5. The past and History
THE PAST. The subject of History is Mankind in society in the past, a past that was a present. Unlike the present, in which it is possible to visit and question and re-question people, the actors in history, access to the past is only through remaining evidence. Since Medieval times the most substantial category of evidence is documents. Whereas for Medieval History the number of extant documents is limited, after the eighteenth century the quantities of documentary evidence is huge. After the occupation of Berlin in 1945, for example, lorry upon lorry of documents were removed by the Allies. With such extensive evidence, historians of recent history rely on the help of the record officer and classifier to help the location, assessment and selection of evidence. Since the invention of photography and moving film, visual evidence has become abundant and, in the last few years, the internet has created a new source of evidence.
History, as knowledge, is part of a seamless panorama of knowledge which ranges from astronomy, physics, geology, politics, sociology, psychology, theology and so on. These segments of knowledge are defined by us by their subject and each has its procedures of study. Each is part of History’s constituency in so far that each is open to a study of its history: the History of science, the History of theological, geological, astronomical, or sociological study and even the History of History. The distinctiveness of History as a branch of knowledge is the focus on the past and its method in which surviving evidence of the past is used.
It is the primacy of evidence as the basis for the historian’s work which parallels that of the scientist. The importance of evidence is illustrated by the citation of documents in research historian’s scholarly papers and monographs, a practice which enables others to follow the research historian’s path through the evidence to check the validity of the claims made.
Although, unlike scientists who work within the regularities of nature, historians cannot gain additional evidence by a rerun of an experiment, the repeated interrogation of the evidence by different historians creates the agreement about the past among those who study it.
History and evidence
History, in the sense of written accounts of the past, is not formed by a direct transposition of evidence in a patchwork quilt, cut and paste manner but from its selection, criticism and interpretation. Historians work in three areas before evidence can be useful.
1. Assessment of the genuineness and reliability of the evidence. This will include information about its origin and the possession of the evidence until the historians use it. Did those who kept the evidence tamper with it? Forgery is not unknown, the purported Hitler Diaries published by The Times is a notorious example. When it is accepted that the evidence, say a document, is genuine what of its reliability? Was the writer in a position to know what is claimed - about, for example, where a riot began, or the quantity of armaments stockpiled? Was the writer’s intention to be truthful or was the document written to varnish the truth and persuade a reader? Even if the writer wanted to present a truthful picture did prejudice bias or exaggeration distort what was written?
2. The question of language, content and meaning. Documents in the historian’s own language, even from a few decades before will embody different idioms and ways of expression which make difficult the educement of subtlety and nuance, which can be so important for understanding the real content of evidence. The difficulties of language are, of course, much greater with documents from more distant times or documents in foreign languages. Further, events before, and the circumstances in which it was written, needs to be known for the historian to obtain a more complete understanding of evidence.
3. Interpretation. When the historian is satisfied with the genuineness of an item of evidence, interpretation is required: that is, the meaning and significance of the evidence must be decided. It is then that the historian can use that evidence in the work of production of an account of the past.
Reforming the past in the mind of the historian
Working from the sources, historians do not only seek to answer questions on what happened and who was involved but also how and why it happened, and what were the connections between events. From the answers to these questions a ‘picture’ and understanding of the past is formed in the mind of the historian. As historians move forward their enquiries, in particular from what happened, to the reasons why they happened, it is not unlikely that there will be an absence of evidence, however exhaustive the researches. In an attempt to provide a full account of the past, historians call upon generalisations about the possibilities of human nature, and the way the world is, judiciously applied to the particular situations. In short, historical study draws its students to a deeper appreciation of life. This structure can be crudely expressed as an inverted triangle.
Dealing with the absence of hard evidence is more acute in the study of the History of more intangible phenomena such as a society’s collective memory (Northern Ireland, or France in 1830 are examples), the History of style or the study of the changes in the spirit of the age (the Zeitgeist), topics which some students find stimualting. Such subjects are less served by documentary evidence and finding connections from foundation influences and tracing their transmission and evolution provides many problems - but this kind of study, whatever the difficulties, is enthralling and helps us understand our society, and ourselves, today.
To be communicated to readers the historian’s picture of the past is presented in prose which, because of the structure of language, and to help clarity, favours a substantially linear account. From this a line of connections - say a sequence of economic changes during the industrial revolution, or social or political change - is described and explained.
Writers of History can be influenced by the preoccupations of the contemporary world in the choice of subject. To effectively convey a picture of the past they will use the language of the present, including the telling expressions which carry meaning at the time. Language and expression are dynamic: only by using the expressions of the present can the writer of History lead the reader to a surer grasp of the past. For this reason, it can be argued, History should be rewritten for every generation if the truth of the past is to be conveyed.
The constraints of producing a written account of the past impose focus on the writer. Only a great literary and intellectual talent, such as Macaulay, successfully writes an account with many interweaving threads. Often, no more than one main thread is managed in an account, say gender History presented within the political, economic and social context, or cultural History within the social and economic context. Over the last decades there have been historians who have looked at the past from newer perspectives: not from the perspective of high politics, that is government policy and its imposition on ‘the people’, that is History from above. Instead, ‘History from below’ has been written, accounts of the lives of those who had no part in politics but whose lives were acted upon by governments. The point is that the perspective is limited. An apple, suspended by a thread from its stalk in front of you cannot be seen except from the direction from which you look at it, but that view of the apple is incomplete. The best you can do is to surround it with mirrors, on its sides and above and below and, although you will have only one view at a time, move your eyes quickly between the mirrors in order to have a complete view. To ask which focus is better is to ask someone whether they prefer oranges or pears: the preference, for research historians, History students or readers of History, is a personal choice. If utility is considered, an industrialist is more likely to gain more benefit by reading economic History, especially an account of his/her industry, than cultural History. To gain a more complete account of the past a reader would need histories from many focuses and, so to say, hold them as overlays in the mind.
The fascination of History
Copernicus (1473-1543) signalled a revolution in scientific thought when, from his observations, he concluded the Earth was not the centre of the Universe. History’s enduring fascination owes much to the necessary centrality of people in historical study. While science and technology enable Man to take an outward journey of exploration to the solar system and beyond, History draws Man to the daunting but exhilarating challenge of understanding human beings and their lives together in society.