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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Nostalgia – good for what ails ya

I’ve read over this article in the New York Times a couple of times and there’s a lot of good in it, particularly for us historians.

Based on various studies, the author writes:

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

My own experience of nostalgia – which from the 17th century was considered a form of mental illness –  is somewhere in between. There’s a certain wistfulness for days past, which may indeed by remembered as better than they were, while also bringing with it a certain melancholy quite because those are things past. I still think fondly of the house I grew up in and the area nearby, even though I haven’t lived there in more than a decade and I don’t even know if those paths by the river are still accessible. I miss the place, because I don’t have access to that sort of landscape within walking distance any more.

It even affects my memories of the web. I used to frequent a nostalgia site called X-Entertainment, but haven’t been there in years. I went there just now as this article reminded me of it, only to find it’s not what it was and the author has moved on though he still posts a lot of the old stuff.

As a historian, I live somewhat in the past anyway. A statement like that is bound to provoke some mirth or even a comment that this makes me detached from reality, but that’s nonsense. It’s no bad thing, because I use it as a way of thinking about the present. Nostalgia is really just personal history, albeit coloured with wishful thinking and even a sense of loss. Right now I’m not only dwelling on things that have passed in my past, but wondering how people in the past dealt with such thoughts. It’s a peculiar sort of circle, but it’s good mental exercise. So take a stroll down your own memory lane and see what you find.

Using the past

We all use the past for our own purposes. Some of these are quite innocent, some are not. I’m sure we can all thing of examples for both cases. As you might expect, it has gone on since the invention of writing. Skirmishes became major victories, minor rulers become emperors, and so on and so forth. I’m watching V For Vendetta as I write this, in which a man in a dystopian future uses ideas about the past to inform the present and future. Although there are no Guy Fawkes or revolutionary figures on show here.

Bede: “Should history tell of good men and their estate…”

Some medieval writers were very clear about why they were using the past. Bede, the subject of my PhD, wrote that “should history tell of good men and their estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful or perverse”. Bede’s interpretation is always religious, and for him, learning from “good men and their estate” would inspire people to live good, Christian lives. But by establishing this in the preface, he establishes the precise meaning that he wants the audience to derive from the work. It’s only one facet of the text, but it’s a very important one.

Bede, of course, was not an innovator in this. The Classical world had paideia, and education by good example was an important part of this; consider the qualities extolled in The Odyssey or The Aeneid (although neither are actual histories, they were intended and were understood to be such).

People’s use of the past is often determined by what they need for the present. In Bede’s case, it was to encourage moral and religious reform amid what he believed to be a deep spiritual crisis. By using examples from Anglo-Saxon and continental history, his Ecclesiastical History became a “gallery of good examples”, to quote the oft-repeated phrase of James Campbell. I, like most people working in the field, would hesitate to say that Bede invented aspects of an individual’s character, and he probably did not. However, that is not to say that Bede did not emphasise certain elements in order to inspire the most reform. There are enough facets of King Edwin’s character, for example, that work against him being an ideal Christian ruler when Bede could simply have written them out and made him the Constantine-style ruler that King Oswald is in the EH. Edwin, for example, promises to convert several times but always finds an excuse not to become Christian. Oswald is Christian from the beginning of his reign.

Edwin: Good but not as good as he could have been 

Oswald, for example, becomes more than just a great king in Northumbrian history, he becomes a Northumbrian Constantine who restores and renews Christianity in the kingdom and, in Bede’s account, makes sure the religion becomes so embedded in the realm that it does not flitter away, as it had when Edwin was killed. I wrote a whole MA thesis on this, so I won’t repeat it here. But suffice it to say that Bede thus presents a progression in his people’s history, where they become more solidly Christian and so greater culturally and politically. By implication, these good examples become symbols of what they can achieve and what they stand to lose should they stray too far from the path, as he believes they are. Bede sought to use the past to make the present and future better.

Oswald: Shinier than this picture suggests

Gildas, the British writer of the sixth-century, wrote history for the very same reason, although he was also writing against the backdrop of Saxon invasions and the threat of imminent conquest, which he understood to be divine judgement. He, in turn, used the Bible as a model for his history: prophetic history. Gildas, by identifying current events with ancient patterns, stitched his people into universal history and, in doing so, sought to expose corruption and “sting” the present so that society could be healed.

The Bible was, for Gildas, a “mirror” for his own times. It was a key for medieval writers to unlock not only the past but their own times. By studious analysis of the narratives and themes, they saw patterns in history that they believed were being replicated in their own days. Bede too looked into the Bible and saw it as a reflection of the present. When commenting on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Bablyon (in the book of Kings), he says that the “allegory of so lamentable a history fits so well with the negligence of our own time”, but with Jerusalem standing for the Church and Bablyon for “the city of the devil”. Much of what I’m doing is recreating this sort of early-medieval mindset, because by studying the historian I can more effectively study the history.

The study of the Bible and commentary on the texts, exegesis, informed a good deal of medieval history writing. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is, as Benedicta Ward noted, as much theology as it is history. I’m not much of a theologian, but I have always been a decent literary critic and analyst, so those skills are very much coming to bear on the structure and development of Bede’s writing. It is a very different intellectual world from the one we inhabit, and as such it becomes all the more of a puzzle.

