set a paper on modern British history which was almost entirely political. I pointed out that there was nothing on the Industrial Revolution. “No,” she said, “that came up last year.”) Today, political history has survived, but only by broadening its focus to include the study of political culture and extending its range to include the politics of smaller units, like the factory or the family. Military and naval history are exceptionally vigorous, with a huge lay following for accounts of battles and campaigns, not all of them intellectually demanding. But every aspect of human experience now has its historians, from childhood to old age, from dress to table manners, from smells to laughter, from sport to shopping, from barbed wire to masturbation.
Where, then, do we look for today’s New Ways in History? There can be no single answer, for history has become a crowded and heterogeneous field, characterized by an astonishing diversity of approach. There is no agreement about what is central and what is peripheral, and little sense of participation in a common intellectual enterprise. The historical profession is enormous: each year, some 10,000 people publish books or articles on British and Irish history alone. The Stakhanovite ethos prevailing in research-driven universities has resulted in a torrent of publication that threatens to overwhelm anyone who attempts to study more than the tiniest area of the past. Writing serious history is a much more difficult undertaking than it was in the 1960s, when there were so many unexplored areas, and when gifted writers like Hobsbawm or Lawrence Stone could sketch out bold, synoptic articles in Past and Present
. Today, the crippling accumulation of specialized knowledge means that one has to work very much harder to say anything new.
If past experience is any guide, future innovations will come from one of two sources: first, new theories about human nature and human behaviour, most of them developed in adjacent disciplines; secondly, the impact of contemporary events. The former are hard to predict, but the latter can be seen all around us. Until 1950 or so, academic history was written within the conceptual framework created by the nineteenth century’s great invention, the nation state. But as the world has changed, so have historical perspectives. In the United Kingdom, the end of Empire and the growth of Asian and Caribbean immigration have engendered the “post-colonial” outlook. Less attention is now given to proconsuls and generals and more to those on the receiving end of Empire: slaves, convicts, indigenous peoples and poor whites. The agonies of Northern Ireland and the granting of devolution to Scotland and Wales have made British historians less Anglocentric. The old “English” history courses are now labelled “British” history, and the English Civil War has turned into the War of the Three Kingdoms. National identity and “Englishness” have become central issues in historical debate.
The formation of the European Union has stimulated some slightly strained attempts at writing histories of the Continent, which transcend national frontiers. But the shift of political and economic power to the US and the Far East has encouraged historians everywhere to be less Eurocentric. In the US, the belief that American liberties stemmed from Magna Carta and the House of Commons once gave English History a central place in the curriculum. Today, the diminished international importance of the UK, and the changing ethnic composition of the American population, have made British history an increasingly unsuccessful competitor with the history of Latin America, China, Japan and the Middle East. It retains a place only because of its Imperial dimension. Meanwhile, the history of anything to do with Islam has, for obvious reasons, become the dernier cri; and is likely to remain so for some time.
Despite the professional drift to intense specialization, modern realities encourage the study of ever larger units; hence the vogue for Mediterranean history, Atlantic history and Pacific history. Yet even they now seem parochial, as the globalization of economies and communications inexorably generates the conviction that the only true history has to be a history of the world. That is the animating doctrine behind the LSE’s new Journal of Global History; and it is admirably exemplified in The Birth of the Modern World
by C. A. Bayly (2004), a genuinely global history of the nineteenth century. It seems certain that, for the next generation of historians, the relationships between the world’s different cultures will be a central concern.
Just as contemporary developments alter our geographical horizons, so they point us to previously neglected aspects of the past. Some of the reasons for the widening of history’s subject matter in the past forty years have been adventitious, like the munificence of the Wellcome Trust, which has elevated the history of medicine from a harmless hobby for retired physicians into a dynamic and creative field. Credit must also be given to purely internal campaigns, like Lucien Febvre’s strenuous advocacy in Annales of a broader historical coverage. But the decisive cause has been the impact of present-day concerns.
In the US, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s focused attention on the history of African Americans. In Britain, the democratization of the historical profession, the founding of new universities, and the influence of the Left, all helped to shift interest away from cabinets and chanceries to the experience of ordinary people, the main concern of the History Workshop
movement led by Raphael Samuel.
