August 15, 2009

The Royal Historical Society Bibliography

The Royal Historical Society bibliography is one of the most useful tools out there for historians. It basically gives you a catalogue of articles written about your topic and their location- it is indispensible as anyone will know who has spent time rummaging in a library trying to find the one book on John Owen's theology or crop rotation in Lincolnshire in 1568. The bibliography however unfortunately is now going to be subscription only- it may be neccessary to do this to keep it going- I have no idea about the financing of it- but it is a sad day for researchers and people who are interested in history. The bibliography was a useful resource for everyone. There is a worrying trend in which the resources that you can use to do proper scholarship are falling behind subscription curtains- JSTOR, EEBO, the RHS bibliography- are all beyond access for members of the general public to inspect. I don't like this because I think scholarship should be open to access to everyone and I also think that if it isn't there are risks- there are risks to making access to knowledge conditional on holding an institutional subscription (step forward JSTOR)- I understand that there has to be an economic model to support such things- but on the other hand there is a complimentary public good, that access to knowledge ought to be free.

Whether you call them academics or priests, exclusive castes who dominate access to knowledge are not healthy for society and the internet ought to be about opening knowledge to everyone- not just to those with a university login.

August 14, 2009

Introducing Agricola

Tacitus's life of Agricola begins with a classic piece of Tacitean rhetoric:

Famous men of old often had their lives and characters set on record, and even our generation, with all its indifference to the world around it, has not quite abandoned the practice. An outstanding personality can still triumph over that blind antipathy to virtue which is a defect of all states large or small. In the past however the road to memorable acheivement was not so uphill or so beset with obstacles and the task of recording it never failed to attract men of genius. There was no question of partiality or self seeking. The consciousness of an honourable aim was enough. (Agricola para 1, trans Mattingley, London 1970)

My last couple of posts have examined history and its relationship to politics: Tacitus is one of the historians who seems to have considered that relationship most. As opposed say to Livy who does not really describe how he sees the role of the historian within the state, Tacitus here and in other places does. Tacitus grew up in the reign of Domitian and survived into the more benign reigns of Nerva and Trajan. What we have here is a record, an account, of what he believed presenting an account did and was about. Like many ancient historians he focuses on the individual- an account of the past is there to record the deeds of genius or bravery that marked famous men out from the crowd. Livy would have agreed that history has a didactic quality. But Tacitus imports another set of ideas- he believes that human beings don't neccessarily wish to admire, in all states there is a blind antipathy to virtue, in all states there is an envious mind and a wicked tongue.

So what does that mean. Tacitus does not leave us with an easy balance between the historian's duty to praise and the desire to criticise. He distinguishes between the old days (republican) and the new (imperial) era. He associates the former with 'honourable' behaviour and admiration, the latter with envy, a difficult road to acheivement and indifference to the world around it. The Republican citizen is a honour seeking individual, the Imperial subject an envious slave. Tacitus does not get deeper into the psychology of this- but rather uses it to introduce Agricola's career- but we need to remember this before we explore the contours of the Governor of Britain's career. Tacitus's preface no less than the tales of great Republican heroes is a didactic one: it is meant to introduce and to warn the reader of what comes next.

August 11, 2009

Gratuitous linking: Dave destroys Bono

Bono is one of the most repellant public personalities that I have come across- the tax exile who asks other poorer people to give their money to charity- I could continue this argument but have done so in another place. Dave though destroys Bono's latest offering here- in an article whose justified bile is worth imbibing! I reccomend it!

August 10, 2009

Do we need to do any more research?

Professor Mark Bauerlein argues in the Chronicle that no more research into the humanities is needed (thanks Ashok for the link). He raises a question that lots of people have raised to me in the past- what more is there worth doing in history (he mainly comments on literary criticism which I do not know so will not comment about)- the answer is that Bauerlein is wrong and that there is more research to do in history in particular and I'm sure in other humanities. The serious practice of history only began in the early 20th Century. The first modern historians of the English civil war were individuals like Samuel Gardiner and Sir Charles Firth. Gardiner's history of the civil war and his history of the commonwealth and protectorate (finished by Firth)is the place where modern historians start writing. Gardiner and Firth are the places that people start from- there are earlier scholars whose work was important: but none can challenge the power of Gardiner and Firth's narratives. Von Ranke directed historians to look at archival sources- Firth took that lesson to heart producing the first edition of the Clarke Papers, he aided S.C. Lomas to producce a scholarly edition of Cromwell's letters, he also edited Cromwell's letters. Other great collections of sources appeared at the same time: C.S. Terry edited a volume of editorials and letters entitled the Cromwellian union with Scotland, R. Dunlop provided us in 1913 with an edition of letters from the army in Ireland. And those are only the sources I have used myself!