I suppose a fair question to ask at this point is, ‘How do I use history?’ I am no prophet or theologian. For me, history is a way to explore the past, both at a cultural and intellectual level. I can pick up a book and chip a way into a world now lost to us. It’s probably why I favour ancient and medieval history; the modern is just too familiar. While I have learned much from my study of history, I seek to learn and teach rather than mould wider society. I don’t have the specific drive of a Bede or a Gildas, or perhaps I do but with a different focus.

Having scribbled thus I feel there is a lot more to be said on the subject. I will return to it now and again, methinks. But for now, I shall let history tell its own stories.

The adventure continues

I haven’t forgotten about you, Dear Reader, in fact you have been playing on my mind of late. My conscience has been acting up with a bad case of whyhaven’tyoubeenposting-itis. In truth, I have been ridiculously busy and been fit to bouts of exhaustion, meaning that writing anything outside of the thesis and associated papers has been minimal in real life as well as the blogging world. Information overload has also played a big factor.

The closer I get to refining my thesis work, the more I have that could be posted here; I have been cautious because it’s unclear if our university would view blog posts as previously published work. But I have a good number of random thoughts and musings on the likes of Tertullian and Augustine of Hippo that will definitely be worked into blog posts over the coming weeks.

I am currently writing two articles, one is a revised conference paper from Imbas and the other is a brand spanking new piece for Aigne. And then there’s the scholarship applications to be worked on, the paper for Borderlines 2011 to be put together, the wedding to be finalised…

History podcasts

Britain’s National Archives offers podcasts on pretty much all eras of history, up to the 20th century. The talks look to be presented by people with good reputations and knowledge in their particular field, so if you ever fancy a history lesson running in the background while typing up a report or surfing the web, I’d recommend giving it a go.

Medievalists.net has linked to all the medieval podcasts, which have covered the likes of the Magna Carta, medieval crime, and warfare.

Faith convictions

I was asked a perplexing question recently. I had just spoken at a postgraduate seminar in Trinity College Dublin, delivering a paper called ‘”The allegory of so lamentable history”: The Old Testament influence on Bede’s understanding of apocalypse’ (see last abstract here for a similar, earlier paper). In it, I basically argued that Bede, an Anglo-Saxon historian in the eighth century, used the Bible to understand how the end would come for his people, and particularly that he used the book of Amos as a model for criticising corrupt elites.

Many medieval writers used the Bible in some sense to comment on or understand their own day, but some, likeGildas and to an extent Bede, saw in it actual prophecies of what was to come in their people’s history. All of which is pretty heavy going, I admit, but that is the world I am trying to decipher and analyse for my doctorate. The paper went well and there were good questions (and people had paid attention to our papers, which is a bonus). At the end the chairperson, a theology graduate, asked about the difference between theology and ideology in Bede’s work. In all honesty, I said that Bede would not necessarily have drawn a distinction: as far as he was concerned, a perfectly Christian kingdom was the ideal that the Anglo-Saxons should aspire to, and his work was partially designed to encourage the development of such a kingdom.

The chairperson felt that the use of the Bible to advocate national agendas was a travesty, a view I can fully understand although it does not apply to early medieval writing. As far as Bede was concerned, what he was doing was using the Bible to show how the English were part of a united Christianity: if the Bible and its messages could be shown to apply to the English, then that meant they were definitively part of the wider Christian world and were as important a part of it as somewhere like Rome. I appreciate that this is difficult to get across; I have spent more than a year working on this so it seems second nature to me. However, the chairperson came from a theological perspective, and a modern one at that, so it seemed like a travesty to use the Bible in this way. As I said, I understood where he was coming from.

After the meeting had broken up, he asked my colleague and I about our faith convictions. I wasn’t enormously pleased about this, as I believe such things are personal and you shouldn’t be put on the spot about them, although I know he did not mean anything by it really. But I had to think quickly to try and sum up some ambivalent and unarticulated thoughts that have bubbled away in my brain. It reminded me of the immigration forms for Abu Dhabi, which ask you to specify religion and sect: these signifiers of identity can mean a great deal while also meaning one must step outside old familiar zones. I gave a probably wholly unsatisfying answer referring to nominality, acceptance, etc, summed up with “I’m neutral but friendly”.

In history, we always strive for (or at least are supposed to strive for) objectivity, removing ourselves from the subject and analysing it critically. Naturally, this can only ever be an aspiration: everybody has some interpretation or reading of the text that is affected by their experience to date. And there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, although it should be recognised at least.

I tend to approach things from a literary criticism point of view, although that is usually over-ruled by historical analysis. I think what the chairperson was really wondering was if our faith convictions had determined or influenced our papers, or our interpretation of how the writers used their sources (my colleague gave a paper on early modern uses of the Bible in apocalyptic scenarios). It did not: we merely examined how medieval historians had used the Bible as a source. But his question did make me think, and I am not sure I could ever give a proper answer.

[Cross-posted at Tiny Planet]