Above all, it has become mandatory for all historians to consider the gender aspect of their topic, whatever it may be, with the strong implication that not to do so is as much a moral failure as an intellectual one. When, in 1957, I gave a course of lectures at Oxford on the relations between the sexes in England from the Reformation to the First World War, the general reaction was of bewildered amusement. No one had anything to say about the history of women in the TLS of 1966. It was the feminism of the 1970s that brought about a fundamental reassessment of how history should be written. More recently, the claims of gays and lesbians to social and legal recognition look like making the histories of masculinity and female friendship as central to the undergraduate syllabus as was Stubbs’s Charters in my day.
Nearly all the fashionable historical topics of the present time owe their vogue to essentially non-academic preoccupations. The countless studies of memory and forgetting are in part a legacy of the Holocaust. The passion for environmental history stems from anxiety about global warming and the depletion of natural resources. The renewed concern with Empire is closely related to US foreign policy. The obsessive interest in the history of the body has been fuelled by the AIDS epidemic; it also reflects the concerns of a secular and hedonistic age, preoccupied with physical health and instinctual gratification. Similar concerns underlie the current popularity of such topics as the history of consumer goods, the study of the emotions, personal identity and the emergence of the “self”. History has always embodied the hopes and fears of those who write it. Its future character depends on what those hopes and fears will prove to be.
- - - - - - - -History revisited 2
Stella TillyardTimes Online
, London, October 11, 2006
Forty years ago, it seemed obvious to Eric Hobsbawm that the boundaries were clear, the camps distinct: amateur historians and popularizers on one side, professionals and specialists on the other. There was no doubt in his mind, either, that the days of the dilettante were numbered. “It is possible, though increasingly rare”, he concluded in the lofty messianic tone adopted by almost all the New Ways contributors, “for the amateur and not inconceivable for the journalist, to compete effectively with the professional; though it has become much more normal for the professional to take over the job formerly done by the popularizer.”
Hobsbawm nowhere defined popular history, but he meant by it, beyond its obvious lack of academic imprimatur, history that commanded a wide general audience and history that publishers paid people to write. Publishers, serpents in the garden of scholarship, were “dangling offers” in front of academics. “Already”, Hobsbawm wrote in alarm, “there are cases of young historians who have been tempted to write too fast and too much on big broad subjects which are rarely tackled with full success before a man’s fortieth year.” Women, it seems, did not in 1966 write proper history at all.
Hobsbawm’s essay, “The Growth of an Audience”, was the only piece in the New Ways issues which considered history as anything other than a discipline produced and consumed by professional scholars. Perhaps in 1966 this emphasis on professionalism, on forging in historical laboratories a history that could contribute to and reflect the order that was arising in the Wilsonian technological miracle, was the more stridently put forward because its protagonists wanted so urgently to distinguish themselves from their forebears. These hapless has-beens were not just the professionals of the preceding generation, but the gentleman scholars whose history was less a science than an art, and a literary art at that; writers whose work, in moments of weakness, Keith Thomas and his generation had loved: Hume and Gibbon, Macaulay, Froude, Lecky and George Otto Trevelyan. If their boyish admiration had taken a military turn they might have read Napier and Oman; if they inclined to the Continent, Michelet.
This highbrow view of history, with its Whiggish certainties and ad hominem view of the discipline as framed by great individuals in the theatre of politics, had in fact already been modified in academic departments. Teleological narrative had given way at the end of the nineteenth century to Germanic methods that sought to take scholars back to the original documents and thereby to distinguish historical “truth” from Romantic assertion. But Keith Thomas, in “The Tools and the Job”, demanded that historians sweep the last remnants away, “dethrone” politics from its historical eminence and apply new scientific methods to the study of the past.
He projected a future in which the narrative and biographical traditions of history writing, inherited from Gibbon and from Hume, would be banished from a professionalized discipline. But Thomas knew the dangers lurking in his brave new world. The literary quality that had lingered even in much academic writing, the urge to style and storytelling, was something he valued in spite of himself. New methods did carry a risk of “jargon and obscurity”, he admitted, but they could in fact be introduced, “without any loss of scholarly power or literary elegance”.
