Oral history is something of a newcomer in the methods (or theories) of history. I first came across it in the 1980’s, when historians realized that the veterans of the First World War were dying out and their memories of the conflict were dying with them. This yielded, in my memory, Lyn McDonald’s Somme and They Called It Passchendaele, oral accounts, mixed with unit histories, of events in those battles. These books (and, I dare say, many others) told the story of the battles from ‘below’, that is, from the memories of the Tommies who went through it.
Oral history thus contrasts with more top-down accounts. While McDonald’s books had illustrations and maps, these located the units and events of which the narrators were a part. Even then, reading the accounts against the maps, you realise that the maps are tidied up versions of histories. Units did not have nice square edges, nor advance along clear arrows.
Green, A. and K. Troup (1999). The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory. Manchester, Manchester University Press, p 230-7.
oral history started as an effort to recover the views, the history, the memories, of the marginalised and oppressed. Hence, for example, there is an awful lot of oral testimony of the experiences of victims of the Holocaust. Memory, it can be claimed, is the best method of resisting barbarism.
Nevertheless, the account of past events by those who participated in them can be problematic. Memory is not a nice, linear device like a fiction book (all right, not necessarily post-modern fiction, but most fiction over recent centuries). It skips about, conflates events, highlights the things which meant much to the people involved and ignores things they do not know.
Memory, our narratives of our lives, historical events and how we recount them are influenced by ourselves and our culture. Green and Troup refer to the oral narrative of a group of ‘self-made’ men in colonial Algeria. They carefully covered over the fact that they came from privileged backgrounds, with family networks to support and enable their activities. The myth of the self-made man is pervasive in capitalism, but it rarely happens in reality. Dig back far enough and reasons other than the self-reliance and brilliance of the narrator become clear. At the risk of getting political here, perhaps some recent ‘populist’ politicians should be assessed against their real, rather than their claimed backgrounds on this basis. As ‘anti-establishment non-elites’ their records are, to say the least, highly dubious.
Still, often we have to rely on oral testimony. If we are historians of more than the last few decades, then that oral testimony might well have been written down, perhaps quite a lot later than the original oral source. A classic example of this is, I suppose, the Bible, much of which was probably originally passed down orally. This might be thought to undermine its authenticity, of course, as memory, as noted, can distort, but in fact, it can be shown mathematically that such sources can be highly reliable, particularly if there are multiple attestations (which there are for the Bible, of course, although that simply launches a further set of questions).
With careful listening and analysis, however, oral history can yield some interesting results about people and their attitudes to the events around them. Even a simple statement such as ‘The bastards shot at me’ yields a good deal of interesting information, particularly about the reasons that the opposition are described as ‘bastards’. If this is linked with a real historical event or sequence of events, then the feelings and attitudes of the participants can be brought into focus. Even if it turns out that no shots were fired, the response, the expectations and emotions are helpful, if not determinative, of the course of events and reasons for them occurring.
Of course, such interpretations come with a health warning. We are all caught up in the narrative of our lives, and we all are prone to recount such narratives with due regard to rhetorical devices, humour, pathos and all the ways we use to make such narrative interesting, and, perhaps, make ourselves and our lives meaningful. If the war I was involved in turned out to be unpopular, then I might describe myself as hiding in the trenches wanting to go home. If it was popular, I might be leading the charge to final victory (or heroic defeat). This is why, I suppose, oral history is treated carefully – the narratives are valid but only in certain terms, in certain ways. As someone once remarked, we rarely make things up entirely, but what we do is distort our relationship to the facts. Again, modern politicians could well be analysed in these terms.
My own favourite collection of oral history is the so called ‘Border Ballads’, a collection of poems and songs relating to the Anglo-Scottish Borders before the Union of the Crowns in the early Seventeenth Century. These were, on the whole, collected and written down by Sir Walter Scott at the end of the Eighteenth and into the early Nineteenth Centuries. Immediately, of course, questions are raised about the accuracy of transmission and, particularly, editorial involvement. Even aside from these issues, the relation of the ballads to real events is hard to establish, due to the paucity of the historical record and the fact that many of the ballads refer to local, even personal events which probably would not have made it into any record anywhere.
Yet the ballads have their fascination; they are a record in poetry, of a real time in a real place. Some of the geography is still extant, in the towers, bastle houses and castles of the Borders. Some of the subjects, like the Battle of Otterburn (1388) did occur, and the results, if not the detail, are recorded accurately. Careful mining of the poems can lead to some insight and understanding of the events, if not in detail, then in terms of the culture and society that led to the violence and romance of the borders in that period.
So, oral history, if used carefully, can give us some insights into the subjects. As wargamers, of course, we like narrative and poetry. Many years ago I wrote a set of rules (published in Miniature Wargames) called ‘Shake Loose the Borders’. Were they historical? Well, they captured something of the period, I would like to think, but more precisely, hopefully, they captured something of the meaning of the ballads.