In our perennial quest to determine what history is, it doesn't take long before we (students of History at university) attempt to define what a historian is as well. Even if we are satisfied with our definitions of history - a study of the past, a collection of past events, an account of previous events based on evidence, an interpretation of sources and artefacts from past ages to form a narrative - we must ensure that our understanding of the historian is as accurate as our understanding of history.
The most popular way of explaining the concept of the historian, including his or her role, function and limitations, is to compare it with someone from another discipline or in another job. Historians cannot simply study the past, it seems: they must be archaeologists, digging up primary sources, relics and artefacts and examining them; they must be reporters, gathering information from a wide range of backgrounds and publications to make a concise statement about a past event; they must be scientists, not in the same vein as conventional scientists, who make conclusions by observing experiments under prepared conditions, but interested in compiling evidence to form a judgment; and they must be novelists, composing the story or stories of history in a clear and enjoyable enough style for the general public to digest.
Are historians storytellers? This was a question put to History students in a recent assessment. My own joint-honours degree meant that I did not have to take the course that would have challenged me with a similar question, but, hearing about it from single-honours students, I wanted to respond.
At first, I intended to criticize this description. I think that the description of storyteller is a demeaning one for a historian. Storytellers serve a different purpose to historians. Often a story is written in order to entertain an audience. Stories, by definition, are fictional and can be rewritten at the storyteller's whim. History, however, is unchanging. Historians do not have the power to rewrite history and must base their 'stories' on the unchangeable evidence. I preferred to describe historians as journalists of the past. Historians are expected to report the past accurately and clearly, using appropriate evidence and sources to support their accounts. They are duty-bound to report the past fairly, without bias or prejudice, and to acquire their knowledge through honest means.
However, I realised today that these kinds of inquiries don't actually resolve the question, what is a historian? People of other professions do things: scientists construct experiments and carry out scientific research, novelists and storytellers compose stories, journalists report the news and so on. We cannot answer the question, what is a historian? by saying that "a historian is a storyteller" or "a historian is a journalist." It may be that their methodologies bear similarities, but to leave our explanations of historians at simple comparisons with other people and professions is not enough.
To explain what constitutes a historian, I think that we must have a concrete understanding of what a historian does. Anyone who has an interest or a degree of expertise in history can be, or rather be called, a historian, but these kinds of historian may just be people who read a lot of books about history. If this is true, my grandmother is probably a historian. I think the historians who work in academic departments would not take kindly to being equated with a bookworm or a subscriber to History Today, in the same way as a zoologist would be offended if he were compared to a keen watcher of Planet Earth and the Discovery Channel. It's not necessarily about written qualification - you don't need to have a doctorate to be a historian - but there are historians who gather their knowledge by reading other historians' work, and there are historians who play an active role in the discipline, researching and writing up their findings. The former historians are not contributing to the field and, if the accounts they are reading are poor, they will become poor historians themselves. The historian that I'm conceiving, then, is a professional: he is someone who genuinely engages with the sources and scholarship in order to further our knowledge, rather than an armchair reader of a Boris Johnson book or a watcher of a Simon Schama documentary.
Historians investigate a period, theme or event of history. They acquire sources in order to understand the subject of their inquiry. As students know, practically anything can be a source: a book, a newspaper, a photograph, a diary, a letter, a speech, a debate, a cartoon, a radio programme, a musical composition, literature and poetry, a political treatise, a census, minutes from a meeting and so on. Good historians, I would argue, look at the sources themselves and make their own conclusions; bad historians read other historians' books and recycle their arguments to the point where they do no real research of their own.
Many historians are historians of an era or a movement: in my university, for instance, there is a historian specialising in early modern English history, including the Tudor regime. Some historians look at the histories of other disciplines such as science, mathematics and philosophy, or other activities such as sport, public speaking, racing or religion. A historian I met a few years ago, when I mistakenly thought I'd be clever enough to study at Oxford, had recently published a book on the history of sex.
