Saturday 13 February 2016

History and Narrative

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.


  1. Another good post, and one that most historical gamers should probably read. Essentially, there is no Rankean history 'wie es eigentlich gewesen' because history is experienced differently by different people. Instead there are lots of histories and we have to sift through them to create our narrative. The lens (critical theory) we apply will determine how we approach these histories and will affect our final narrative.

    Keep up the good work. I've been enjoying your recent posts a lot.

    1. I suspect that many people get a bit anxious when we conclude that there is no such thing as 'history', but only 'histories'. Our nice comfortable myths about things - the Battle of Britain, Waterloo - look different from different perspectives. Most people prefer the comfort of the known, nailed down history from their own (usually national) memory.

      On the other hand, like a lot of textual study, if we are not careful we shred the texts which give us history and land up sawing off the branch we sit on.

      So history is tricky, messy, and, in fact, much like the rest of life, really....

    2. Oddly enough I hated history in school when it was all kings and queens, names and dates, and was presented as a uniform narrative. It was only when I went to university and learnt that it was really quite chaotic that I discovered my true affinity for it. I love that it requires us to think, to make judgement calls, and to assess the evidence critically. I'm not sure I agree that we are likely to saw off the branch we are sitting on though, unless that branch has grown out of the myths that form our heritage (as opposed to history). Still, yes, many people want it all cut and dried, and presented in simple soundbites that they can easily consume. They don't like it when you present them with a range of possibilities and the knowledge that there is no objective history for them to hold onto and build their sense of identity from.

    3. I was thinking of some of the textual criticism, some of which is rife in Biblical Studies, but I have seen it elsewhere, where someone says 'I Samuel 6:17ab is obviously the work of the Deuteronomist, but of course I Sam 6:17c is from the Priestly source...'

      You land up having given all the ground away, or at least having fragmented your text to the point of uselessness.

      History is implicated in the formation of our identities. We like our heroic myths, even if we call them something different. Battles that established the kingdom, our freedoms, democracy? More like grubby scraps in muddy fields between the disinterested and power grubbing nobles (on both sides). Did Naseby finish the English Civil War? Not so you would notice. Except in retrospect, from a suitably safe distance.

      But we like it all cleaned up, sanitised, clear.

    4. Ah, right. I suppose it depends what you want from the text. If different authors are recognised and it fragments the text, to what extent does that make it useful or useless? Surely it's better to recognise that the text is fragmented and make allowances for that in your analysis. I suppose it depends what you want from it, and whether the analysis that fragments the text is accepted or not. I'm rambling a bit here! Wot, again, he cries!! But, I think it is better to be aware of all the factors that apply when analysing your sources. If that means negotiating the meaning of fragmented texts, then so be it. I think. This issue strikes me as a rather large can of worms, that leaves you asking the question "So, what does it mean for our analysis that I Samuel 6:17ab was the work of a different person from I Samuel 6:17c?"

      History is very much a part of our identities, although I have seen this type of history more specifically called heritage. This makes sense to me because my heritage, both family and national, contributes to my sense of identity, more than anything that I recognise as formal history.

    5. Oh, i agree that we need to do all the possible analysis and if that fragments the text, so be it. but I think there are a couple of caveats. Firstly, that these sorts of analysis of authors tends to be hypothetical - we don't really know if there was a Priestly and a Deuteronomist author, and we can get a bit carried away with the analysis unless we bear that in mind.

      Secondly, someone decided that the final version of the text was the final version, and there must have been reasons for that. If we only fragment the text and never work with the whole thing, then we distort at least the final redactor's views of the matter, and they might have had access to all sorts of original versions which are now lost.

      So yes, analyse, fragment and assess, but that is not the end of the road. But I guess you know that anyway :).

      So, do you think that we are mostly heritage or historical gamers, and how could we tell the difference? Does it matter anyway?

    6. That's a good point about considering the compiler as well.There are so many variables in the transmission of a text that analysing them fully is going to be beyond almost all gamers. It all depends when the text was compiled versus originally written, etc. A text could have gone through multiple oral versions before being written down, or could have been revised, edited, bowdlerised or generally chopped about and we might only retain a fraction of the first version whatever that was and whatever form it took. It's not a simple task to wade through these issues and produce any kind of analysis, and it requires a specific skill set to do it properly. As gamers, we make the best of a difficult situation, if we are aware of this, and just plough on regardless to produce our games, if we are not.

      Are we heritage or historical gamers? I think you will get different answers from different gamers according to how they perceive their own approach to gaming. I was recently called out on TMP by one gamer for daring to say that there is no functionally significant difference between historical, science fiction and fantasy wargaming. He stated that he did loads of research and made the terrain for his games as close to the historical battlefield as possible, and that there was a world of difference between his style of gaming and that of sci-fi or fantasy gaming. He obviously maintains that he is a historical gamer. Others will gleefully embrace heritage gaming and play games whose models are rooted in the myth of the English longbow or the myth of the berserk Viking. Most people will fall somewhere on the line between heritage and history, and where they fall will probably depend upon period, rules choice and myriad other factors. I don't think it really matters as long as people are having fun, although I do have a tendency to get a tad het up when people claim heritage to be history in the area of my specialism. I guess that's an occupational hazard!

    7. I always raise a heckle or two when someone says 'It is quite clear that this text says that...' Oh, really? How do you know? How clear is it? And so on.

      Mind you, it gets even worse with numbers; I've had people who have performed a qualitative analysis on a set of texts and have then been sent off to perform statistical analysis of the number of times they have assigned some of the text to a particular concept. It takes a lot of work to persuade thqem that while they can do it, the results will be meaningless. There is something certain about numbers that the human psyche likes.

      i am sure that there are some people who can claim to be historical wargamers, but I doubt the claims have much validity. A wargame is a wargame, and 'accuracy' is a relative (or wishy-washy) concept. After all, I can run a perfectly SF game.

      I think that we are all a mix of historical and heritage gamers, but we tell ourselves different stories as to what we are doing. And, i suspect, for many wargamers, research is reading a relevant Osprey, painting the figures and then launching forth.

      But you are allowed to get het up about your specialism. It is an occupational hazard. I get grumpy when people start to apply 1/R^2 dissipation to laser weapons in SF games....

    8. I reckon you have summed it up nicely there. People like the solidity of numbers, and are often unaware of the subtleties of analysis, but it's all really shades of grey. In the end, from a wargaming perspective, all that really matters is that we have fun.

  2. Very good! A lot more has been said on making history. If you are interested in a 12 hour lecture series, see Guelzo's "Making History: How Great Historians Interpret the Past."

    I found it most interesting.

    1. They do look interesting, but I think I'll have to wait until I retire....!

    2. That was my thought too! :)