Posts Tagged ‘Leopold von Ranke’

I guess I shouldn’t be but I’m consistently amazed, and not a little disheartened, by the seeming total lack of historical consciousness of most British people, and that includes most of my family. What this has to do with Melvyn Bragg may or may not become clear later. It’s not only the British of course (and I do mean British and not just English). Here in France I quite often start to pontificate on something to do with French history and then slowly it becomes clear that my worthy friends haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about. But then most Americans still think that Paris is in Texas.

Dear me!

Now if you are a regular reader of this blog (yes there are some), then this lack of historical knowledge clearly doesn’t extend to you. So let’s just think about the ‘others’ – them.

Michel Gove

Michel Gove

Whether you agree with me or not, does this all really matter? Well day to day as we go about our lives I guess it doesn’t. But if we ever want to change anything for the better politically, socially, economically and ecologically, and I mean for the better of the many not the few, then I think history does matter. Yet what type of history? If history is presented in the wrong way it can just be one damn thing after another: this king followed that king, that battle was won, the next lost. Perhaps if you cast your mind back you can remember one or two things in this vein from your school days? All no doubt being heavily sprinkled with a good dose of xenophobia and nationalistic jingoism. Just the type of history the British Education Secretary Michael Gove seems to want to bring back. Now Gove does seem to me to be a funny little man who looks and sounds like a visitor from another planet, but something he recently reputedly said did make me laugh. A head teacher friend told me he had said that British school children could empathise with the victims of Nazism but didn’t know who Winston Churchill was! I have to say I burst out laughing. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s hard but true.’

True it might be but doesn’t it throw up the whole question of victims and perpetrators? All history is about some individuals or groups doing things to other individuals or groups. If you think about it a minute this also applies to much of intellectual and even art history.

The Black Prince

The Black Prince

Let me take just one example of victims and perpetrators from ‘English’ history. There have been some television programmes recently about the Hundred Years War between, it is usually said, the English and the French. At the start of these ‘wars’ in the mid fourteenth century, the English King Edward III and his son Edward ‘The Black Prince’ won two battles against the French at Crecy and Poitiers respectively – both much against the odds. If you read about these battles or watch the excellent TV programmes, who do you side with? If you are English do you get a warm glow because not for the last time the gallant English yeoman archers under their brave leaders had trounced the French? Maybe you do; there’s not much the matter with that. But these battles, like so many others, weren’t really an English against the French thing. Who were the perpetrators and who were the victims?  King Edward and his son Edward Prince of Wales were certainly the holder of the English crown and his heir apparent, who would have become Edward IV if he hadn’t died from malaria caught while rampaging in Spain, but what they really were were French-speaking Angevin armed thugs wanting to get one over on the French Valois armed thugs. It was all about land and power. This was a French thug against French thug thing, nothing really to do with the people of England and France, they were the victims.

It’s easy to see that the population of South West France were victims. In 1355 and 1356 the Black Prince systematically and deliberately cut a trail of rape, robbery, burning and death from town to town. These so-called chevauchées (notice the French word) were, it is said, provocations to try to bring the French king Jean out to fight. These atrocities were so bad that they seared themselves into the French psyche. Even in the nineteenth century French mothers would scare their children with the threat that Le Prince Noir and ‘the English’ would return. Quite a lot of the French nobilty too lost their lives under the hail of English arrows, which was quite a shock for them as the despicable code of medieval chivalry was supposed to mean that nobles could surrender when facing defeat and then be held for ransom, which after it had been paid by their long-suffering peasantry would mean they could return home. They were not meant to be killed by common, uncouth English archers! On the other hand the ordinary soldiers, French or English, could be and were slaughtered without mercy and without a second thought.

Battle of Poitiers

Battle of Poitiers

There were victims too on the English side: the ordinary English soldiers who had been forced to follow their French-speaking lords on yet another continental trip – there to die without memory. Lords who pretty much despised them and were only just learning to abide the English language, though they much preferred to talk French. And then there were the English victims at home, not just the wives and mothers who lost husbands and sons, but also the vast majority of ordinary people who were wrung dry by the taxes the kings imposed to pay for their rampages.

