October 18, 2009

The Virtues of Narrative History

Those who know me well will pause perhaps at the title of this post. Given my contempt for lazy narrative history it might seem strange that I think there is a large and important place for narrative history within historiographical studies- but I do. Narrative history appeals to the fundemental nature of historians- as this post comments, we are ultimately storytellers. Historia, in the original Greek, means story. But narrative history has another function. One of the depressing things about historians themselves as well as the general population is how little we know outside of our own specialism or time. For whatever is being studied there is always a greater context: so for example, there must be political ways in which the industrious revolution in India and in Britain in the 17th and 18th Centuries affected both countries. Narrative history is in its widest sense a cure for that kind of historical parochialism: it can make us aware as say Braudel made us aware of the long duree- of the great rhythms of history, whether those be the rhythms of the harvest or of the tides. As historians become narrower and narrower in their focus and less and less willing to make a mistake, it is worth maybe considering whether errors are better than parochialism, whether narrative can lead to insight, whether span of knowledge is really less important than depth.