History, all myth?

Only recently did I discover a profound quote from a famous politician of years gone by that gave me cause to reflect. It was said to have gone as follows:

“All history is myth. It is a pattern which men weave out of the materials of the past. The moment a fact enters into history it becomes mythical, because it has been taken and fitted into its place in a set of ordered relationships which is the creation of a human mind and not otherwise present in nature.”

I have decided, on the whole, I agree with it.

Other than in matters of the utmost triviality, the problem faced by any writer of history is that everything is connected with everything else but that (usually) only limited or random records survive, often incomplete, generally lacking context and sometimes ambiguous. For some types of history there are no records at all, merely artefacts and, if one is lucky, a body of ‘expert’ opinion to draw from. Most records are essentially ephemeral, produced for a specific purpose current at that moment. They are not intended to ‘reveal all’ to inexperienced eyes decades later. They can be selective and positively misleading. This leaves later generations trying to illuminate the past with a real problem.

It seems to me that the job of the historian is to communicate. That means that the written words need to be accessible and appealing to readers so that the history is read, understood and, with luck, enjoyed. In short, a historian will be writing a story. The challenge is to write a story that is complete in itself from a selection of facts that themselves suffer from the defects just described. Depending on the subject matter, the size of this challenge will vary, but a challenge it will usually be.

I can more easily describe what a historian is not.

For example, a historian is not a mere collector, compiler and presenter of facts. This potentially useful task is surely the realm of the chronologist? Facts are indeed presented but no opinions are ventured or connections or links are made. There is no context. The result is not a history, though it may be a vital first stage.

Nor is a historian a mere writer of history who meticulously includes every known fact, of widely varying significance (if significant at all), and despite the gaping holes that remain still produces a colourless, unreadable tome that may only be used as a rarely consulted reference work (I use these as bookends).

Equally, the historian is not the very opposite of this—someone who can produce a wonderfully engaging work with virtually no facts in it at all, or the obvious variation where it is packed with third-hand inaccuracies, hearsay or just fantasy. The annoying thing is they sell well and are quick to produceno troublesome checking for accuracy is a huge time-saver. Perhaps this class of writer (and they are out there) are the opposite of historians as there is a tendency to spread misinformation and, like the genie from the bottle, once inaccuracies get out they spread and infect everything else. Even reckless dispersal of over-simplifications and the making of unjustified assumptions do damage. The saving grace is that it might make a subject area popular and inspire interest, but I’m trying hard to accentuate the positive!

So, if these observations about what a historian is not hold any water at all, then in the Holmesian fashion we might be entitled to conclude that a historian must be what is left when the above are excluded? I offer the following list of what I think a historian’s attributes might be:

  • Able to ascertain facts and understand their significance (indeed to know a fact at all, when one beckons);
  • Have or gain sufficient subject knowledge to contextualize information and understand what is missing and where to look;
  • Can understand the wider picture as well as important detail;
  • Identify common threads or themes and use these as basis for the ‘storyline’;
  • Know what can safely be omitted, or relegated to footnotes and references;
  • Draw appropriate inferences, make links between themes and facts and explain their significance to those who may be less familiar with the material;
  • Avoid leaving loose threads all over the place or themes that are left hanging or to leave more questions than are answered;
  • And, for heavens sake, to make the subject interesting and enthuse the reader.

It may be seen that a ‘proper’ historian is no mere commentator. The same facts available to two equally competent historians may produce entirely different histories and that doesn’t allow for the same facts rarely being available to everyone anyway (maybe because of privileged access to private collections). That the writing of history becomes as much a product of ones own fevered brain as it is of the facts is surely what gives rise to the suggestion that all history is myth. However thoroughly a history may be, it is ultimately one story from one of the many possible stories that could equally well be called ‘a history of …’. 

This notion appeals. It does of course place a duty on the reader who, having discovered that all history is myth, may feel a bit let down. The £25 investment that was expected to ‘reveal all’ on some particular subject is now shown up to be no more than one person’s careful selection and presentation of facts. There are other facts, views, opinions and conclusions in other books. To learn all there is to know, perhaps one must read all of them, and all the books on peripheral areas to provide context. Well no, actually. Unless one is an academic then usually just a couple of books on a favoured subject will do, in order to grasp the nub of it. Just the one book will do in some circumstances, provided the limitations are understood. In addition, readers will also have their own prejudices and thirst for detail and will find that once they identify an author whose ‘style’ they like then their book alone will do the job, and others might grate. It depends on what and how much the reader wishes to know, and how much investment in time or effort is warranted (and we all know people who have ‘read a book’ and are now an ‘expert…’).

The historian must try and make output accessible to the widest range of readers, keeping the knowledgeable satisfied without patronizing those new to the subject, or just leaving them behind. A warning can often be given through the title. ‘A history of Roman Amphorae from Galicia dated 120-116 b.c.’ is likely to be a very different type of work from ‘A history of twentieth century household machines’, to suggest one of any number of possible examples. These books are likely to be hugely different in style and approach, but I don’t think we can blame the authors for thatthey are aimed at very different audiences. The historian therefore needs to understand his likely audiences and pitch accordingly.

So, to refer to any history as ‘myth’ may seem a bit harsh. To refer to all history as ‘myth’ is a harsher indictment, but one which, upon reflection, I think I will concede to be true. That it might be myth does not by any means invalidate it as a valuable and important contribution to the knowledge of mankind, and we are lucky so much does get written down. All it means is that the reader should be alert to the possibility that any particular history might not be the last word on the subject, and in a few cases not the first word either. Readers might consider in the back of their mind questions like the following. Why has this been written? What is the story it is trying to tell? Are the conclusions plausible and justified by the evidence produced? Why are things left out? Do the facts mentioned that I happen to know about concur (and if not which of us is wrong)? What do I know about the author? With any credible history, none of this should cause significant concern. I recently reviewed what might have been thought a factual book and found 106 errors: that is the kind of thing that justifies concern.

And who was this politician-historian who has stirred all this up? It was Enoch Powell MP, a well-educated man of huge intellect and a prolific journalist who perhaps knew a bit too much history.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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