So far in this blog post, historians research areas of history using a variety of sources, coming to a conclusion that is informed by the evidence. However, this is not yet a satisfactory answer to the question, what is a historian? Anyone can read about a particular area of history and make their own conclusion. I could go to the university library tomorrow and pick out a few books about medieval China, Edwardian drama or Hungarian socialism. According to the earlier, primitive account, reading a few books about Edwardian drama would make me a historian of that subject, yet I would likely be rejected if I were to apply for a job at the Department of History here. Therefore, historians' conclusions have to be more than a concise summary of the historical literature they have read; they have to advance something. They have to say something about their subject.
Was the Tudor era a stable period in politics? Was high society in the Georgian era dominated by a culture of extravagance? At what point during the Cold War were relations between the superpowers at their tensest? Who was the most influential figure in the development of the Russian Communist Party? Were the 1970s really as bad as our parents recall? Historians contemplate how our predecessors have perceived previous areas, or how they are currently perceived, and challenge them if they feel that the evidence should indicate something different. If there is something that is missing in a colleague's historical investigation, a historian may choose to pick up on it and make it the topic of their research. Who knows - it might swing the general understanding of the period entirely? History, I think, is intended to be a cumulative study: we build on the work of previous historians, correcting their mistakes and looking into areas that they had not considered.
There is, of course, a danger that a cumulative account revolves around presuming that previous historians always got it right and that we're simply furthering historical knowledge. Part of being a good academic, I think, is the willingness to go over old scholarship and critique it, removing bad ideas and bad investigations and revising them.
The requirement to advance an argument is perhaps one of the most terrifying aspects of studying history, because it requires the historian to go beyond simply gathering information and come to a clear judgment. Students feel that they must smash the consensus in each one of their essays. This is misleading, however: historians are not motivated to smash the consensus while they are researching. Few historians do what they do because they have a deep desire to overturn the historical consensus on any given matter.
Nonetheless, the need to come to a conclusion is still a scary thing, as a historian's conclusion is only as good as his evidence. It is easy for us to quash a conclusion by citing evidence that the historian did not use. For example, one historian might argue that a given decade was a time of a positive, cohesive society, citing promising responses to happiness surveys, high social mobility and rare moments of industrial action. Another historian might argue that the given decade was a terrible time for the society, citing high crime rates, political scandals and poor healthcare. A third historian might come along and synthesise the two historians' accounts to conclude that the decade was pretty average, but a fourth historian might reject one theory and advance the other - not only were crime rates high and healthcare poor, but average pay was low and the national economy's level of growth was sluggish.
The question that is then provoked concerns the purpose of historical inquiry. Historians seek an accurate depiction of the past, but how do we understand accuracy? Some would argue that accuracy concerns fine details: historians should seek to scrutinise elements of the past as much as possible so our understanding is correct. Others would argue that accuracy relates more to the wider picture: by turning the spotlight on new evidence, we can shape our understanding of the big picture accordingly. Putting it another way, do historians seek to improve our understanding of events by uncovering the finest details, or reshape our understanding of events by drawing attention to lesser-known elements?
Arguably, historians engage in both. It wouldn't take much effort to point to historians who do such a thing. Some historians believe that our understanding of a moment of history needs refinement; others believe that our recollection of history is told in the wrong way and needs editing.
Historians do not seek to simply learn about the past - anyone can do that with a visit to the library, or even a browse of Wikipedia. Historians seek to present the past as accurately as possible, adhering to the evidence as closely as possible. Doing this often involves revising old ideas, solving old problems and even contradicting existing scholarship. But we should avoid awarding the historian with someone else's responsibilities. The historian has his own duties and function.