History is about victims and perpetrators, and about asking who was doing what to whom? And why?

Now you may find this fourteenth century story a bit remote, obscure even, but I guarantee that wherever you look, in whatever country, at whatever time, it was pretty much the same story. I think I should make it clear that what I have told so far of these medieval battles is in no way anti-French. Nobles/thugs were and are everywhere: in Germany, in Spain, in Italy and yes, in Africa, in Japan, in India and, God forbid, in America too. History doesn’t really have much to do with nations or nationality, at least not the history that has relevance.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Back to Michael Gove. It’s a good thing that British school children can empathise with Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust, but please not in a historical vacuum. What was the long history of anti-semitism in Europe? Why did it arise? What did the Catholic Church have to do with it? And what were the reasons that the Germans turned to National Socialism? Might it have something to do with their treatment at Versailles? And what about Churchill? Of course British school children should know who he was and what he did; although there are so many television programmes about him and the Second World War I’d be surprised if they didn’t have some clue. I for one have the utmost respect for Churchill as a war leader, but what about Churchill as an aristocrat? What about his wealthy and privileged background? Where did the wealth to build Blenheim Palace come from? What had his ancestor John Churchill, The Duke of Marlborough, done to deserve it? Who were his victims?

The thing is that there is no such thing as value-free history. When we tell history we have to make choices and we have to interpret. I wrote about this in an earlier article.  There are facts in history and without facts history is just a story. But while the great German historian Leopold von Ranke preached, but didn’t practice, the view that history would somehow simply emerge from original documents, in fact that is not the case, history needs choices and it needs interpretation. The only thing is that we need to be quite explicit about what choices we are making regarding how to tell our story, our history. What are our values? Who do we care about? And, yet again, why?

Now I think you might see that the type of history I would teach in schools doesn’t have a chance in hell of ever making it onto the national curriculum. Why is that? The answer should be pretty clear: If people really understood the oppression their ancestors had suffered and at whose hands, then just maybe they would see it’s all still going on today.

Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg

But what about Melvyn Bragg? Last year I was in Andalusia in southern Spain. I was staying with someone who one day was trying to persuade me of something spiritual. I think he saw himself as a bit of a guru. God knows we don’t need more of those. We were sitting face to face. I as usual was lounged in my habitual louche manner across an armchair, legs out-stretched but crossed, arms spread on each of the chair’s arms, slouched a bit, my preferred position for giving a good lecture. He however was bolt upright, straight back, looking me in the eye, all attention. And then he told me I was sitting in the chair like Melvyn Bragg. It wasn’t perhaps an insult but it certainly was a bit of a reprimand. Clearly he wasn’t a fan of Lord Bragg. But I am. Now I don’t know if Melvyn sits like me, but it was clearly an attitude that disturbed my host. A certain arrogance he told me. Now I’ve never found Lord Bragg particularly arrogant and if he is it’s a good thing. I’ve read most of Melvyn’s books, novels and non-fiction, and intelligent works they are too. Then there’s his long-running The South Bank Show, a rare in-depth Arts programme which takes the subject seriously even if it’s not always to my taste if it’s about an East End rapper or a Peruvian contemporary dancer. And then there’s the BBC radio series In Our Time, where all sorts of historical matters and events are explored and discussed by Melvyn and his guest historians. This is sublime. Usually the historians are extremely knowledgeable and erudite but Melvyn always tries to bring them back from their academic whaffle and asks questions that matter, questions about what was really going on. Sometimes he even gets a bit testy with them and proclaims, ‘Only from the mouth of an academic!’ And, let’s not forget, Melvyn came from a simple Cumbrian background and carved out his interesting career by his own work and wit, unlike our present group of Eton ministers.

