December 02, 2007

The History Carnival

Historians like to think that we are doing something for other people when we research- and to a large extent we are. Writing for a blog about history involves teaching others about their own histories and telling them why this particular story. Most of us emerged as historians when we first realised that stories were fascinating and that some of them were true, when we first as MarthaQ did with Alexander the Great thought about the differences between accounts of the past and tried to reconcile them. Martha's original questions might be naive, but soon historians and students of history begin to probe even greater questions- questions about whether people in the past felt about things in the same way as we do, or whether they even understood themselves in the same way. Well any reasonable history carnival ought to present some posts that consider some historical stories and their relevance to the modern day. This month's carnival is no exception- and in addition to the posts above there are plenty more which will make you think about your place in the world.

Place is a keynote for any historian, wondering around the streets of local towns or cities you can get a real sense of the past. Any historian of New York must know that he walks the streets that Alexander Hamilton once strolled. Sometimes that sense can be illusory, who would imagine wondering modern London, particularly Camden, that only sixty years ago those streets echoed with bombs. Historians though also need to look at things that stay the same- Poland's history has been shaped as David Frum argues by its geographic position. The shape of Poland has been used in different ways by different rulers: but the same goes for words, whose history tells us something about the history of the societies that use them- consider for example the word Tiger and the related Tigris river. Familiarity can often jolt us into understanding both the past's continuity with and difference from the present- moments of epiphany in which empathy seems stronger. For instance, dates are crucial in this. Over the last month, we have seen a number of anniversaries of executions pass us by, those of the murderer Dr. Crippen, six Greek politicians and an unknown allied airman. Each story has something vivid to contribute to us, because each story allows us to enter into a piece of the past.

Individual stories are often the best way of entering into history. They provide us with someone to directly empathise with. For years Americans recalled the events of the revolution whenever they saw Benjamin Franklin's ghost appear. We ourselves can have our own Franklin's ghosts to remind us of the past. The history of women for instance in the nineteenth century is illuminated this month by two wonderful articles about great women of the past: one about the French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos and the other about the early life of Emily Chesley. Entering into the past via a person often requires a hook for us to hang our thoughts on, sport can provide an interesting hook for comparison and thought about cultural differences between our times and times past. The great player revolt in Baseball in the late nineteenth century led by Fred Dunlap stands as one supreme example of sporting change accompanying cultural change. And of course the evolution of British culture can be charted in the videos of the teams that almost won the footballing treble (FA Cup, League and European Cup) over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. Without understanding the times in which people lived, it is very difficult to work out what they were doing- even the dates of marriages and births can be hard to comprehend, unless you appreciate that for instance in 18th Century America many wives went pregnant into the churchyard. But that is not the end of it, for understanding the way that culture and individuality interact gets incredibly complicated- as this paper by Eileen Joy on Saint Guthlac demonstrates.

So from the individual, we turn as historians to the collective, to the grand narratives, the grand frames into which we fit the individuals that we study. In order to start understanding the life of a medieval West African, it is vital that you know this kind of outline of West African history before you start. Evidence though sometimes is a problem- archaeologists for years made a mistake about how North America was peopled but are now going back to new types of evidence and reconsidering their earlier verdicts. Automatically as soon as we get into these broader questions, we get into issues which are even today political. The American Indians suffered greatly from their White Conquerors and at the Washita Massacre Indians were particularly cruelly killed by a future American hero. A genocidal hero- surely not, but the same thing is happening in Russia at the moment where Joseph Stalin is being used in advertising campaigns. History though can be inspiring- its worth remembering that there were Europeans who didn't massacre the Indians but instead met and engaged with them as human beings- worth remembering because it tells us a lesson treat your opponents as individuals and you stand a much greater chance of being merciful when they are in your power.

Political thought arises naturally from history- history is the only experimental ground for political philosophers and there are plenty of subtle ones out there. Take for example Ashok who provides this month an inciteful reading of Jefferson's inaugural. Some argue that we are approaching another crisis period in American history- if so strap your seatbelts tight. Others suggest that democracy itself depends on certain presumptions and that the modern West looks very like Rome in the late Republic.

All of those ideas depend on a historical basis- but of course historians disagree all the time- indeed the only thing that historians do more than read is disagree. At the moment there has been a right battle going on about English Civil War historiography- David Underdown took a shot at John Adamson and the blogs have been responding in force. Chris Bray is openly contemptuous of any argument that America was anti-military in the first decades of its existance and David Frum aims his guns at a series of second world war targets from Western Generals to Russian commissars, in a review of Max Hastings' latest book on the subject. However the outcome of a conference on gender and diet in the middle ages- did women eat differently from men- reminds us that much about history remains inconclusive- history is less about answered questions than unanswered ones, get ye back to the libraries. You can see this as well in the fact that we still don't understand whether a meteorite blew up in the atmosphere only a ninety nine years ago- if we don't know that, then its no surprise that we are ignorant of other things.

History, as I hope you are aware through surveying these links, is very much an alive subject. Money is being poured into lots of areas of the subject- Canada is seeing millions of pounds being spent on a new history of science network for example. Courses are now being constructed using the web and blogging as a tool, whether for discussing history or historiography. And the power of history can be seen in the way that others are reevaluating documents like the Bible in the context of historical discovery.

Whatever history is, it isn't history!


Ashok said...


Thanks so much! Hope everything is going well, will talk to you soon!

Mark said...

Impressive carnival -- and a great job putting it together! m.

ExecutedToday said...

Who needs a Sunday paper?

Thanks so much for this formidable entry.

jmb said...

You're pretty good at putting this this stuff together. I'm off to follow some of your links.

Anonymous said...

Superb roundup.

Ruthie said...


I'm going to come back to this (I'm in class right now) when I have time to go through it at a leisurely pace.

Kristan Tetens said...

Just wanted to let the readers of this post know that the next edition of History Carnival will be hosted at my blog, The Victorian Peeper (, on January 6. For information, visit the History Carnival website at

Kristan Tetens