When asked about Victorian values, what's the typical response? Most of us imagine Victorian society as sombre and strict atmosphere. Victorians are well-remembered for their Puritan attitudes toward sex, drinking, atheism and general revelrie. Vivid images come to mind: naughty children being beaten with the cane in school, a fondness for black clothes and outfits, austere religious ceremonies and chair legs covered by little skirts to protect their modesty. Class tensions, notably a contempt for the poor, whose troubles were believed to be down to their own financial incompetence and moral bankruptcy, are seen as a staple feature of Victorian society.
If you want a bit more fun, you need to look back at the previous era. The Georgian period is remembered as a time of extravagance and frivolity; wigs, wine and bawdiness! Taking inspiration from Charles II's lavish lifestyle, the aristocracy and anyone lucky enough to belong to Georgian high society engaged regularly in unhealthy bouts of drinking, dining and dancing. In fact, the aristocrats competed with one another to appear to be the richest and most popular.
These are, generally-speaking, the conventional memories of the Georgian and Victorian periods. One was a time of indulgence and mischief, the other a time of restraint and discipline. Of course, historians enjoy revising our conventional understandings of events, periods or movements. Many discoveries about the Victorian period have led historians to conclude that our recollection of the period is long out-of-date. For example, the Victorians are remembered for extremely strict attitudes towards sexuality, yet there is plenty of evidence for the existence of Victorian erotica and pornography, booming prostitution trades in the cities and nude photography. It was in the Victorian era that the first 'snuff film' was made.
And of course, Queen Victorian did not say, "we are not amused." That is a myth...
This is not to say that we have completely misunderstood the Victorian era - that the Victorian period was full of scandal, moral delinquency and the like; but there exist a number of contradictions between what the Victorians sought and what the Victorians actually did. There is plenty of evidence to confirm our original thoughts, that the Victorians sought a humble, refined, restrained society, but there is also evidence that many of these values were never kept, even by those who publicly praised them.
My research into etiquette manuals poses similar contradictions about the Victorian period. Etiquette manuals were the third of a 'trilogy' of manuals that appeared in British society. First came courtesy books, written for the sons of members of the nobility in the 1700s. These books were written to provide these young men accurate guidance for good conduct, helping them ease into the roles expected of them. These guides adhered to timely principles of taste and refinement. Here, manners and morals were "indistinguishable," writes Marjorie Morgan, in my view the best authority on the subject, in Manners, Morals and Class in England, 1774 - 1858 (1994).
Following courtesy books were conduct books. The audience of these books widened to include the existing 'middle class' (the existence of which is a very contentious subject among historians...) and the instructions turned the focus away from universal principles of good behaviour to the behaviour recommended by religious texts. In these books, one could find references to God and the afterlife.
The third part of the series took a much less moralistic tone. Etiquette manuals, in contrast to the manuals that had come before them, possessed a "smiling indifference to ethics," writes Kent Puckett in Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel (2008). The moral didacticism was fading away fast, replaced by guides to fashion - specifically, the fashion of the ruling class. Etiquette books were intended for those climbing the social ladder, who had acquired wealth at levels on par with the existing aristocracy but had not received the same education. These men were "inexperienced but newly-enriched, middle class adults seeking the manners, dress and external polish suitable for mixing in fashionable 'Society'," Morgan adds.
Michael Curtin contributes an explanation for the decline of courtesy literature and rise of etiquette literature in his essay "A Question of Manners: Status and Gender in Etiquette and Courtesy" (1985) (and I bet he writes more about it in his book Propriety and Position: A Study of Victorian Manners , if only I could find a cheap copy). Curtin argues that courtesy literature declined after numerous revelations relating to the high society that courtesy literature promoted. It seemed that the very people who were held in high regard were also guilty of grave misbehaviour. Adding to this, Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son were (unintentionally - someone else published his letters after he had died) an explosive exposé of how men were using manners and guides to them with the main intention of climbing the social ladder rather than becoming decent gentlemen. To Chesterfield's many critics, he "seemed ... to associate fine manners with the frivolous preoccupations of a rentier class, not with the serious aspirations of the community as a whole." Courtesy literature lost its reputation; in came etiquette manuals, especially popular among the new middle class who sought to learn about "the specific details of the aristocratic life-style" in order to blend in.