Meanwhile, history beyond the universities clung without embarrassment or even self-knowledge to the traditions Thomas urged to perdition. Since 1966, popular history, pre-eminently in the work of Christopher Hibbert, historical biographers such as Elizabeth Longford and Antonia Fraser (whose hugely successful Mary Queen of Scots was published in 1969), and military historians such as John Keegan and Antony Beevor, has unabashedly used narrative and biographical techniques. Popular history has few theorizers, and practitioners I have spoken to are occasionally wilfully blind about their craft, but it does usually tell a story and very often relies on ideas about character that in the eighteenth century found acceptance in all branches of literature, but which are more often now confined to the novel. It must have seemed throughout the 1970s and 80s, that the worlds of the popularizer and specialist were diverging. History departments were closed (indeed most still are) to biographers, popular military historians and generalists. Popular history was often held in disdain by academics.
But this divide was never absolute. Even as they closed ranks against generalizers, academics continued to cross over to the popular side of the stream. In the 1970s it was still possible to go beyond the point of no return, as happened with A. J. P. Taylor. Even today, when writing popular books no longer kills an academic reputation, it is best to have reached a certain eminence before abandoning specialized research and the imprimatur of journals and conferences. As a young literary scholar in the early 1990s embarking on a narrative collective biography of four eighteenth-century sisters, I was roundly told by the head of my English and American Literature department that it wouldn’t do my “academic reputation any good”.
Despite this froideur, popular history has benefited hugely from the demands and concerns of academic historians from the 1970s onwards. The explosion of, interest in and consumption of popular history, fuelled and exploited by television and publishing companies, owe much to the new areas of study earmarked by historians of Thomas’s generation. Social history, of course, already existed when he issued his clarion call to dethrone politics (and G. M. Trevelyan had already, in 1942, famously called social history “the history of a people with the politics left out”). But Thomas’s generation of social historians, led by E. P. Thompson, pushed the study of ordinary lives into new areas, into the study of “mentalités”, and subsequently, in the 1970s, into the lives and beliefs of women and children, the history of the body and of the dispossessed and mad. Later, history of science, of the arts and of the environment were added. Every one of these new areas has been popularized for general readers and translated for radio, television and even drama. Without social history there would have been no pioneering history programmes like The Long March of Everyman and no books like The Face of Battle or Stalingrad. Without intellectual history there would be no sophisticated radio staples such as In Our Time. Without the new science studies, though many historians of science disliked its individualizing heroic bent, there would have been no Longitude. Without women’s history (and although many social and feminist historians frowned on the study of the aristocracy), there would have been no Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. And the most famous book to come out of a history department in those years, E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, has fused with a popular passion for genealogy, the enduring British obsession with class, and the culture of celebrity to produce Who Do You Think You Are?, in which the famous are taken back through their ancestry of struggle to their usually humble origins, a “history of a people” packaged for our post-Thatcherite, individualist age.
Throughout the 1990s (publishers claim the catalysts were Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
and Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches
, both published in 1987), the market for history, fuelled by better levels of education, patchy history-teaching in schools and the democratizing of sources like the 1901 Census, grew hugely. At the same time – and coincident with the abandoning of the traditional canon in the teaching of literature – literary biography fell out of fashion. The stars of the 1980s biography boom, Richard Ellmann, Michael Holroyd, Victoria Glendinning, Richard Holmes, Claire Tomalin and Fiona MacCarthy, found no obvious successors, and historians, especially Schama, David Starkey and Niall Ferguson, arrived to fill the gap. No literary biographer has any major TV presence; historians took up the challenge to become presenters to rival Kenneth Clark and, obviously, Taylor in his prime. Their success and fame encouraged publishers and programme makers to put money behind others, and a history boom followed in which, for the first time, female and often non-academic historians played a large part. Bettany Hughes, Amanda Foreman, Flora Fraser and Alison Weir found a new and appreciative audience, and academic historians such as Lisa Jardine, Linda Colley and Olwen Hufton also found readers beyond the academy. Writers such as Jenny Uglow and Peter Ackroyd who had been working more on the literary than the historical side of biography, found in the challenge and ambition of popular history new outlets for their talents. Generalists – Hobsbawm himself, as well as Norman Davies and the late Roy Porter – found large readerships for books that combined scholarship with wide-ranging surveys and even, in Davies’s case, significant biographical content.
