What sort of historian are you?
Of course, the standard retort to such a leading question is ‘I am not a historian.’ But I am afraid that it will not do as a response. If you are a historical wargamer (and I imagine that most of the few people who read the blog are – why else come here?) then you will have a position when it comes to history. A historical position is grounded on some sort of foundation, after all.
As you may have come to expect, the question has been triggered by a book I have just read. This one:
Green, A., Troup, K., The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).
The point the authors make is that the various ‘houses’ of history lead to various ways of doing history, and hence assorted outcomes and views of what history is about and should be about. It covers twelve different positions, which I suppose could be understood as philosophies of history, but also seems to me to cover some areas of methodology. Not that method and contents can always be separated, of course.
The book covers twelve houses of history: empiricism, Marxism, Psychohistory, the Annales group, historical sociology, ethnohistory, narrative history, oral history, gender history, postcolonial history and poststructural or postmodern history. I have mentioned a few before here, such as postcolonial history and Marxism, and I cannot go through them all in any detail, but it is worth a ponder as to where you, or I, fit into this pattern.
Most ‘guns and trumpets’ military history fits into the first house, of course. Empirical history looks for its evidence in documents, in what happened, and tries to extract from that why it happened. Hence a lot of battle and campaign focussed history falls, I think, into empiricism. So much so that I suspect that a lot of people’s reaction the description of empirical history might be ‘is there any other sort?’
Empirical history tends to focus on politics and decision making. The text in the book is from G. R. Elton’s England under the Tudors (1955) and is a certain sort of thing. It switches from administrative history to foreign policy, dynastic problems (Henry VII and Lambert Simnel, for example, or Henry VIII and his issues with issue). This, you might say, is all fair enough, and I do not think anyone would particularly disagree with you. These sorts of things did impact of people’s lives, but then, so did a lot of other things which are not covered in this work: changes in technology, ideas and ordinary people’s lives. It is a bit difficult, for example, to see how this sort of ‘official document’ history could uncover the motivations of those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace. It might be done, reading court documents against the grain, as it were (if any exist – I am not sure if the government’s retribution against the ring leaders was dressed up in any sort of legal clothing).
That said, I think empirical history does lay the groundwork for a lot of the other sorts. Historians spend a lot of time grubbing around in archives because that is what exists. However, even professional historians can sometimes be misled by their sources; we can all read naively. For example, I was told recently of a sad tale of a woman who had an adulterous relationship, got pregnant, was found out and burnt at the stake under the Protectorate. The flames provoked her to give birth to a live baby, and there was a debate as to what to do with it before it, too, was consigned to the flames. The point was, of course, how cruel the law was against women (and children) at the time.
I confess to being a bit sceptical about this story. Firstly, I had never heard it before; it is so lurid that I might have remembered it. Secondly, I do not think it is mentioned in
Capp, B., England's Culture Wars: Puritan Reformation and Its Enemies in the Interregnum, 1649 - 1660 (Oxford: OUP, 2012).
The 1650 Act laid out the death penalty for adultery and there are 36 prosecutions at the Old Bailey but only two convictions and both women were reprieved (Capp, p. 134-5). I suspect that the penalty would have been hanging rather than burning, as well. Capp states that there were trials but few convictions in the provinces as well (p. 136). When I inquired, I was told that the story came from a news-book which, as with today’s ‘gutter press’, had a tendency to if not make things up totally, at least embellish them sufficiently to establish little basis in reality. I would like to track down the story and see if it really does have any antecedents in reality. The news-book, after all, had the advantage that few people were going to be in a position to catch them out in lying, and fewer people, probably, would care anyway.
So, empirical history, I think, forms the basis for a lot of other history, but documents can lie, or at least, we can interpret them in perhaps naive ways. The readers of the news-book may well have believed the story; at least, it is almost certain that they were both titillated and horrified by it, as the modern reader may well be. But simply repeating it as true, as something that was a historical event, might be pushing the source beyond what is credible. News-books were in part propaganda. The 1650 Act was itself an act of propaganda in trying to impose a certain culture or morality on England. It also has to be realised that the revolution had swept away the Ecclesiastical courts in which such cases had previously been heard. Indeed, I seem to recall there was a bit of a hiatus in the legal status of marriage between the abolition of the Ecclesiastical courts and the 1650 Act, which caused grounds for confusion over legally contracted marriages for potentially several decades.
So, empirical history has its uses. I only have another eleven houses of history to talk about now….