Someone asked, a bit ago, why historians do not write straightforward narrative. In other words, why does a history book have to have a ‘point’? I have been pondering this, and I fear it is one of those questions that looks simple at first sights, but is a lot more complex in the longer view.
On the other hand, a while ago, a friend of mine tried reading a book about British society in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Eventually, he gave up, and I asked him why. His reply was along the line of ‘it was too complex, because it assumed that I knew what the events were and the order that they happened in, but I don’t.’
So we, as readers of history, are in a bit of a bind. We need a chronology to hang bits of history on, but we need the bits of history to form the chronological narrative. As writers of history (not that I am one) we also need a narrative structure and a closer focus on whatever it is I am writing about. A bit of history fits into a context, and a context is forms of bits of history.
As wargamers this is also true of us. We have a chronology, mainly formed from the battles and campaigns of the wars which we wargame. We also have bits of history upon which we focus: the battles. These also, of course, form part of the chronology. This is, of course, circular, but I do not think that the circle is vicious. We can happily start with, say, politics in Europe in 1700, and then move on to the Wars of Spanish Succession, and then to Blenheim, Ramillies and the rest of them. We could also start with Blenheim and expand the focus. The one informs the other.
When we write history, however, we do run into a problem of selection. In most eras there is more information available than we can put into a book of any sane length. History, if we want to conceptualise it as a method, has a three stage process. Firstly, we have to establish the historical data. This involves digging around, either in archives or in the ground, to establish the artefacts associated with the period in question. Once this is done we need to establish the critical editions of the texts, or the date, location, function and use of a material object.
Once the data is established, we can attempt to interpret it. There are a number of parts to this, as we have to establish, say, for a text, what it means (it could be written in various languages – one of the problems with the history of the Thirty Years War is that the archives are in Latin, German, Swedish, Danish, French, Spanish, Polish, Russian and probably a few more languages as well. Even most historians do not read all these languages). The text might mean something different to us today than it did for the writer. It might have meant something different to the writer than it did to their readers. We have to try to work out what the writer meant, what the readers would have understood and attempt (which is difficult, or even impossible) to bracket out our own views.
Once we have established the probable meaning of a document, we then have to compare it with other documents. They might agree; they might conflict. If they do, how can we work out which is correct. Are they both telling the facts from the same perspective? Is one document reliant upon the other, and so on. This is not an easy task at all. While we might be able to assess the balance of probabilities for a given document or set of documents, this does not give us direct access to the events reported (even if the documents are reporting events simply). History is a lot trickier than that.
Finally, we have to do some reporting. We write history. But the history that we write is mediated by a number of considerations. Firstly, that the history has to be based on the historian’s interpretation of the available evidence. Evidence does not usually point unambiguously in a single direction. If it did, historians would be out of a job. Usually a piece of evidence can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and it the historian’s job to do the interpretation and to fit it into a narrative flow of events. This flow needs, at least, to be consistent with both the evidence, the chronology and the scheme of interpretation the historian has chosen.
The job of the historian, then, is to select and interpret evidence in accordance with an overall scheme of things to find out what was going on in the period in question. But this is inevitably a selective and interpretative task, and thus no historian can write a simple narrative. All history is, in some sense, a construct; it does not give access to the events of the time in question, but to some aspects thereof. The aim is an intelligible understanding of what was going on, not access to what was ‘really’ going on. After all, often the actors themselves did not know what was going on in their own world.
As an example, the history of the English Civil War has borne a wide variety of interpretations. It has been claimed to be due to the rise of the gentry, the fall of the gentry, climate change, the influx of precious metals from the New World, religious conflict, the conflict between the provinces and centralising government and so on. There are Marxist interpretations, capitalist interpretations, and conservative revisionist interpretations and so on. There are no straightforward narratives, because no historian can actually create one. Even CV Wedgewood, the narrative historian supreme of the era, has her viewpoint and prejudices. The evidence for all these interpretations is the same. The rest depends on the historian.
So there can be no straightforward narrative history of any period. There is, on the same basis, no straight narrative of a battle. It all has to be pieced together, bit by bit, from diaries, reports, and statistics and so on. Nice as the ideal of a straight bit of reportage might be, we have to accept its unattainability, and work with what we can find, not with what we would like to have.
There is, unsurprisingly, a lot more that could be said about this, and about how our interests condition what we look for, never mind our interpretations. But that is for another post, maybe. Sometime.
Tiny galley update: Finished 65, undercoated 10, grey 75.
Tiny galley update: Finished 65, undercoated 10, grey 75.