New Age Historiography

I think a reckoning is coming. A big moment that will transform the way we think about historical knowledge and the historian’s role in acquiring it. After four big moments in the past century and a half, we’re due another one. Stick with me. Let’s begin in c. 500BC.

Those who write history are in a perpetual struggle to define the nature of their own work. What is historical knowledge, and how is it generated? Why should we study the past? What is a ‘history’? Is it an art-form or a science and what, consequently, are the rules to which the historian must abide? Herodotus was aware in the fifth century BC that he needed to construct not just a version of past events, but also an explanation of his method and approach, leaving the reader to distinguish between multiple interpretations including his own: ‘So much for what Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgment on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge…’ He was keen to explain his sources, and identify the reasons for accepting one or another of them: ‘I propose to base my account on those Persian authorities who seem to tell the simple truth…’

My point is that as long as human beings have written ‘history’, they have also considered – or at least expressed – a view on what history actually signifies. But Herodotus was no historian, at least in the modern sense of the word. His was an ‘inquiry’ into the past, to ensure that ‘human achievements are not forgotten in time’, and he spoke of ‘history’ merely as a record of that past: ‘the silliest trick which history has to record’, ‘he had learnt his own history’, ‘we have accurate knowledge of Egyptian history…’ and so on. We can look to Herodotus and identify many things we recognise as hallmarks of modern historical discourse – the tussles with causation, the interplay of ‘factors’ – but we cannot abridge the 2500 intervening years by breezily calling him the ‘Father of History’ and drawing a straight line between him and us. We need to start a bit closer to our own time if we want to identify the roots of modern historiographical debate.

There are four major moments since the professionalisation of our discipline in the nineteenth century when the nature of ‘history’ has been particularly considered by English practitioners of the craft. I specify ‘English historians’ because for a great amount of this time our discourse was quite insular – for institutional, societal and historical reasons I don’t have time to identify here (this is a long enough post already). Those working as professional historians in English universities have often cast approving or disapproving eyes abroad – and indeed, some of those glances capture my attention here – but our histories and historiographies have been undeniably national for much of the past two centuries. And I am not saying that between these four moments there has been no discussion or debate, rather, I merely want to identify the most significant moments in which the nature of our subject has been fundamentally challenged by those working within it, and to see if we might draw some lessons about where history goes from here.

The first moment came in 1886, with the publication of Lord Acton’s article ‘German Schools of History’ in the first volume of English Historical Review. While this article ostensibly dealt with, as the name suggests, German historiography, it was largely a commentary of and justification for Acton’s own historical presumptions. Much of it was devoted to the mighty Leopold von Ranke or, more specifically, one half of Ranke. His fidelity to the sources, his removal of self, his detective-like scrupulousness: all these traits were lauded, though the philosophical and quasi-theological character of German historicism, to which Ranke was wholeheartedly signed up, were dropped: ‘The main line of the Hegelian succession passed to the divines’. Despite its subject matter, the essay’s main impact was in its country of publication. Its audience, the professional historians working in universities, who had now reached critical mass enough to warrant a specialist journal of their own, were immediately taken with this objective and scientific characterisation of their craft, which served to justify their own pursuit: in came the source criticism and hard facts of S. R. Gardiner, H. Cam, and T. F. Tout, out went the misty speculations of E. A. Freeman and T. B. Macaulay, or the literary flourish of Thomas Carlyle. Out with the amateur; in with the professional.

But what, one might ask, if all the source criticism and analysis merely served to underpin the familiar narratives of English history? What if the steady accumulation of fresh knowledge and the slaying of myths, admirable in and of itself, failed to shake the ‘all roads lead to now’ tendency evident in early-Victorian scholarship? This was the proposition of Herbert Butterfield, whose Whig Interpretation of History (1931) can be considered the second moment. All the work of the scientific historians, Butterfield argued, had done little to alter the fundamental narrative of English history, which he claimed was at root a protestant and parliamentary one: Whig. Once you zoom out, abbreviate, and condense, English historians still held to a celebratory story of straight lines: religious toleration, freedom of expression, parliamentary democracy, constitutional monarchy. Anything in the past which could be interpreted as an early sign of these characteristics, such as Luther’s rebellion against the medieval Church, became part of the narrative and was crowbarred into the story of the future-fighters versus the reactionaries and tyrants. Butterfield’s short book was revolutionary in its time. The notion of the ‘whig tendency’, shorn of its political connotations, still pervades our discourse to this day, synonymous with the tendency to subordinate the past to the present and to organise the characters of the past into the goodies and the baddies.