I like Melvyn Bragg. I like the way he explores history and I like the way he cuts to the historical chase. So if people think I sit like Melvyn Bragg then I’ll take it as a compliment.


This is a two-part essay. In this first part I would simply like to emphasise or reiterate that conducting any investigation into what happened in the past, in any type of historical writing (historiography), choices need to be made. Whether the choices, and the reasons for such choices, are made consciously or not, they are not optional. I also argue that historians should be as explicit as possible regarding their choices. All historical writing involves subjectivity, and is even in some way always ideological. Yet if we want to say something with meaning and relevance, and not just produce another literary text, then we need to make clear the distinction between what we have chosen as our subject and perspective (and why) and what we believe to be the facts that we have used as evidence for our interpretation. This might appear to be self-evident but it is still only a minority practice.

Sicilian Vespers

Sicilian Vespers

In the second part, which I hope will follow shortly, I will try to illustrate some of these issues by contrasting two very different historical approaches to the same event – the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. These approaches are those of the famous British historian Sir Steven Runciman and the nineteenth-century Italian Michele Amari. They both produced books called The Sicilian Vespers. Although each wrote his work in the form of a conventional narrative, it would be difficult to find two more divergent interpretations and ideological presentations of seemingly the same event. Amari sees the episode as an early and popular revolution. Ordinary Sicilians tried to throw off the yoke of a brutal foreign ruler. On the other hand, Runciman portrays it as the result of just another Great Conspiracy between various kings, nobles and popes, each jockeying for more power. For him the Sicilian Vespers had some important repercussions to be sure, but it wasn’t much about ordinary Sicilians.

Part 1: Making Choices in Writing History

History is not a science, although in practice it is and should be a discipline. Historical research and the writing of history more resemble a craft skill. Such skills build on an existing body of knowledge. They can be taught and their refinement and mastery needs lots of practice. In the right hands the end-product can even on occasion become an art form. Yet spilling more ink questioning whether history is a science, an art or a skill, or a mixture of all three, isn’t going to get us very far. On a less philosophical level the question is in some way similar to epistemological debates that have raged for over two thousand years. How do we gain knowledge and what is the nature of truth?  We’re still no nearer to an answer than was Aristotle. The trouble starts when we start spelling words with an initial capital letter: Knowledge or Truth for example. The Germans have a wonderful word for this, they call it Verdinglichung. This literally means making something, usually an abstract concept or idea, into a real thing. In English it is usually called reification.

Regarding the writing of history, I would argue that there are indeed facts about the past as well as many historical statements that are either true or false, but there really is no reified ‘Truth’. Some post-modernists would even argue with the first part of this statement and suggest, following the lead of such French thinkers as Lyotard and Derrida, that there are no historical facts at all. I disagree. There will be just a little more to say on this subject later on. But this essay is not primarily philosophical and it certainly isn’t designed to address the question of post-modernism’s so-called challenge to the practice of writing history. For that I can do no better than recommend both Keith Jenkins’s book Re-writing History and Richard Evan’s In Defence of History. My subject is of a more workaday variety. It concerns how historians make and indeed have to make the choices they do. Why are these choices important? Why should they be made explicit?

Leopold von RankeRegardless of their political persuasion most historians today would no longer adhere to a strict ‘Rankean’ approach to history. This holds that we can find out what actually happened in the past (‘Wie es eigentlich gewesen’) only from a close study and critique of primary sources and documents. A real and true historical story will somehow emerge from the documents. Even those historians who strongly propounded this view didn’t actually apply it consistently and rigorously in their own work. In Britain, we might name Sir Lewis Namier and Geoffrey Elton; elsewhere Leopold von Ranke himself.

Events in the past are the same as events today: we need to interpret them if we what to draw out any relevance or meaning at all. In writing history the fact of the events’ remoteness in time, and sometimes in space, makes the historian’s job even harder. As Saint Paul once wrote to the Corinthians: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’ Unless we are content to write a mere chronicle, present an interesting antiquarian fact or simply write an entertainment (and there’s nothing the matter with any of these) interpretation is crucial.