As the market grew, so did the reach and sophistication of readers, editors and television executives. New television channels allowed for programmes that might have been thought too specialized for mainstream television. Books and series by specialized professionals such as Simon Schaffer’s Light Fantastic
for BBC3, have thus given popular history and history on television new verve, style and subjects. So much has been gained from new directions in academic history since the 1960s, and so many academics have gained both in money and (what they have often longed for just as much) in fame, that it is surprising to discover the unease that popular history can still provoke in the academy, and the continuing belief that academic and popular history are, in the end, different forms of endeavour. The clue to this unease and assertion of difference lies, I think, in the shibboleth of “objectivity”, that touchstone of professionalism so lauded by Thomas and still so often regarded as the defining quality of good practice.
That demand for objectivity was not, in fact, new. It had been at least inherent in the concerns of the political historians Thomas wanted to dethrone. Objective meant uncoloured by feeling or opinion. Objectivity could only, therefore, be achieved by a rigorous training in which young professionals learned to discard subjectivity and distorting emotionalism, losing the ego and the “I” of the first-person narrator, to become the impartial collective “we” of the academic narrator. Along with any individual narrative voice, feeling had to be set aside, although in an Anglo-Saxon environment uneasy with its display, that loss was probably a cause more for relief than sadness. Very often in academic texts even the collective “we” is eschewed in favour of an absent narrator and a passive presentation. Thus, instead of “we can see that” historians frequently write, “it can be seen that”, or “the evidence suggests”, or “the figures reveal”, as if the facts do indeed speak and come up with arguments. In this white-coated world, footnotes bolster objectivity, references underline the case.
So strong did the identification of history and historians with objectivity become that post-modernism, when it arrived from France, America and English Departments, was seen very often more as a threat than an opportunity. Postmodernism offered to history an exhilarating means of critical self-examination, a turn to the literary, and a recognition that the historian is part of his text, and that history consists in the relation between past and present and its telling. But many historians fastened on postmodernism’s supposed assertion of “relativism” and dismissal of facts, and cited these to justify a closing of the gates against it, something seen most spectacularly in Richard J. Evans’s In Defence of History
, of 1997, in which the whole future of the discipline is seen as under threat from alien invaders.
We did not need postmodernism to tell us that objectivity was always a chimera, that individual historians, their lives, loves and beliefs, are always there, in choice of subject and argument and in the very words they write. History never was just facts; it was always the interpretation of them. Before the historian, the first person who told stories about the past, history didn’t exist. Facts existed, and the past, but not history.
Popular history, continuing on its sometimes occluded way, has never been impoverished by fear of itself. The greatest popular historians have always been literary figures. Sir George Otto Trevelyan, writing The Early History of Charles James Fox
, must consciously have sought to recreate in his majestic sentences, in which clauses gather and roll like a great Atlantic swell, the famous speeches delivered by his subject in the House of Commons. In his own way, and in the tradition of Michelet, Trevelyan sought to bring Fox to life, but no reader can be unaware that it is his words that do it.
Trevelyan, like Michelet and like Hume, was not afraid to display and manipulate feeling, to conjure and to care. Today’s popular historians must write self-consciously, carefully and with respect for the sensibilities of their subjects; but they can be confident about writing within this tradition, writing with feeling, and about it. There are dangers in too great an identification between author and subject, which can lead to a mapping of modern sensibilities and narratives of life onto the past. But in the best hands, what I’d like to call “emotional history” can combine an original authorial voice, literary awareness and an unashamed quality of love to produce modern popular classics which will last as long as readers find in them something which moves as well as instructs. Emotional history is no less scholarly and no less sophisticated about sources than any other kind. Deducing what someone feels from documentary evidence uses exactly the same techniques as coming to any other sort of conclusion, and since all historical judgements are necessarily partial and subjective, it is equally valid.
I am not calling for the supplanting of any one kind of history by any other. History has many mansions and many audiences, and all have much to learn from one another. I am asking for popular history and history written with and about feeling to be readmitted to parity with history’s other branches, so that it is again one profession about all our pasts. After all, long before history became a discipline, Oliver Goldsmith wrote, “No one can properly be said to write history but he who understands the human heart”.
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