If my research has been successful, etiquette manuals were guides to fashion and behaviour according to the standards of the upper class; they were handbooks detailing how high society behaved for those who wanted to gain access to it. (Whether this was possible, thinking of Victorian attitudes to class and the contradictions of the etiquette manuals themselves, is the subject of my dissertation.) Etiquette manuals stood in contrast to the strict moral guides of the 1700s. Don't these findings contradict our typical understanding of the Georgian and Victorian periods? I would have thought guides to fitting into fashionable society and blending in with the rich and famous would be more appropriate to 1700s gentlemen, not the 1800s bourgeoisie. The nature of the manuals would suggest that it was the Georgian period in which high society preached discipline and perhaps saintly conduct, contrasting with Victorian high society's focus on elegance and politeness.
Histories of manners, politeness, etiquette and deportment, sometimes in conjunction with masculinity, feminity and gender, are thoroughly interesting and if I had more time and more words in the dissertation, these would likely be the subjects of my inquiry. But throughout these investigations, there are several contradictions that arise, relating to the Georgian and Victorian attitudes to gentlemanliness, behaviour and gender, largely because both societies preached A and practised B.
Early into my dissertation research, I was disappointed to find that a number of my earlier sources were in fact of American origin. Cecil B. Hartley, whose book was the inspiration for my investigation into British etiquette manuals in the 1800s, was, I discovered, an American author and biographer. His books were published in America, intended for an American audience. Regrettably I had to remove Hartley from my list of resources.
Oddly, American websites and universities seem to provide the best collections of British primary sources. Several etiquette manuals published in Britain have been digitised and stored by American universities, made freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Nonetheless, finding resources has proven hard. Etiquette manuals were often written by anonymous authors, describing themselves as "A Gentleman," "A Lady," "A Member of the Aristocracy" or simply not describing themselves at all. The guides often repeat each other's content, almost word for word: Routledge's Manual for Etiquette (1889, possibly) repeats the same tale about a careless French poet at the dinner table as mentioned in Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, or The Principles of True Politeness (either 1852 or 1863). Several individual guides were republished under different titles. Numerous dates of publication are given for the same guide. Finally, most guides bore very similar names: compare Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen with Habits of Good Society: A Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen (1859), as well as Etiquette for Ladies (1851) with Etiquette for Ladies; or, The Principles of True Politeness (1852) - all of which, bearing in mind the factors I've listed above, could be the same publication albeit under a new title and a new date.
Charles Day's etiquette manual, The Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits, has been especially difficult to track down. I have acquired multiple accounts of the title, the date of publication and the location. The British Library provides images of an 1854 edition of Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, first published by Day in 1834; The Spectator makes reference to it in 1836; one Wordpress blogger takes quotations from an 1844 edition published in Boston, stating that it was originally published in 1836. In his essay " "Alone into the wide, wide world": Trollope's Miss Mackenzie and the Mid-Victorian Etiquette Manual" Andrew Maunder quotes from the same publication albeit from 1849. Online, one can find an 1844 edition intentionally converted for American audiences, titled Hints on Etiquette, or a Guide to the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits as well as Etiquette, or a Guide to the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits supposedly authored by Count Alfred D'Orsay in 1843, published in New York. Count D'Orsay's guide is almost identical to those of Charles Day. In the 1844 edition for Americans, it is noted that the guide has gone through twenty-two editions "and has been made the standard of modern society in England."