How do historians come to their interpretations? Interpretations come about because of the choices historians make, both in conducting their research and presenting the results. Here four such choices will be highlighted and discussed: the choice of subject, the choice of perspective, the choice of method, and the choice of telling. You could extend this list, name the choices differently or shuffle what is included in each. Yet it remains undeniable that writing history can’t be accomplished without making choices. These choices are not optional. Consciously or unconsciously they must be made. To be sure, they don’t follow each other in a linear or sequential order. It’s not a question of first deciding on the subject and then on the perspective we will adopt; followed by what method we will adhere to and then, finally, how we wish to tell the story. The flows of influence are multi-directional and reciprocal. Very often, though not invariably, the choices are all made simultaneously – during the act of creation.

The Choice of Subject

What is the subject or topic that I wish to research and write about and why?  

The subject the historian chooses to investigate might be a specific event, such as an illuminating court trial, a particular case of eviction from the land or, as is still often the case, a decisive battle. It might equally well be a period in history (even over the longue durée), a social or political movement or the history of an idea. How and why do individual historians make these decisions? The answers are as numerous as historians themselves. Although I would contend that there really is such a thing as ‘authorial intent’, we might never know what these intentions are unless the author explicitly tells us. That’s often the best we can hope for.

As the history profession has grown, and as more and more ‘pieces’ of the past have been examined, many historians (as every doctoral student will know) choose subjects or topics, or have them chosen for them, that attempt to ‘fill in gaps’ in our historical knowledge. Such gaps might be glaringly obvious or they might only appear or be created by the discovery of new or unresearched documentary sources. It is easy to scoff at or parody such endeavours. Do they not lead only too frequently to ‘knowing more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing’? Perhaps.

For others, the choice of subject matter might just be driven by the fact that the topic has always been their own speciality or interest. There are many historians who, for whatever reason, have always specialized in the English Revolution, or the Third Reich, or the earliest Chinese civilisations. They would hardly dream about writing about something else. Others might see the possibility of shedding new light on an old question – by re-examining the existing documents or sources available on a specific event, period or movement from a fresh angle. Finally, and I mean this in no way as a criticism, yet others will decide upon their subject by looking to what will be most popular, what will sell. One only has to take a quick look at the History section in any bookshop to see that this is the case. The English-speaking history reading public is far more interested in the Battle of Britain or the American Revolution than it is in Concepts of Femininity in Ancient Greece or The Enclosure Movement in Cumbria. It’s sad but true.

E P Thompson

E P Thompson

Ultimately the choice of subject is driven by the questions the historian wants to ask and to answer. If I am interested, as was Edward Thompson, in how the English working class arose, I am much more likely to research 18th and 19th industrialization than the Norman Conquest – although the later may have a tangential bearing. It is well known that the same documentary evidence can be used to answer multiple questions. This doesn’t need to be demonstrated again. More important is that the choice of question, and therefore to some extent the choice of subject, is a subjective one. This is even the case when the questions themselves only occur to the historian during the research process and not beforehand. What unites nearly all historians is that they believe that the questions they are asking and the subject they are writing about are both important and relevant. Why otherwise would they bother writing about it? Surely this is the first reason why historians should be explicit about why they have chosen to explore a particular subject. If it doesn’t have an importance or relevance to how we live today then what is the point in anybody reading it? Except perhaps for distraction, escapism and entertainment? Maybe it’s just a ripping yarn!

The Choice of Perspective

What’s my point of view or perspective on this subject?’

Any historical subject, topic or event can be explored, probed and illuminated from a wide range of points of view, or from what I prefer to call different perspectives. As with the choice of subject, the choice of perspective is subjective – there is no such thing as an impartial perspective.

