Why bother with historiography?

It’s essay marking time and so I naturally find the me of 2016 talking to the me of 2006.

Here’s there sort of thing I might say (indeed, what was probably said to me at one time):

Needs more historiography: what have other historians said, and why do you dis/agree?

Wide range of secondary reading, but would benefit from a more rigorous and systematic historiographical analysis.

Treatment of historiography is, at the moment, rather atomised…

I wonder, of course, if these comments are especially helpful – but written feedback, especially if produced against a mark-scheme, is hardly the exact science it claims to be.


James Howell, the first Historiographer Royal of England (1660-1666), back when ‘historiographer’ simply meant ‘a writer of history’.

Yet we ask every student to do it, at every level, and engagement with the historiography is part of an historian’s day job. So what is it, and why should anybody care?

Perhaps it would help to start with two things that historiography is not.

First, it is not the same thing as bibliography, or the straightforward chronicling of what has ever been written on a particular historical topic. For one thing, this could go on forever. We all start a piece of extended research by drawing up a working bibliography and have an existential crisis when it becomes unmanageably large. Even then, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what has been done, so its difficult to see what merely cutting it down to size and front-loading our work with it actually achieves. As Michael Bentley has said, this approach amounts to “the passive act of description”. It can only ever hope to be a partial and incomplete act at that.

Second, historiography is not simply the act of lumping individual historians together into ‘schools of thought’. We love doing this, don’t we? Whigs say this, Marxists say that, revisionists came along and said the right thing, and finally post-revisionists took a glug from the bottle and mucked it all up again. There are so many problems here. While the high-Anglican Tory William (Bishop) Stubbs would have been surprised to learn that he was in fact a Whig, ‘post-revisionists’ have often styled themselves as such. Let’s not venture to open the Pandora’s Box that is ‘revisionism’: suffice to say that the term means something quite different to historians of the early-modern England and historians of the Holocaust.

Historiographical understanding is riddled with mind-bending problems. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I want to write something about the causes of the English Civil War. Where should I go for my historiography? Where should I start? This is perhaps where the model outlined above looks most applicable: Whigs placed the event in a longer story about the ascendancy of parliament and religious toleration; Marxists said OK but thought both of these things represented the bourgeois interest; revisionists went to the local archives in the 1960s and discovered that nobody wanted a civil war in the first place; post-revisionists of the 1980s and beyond have mounted a rear-guard in defence of the long view.

Fine, except that this is essentially a story about the historiography that self-identifying revisionists have constructed for their own purposes and continue to tell themselves. It’s not ‘wrong’, but it’s a story that represents the view of a certain kind of historian working at a certain time. If we’re being generous, we might say that it represents one expression of a more general reaction against the teleological explanations of partisans: “we do not carry the ideological baggage of Whigs and Marxists”. If we’re being mean, we might say that it amounts to a grand act of self-justification, or an expression of the rhetoric of positivism to lay claim to vast swathes of the past. The post-revisionists, meanwhile, have largely been willing to tell the same historiographical story since it serves their own purposes of positioning themselves against what went before: they are post-revisionists after all.

In putting together my hypothetical essay, I could borrow this tried-and-tested historiographical sketch, which would find near-universal acceptance among specialists in the field. It would tick many of the right boxes, in so far as it shows synthesis and analysis of the secondary material.

But it would also be extremely deficient. I would be appropriating wholesale the stories that other historians have told about the history of the histories of their subject matter, with scant regard for my present purposes and with extreme deference to theirs. Why start with the Whigs? S. R. Gardiner was certainly not the first to write about the subject. Why for that matter only consider historians of the English Civil War? We could look to historians of the Russian, Spanish, and American civil wars, or we could address historians who have specifically dealt with the problem of causation – why should this secondary literature be off-limits?

Clearly, historiography is something more than just reeling off a list of great names, or pigeon-holing them into neat slots. When we write something about the past, or we ask students to, we don’t expect ‘the right answer’. It’s become something of a commonplace that there isn’t a single correct version of the past, so we shouldn’t behave as though there is a single correct historiography.

Perhaps it would help to consider what we actually do when we write a piece of history.

Faced with an historical problem, we probably start with a rapid process of selection and deselection, through the conscious or subconscious discounting of explanations we deem ridiculous or incredible. Russian espionage or the threat of Ottoman pirates on the south coast probably did not cause the English Civil War. Where does this process end? I would reject from the off the rise of the bourgeoise as a probable cause, which says more about me than anything else. In any case, non-starters discounted, we move on to building up a series of hypotheses. The schemes of high-churchmen? The Scottish and Irish rebellions? The personality of Charles I? Something as yet undiscovered?

My hypotheses are grounded in some background knowledge of both the history and the historiography, the extent of which can wax and wane. Perhaps all I have to go on is ‘1066 And All That’, and a vague sense that Charles I was ‘wrong but wromantic’; perhaps I have read Nicholas Tyacke, Conrad Russell and Richard Cust some years before and have them at the back of my mind. But where next?

In a balancing act of epic proportions, I refine my ideas by consulting the primary and secondary material. I need contemporaneous evidence – otherwise all I will have is a mere story – and I need to read the scholarship of others, in case I end up reinventing the wheel. I cannot hope to read it all, so again this is an extremely selective process. My main thesis is nonetheless whittled down to something more concrete as I accept or reject evidence, and accept or reject the interpretations of others. Ultimately though, the finished product owes an intellectual debt to other historians, whether I’ve agreed with them or not.

On one level, historiography is simply the proper acknowledgement of this debt. Have I used a certain kind of source material? To know how to use it properly, I had to learn from others’ achievements and mistakes. If I’ve applied a certain theory, I need to demonstrate its applicability by talking about those who have used it before me. If I have argued that Charles I was a bad negotiator of parliaments, it would greatly aid my argument to demonstrate why those who have argued contrary to me are wrong.

But on a deeper level, my understanding of the past is grounded not just in a direct engagement with its extant source material, but also in a vicarious engagement through the work of others. The past that I am presenting to my reader has been filtered not just through the selective survival of sources, or the processes of my own mind, but also through the cognitive whirrings of historians past. The historiography is an essential part of my own thesis, inseparable and indivisible from the other components.

To validate my own ideas, I need to demonstrate that I have understood and systematised the raw material.

Who created the source that provides my killer piece of evidence, for what audience, and to what end? It seems to me that we are very good at explaining the rationale for doing this to students of history.

What are my own biases and prejudices? We are getting ever better at addressing this.

What forces acted upon the mind of the historian who previously said this or that? I fear that we are rather less good at explaining the value and purpose of this. Rote name-checking and clumsy lumping do not amount to ‘thinking historiographically’, but how often do we push ourselves to think beyond this?

Further reading:

I have refrained from complicating matters by offering an account of the historiography of historiography, so to speak, but the following texts are wonderful:

Michael Bentley, Modernizing England’s Past: English Historiography in the Age of Modernism, 1870-1970 (Cambridge, 2005). Bentley draws the distinction between historiography and bibliography.

Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, 1988) did something very similar to Bentley, but for a different context.

Herbert Butterfield, Man on his Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship (Cambridge, 1955). Originally delivered as The Wiles Lectures. Butterfield is famous for coining the phrase ‘Whig interpretation of history’.

For a revisionist account of Civil War historiography, see Ronald Hutton’s Debates in Stuart History (Basingstoke, 2004); for the post-revisionist take, see Richard Cust and Ann Hughes, Conflict in Early Stuart England: Studies in Religion and Politics, 1603-1642 (Abingdon, 2014; f.p. 1989).



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