Who actually writes history?
I am always a little wary when the terms “proper” or “scholarly” history are bandied about, usually in tandem with the terms “facts” and “unbiased opinion”. In January 2014 there was a little political controversy in the UK regarding the use of the Blackadder TV series as a history aid. It brought into the spotlight the role of the arts in conveying historical meaning. Apparently when it comes to history the arts suffers from being biased and avoiding the “facts”. For me as an outsider it seemed little more than an official distraction. There is a universal trait amongst politicians to raise an emotional issue when they want to take your silverware to the pawnshop. Nevertheless it did raise a heated discussion regarding what we merit as “real” history and what we do not. One academic lampooned Black Adder as being written by people who “weren’t even there”, strange when the same can be said of most history. One notable history TV presenter expanded by saying that whilst the British War poets and Shakespeare were all good and fine in their place as “art” they were not up to the grade as history and should be left out of the equation. That made me mad, which as an arts lover and history fan is not a good thing to do. For me all history is an act of creativity. Unless you are content to stand in a muddied field and point at a piece of pottery, we all develop stories of the past.
Whilst it would dubious for me to state that King Henry the eighth had a superfluous nipple and rode a unicycle to work each morning, much of what we see as “history” is a created impression drawn from an assortment of knowledge. Look at any recent documentary on prehistoric earth and absent is an old man in a grey suit discussing the thigh bone of a T Rex. Instead we are presented with incredible CGI interpretations of the past. Beyond the photo realism is something that is ultimately a piece of somebody’s imagination. Whilst we have some fossil records our knowledge of prehistory is lacking in even the most rudimentary super 8 “Zapruder” style footage. Many of the best prehistoric archaeologists create their narratives by using inferences from contemporary animal behaviour. This is because the prehistoric evidence is unavailable. Is this somehow bad history? Should we miss out on any insight into the past because it is based on an alternate form of observation other than physical artefacts? History is a created journey. We should treat its narrative as ongoing and use this as an opportunity to explore the past rather than pigeonhole it.
Society likes to treat the past as a hard and fast linear concept engraved in stone and full of “facts”. The power in history is that it defines our present. Start playing with the past and it is easy to have an identity crisis. History is often used as a validation for what we do today. This is ok if it means buying more milk, it is a little more problematic when it comes to global politics. Our perceptions of seemingly unequivocal events are as different as our fingerprints. There is not only “the truth”, but a variety of them.
In Australia during the 1990’s there was a history war between the left and right sides of politics. The cause of the conflict was the notion that Australia was taking a “black arm band” approach to its past and nullifying much of its Eurocentric heritage. Historians from both sides went into battle like wizened knights in old suits. The result? Not much really. History scholars still ply their same individual viewpoints, which at the end of the day are supported or nullified by the same supporting bodies. There are similar ongoing heated debates surrounding the interpretation of history across the world. Into this maelstrom the troubling concept of history being somehow bias or judgement free is re-entering the cultural consciousness.
There is a need to be seen somehow as historically “right”, even if there exists more than one viewpoint. Many people write history, but the notion of what history is valid is a closely guarded secret. There is still a perception that good history comes from somebody wearing a Harris Tweed sports coat or at the very least the inner workings of a mystical government department. An official position legitimises the past, somehow making the version we are given more reliable than others. My old WW2 history lecturer once decried a presentation I made as “waffle”. He may have been right but he also argued that whilst there had been a second world war, Germany was not really involved. I wonder what influenced Dr Gunter! The past is as ambiguous as the present. Even with contemporary events it is often hard to recognise that you live in the same city, let alone country or world as the news. What ties us in with the disparate occurrences down the street or across the globe is not the actions in themselves but our human reaction to them.
Artistic license gets a bad name, it is seen as somehow a manipulation of the “facts”, I would suggest that art is a response to them. Perhaps Monty Python voiced the perils of history interpretation best. The team’s Leonardo da Vinci sketch and his addition of a “few Kangaroo’s” to the last supper has served to validate some historians linear “no fuss” view of the past. Every attempt to explore history creatively apparently interrupts the space time continuum. What artistic works do allow is a questioning of the “authorative” line of certain versions of history. Like anything they only form part of a balanced diet of the past. Whether it be Blackadder goes forth or Shakespeare we explore between the lines of evidence to the human foibles that create history in the first place. Try and reconstruct what you did yesterday based on a single email or text and you get a very bare bones view of the past. But look into the emotional, human circumstances of that day and suddenly even the most innocuous receipt can suddenly have meaning. History superficially seems like a unique circumstance. Yet to understand historic events, we end up dealing with the often repeated every day life we are all familiar with. Perhaps that is what frustrates the hard cases.
History studies need to be based in reality. There are very good primary and secondary sources to study and explore. But the evidence should be seen from a variety of perspectives, challenged and examined. Whose history is it anyway? We all can claim a stake in the past. The arts provides a useful starting point. Swords rarely just swing in an up and down motion, there is fear or hatred in their intent. There is more thought in the creative process than simply “making it up”. Creative works provide an alternative analysis to be explored, not the definitive answers. Where the “truths” exist in history is in a broad range of sources, not the outright dismissal of one because we don’t like the authorship or get the jokes.
This originally appeared on the “History vault” website in 2014