If one believes that how the vast majority of ‘common’ people lived in the past and how they experienced their lives is of most importance, then one could choose to write a history with a perspective ‘from below’. On the other hand, quite a number historians still subscribe to the view that history is driven not by economic or social forces but more by the acts of great people – even just ‘Great Men’. This is bound to (and does) lead to the perspective being that of the powerful or famous, and to a prevalence of military, diplomatic and political history.

Sir Steven Runciman

Sir Steven Runciman

What I think is critical is not which perspective is chosen – there is surely enough space for all – but rather that the choice is made explicit. What perspective is the historian taking on the subject and why? At least historians such as Sir Lewis Namier, Geoffrey Elton, and even (as we shall see in Part 2) Steven Runciman were quite explicit in this regard: little people don’t matter in history so we’ll not bother considering them at all.

So writing history certainly involves making choices about events or topics, as well as choices regarding how we want to interpret them. We might even accept that these choices are ultimately all ideological – or at least moral -choices. My own ideology or morality leads me to believe that what is important is how power and dominance impinge on individuals’ attempts to lead their own lives free from oppression. In addition, if it comes to the question of making a choice between Henry VIII’s struggles with the Papacy or how Henry’s policies affected great swathes of the English population, I will unashamedly plump for the latter. In my ideology Henry VIII was just another in an interminable line of armed thugs, concerned only with maintaining and extending their power or with their own sexual peccadilloes and dynastic reproduction. Why should I have any interest in him except insofar as his actions and decisions had very real repercussions for the English people in general? But you can take a different view – at least he makes a good television series!

The Choice of Method

Do I have an historical method and what is it?

Let’s turn to the hoary question of historical method. If I were to write a history of the early sixteenth-century it would most likely be a history from below or a ‘micro-history’ of a particular place. You might wish to write a history of the place of women in early Tudor England or even the ‘mentalities’ of torture. While each of these perspectives comes with a definite ideological slant, does that mean that we can ignore the facts of ‘what happened’ in the past? That anything goes? That all history is just a text? That all history is historiography? Certain currents of post-modernist or post-structural thought suggest just this. Many, though not all, post-modernists will admit that there are such things as facts about the past, but such facts are deemed trivial. As the post-modernist ‘historiographer’ Keith Jenkins has written: ‘Such facts, though important, are ‘true’ but trite within the larger issues historians consider.’

I suggest that this view is in part just a question of semantics. We usually use the word ‘history’ to describe both ‘what happened in the past’ and the output of historians’ labours. This can indeed be a little confusing and unhelpful. But even if, for the sake of argument, we accept that it might be better to make a distinction between history and the past, this does not mean that facts, which are transformed into ‘evidence’ to support a particular perspective or interpretation, are trite. What happened in the past really happened, however we may chose to interpret it. The past is not a tabula rasa.

Rather than use a literary analogy, I think an artistic one is at least as useful. Children enjoy ‘colouring books’. These generally consist of general outlines of things that the child can then fill in as they desire. Imagine the outlines of a face. You can use whatever colours you choose, or no colours at all. You can fill in blocks of colour precisely following the lines or you can deliberately go over the lines. You could use a pointillist technique or even decide to colour only one eye. You can try to make the face represent a person you know or you could produce something that looks a bit like Munch’s The Scream. You might even want to paint in the background as a pleasant rural landscape or as a scene of ecological desolation. The number of possible choices you can make and the number of resultant works of art is truly enormous, but it is not completely limitless. If you choose to ignore the lines completely you can still create a painting, a work of art, but it won’t be a representation of a human face – however abstract. I’m sure we could debate whether this analogy is a good one or not. But as it relates to historical ‘method’ the point is this: If we write about the past, about history, without producing evidence based on facts about the past then we are not saying anything meaningful about the past at all. We are not writing history, we are writing fictional literature. Indeed this is precisely what some post-modernists insist all history is.

My contention is that this is wrong. While historical method isn’t only about the existence or otherwise of facts about the past, such facts, however hard they might on occasion be to establish, are absolutely necessary and indispensable. Without them then everything really is just a lot of signifiers signifying nothing. In this sense I am an English empiricist. So historians need to be explicit about their views on historical methods as well.