In the post-war period, English historiography did not immediately respond to the continental vapours of the existentialists and post-structuralists, just as it had not shown much interest in North American pragmatism and progressivism earlier in the century. As Michael Howard recalled, ‘theirs was the experience of defeat’, and the theorising of the French and German schools held little appeal outside the pages of the New Left Review. Instead, the third moment came in the 1960s, with the publication of E. H. Carr’s What is History? (1961) and G. R. Elton’s The Practice of History (1967). The former was a relativistic swipe against the historian’s knowledge of ‘the facts’, the latter a trenchant riposte to (what Elton saw) as Carr’s crypto-Marxism and a sturdy defence of the old order. Where Carr argued that historians created facts rather than discovered them, Elton proposed that ‘proper’ historical method guarded against the insertion of the historian’s own prejudices into the histories they produced. If in Carr we can see hints of Butterfield and R. G. Collingwood, who believed that the historian must employ their own imagination in the reconstruction of past events, then with Elton we can see not a little Acton: the gradual peeling away of untruths by a scientific mind, revealing a past unblemished by present concerns.

We feel a bit queasy in talking about Elton and Carr as the epitome of 1960s reflection; historiography courses which start with them are often labelled a bit ‘old-hat’ and rather unimaginative. But between them they represent a clear stage in the progress of historiographical thinking, a reckoning between the desire of historians to tell the truth about the past and the unavoidable reality of the present circumstances of the historian studying it. So much was changing in the world around Carr and Elton that they appear dated even by the end of the decade: almost an anachronism in their own time. But the operative word here is around. The swirls of change were coming from outside and working their way inwards: feminist historiography, history ‘from below’, the relationship between language and meaning, narratology. All had their origins (in recent incarnations) elsewhere besides England and made major inroads here only quite slowly. My fourth moment is therefore Keith Jenkins’s Rethinking History (1991), which started the process of historicising Elton and Carr, satisfying some of the demands of the ‘new history’, alienating others for his nihilism, but most of all forming a new framework (Jenkins would say condition) for the discipline: the ‘modernists’ of the past versus the ‘postmodernists’ of the now and forever. Out goes objectivity and truth, in comes perspective and power; out with the scientific method and in with literary criticism. Out goes method as the first mark of the historian and in comes theory.

You’ve stayed with me so far, politely ignoring the fact that I haven’t yet delivered a thesis or proposition of any kind, certainly not one related to my catchy title of ‘New Age Historiography’. Well, here it is: we’re about to experience a fifth ‘moment’ where the very nature of historical knowledge will be re-thought. No, I can’t tell the future. I have no idea where our discipline is headed. But I do think we’re overdue one. We’ve been living with postmodernism for some time now; historiographical lecture series (even some books) often still treat it like its the next big thing. It seems to me that, far from being a condition, it’s very much a product of its time. It’s time to move on, but how? So much has changed in the past 30-or-so years that a fundamental rethink on what constitutes historical knowledge, and how it might be acquired and disseminated, is surely looming. Social media and the REF has perhaps made a useable past more desirable than ever before; the emergence of extensive internet archives like EEBO have put more raw documents at our grasp than we could read in a lifetime. Our profession is politicised like never before, yet there is a homogeneity of political belief in history departments that would make the Victorians blush. Open access, e-journals, Skype, digital humanities; so much change, and so quickly, but leading where? How many professional historians now have permanent contracts (less); how many are women (more); how many as a proportion work in institutions of higher education (less); how many have come to work in an English university from abroad (more)? Interdisciplinarity is the new disciplinarity, while collaboration across borders has replaced the Stubbsian idyll of one man and his paper-strewn desk. But what and where is the reckoning? I don’t know what the next big moment is, but I know it’s coming. Who will be the new Acton, Butterfield, Carr, Elton, or Jenkins?