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On History

I don't know what history is for. Back when I was still teaching in universities, I'd get asked that a lot, on open days and at social events. Yes, but what is history for? What good is it? Why should we spend time and money and attention on it, when there are so many other things that are more important/relevant/money-making/shiny. It's an obvious question, I suppose, and and understandable one, if also somewhat impertinent ('Justify your job to me! At once! I pay tax!')

This is what I used to say -- what I'd hear my colleagues saying, what I still hear historians saying, over and over. 'Well, history is about how we got to where we are now. It helps us understand the things about us, the events, the conflicts, the problems. It helps us locate ourselves and our responsibilities, it helps us understand why others bear us ill-will, why we are culpable, what we should strive to learn and what we should try and do better. It helps us understand why the country we live in behaves as it does, and what the old tensions are.' More concisely, as Eliot put it, history is now and England (or Somalia or Guangzhou or Wichita or Perth or Saint-Iago-de-Compostela or Harare or Rio de Janeiro or Pune or wherever it is we find ourselves). History is how we got here and why.

But, of course, it's not that easy, because history is so vast, so manipulable, so shifting and uncertain and so full of holes made by bias and prejudice, by accident or design, by privilege and by privation. It's a weapon in the hands of the ambitious and the victorious, the designing and those with agenda. To Bede in the early eighth century, it was a tool to glorify the works of God and the saints in converting the Anglo-Saxons. But it was not just that: to him, it was also about striving for accuracy in reporting and about honesty about what you have read and learnt from others, about respecting that there might be multiple versions, multiple stories. He gives us some of those, and he comments on what he records, too -- this I learnt from X, who was a witness, and this from Y, about whose accuracy I am unsure. This I found in this text, and this in another, and I find them likely, or unlikely, or confused.

Bede was a good historian, of his kind and time. Not all historians are as rigorous. The anonymous monk or monks who compiled the History of the Britons somewhere in north west Wales in the first part of the 9th century did not trouble to name his sources, nor to analyse their relative value or believability. A lot of what he -- or they -- included is of debatable historical value -- folk tales about Arthur, scurrilous politically motivated attacks on the traditions of the neighbouring kingdom and its ancestor figures. Some of it may have been deliberate -- HB was compiled at a time of political change in Wales, when a new dynasty had imposed itself in Gwynedd -- NW Wales -- and was seeking both to justify its new status by manufacturing links to those it had displaced and to expand its control -- and justifications for the same -- into other areas of Wales.

It's a truism that history is composed by the victors, that the narratives of the losers, of the displaced and dispossessed are elided or erased. The voices of the poor and the unprivileged are largely silent. What did the women of Gwynedd think, in 9th century Wales? I don't know. I have no way of knowing. They are silent. They remained silent for most of the middle ages, in that region. Men sometimes wrote down their names, almost always in the context of the men who controlled them -- who they married, who they gave birth to. We don't know what the bondsmen who inhabited the lands of the nobles thought or did, either, or the freemen of low status, or even most of the nobility. We know who won what battle, but not why it was fought. Historians -- my kind of early mediaevalist, anyway -- build pictures from incomplete pieces, hunt for clues in sources that were never meant as history -- homilies and poems, riddles and grave inscriptions -- make guesses, try and understand. There were 97 men who claimed to be kings in Wales during the 11th century. I can't tell you what a single one of them looked like, what they thought about what they did, what they believed, what they worried about. In a handful of cases, I can offer an informed guess. That's as good as it gets, in my kind of history.

There are many, many histories, many, many levels of recording, many potential sources. There are many many ways of reading and interpreting those sources. My interpretation is not that of the late R. R. Davies, or of the great Sir John Lloyd. And that's just academic differences. Some interpretations hurt. Some distort, lie, destroy, colonise, kill. When you lay your hands on someone's history, you lay your hands on their culture and identity, too. Some post-modernists might have it that all versions, all interpretations are simply competing narratives, of equal value. I don't believe this. It's one thing to disagree over the motives of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn when he burned Hereford in 1056. It's another to label someone else's past 'primitive' or 'inferior' or 'evil' because it differs from yours. When my father's people forbade my mother's people from speaking their own tongue and teaching their own history, it wasn't about narratives, it was about cultural attack and colonialism. It was about erasing the Other, about declaring one history superior in order to destroy another. The English narrative -- of 'civilising' the Welsh -- is not equal to the Welsh one of oppression. It's a vast and vicious cultural judgement, made by those with power against those who lack it. It's the trick of the oppressor everywhere, to deride, deny and wipe out the stories that disagree with theirs.

And, just as the world is full of histories, it's full of people trying to use them, in all sorts of ways, to claim land, to claim power, to separate themselves, to justify this war or that, to explain why women -- or children -- must be treated like this and men like that, to make themselves feel better or others worse. When you read history, any history, the first question is always 'what does this writer want me to think?'

