Friday, January 9, 2009

Taylor on History

I have been reading the essays of A. J. P. Taylor, lately and I happened upon this passage and thought it quite instructive:

In most European languages 'story' and 'history' are the same word: histoire in French, Geschichte in German.... It would save much trouble if we had the same coincidence of words in English. Then perhaps we should not be ashamed to admit that history is at bottom simply a form of story-telling.

Historians nowadays have higher aims. They analyse past societies, generalized about human nature, or seek to draw morals about political or economic behavior that will provide lessons for the present. Some of them even claim to foretell the future. These are admirable ambitions which have produced work of high quality. But there is no escaping the fact that the original task of the historian is to answer the child's question: 'What happened next?'

-Taylor, 'History in Fiction,' Times Literary Supplement, 23 March 1973, in From Napoleon to the Second International, 36.

It is quite true. Historians who do “narrative history” are shunned; indeed the phrase has become a byword for writing which lacks footnotes and historical rigor. Not that there is any reason to assume that narrative structure means bad history. I have seen plenty of “history” organized in the most awful way, lacking substantial citation, written with meaningless social science terms and possessing the fluidity of an elementary school science paper. And this sort of thing is sometimes championed as great scholarship, while mere “storytellers” are seen as “populists,” whose crime, so far as I can tell, is writing books that people actually want to read.

This too struck me as a keen insight:

Our fiction [that of historians] comes in quite another way [from that of the historical novelist] and is all the more dangerous for being usually unconscious. We take the characters of the past too seriously. Most of our evidence until fairly recent times is about the thin top layer of society - kings, nobles, ministers and high clerics. They may be a poor lot but they are all we have, and we blot them up beyond their deserts. Experience teaches that hereditary succession is not a good way of producing ability. Yet we go on treating kings as though they possessed the sort of ability shown by men who had to fight their way to the top. Of course we acknowledge bad kings, according to the immortal phrase of Sellar and Yeatman, but we also find good kings and even great kings.

My late colleague Bruce McFarlane described Henry V as 'the greatest man that ever ruled England.' Great, say, compared with Churchill, let alone Cromwell? I do not believe it. I doubt whether he was much improvement on Ramsay MacDonald. Looking around the crowned heads who have bestrewn the European stage over the centuries, I cannot see any other than Frederick the Great as a man of more than common abilities, and even his abilities were on the thin side.

-Taylor, 'History in Fiction,' 41.

While I might disagree with Taylor's analysis of some of Europe's monarchs (though I suspect he knew so much more than I on the matter that a disagreement is not worth voicing), the insight is definitely a valuable one: to say that King Thus-and-Such invaded Whatsitcalled or built a bridge over the River Thingamadoo may say more about the instruments he inherited than the dexterity with which he wielded them.
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