What is history?

It’s a fair and fundamental question, yet often elusive. When does something become history? Is by virtue of it simply happening, or does it have to be noteworthy in some way? For example, I had French fries and half a beer after work – is that history? And anyway, how far back do you have to go before something becomes history?

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The discipline has evolved dramatically throughout the millennia, becoming more rigorous and scientific while striving to remain objective. Herodotus, in his work simply called Histories, is often considered the father of history, but our Greek history lecturer would say he was also considered the father of lies. Much of what Herodotus writes is myth, though there are historical elements and he does attempt to put it in a narrative. Thucydides is much more clinical in his history of the Pelopennesian war, but he is not as colourful. In many ways, the discipline has been caught between those two poles since then – how does one write colourful, engaging history that is still rooted solidly in the facts?

It’s possible, certainly, but is an ongoing tension. What needs to be sacrificed, for instance. Eric Hobsbawm was an excellent historian and wrote well, but his history is Marxist and so has a particular viewpoint (and his legacy has been divisive). That doesn’t make it less legitimate, it’s just another layer that needs to be acknowledged and filtered if needs be. All documents should be interrogated and history books are no different. We do it for primary sources – you wouldn’t take a medieval primary source about something like battle casualties at face value, for instance. Primary sources are the bread and butter of history, but shouldn’t be accepted without analysis.

The subject of my thesis, Bede, is a Christian monk. That doesn’t make him less of a historian per se, but his Christianity is so intense that I need to dissect what is fact and what is analysis, and in my case what are the connections between his history and his scriptural commentaries. I need to understand what was going on in his head when he wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and he didn’t see history as a separate genre from exegesis, because they were all part of his moral reform agenda. Does that mean that the Ecclesiastical History isn’t history? No. It’s just not a modern history book, even if Bede takes great pains to cite his sources. It’s a product of its time, like any history text (albeit a product that sometimes drives me half demented). A surprising number of people forget this when they go to read books from past eras, and sometimes take them at face value or, just as bad, dismiss them out of hand because they are older.

This is something my students struggled with. Actually, one of the biggest struggles my students had was distinguishing between fact and opinion. Objective analysis simply isn’t taught in schools, so when they came to me at the start of their university career most of them struggled. Some went on to do quite well, but it took a lot of work for most of them. I sometimes wonder if Bede and his contemporaries had the same issues while teaching (which I’m sorry to say I haven’t done for a while). This is all just a case of retraining the brain to think slightly differently, but that sort of retraining is constant.

My brain has issues with considering recent events “history”. Obviously, I’m not saying it isn’t. I studied modern history in school and university. I’ve written about it in book reviews and for articles. It’s enjoyable and informative. I’ve lived through a phenomenal transformation in politics, media, and technology. It’s all great. It’s just that in my head modern events are too recent to be historical. The further back you go, my mind tells me, the more “authentic” it is history. That’s a bit crazy, and yet that’s what feels comfortable. And yet I don’t think I’m alone, because people have laughed at me when I’ve referred to “modern history” – and you can understand why, because people associate “modern” with “here and now” and “history” with, well, stuff that happened ages ago.

For instance, the activities of Ancient Egypt, the land of pharaohs and mummys, pyramids and sand, and one of the most enduring cultural legacies. I’ve always loved Egypt and its ancient culture, yet it traditionally falls under archaeology. Does that mean it’s not history? No, it just means we have learned more about the culture from what it left behind than what it wrote. However, the two go hand-in-hand. While history is primarily the study of documents, the material evidence is what brings it to life. This is often most apparent in the field of classical studies, which are as much literary studies as they are cultural or archaeological.

One of my favourite courses in university (and not just because I got to know my now wife in it) was on early Anglo-Saxon and Irish art, such as jewellery and illuminated manuscripts. This was primarily art history, but at the same time it told us a lot about the time period. Lapis lazuli in the illuminations implied trade connections with the Near East, the material on which the words were written told us about what animals the monks kept, the style of writing told us something about trends and education. So when I turn to an art book, or look at a statue, I look at it not just as a piece of sculpture, but almost as a text that tells me what the artist and his or her society thought about the world. Even when you’re this guy:

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It makes you wonder what future archaeologists and historians will think when they unearth McDonald’s signs and review fragmentary texts and images concerning Jersey Shore. However, it is increasingly the case that cross-disciplinary studies can bear some of the most interesting fruits. Some of this is down to a trend among funding agencies that inter-disciplinary research is best, perhaps because it represents advances in more than one field with a single research grant – and God knows there aren’t that many grants any more.

However, all researchers should embrace other disciplines if it means advancing their own work, or looking at the same old subject in a new and very different way. Some subjects go together surprisingly well. Liminal Entwinings, for instance, documents research by a geographer on pilgrimages and how they shape people and places. Pilgrimages are traditionally a religious topic, and so by extension normally fall into historical or religious studies, though they also have an enormous social aspect and they in turn have transformed the landscape (Ireland is covered with holy wells and rocks, a legacy of the christianisation of pagan areas as much as it being a traditionally Catholic country).

So as we go on, we see that all sorts of things are history, and that history is part of all sorts of things. And while we may have a fondness for a particular era, we can increasingly learn new methods of analysis and thinking from unrelated and modern fields. And that in itself is history.

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2 thoughts on “What is history?

  1. Pingback: What is history? | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Pingback: Watchers on the wall | Chronica Minora

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