I periodically find myself in conversation with people who start with ‘You’re a historian, so you must know…’ – and then ask me something about some obscure piece of trivia in an area I’ve never looked at. However, my answer’s the same every time: as Einstein said, I don’t need to keep stuff to that level in my head – all I need to know is where to look it up and what it means when I find it.
Well, there’s a bit more to it than that, as I’ll explain, but that’s the general idea. I should add that I don’t consider myself a historian: yeah, I’m qualified in the field, as I am in several others, and have a publishing list in it; but fundamentally I’m a writer.
As far as I can tell, the reason why non-historians suppose that those working in the field must know this or other obscure factoid is because – popularly – history is an exercise in ‘knowing’ point-data, and anybody can be ‘an Historian’ merely by saying they are. All you need is the right reference books, or to be able to visit an archive and rote-copy data, and how hard can that be? It’s kind of like the way that being ‘a accountant’ is popularly seen as being a boring person whose dull little life is spent adding up boring lists of uninteresting numbers. For ‘an Historian’, apparently, ‘knowing’ one factoid or other is, apparently, a definition of competence and worth, something I’ve seen on various Facebook forums where enthusiasts spend a lot of time slanging each other’s reputes and personal worth, on the basis of the other not ‘knowing’ something, or being unable to mention absolutely every last minute detail in a five-word comment.
What’s more, these factoids are apparently absolute: if ‘an historian #1’ has one source, and ‘an historian #2’ has another, and the two don’t match – well, to ‘an historian #1’ that’s proof that ‘an historian #2’ is an idiot and personally worthless, and everybody in the world has to be told so. I’ve seen that on Facebook enthusiast groups too (I use these, of course, as a kind of litmus test).
All this is pretty much the exact opposite of what qualified historians actually do. Yes, obviously the field has to include data collection. And yes, you do need to keep enough stuff in your head to make sense of what you discover. But that is not an end of itself. History at this level is about analysis, including analysing the nature of the sources. Taking past information as literally true, of itself, isn’t enough. As Churchill once suggested, history was going to be kind to him, because he was going to write it. So we have to understand the place of the documentation we find, its intent and purpose at the time, and the parameters around which it was written.
Beyond that, history is about understanding people and societies, it’s about being able to see the shapes and patterns of the past and how they evolved. To this extent it’s a branch of sociology and of cultural anthropology, although personally I think the categories into which we place the humanities are artificial; it all interlinks. Certainly the intellectual tools developed by twentieth century ethnographers are useful ways of analysing the past, though they’re not taught as part of the skill-set for university-trained historians (I am qualified in both fields).
One point where this style of history often trips up, though, is on the nature of the conclusions – on what is said, in effect, about the shapes and patterns of the past. Often, an analytical study will be received – whether intended or not by its author – as a kind of ‘definitive’ or ‘final’ word on the subject. It reflects, in part, the way we are conditioned in western intellectual thought and society in general to look for final definitive answers.
The thing is that when it comes to human endeavour and something as complex as a society, there aren’t any definitive final answers. All we can do is have a discussion – a reasonable, perceptive discussion. But a discussion. Why? Because society is constantly changing, and this means that the nature of the questions we ask about the past also change over time.
What this means is that our understanding of history is, itself, going to change as the questions we ask of it change – which happens as time goes on and our society continues to evolve. It’s quite exciting really.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019