The Choice of Telling

How will I tell my history?

Once an historian has decided on the subject, articulated questions deemed worthy of answering, undertaken the required research and picked a specific point of view or perspective, the work is by no means over. He or she must also choose a way to tell the history.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Should it be presented using a conventional narrative voice? This was the natural choice of the majority of historians in the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century – and it is still a popular form today. Narratives have been heavily criticized and even somewhat marginalized in the Academy over the course of the last forty years. This has partly been the result of post-modernist criticism, which has (wrongly) tended to suggest that all narratives are master or meta-narratives – such as Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or even Marx’s Das Kapital. Such meta-narratives do not just use a narrative voice, they don’t just tell a story, they also try to explain the working-out or process of history over long periods of time. The causes and effects involved. Sometimes they even have a teleological slant – history is an unfolding of ‘progress’ or moving towards the inevitable victory of communism.

Yet the narrative form in no way implies a sweeping meta-narrative, nor does it necessarily lead to a conservative, bourgeois or reactionary history – as it has often been contended it does. It is equally possible to tell a radical and politically challenging story using a narrative voice. Many historians have done this to great effect. We could mention as examples the British Marxist historians Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, or even the French Annalists Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel.

Narration is only one way to tell history; there are many others. One could simply present an individual event or a person’s testimony. This can even be done without providing any historical context – one just lets the event or the testimony ‘speak for itself’. One can also play with time – reversing the conventional arrow of time or jumping from one time to another with or without any connections being made. Moreover, a historian can choose whether to present the story as a tragedy, comedy or farce. The possibilities of how to construct a telling of the past we want to present are endless, and all are welcome. In the final instance it is the readers who will decide on the success or otherwise of the historian’s endeavours.


Fernand Braudel

Fernand Braudel

Consciously or unconsciously, and whether they like it or not, all historians have to make at least these four choices: the choice of subject, the choice of perspective, the choice of method, and the choice of telling. The only normative point I have made is this: whatever choices have been made they should be made explicit. What are the questions that the historian will attempt to answer? Why are these questions important? Who are they important to?  How will the subject of the history help to answer the questions? Why is the chosen perspective and method the most relevant? Being explicit is important because it makes it clear that, however relevant,  the story being told is simply the interpretation of the author.

I would argue that being explicit in terms of the first three choices is always to be welcomed. Perhaps this is less so when it comes to the choice of telling – except perhaps in a very cursory way. After all in a book on history who wants to know all the thought processes the writer has gone through in deciding how best to present the work? The reader can make up his own mind as to the success or otherwise of the choice. This is not to suggest that works of history are cluttered up with too much authorial intrusion. There of many examples of such an unfortunate tendency, particularly from the post-modernist school, where the past seems to disappear and we are left with a rather tedious litany of ‘I’s.

The historian might claim that in some small way his or her history illuminates a truth about the past or a general historical pattern, but it can never be the Truth. As was mentioned earlier, almost no historian believes that history simply materializes unmediated from the sources themselves – without any act of interpretation. Yet there are many who present their work as though it does. As though their interpretation is the correct one, sometimes even the only one.

One final point: ‘Original’ history, as every doctoral student will know, should attempt to make an ‘original contribution to knowledge or understanding’ – difficult though this aim often is to achieve in practice. But writing history often has other purposes: to educate or to entertain. Many of the best histories, and certainly many of the most read, make no claim at all to be offering radically new insights into, or interpretations of, events in the past. They use no new primary sources and rely heavily on work that has been done by others before. Of course they can’t avoid interpreting things, and to that extent they need to make their choices explicit too.  It is a wonderful thing that such histories exist in such profusion today; whether in the form of books, articles or even little historical snapshots or vignettes. In many cases these more popular histories are more accessible, and often better written, than many of the rather turgid and impenetrable tracts produced in the Academy.