Wednesday, 4 September 2013

On History

History is significantly what has been documented about and commented upon past events. An undocumented history is not history. Where there are no documents, there is no history. An undocumented past cannot become history.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922). Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. Harcourt, Brace.

Last sentence:
"Whereof we cannot speak thereof we must be silent."

It matters not that "history" is not necessarily an accurate verbatim statement of what actually happened. More important is what future generations make of or believe about those events. All history is interpretation. If there are parts missing from the story, they are missing. Of equal importance are may be those matters which have been left out. Every attempt therefore must be made to find the "missing" information, but the state and circumstance under which and how such information is found must also be recorded, particularly if that information was not necessarily available to those contemporaneous with the said events.

On the other hand it is crucially important, when discussing the history of the Constitutions of Clarendon, carefully not to immerse oneself too deeply in the actual legal arguments involved, which themselves might be based on later and/or subsequent legal interpretations of the same issue, and the same matter, of which there have been many on several different occasions. That would constitute a kind of anachronism. Some of the legal matters, arguments and questions in this case were not resolved or clarified until long after Becket's murder, nor, indeed, for many generations afterwards, and some of which have never been resolved. Further, historians should not attempt really to be lawyers siding with either one or other of the parties involved. The question is not who was legally right or wrong, Henry or Becket, but what argument each side posed for their case at the time. Neither Henry nor Becket was either antagonist or protagonist in this drama. Indeed, we are not really composing a drama, but attempting to relate the events of this story how it was, which is more than quite dramatic enough. Besides some of the so-called "traditional" church laws at the time may have been based on forged documents, but this was not known to the participants of that time.

Censureship: are historians only interesting in telling a good story whilst those facts which are mundane or that which are awkward and do not fit their story are to be consigned to oblivion? Was the chronicler being quoted a direct witness of the events recorded? What was their motive for recording certain events, and not others? Is the witness' story corroborated, by two or more witnesses? Historians should seek to obtain corroboration of their stories like professional journalists. Unfortunately the past standards of reporting were not high, and this is one of the principal defects of History. Professional historians must quote and cite their sources of facts and interpretations. Historians must also list the reference works used or referred to.

Those who have editorial control over history are powerful indeed, and often can control the minds of the people comprising the audience or readership of that history, up to and including a whole nation itself. History is the intellectual property of the people being written about, but which is often controlled by governments. But eventually nations like civilizations come and go. And one might have to wait for such momentous events to hear about a different interpretation.

The science of history seeks to ascertain, understand and explain the structures of both great and small themes of the past. As anthropologists of the past, historians must seek to ascertain and understand the rules of the game by which the people of the past lived, about how those themes, structures and rule evolved. Archaeology can help, but archaeology seems to lack the methodology by which to understand motive, and neither is that its main goal. Great archaeology discovers documents and art, along with with buildings and other structures. These artefacts can, of course, contribute more to history. but there is a school of thought which believes history can be read in the structure of the landscape, in an atempt to place archaeology on an equal footing to history. Both archaeologists and anthropologists are often like Martians from outer space, fumbling for the truth about the people on Earth they have been sent to study.

Truth in history is like [the same as] truth in a court of law. One should also question how that truth was obtained, by force or voluntarily. But history is more than determining whether one's protagonist is guilty or not. And only hagiographers seek to champion the reputation of the principal characters of their stories. Hagiographers often use the same material as historians, but will seek to distort the interpretation of those sources if it furthers their cause. The Bible also, has much to answer for the way historical stories are told. There is no double jeopardy rule in history. The case may and should be re-examined over and over again, generation after generation.

We study Becket, not because he was a martyr and a saint, but because his story is a rollicking good yarn and drama from the past. Both Shakespeare and Marlowe missed a good opportunity, but perhaps the story was too dangerous for them to tell in their day. This opportunity was not missed out upon by the likes of Jean Anouilh, T.S. Eliot and Tennyson. Even today some historians of the Becket story are either Catholic, Protestant or Monarchist, taking sides. Some see Becket as a kind of Robin Hood for the liberty of the church and the cause of papal supremacy, with king Henry as a kind of bad king John (ironic that Henry was his father). Others see the right of kings to rule in their lands as a divine, incontrovertible and immutable right, and those that seek to thwart this right as traitors, who should be sentenced to eternal damnation. Others see that the Becket story was part of the evolution of the independence of the English nation, which is still even being fought for today with Europe, even if it took another 400 years for the concept of papal supremacy to be utterly crushed in England, during the Reformation, which it never was in Ireland, and therefore, which was consequently a possible cause of the latter's turbulent history with its neighbour, England. But papal supremacy in England might be seen to have been replaced with another kind of supremacy, the supremacy of the monarch and the Leviathan state [cf Hobbes]. The absolutism of the monarch may have gone now, but the state might still today be described as Leviathan.

History is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of the story involved with many pieces missing. The pieces that are present suggest what is absent, which a historian must seek after and go looking for, like a scientist. Failure to find the missing pieces is not a calamity, as long as what is being sought, why, and what efforts have been made to find them are fully described. And those supposed pieces already assembled much each be questioned as to whether they are themselves proper pieces belonging to the picture being constructed.


History as Storytelling

History is storytelling, particularly about past events which are said to have really happened. History is thus reportage of those times. Prime sources are original stories; secondary and subsequent sources are stories which have been retold. Historians are storytellers who summarise and interpret past events in the light of larger contexts. Interpretation is a  function of reasoning why a particular sequence of events are said to have occurred. History is about what has happened: reasoning is the why and how about what has happened. History should also report when and where something has happened, and in what sequence: places and time are important. Relating who was present at or absent from the events is also important, as well as who was involved or not involved.

History may may be written, spoken, or told in a film, recorded in a painting or some other medium, History is based on the human faculty of memory, with all its frailty, weaknesses and prejudices, History is only ever a summary and never ever the telling of the full story. Historians are highly selective in what they want to tell about. A storyteller may try to relate events which may be separated hugley in space and time, in different places and at vastly different times.

The why and how of the stories are only ever opinions, which may or may not have any real scientific basis, The who was present as the actor behind the events told or the recipients of the actions may or may not be accurately reported. Storytellers love to embellish their stories with fictions.


Storytelling is very natural to humans and is a function and the purpose of human language. Storytelling is how the myths and legends of communities are generated. Stories generally have heroes and anti-heroes. But historians should not try to moralize.

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