Friday, May 10, 2019

Why you should know your historian

My reading for today started with this fascinating New Stateman’s article on EH Carr.
EH Carr is considered by many to have written the first serious book on the subjectivity of history and how the historian’s past always colours their interpretation of the facts. His book What is History stemmed from at series of lectures he gave in 1961. His basic argument is that you must first study the historian, understand their agenda and social context and then read their work. He differed from 19th century historians who felt the historian could give an objective account of history.
The historical timeline with its dates and certainties stems from the 19th century. Von Ranke in the 1830s is the person to blame btw. And dates aren’t always accurate – Christianity in the UK does not start in 597 CE with St Augustine’s mission as was recently shown by the Prittlewell Prince, a high status Christian who was buried in Essex prior to this time. (There are other examples but the find is fairly amazing)
One of Carr’s great insights about 5th century is not that so much was lost but we viewed it through the lenses of a small group of men based in Athens who were of a certain social standing. And therefore the reader should always be aware of whose lenses you are viewing history through. 
The same can be said to be true in my opinion of  the Viking raid on Lindisfarne – the accepted view of the raid being a bolt from the blue comes from a political letter from a monk Alcuin to the court of Charlemagne. The letter is rarely put into context – Charlemagne operated a belligerent attitude towards pagans and was known to be negotiating the marriage of one of his daughters to a son of the King of Northumbria. There is evidence that the Vikings (or Northmen) were already trading in the general region. Was it a pre-emptive strike? Was it a market negotiation gone wrong (this had happened in Saxon territory a few years before with disastrous consequences for the Saxons)? Is Alcuin’s view of the incident coloured by his position that he came from Northumbria, was a monk and was writing trying to influence another decision?  We can’t tell the Viking’s perspective of what happened because they did not leave written records.
Knowing the bias and social context of every historian or primary source author is a useful exercise. It is why I always read the author’s biography first – even when I am just reading for pleasure.
Right back to writing about the Vikings and Picts  two sets of people who are normally always seen through the lenses of others.


Unknown said...

During my second foray into grad school, I took a course in which we examined various philosophers' - from Aristotle to Whitehead - ideas about what history is or is not. The discussions in that seminar (eight people) were some of the best I ever had in school. One of the things that became immediately obvious was that not only is history "told by the winners," but that it is reflective of the life experience of the particular historian. Now that ought to be obvious: we can't judge anything really except through our own lens. That being said, what is interesting is that it isn't really the facts/data that make history, it is the narrative. Which facts do we choose to emphasize? How interested are we in the humanity of the players?

Michelle Styles said...

Yes precisely. It is about the facts we choose to emphasize or are emphasized for us. And it is helpful to know which lens we are viewing history through and is that lens helpful to our understanding of history.