Day's introduction to the guide - using here his 1844 Boston edition, simply because there are clear page numbers - once again presents etiquette as a paradox in relation to social mobility, a regular theme that will likely be the basis of my dissertation. In the Preface, Day indicates that he is writing for the benefit of readers who are not aware of "what is proper" which "[comprises] a large portion of highly respectable and estimable people" who are yet to "become acquainted with the usages of the (so termed) "best society"..." This is a specific audience, not, as Day makes clear, an audience inhabited by the best of society, for it "would be absurd to suppose" that the "upper ranks of the middle class in London are ignorant of the regulations laid down." Day is instead targeting those in the country (i.e. out of London and 'high society), "where the tone of society is altogether lower".
Here come the contradictory passages, barely a few pages apart. At the end of the Preface, Day indicates that if at least one "honest family" were to enjoy an easier journey into 'society', he will be satisfied and the etiquette manual will have been a success. This is a clear and positive nod to social mobility. Day is keen to "smooth the path" for middle-class families who wish to raise their social status; the etiquette book's teachings suggest that social rankings in Victorian society are fluid. Yet, at the start of the Introduction, Day writes that etiquette is
a shield against the intrusion of the impertinent, the improper and the vulgar - a guard against those obtuse persons who, having neither talent nor delicacy, would be continually thrusting themselves into the society of men to whom their presence might (from the difference of feeling and habit) be offensive, or even insupportable.
Let's jump right to the end of the manual for a second round of contradiction. In the final paragraph (p. 52 of D'Orsay), Day writes:
Gentility is neither birth, manner nor fashion - but in the MIND. A high sense of honour - a determination never to take a mean advantage of another - an adherence to truth, delicacy and politeness, toward those with whom you may have dealings - are the essential and distinguishing characteristics of a GENTLEMAN.
These last lines would suggest that one does not need to be of noble birth or background to be a gentleman; rather, a knowledge of particular social virtues are required. Yet, in the paragraph directly above these closing remarks, Day admits that the guidance listed in the handbook are unlikely to enable the reader to genuinely advance in status. The assistance is instead intended to help them hide their lesser status in the company of the upper classes. As Day puts it:
Although these remarks will not be sufficient in themselves to make you a gentleman, yet they will enable you to avoid any glaring impropriety, and do much to render you easy and confident in society.
Like other authors of etiquette manuals, Day describes etiquette as a guard that surrounds high society, preventing the unwanted from getting in. But whereas other etiquette manuals admit that etiquette is an exclusivist creation of the ruling class, designed to preserve its values and ways from the intrusion of others lower down the food chain, Day seems to go further, admitting in his etiquette manual that the teachings prescribed can only help the reader imitate the habits of the upper class. Readers may be able to better mask their humble origins or lack of noble birth from the upper class but they will never truly be able to enter its ranks.
Day's perspective is not unique. Many Victorians believed that a person could not shake the class into which he or she was born. To engage in mimicry would be a misleading and embarrassing action, as it would dishonestly portray the pretender as belonging to a higher status than he actually was. This is a surprising contradiction if you imagine the number of etiquette manuals that were on sale at the time, providing instructions for people who wished to mimic the mannerisms of the upper class in order to be seen as members of the upper class themselves. Learning etiquette would seem to be fruitless if etiquette enforces the belief that a "vulgar" person cannot imitate the behaviour of a member of society and be acceptance.
Nonetheless, Day's manual (indeed, the many variations of it) proves to be an excellent source for my study. Day's introduction is one of the most passionate defences of manners that I have seen during my research. He insists that manners are "indispensable to the well-being of society". if society lost them, "it would inevitably fall to pieces, and be destroyed." Day is also a writer who makes his awareness of the emerging bourgeoisie, the nouveau riche, plain. Historians have linked the emergence of a new middle class, whose wealth had come from industry, commerce or finance as opposed to land or noble descent, and the demand for etiquette manuals in order to help them slip into high society unnoticed. Day writes:
...in a mercantile country like our own, people are continually rising in the world. Shopkeepers become merchants, and merchants manufacturers; with the possession of wealth, they acquire a taste for the luxuries of life, expensive furniture, gorgeous plate, and also numberless superfluities, with the use of which they are only imperfectly acquainted. But, although their capacities for enjoyment increase, it rarely happens that the polish of their manners keeps pace with the rapidity of their advancement: hence such persons are often reminded that wealth alone is insufficient to protect them from the mortifications which a limited acquaintance with society entails upon the ambitious.