We can't avoid history, it's everywhere. We can't escape it, either. We have, willy-nilly, to live with it. But when we ask what it's for, we need to stop and think, too, why we need to know that, what our motives are, what we hope to get out of the answer, and how our questions and conclusions may affect others. Governments are very often very interested in how history is taught in schools -- and in what history. There's a good reason for that. History shapes us. And he -- it's usually a he -- who controls which histories are remembered and which ignored gets to shape how others think and act and feel.

History is. Histories are. They matter. And in a sense, they aren't for anything. That's the wrong question, it starts with a very western, very modern assumption that everything has to be obviously and economically useful. They are who we are and that's what matters.

Skirt of the day: long black cotton.


( 66 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC)
It drives me nuts, that whole 'useful' thing. It isn't even utilitarianism, it's some kind of capitalist dominance game.

Edited at 2011-08-02 05:27 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - mojave_wolf - Aug. 2nd, 2011 06:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 2nd, 2011 08:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ms_cataclysm - Aug. 3rd, 2011 10:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - anghara - Aug. 3rd, 2011 04:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:33 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:25 pm (UTC)

So true. History not only affects how certain races view themselves but it affects on the spiritual way as well.

When one looks at the tragic Greek families -- Oedipus, etc-- one sees the effect of generational history: the generational curses, the feuds, the spiritual comeuppances. I remember a friend telling me that when one lives in a town where one's ancestors have lived for many years, folks know your family's history...and whether or not they wish to marry into your family and become part of your family's history and curse. Not stuff the western world ponders but stuff which underly life all the same. -C
Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
Re: history
Goodness, yes.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 06:26 pm (UTC)
Well said. Thank you.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 08:29 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. :-)
Aug. 2nd, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)
Aug. 2nd, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
Do you get the 'what use is Classics' question? I imagine you must. I'd be interested in your response.
(no subject) - swisstone - Aug. 3rd, 2011 06:50 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:34 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Aug. 3rd, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 3rd, 2011 04:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ms_cataclysm - Aug. 3rd, 2011 05:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Aug. 3rd, 2011 11:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ms_cataclysm - Aug. 4th, 2011 08:01 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Aug. 4th, 2011 01:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 4th, 2011 01:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aberwyn - Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 4th, 2011 01:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 08:23 pm (UTC)
Good article!
I used to think when I was studying history and later museum studies, that people asked 'what is history for?' or 'what are museums for?' as a special case.

I'm afraid they don't though: People have often asked about the point of pretty much all my jobs & volunteer roles. Marketing, what's that good for? It's just conning people... The internet, what's that for? What's the point in running training courses? What's the point in rescuing an old dog when you could buy a puppy?

It's amazing how easy and pointless all sorts of things look to people who don't care and have never needed to think much about them. I think the only job I've ever had that someone has never asked what the point was, was my first job as a waitress. Apparently it is obvious to all that people can't possibly be expected to fetch their own coffee or clear their own plates!
Aug. 2nd, 2011 08:31 pm (UTC)
There is all too often a thinks bubble, isn't there? 'How is this useful to *me*?' We are so not a nice species, sometimes.
Though when I worked for HM Revenue, many years ago, although I was sometimes asked who I thought I was (expecting them to pay tax! Unthinkable!) no-one ever asked me what Revenue was for.
no-one ever asked me what Revenue was for. - bunn - Aug. 2nd, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
what HM Revenue and Customs is for ? - ms_cataclysm - Aug. 3rd, 2011 10:29 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 09:04 pm (UTC)
Because 'Wales' means 'foreigner'. A name bestowed by the "English". Cymru is the proper name!

Go on from that to the breathtaking assertion that the USA is just under 300 years old. As though thousands of years of various Native history and civilisations mean nothing.

Same goes for Australia.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 09:39 pm (UTC)
Yes. And Scotland, of course, was Alba. 'Scot' means Irish, in Latin, and the Irish colonised and overwhelmed much of Alba in the 2nd to 6th centuries. History is full of elisions, displacements and false victorious stories.
Aug. 2nd, 2011 09:50 pm (UTC)
It's funny, because I am very much a person who can tell you why history is useful, and it is never the history in the sense of knowing the narrative. It is the history in the doing of history that is useful.

But when it gets right down to it, the doing of history is how I see the world. chilperic once said he was not surprised I changed fields from Lit to History, "because you read like a historian. You can't help it."

That's it, really. I can't help it.

(oh, and also, if you haven't read that John Arnold Very Short Introduction, it says many of the same things, in yet another elegant way)
Aug. 2nd, 2011 10:05 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Like -- it gives you the information about who is screwing you, how, and why, and how often they are same people in every era, after era, every century, after century, every country, after country. It's really hard for the screwed to counter that without knowing all this.

