historicism History

What is history about?

Today I have been running a history workshop in a fantastic school. During the lunch hour I spoke to the dinner ladies who told me how much they loved history. This has posed the question, what is this all about?

History is a complex intersection of a number of components. These components are the building blocks from which history is constructed. It is a mistake to think that history and the past are the same thing. The history is a reconstruction of the past from the traces that have remained.

These components are the facts. Facts are the building blocks of authoritative history. Here I would like to contrast postmodern history and pseudo history, such as conspiracies, from mainstream authoritative history. Mainstream history lives and dies by its own rules. The facts must either support the argument or bury it. In postmodern history the argument is more important than the facts and in conspiracy history the facts are of no importance whatsoever ever.

Buildings, books, archaeology and other remains from the past are, like the paper weight in 1984, messages from the past. They have messages that need to be understood and communicated. Its this role that justifies the existence of the Historian. Such people bury themselves in the past to understand it and communicate it to those who are fascinated by stories from ancient times.

But what is the history about? What is the prime mover. I know marxists who would point to class war, I know some people, even now, who believe in the zeitgeist or even some liberals who talk of progress. I am a liberal humanist and skeptical of such things. As I chatted to the dinner ladies I realised that what engaged them was exactly the same the true prime mover of history, people.


What is the point of history?

A good friend of mine quoted someone who neither of us could remember, maybe you know and could tell me in the comments section, that history is “just one bloody thing after another” and they might well be right. At university, towards the end of my study, I came to the conclusion that a career in history wasn’t for me. And that was one of my many mistakes. In this short blog post I want to argue that the study of history is important not least for the inspiration it can provide.

Exhibit one is my cat called Cleopatra. Cleo was a rescue cat from the Cats Protection League who quite frankly told us she was lovely and dumped then ran for the door. She wasn’t and spent at least five years hating me personally. She has now gotten over this and is one of my best friends. She is currently sitting on my neck. The value of history in this case is that it enabled us to give her a name that really, really suited her superior, jumped up personality. I think also it was a way for us to communicate to other people what she was like because Cleopatra is a well known historical figure. Her attributes can easily be implied onto a little cat and we all know about her personality without having to explain.

Exhibit two is Britains most successful manufacturer which is Games Workshop. Games Workshop makes plastic toy soldiers and sells them world wide. They are a very successful business. Let us be honest anyone can make toy soldiers, but not on the scale of Games Workshop. The difference is what hobbyists call ‘fluff’ and what GW writers like to call Intellectual Property. Its successful, engaging and gripping narratives are inspired and drawn from history. The Ultramarines are very Roman, the Imperial Guard reference conflicts from the Zulu Wars through the First World War to Vietnam.

I am going to conclude here by summing up. History gives a shared knowledge with references that can be drawn upon to add depth to personal understanding between those who share that knowledge. And from that knowledge engaging and powerful narratives can be created that can help create powerful, engaging and profitable brands.


As sure as the foundations of the Earth…

In my work I teach a variety of topics. One of the most popular is Stone Age. When I start my day off I start off with the concept of Prehistory. This introduces the idea that there was something before writing and records. From this I explain to children born this century, in fact last decade, that there was a world before mirco-waves, mobile phones and even televisions. These things that are so ubiquitous in our own lives are only very recent inventions. In my own experience essays written in my first year at university were entirely hand written, the internet was never used for research despite being lauded as the next big thing. A subject I remained skeptical about until the the first years of the next century. These things make me think, what in our ancestors worlds was so ubiquitous and fundamental that they couldn’t imagine a world without it?

When we think about the Stone Age we are considering a period of history that covers a mind boggling six million years. If your mind doesn’t boggle imagining that about of time you are not doing it right. There were people who never imagined that the ice age would end, those who made their homes in Doggerland or on the mountains that would become the isle of scilly never imagined that the seas would one day displace their descendents. There were people who never imagined that the Neaderthals would become extinct or the mega fauna they relied upon for food and shelter would vanish from the Earth.

Prehistory comes to an end, in Britain, with the invasion of the Romans. The brutal conquest and the ‘civilisation’ of the Celts brought to an end a civilisation that covered Europe from modern Wales to Greece. In a blink of an eye certainties and attitudes and traditions came to an end. The Romans themselves believed Rome to be eternal and the sacking of Rome in the 5th century was a shocking event recorded in the literature of the time.

The term Dark Age is contested by modern historians but certainly there was a loss of knowledge, security and what I think we would describe as civilisation. The Anglo-Saxons were fascinated by the Roman ruins and no diplomatic mission was complete without a tour. The fantastic poem ‘The Ruin’ speaks to this fascination. In fact I would argue that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t believe they would ever equal the Romans and that they were living in the sun set of the world, which possibly accounts for some of the melancholy in their poetry.

From the Dark Ages though the Medieval period we come to Reniassance and the Age of Reason. These are ages of discovery but they are ages of certainties as well, who would have guessed the Hapsburg Empire would have vanished in the 20th century, who would have guessed that the British Empire, in the form we most readily associate with it, would endure for less than a hundred years?

We all live in a moment of time where subjectively speaking the powers that be are the foundations of the Earth. But objectively speaking they are ghosts that appear and disappear like the sparrow in the Anglo-Saxon story. Life, the bard says, is like a lighted hall of merriment and companionship. The sparrow flies in through one window out from the dark night and into the hall for a moment before flying out again though another window and again into the dark. The only certainty I can offer you is the uncertainty of certainty.