This paragraph shows that Day was well aware of the kind of reader to whom he would be writing. Other authors write introductions in a vague way, making vague reference to a need for manners to be upheld, for their own sake. Day, however, shows his knowledge of the changing social circumstances.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I see a lot of merit in Marjorie Morgan's argument that etiquette was simultaneously an enabler and limiter of social advance. Day's source goes beyond a debate of class and leads me to contend that the etiquette manuals of the 1830s - 1890s were nothing more than statements of fashionable behaviour for the new middle class to emulate in order to appear presentable to the upper class. Their promises of social advancement through an education in etiquette were severely undermined by the widespread thought that birth, station and rank were relevant to being a member of the higher classes.
How does a student of history write his or her essays? Typically I gather information and evidence, recommended by lecturers in lectures and seminars or presented on a long reading list, to inform a potential answer to an essay question. Reviewing the primary sources as well as the many books and journal articles written by today's historians, I put together an argument in response to the question.
This, I admit, is lazy history. Here I am, like many other students, cramming in the hard research of a number of renowned scholars into a few thousands words of argument. The long books, the products of weeks and months of an academic's labour, are plundered for a few pages of relevant detail, then cast aside.
R. G. Collingwood calls this scissors-and-paste history: the process of reading the arguments and ideas of respected past historians in order to compose an argument of your own. There is no creativity, no individual interpretation of each source, but the restatement of established norms and thoughts about the past. We are cutting out the ideas of Carr, Hobsbawm, Figes, Taylor and so on and pasting them into our own essays.
"Many people, even some historians, believe that this is a fair description of history," Collingwood writes in The Idea of History. "They think that historical writing means copying out selected passages from trustworthy authorities, and that to be a good historian means remembering a great many things that you have read in such books." A little bit of this kind of "blind reliance on authority" is acceptable: if historians went around disputing the basic claims, they would be wasting a lot of time. Many historians use others' work as a starting point and build on it. But this isn't real history. "The real business of history," Collingwood goes on, "begins when this dogmatic stage is left behind and historical thought becomes critical." Historians start making active contributions to the discipline when they stop happily nodding to accepted theories or recycling old ideas and make their own judgments about sources.
But, for the moment at least, I cannot accept Collingwood's argument. What choice do students of history have but to engage in scissors-and-paste history? We enter the study of history as non-experts in our fields; it is natural that we seek guidance in the arguments of previous scholars, who have had the opportunity to study the evidence carefully for a much longer period of time than three years of undergraduate study.
Last year, for one academic term, I studied American history from 1776 - 1877, having never studied American history before besides the American involvement in international politics in the post-war period, ending in the Cuban Missile Crisis. My knowledge of the period came from the tutelage of the lecturer and the seminar leader, both of whom are scholars in American political, urban and cultural history, as well as the works that were recommended during the course. I encountered the scholarship of historians such as Eric Foner, Adam Rothman, Carol Berkin, Gordon S. Wood, Jay Sexton and Don E. Fehrenbacher; and (when examining the economic consequences of the American slave trade) economic historians such as Maldwyn A. Jones, Alfred H. Conrad, John R. Meyer, Eugene D. Genovese, Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch. To an extent I was able to interpret sources myself, gaining extracts from Thomas Paine's writings and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and his electoral opponent Stephen A. Douglas; but for the large part, my knowledge of American history in the period was derived from the work and arguments of the academics I've listed above.