Many sources though remain unexploited. Blair Worden showed that one of the texts that historians for generations had relied on- the memoirs of the MP and soldier Edmund Ludlow- were actually edited in the 18th Century by John Tolland, the religion was expunged from them and what was produced was a Whig republican narrative. Recovering in the Bodleian library a manuscript entitled a Voyce from the Watchtower, Worden demonstrated that Ludlow wrote in a much more apocalyptic tone. There are more discoveries to make as well: the new service EEBO which puts photocopies of all the printed books in English between 1450 and 1700 online facilitates further discoveries. I've heard great papers on subjects as various as the almanacs of Sarah Jinna (someone I'd never heard of) and Tacitean references in histories from the 1590s. Both studies would have been possible before EEBO- both are easier with it and the kind of thing they represent will grow and grow as access to sources grow and grow. The thing is that there is plenty of work to be done and plenty to do.

I'm not sure therefore that Bauerlein realises this- he professes ignorance of anything but literary criticism and he may be right on his own field, I am not going to comment. But there is plenty of research to be done in other areas- particularly of empirical research- I have discussed the seventeenth century only and barely that, you could discuss any of the centuries going backwards. As David Starkey once said the main narrative of English history has not yet been written, not to mention societies in which historians have done less and have less at the moment to work with. Historians won't be out of work for a long time yet!

August 09, 2009

Historical Truth

A couple of years ago, teaching a class of Cambridge undergraduates about philosophies of history, I remember asking them in order to provoke whether the job of a historian was to be a propagandist in the name of good causes. Truth didn't matter, the only issue, I briefly argued, was to consider what the right politics were and then what the right history to support that politics was. This argument is one that I disagree with fundementally but it is an important one- history is used to form political identities and cultural norms. False historical assertions such as the 'fact' that the Scottish tartan is traditional (it isn't) can form the basis for modern nationalist movements- at its most trivial this leads to Americans wearing kilts in Edinburgh, at its most serious to some of the nastier nationalist movements of the 20th Century whether motivated by a mistaken identity with barbarian tribes of the 5th Century or anti-Islamic armies of the 15th. Laura Miller in a review of Margerate Macmillan's latest book suggests various other examples where a false historical imagination can cause political disaster.

Central to Macmillan's argument is the idea that good history will provide good lessons. As Miller suggests that is not neccessarily true- good history can provide bad lessons. The problem is when to apply history and how to apply it. When Anthony Eden compared himself to Chamberlaine and Nasser to Mussolini, he mistook both his own power and also the danger of the Egyptian leader to world peace. Eden's mistake was understandable and did not proceed from a failure to understand previous history but from a failure to apply it to the present day in the correct way- his failure was one of political judgement. Good history therefore does not neccessarily make for good policy- because political judgement is needed to suggest how to apply historical lessons to the present day. Neither does the converse hold true: bad history does not make for bad policy. Churchill was a poor historian by modern standards- a Whig who believed that the Anglo-Saxon peoples had grown inevitably over the centuries into further freedoms. But that conviction enabled him to hold his nerve in the drama of the second world war, to believe in some sense he was acting out the destiny of his country. Poor history supplied him with the conviction and the rhetoric to stand up against Hitler- one of the best political judgements in the whole of British history.

So if bad history and good history can both lead to good and bad outcomes politically- am I saying that I was right in proposing to my students that history should serve the purposes of politics. The answer to that question is undoubtedly no. I think there are two things that have to be said here though to describe why that is so. Political arguments should be evaluated on their political merits- just because something worked in the past does not mean it will work in the future. David Hume explained that about three hundred years ago and his arguments against the laws of induction remain true. Good history though contributes to politics in two important respects: in neither of them through knowledge, in both through the method it encourages, rather than through its findings. One way it does so is through encouraging scepticism: the good historian is a professional sceptic both of his sources and of her own ideas. You learn through history to distrust what the sources tells you (who, whom is a great historical question from Lenin) and also to distrust your own temptation to overarching explanation. The second thing that you learn that is crucial to writing and thinking about good history is some sort of sympathy or empathy with those that you are writing about. History, C.S. Lewis argued, was a pilgrim who had been through many lands and times and saw that they did things differently elsewhere. Parochialism is not a good thing in politics and historians, history, particularly of other societies, can help us learn that lesson.

The issue I have with Macmillan's work is that she imagines that there are direct lessons to be learnt from history for politics- if there are such lessons I would argue that they are contingent upon a good political judgement. Rather than focus on that, historians should remember that through teaching, engaging with the public, and inculcating historical method they can teach a habit of mind that is useful to the world of statecraft. If this is a plea though it is a dual one- because it is a reminder to the world of history that it has a pedagogic as well as a research function, and to the world of politics that hinterlands and scholarship are important both for politicians and for public servants.