Kari Sperring (la_marquise_de_) wrote,
Kari Sperring

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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.
Tags: history, politics
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