Where I agree with Collingwood concerns how lazy it feels to rely so much on the work of these historians when it comes to making my own arguments and writing my own essays. On the other hand, without the luxuries of time, access to an array of primary sources and the finances to fund my research and travel, do I have much choice? Students do not have the opportunity to critique the work of scholars as Collingwood might like us. I could spend thousands of words scrutinising Eric Foner, for example, but neither would I have the resources and time to do it nor would it be something asked of me. We are asked to participate in a historical debate, having researched the arguments of historians and looked at sources ourselves, but we have access mainly to the books and journals these historians have published, not necessarily the sources they had in front of them.
Of course, I do not blindly accept the authority of anyone who has acquired a doctorate or published a book. There are plenty of scholars whose work is so poor that one questions how they acquired their degrees in the first place. We are encouraged to look at the historian himself and ask what might be affecting his judgment. But, by and large, without the opportunity to adopt the months- or years-long investigations of renowned historians ourselves and come to our own conclusions about the same evidence, ordinary undergraduate students are in some ways condemned to engage in some form of scissors-and-paste history.
Collingwood's philosophy of history would best apply to me if I were an accomplished academic, writing this blog from his office at a university. It would encourage me to go beyond repeating age-old conclusions made by historians who may have judged events very differently in their day in comparison to how I would judge them. It would encourage me also to look at why historians, or indeed the people of the past, believed what they believed and why they thought what they thought. It would encourage me not to dismiss historical accounts if they included something that would be considered irrational today - for example, the diary of a medieval expedition leader who elected to change his route to avoid the demons in the mountains - and ask me to think instead why the expedition leader was worried about the demons.
But, as a student who lacks the fine knowledge of a specific historical period gained through research and rational thinking, it seems impossible for me not to defer to another authority in some way. Collingwood's argument comes over more as inspiration for budding historians - don't blindly accept what you read, don't recycle other people's arguments, think for yourself - than guidance for good historiographical practice.
History students are routinely asked to define the subject that they are studying. Often the debate is dull and difficult, culminating in a number of answers that feel as awkward as the way in which the discussion is fostered. "A study of the past," one might say; "a study of previous events using sources to inform our understanding," is getting better, but far from perfect. This is not the fault of the students, however, and I am not going to spend this post implying that History students aren't up to scratch, nor that somehow I possess the answer and other students don't. We spend three years studying history, both as an academic discipline investigating periods and elements of past societies and nations and as a discipline itself. The more we learn, both about the peoples and cultures that have gone before and about the discipline, the more our answer changes.
(The way we examine the fundamental questions about our discipline does not help. I have suffered many seminars of awkward silence after a seminar leader poses a number of questions about the nature of history. We endure painful moments of looking into each other's eyes, waiting for someone to provide an answer, a sentence or maybe a few words to satisfy the question or at least fill the void. Adding to the confusion is the decision of academics to continue hounding us with these quasi-existential questions as we are simultaneously being briefed and directed to commence our dissertations, the longest pieces of work in our three-year undergraduate degrees; therefore we end up engaging in our largest and most analytic piece of work at the same time that we are instilled with the largest doubts about what we are studying, why we bother and what, if anything, we can learn, both accurately and meaningfully, about a study of previous generations. When working in an archive, historians examine sources and the surrounding factors and context; they are not paralysed in the archive reception by grandiose questions about what an argument is, what a source is and what a society is.
Anyway, this is something for another blog post. The point, when narrowed down, is that we should not be committed to the hardest work and the largest doubt in what we are doing at the same time. There is a time and a place for philosophy of history.)
Take a look at E.H. Carr's lecture on "The Historian and His Facts" and you will be confronted with many more questions than just the question in the lecture, what is history? Not only do we realise that our place in society and time has somewhat determined how we are going to answer the question, but we also discover just how much we rely on the accounts of others to answer questions we should take pride in answering ourselves.