There's a reason all the successful revolutions of modern times, for better or worse, were made by individuals who knew their own history, as well as the history of so many other places, among many other things (though generally not economics so well, maybe: Lenin, Mao, Fidel, Ho Chi Minh. That's one of the really big problems among others with Hugo Chavez, for instance, and his ability to hang on to power. He's not educated.

But the leader and organizer of the Haitian revolution, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, was educated, though self-educated. He was a powerful, educated man -- a military figure -- back in Africa before getting swept up into the slave trade and landing on San Domingue, as it was then called.

This also shows us why the American 'revolution' wasn't really a revolution, rather a civil war. It didn't change the society, though, yes, the Loyalists were driven out, and often in dreadfully mobbing cruel and unwarrented ways. But the local ruling class remained the local ruling class, and those are the people who signed the Constitution.

Love, C.
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Aug. 3rd, 2011 03:02 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:37 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:33 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Aug. 3rd, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 3rd, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2011 11:18 pm (UTC)
Yes. Thank you for this.
Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:39 am (UTC)
You're welcome :-)
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
Re: Well said! - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:40 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 3rd, 2011 05:08 am (UTC)
Excellent post, indeed! I too have little to add. I will say that I think it would be presumptuous of both Whites and African-Americans to appropriate the history of the First Peoples as their own. US history is short. The history of the continent is what's long. It wasn't called "America" till late in the day.
Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:41 am (UTC)
That is a very sensible definition.
And yes, the history of the Americas is long and complex and varied and deep.
Aug. 3rd, 2011 06:40 am (UTC)
History is part of my sense of identity. It's who my ancestors were and how they lived.

There are two small parts of history that I would regard as having 'economic' value.

Old weather and astronomical records, everything from Chinese records of comets, to the detailed logs of shipmasters, are very useful to those studying climate change and astronomy.

Knowing old wind, temperature and rainfall patterns is very valuable in working out the changes between then and now, and helping us predict what is likely in the future.
Aug. 3rd, 2011 09:44 am (UTC)
Astronomical and meteorological observations are very valuable as part of our knowledge base on how those systems work, certainly. I'm not sure that value is precisely economic, though. Science, to me, anyway, should be freed from the need to be of monetary value, as much as history or literature or anything else -- it's the ethos that insists on a cash value that bugs me, not what we can learn from the knowledge across disciplines.
Aug. 3rd, 2011 12:39 pm (UTC)
Yes. This. Everything you've said.

I will be thinking about this post for a long while.
Aug. 3rd, 2011 01:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
Aug. 3rd, 2011 01:24 pm (UTC)
I fell asleep thinking about this last night. What I am thinking (somewhat incoherently) is to do with the idea of narratives that some people have raised above. Humans are story-tellers. We are continually telling ourselves and other people the stories of our lives. We can't make sense of ourselves without these stories, and yet they are only partly true, even for the most honest of us. History - what should I call it - the historical method? is about getting to the truths behind these narratives, or building those narratives into more truthful ones. But there's never a single unflawed or undoubted truth. Better stop rambling now.
Aug. 3rd, 2011 02:16 pm (UTC)
There's a lot of unpacking, too -- in many cases, truth is mutable or uncertain. There are dates -- 1066, 1603 -- but in isolation they don't mean a lot. And then they also carry multiple conflicting meanings depending on pov, privilege, experience, change... It's not a tidy space, history.
Aug. 5th, 2011 09:32 pm (UTC)
It is a thing I often encounter in my field too, or rather, I don't get to be asked the question since most people says 'Chinese? Ah, that's great for businness now'. Never mind that I don't work in that field (I'm a cultural mediator) or that modern Chinese history (and related courses) bored me to tears (by and at large it was 'history of the CCP').

It's the earlier history, up and including the Yuan that fascinates me, the shaping of philosophy,art, literature and their use in building and governing the empire through a shared mindset...
You know how that feels, getting lost in another world while at the same time analizing it, feeling the threads and trends and seeing them emerge in the contemporary world.

Just thank you for this and for making me ponder on it all.
Aug. 6th, 2011 09:23 am (UTC)
I hate the way modern language teaching is geared so much towards business use. I want to study the whole culture. It was precisely the history of China down to the end of the Yuan that drew me into my study of Chinese. As a mediaevalist, I find the depth of records and materials just wonderful. I'm never going to be able to read Sima Quan in the original -- I can hold careful slow conversations in shops about films and work, but that's about it. But to me, what matters is the context of language, not it's usefulness to the economy, and I find the latter mindset distasteful and distressing.
And yes on the focus on modern history (it's 'useful'). Far less interesting!
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Aug. 6th, 2011 02:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 6th, 2011 04:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
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