One of the hardest hitting points in Carr's lecture is his examination of facts. The facts that we recall and use in our essays have been called 'facts' by previous historians for one reason or another; there are plenty of other facts that have no place in the study of history. Millions of people have crossed the river known as the Rubicon, something for which historians have almost zero concern; but Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon is well-remembered, as Carr argues. Caesar could have been one of the many millions who stepped across the stream, forgotten by historians both of today and of Caesar's day, but his crossing is a key fact of history. How so? Historians have decided it to be so.
Facts are relative to the investigation at hand, something that a contemporary of Carr's, R.G. Collingwood, mentions in his earlier work on evidence. The fact that I'm writing this blog post in the university library has absolutely no relevance at all to why Napoleon's Russian campaign failed. The fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49BCE has just as little bearing on Napoloen's loss. But the Russian winter is hugely relevant to a historian examining why Napoleon did not succeed in conquering Russia. Evidence, as used in arguments, is not lying around the world, waiting to be scraped off the floor by prowling historians; evidence is relative. The evidence for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is relevant to questions concerning how Lincoln was killed, by whom, when and why, but not to the assassination of Leon Trotsky.
How are facts deemed relevant and irrelevant? Facts and evidence are totally worthless on their own. It's a fact that the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. So what? Without any questions about it, it's simply an event in history - something that happened. It tells us nothing about Germany and Poland in 1939, the international context, who the National Socialists were and for what they stood, why the invasion of Poland was a bad thing and whether it led to any larger consequences (e.g. the breakout of a large international conflict). We must "not make a fetish out of [facts]. They do not themselves constitute history; they provide in themselves no ready-made answer to this tiresome question, What Is History?" wrote Carr. Facts are useless if they are not cited in relation to something. Without asking anything about the context of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the invasion of Poland is, historically, as irrelevant as my choice of breakfast last Tuesday.
For clarity, I do not mean to suggest that the invasion of Poland and the subsequent horrors and evil of the Second World War are irrelevant or tedious; but events in history, individual facts or occurrences, do not tell the story of history themselves. "The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context," as Carr writes. We remember the events of the Second World War, both as a period of history and as a social, political and moral event, due to the opinions of the historians of the day and the scholars of today. Perhaps in a hundred or a thousand years there will be a world war twice, thrice or even ten times as destructive as the Second World War, dwarfing all conflict that had preceded it. In that era we might consider the Second World War to have been, in comparison, a minor skirmish between European nations. Alternatively, perhaps in a hundred or a thousand years, historians of the future will take a hugely different view of the Second World War. Future historians might perceive the Nazis to have been the forces of good, and describe the Second World War as a great defeat of a noble cause.
At the end of his lecture, Carr answers the question: "... it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past." Carr's answer highlights the fluid nature of our study of history. Generations judge the same thing in different ways. For example, atheism has in previous eras been a crime punishable by death in Europe, whereas now it is a respected and perhaps trendy position. The dialogue, as Carr writes, is "unending" because historians never cease to discover new things about the past which inform our understanding of our ancestors' ways of life, nor do they cease to approach the discipline with their own original ideas and mentalities.
History is also subject to constant revision and reform. Before reaching the end of his lecture, Carr rejects a primitive version of the historian's job: spending a long time gathering facts and reading old books and then composing another book based on what he has read. In fact, the historian is always reading and writing. Separating reading, or learning about the past and researching old ways, and writing leads to two fallacies: "Either you write scissors-and-paste history without meaning or significance; or you write propaganda or historical fiction, and merely use facts of the past to embroider a kind of writing which has nothing to do with history."
I have my own doubts about the inherent incompetence of scissors-and-paste history, a concept investigated greatly by Collingwood, which stem from my own beliefs on the possible objectivity of rationality. However, Carr's principle should surely be a guide for all historians and students of history: the study of history should be fluid and unending, always informed by new discoveries. The historian should always be prepared to argue from a new perspective on the basis of new evidence and should never settle for facts that have been crowned as important and unforgettable by past scholars.