How Horrible is History?

Posted: December 13, 2013 in Chat
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Terry Deary brought out his Horrible Histories series of books for kids, in the 19990s.

TV took up the challenge and broadcast a school’s series of his Histories. YouTube is the place to go for those. They are great fun, and have won TV awards.  Anita Ganeri branched out into another very successful series of Horrible Geography – with the Gritty Bits Left In.



The impetus was a need to make history interesting again for kids; and to rectify what he and associates found was deplorable teaching in his time. If I were to admit it, all I remember of school history is drawing motte and bailey castles, knights in armour, something vague about Victorian sewers, and lots of kings and occasional queens – all English of course.

It was an age of the ‘history of great men’: constitutional history of England stuff.

At the end of WW1 battle survivors were announcing History Is Dead. Critic Donald Davie pronounced that after Ezra Pound’s rewriting of classical history in his Cantos history was ended for literature.

It was all finished.

A lot of people stuck there, they did and still do not know a lot has changed in history since then: that stuff now is … history.

What they didn’t know was that Marxist history was just taking off, leading to Economic history. Most importantly Marc Bloch had just published his book The Historian’s Craft, which opened up the field.

Durkheim and Claude Levi-Strauss were waiting in the wings; Freud was opening up the private worlds of motives and back-stories. History wasn’t finished, it was just about to take off.

If you read a history of Great Men now, and they do still get written, it reads as though everything happens in a vacuum, isolated, and confined to a rarefied plane.

It shows how far history has come. Social and Economic history helped shake it all up. Sociology and Anthropology took it by its neck – and fed it methodologies.

The French Annales School has produced ground-breaking work. The emphasis has shifted from the few in power to the rest who lived it out. How can you hope to know something of a period without knowing how terrain shaped transport, availability; and how combined with climate dictated behaviour, mood even?

The Annales School collected papers from a wide field of investigation to collate information and material, a collage of knowledge.  Braudel published his monumental History of France.

Herbert Butterfield published The Whig Interpretation of History in 1931. History, he said, has been rewritten to favour the Whig (Liberal) viewpoint. History writing was not neutral, he was implying, but always a political act – including his own writing.  In particular he pointed to latter depictions of the French Revolution. How the Romantics had glorified it! Even if Wordsworth and Coleridge back-tracked – who would want to relive the Reign of Terror!

So, when a historian researches for a book on a period, event, place, she/he does not present all the material. She/he selects what is needed for their narrative. This narrative itself has come into question. Everyone has their predilections.

This wide field began to fragment. Women’s History had to find itself, away from male structured research; similarly Post-Colonial History had to find itself away from the dominant cultural investigations. And also methodologies had to be found that served the subject, and not the interpretation.

Out of these conflicting interpretations where did truth lie? Could there be truth? Is the historian the truth-teller? No, obviously, he/she has their take, their selection of material: what is relevant and what peripheral?

Does the materialist dialectic exist? Or was it one of the ‘grand narratives’ of the 19century, along with Darwin’s Origin of Species, Fraser’s Golden Bough?

At least, the thinking goes, with a Marxist historian, you know where you stand.

What was it with those school history teachers? Were they caught in the limbo between historical methods?

Historiography has been for some time a major part of history tuition. With historiography you learn what goes into history writing, the particular viewpoints and emphases of a period, which historians wrote what history. Invaluable. You learn the political metanarratives of  ‘progress’ historians, and of the rewriters.

Recently (2007) John Burrow published A History of Histories, an excellent historiographer’s primer.

We now have histories of the colour blue, a scent, the footnote, a phrase (The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe by Richard Scholar), Peter Burke on The Art of Conversation.  Cultural history took off to great effect



Then historians looked around again, and renewed their relationship with literary theory. Only this time Derrida had cut a swathe through the certainty of authorisation, and Semiotics had destabilised the text. The period became known as the historians’ ‘linguistic turn’.

Historians were late coming to this – most other disciplines had come to some appeasement with it by then, but not the historians.

Why do these things matter? It’s all about accountability, legitimacy, accuracy… we cannot in all honesty claim to truth, but we can predicate truth; and this is what we have when we do.

If an historian’s material is textual evidence, and that primary text codifies cultural concerns and previous texts, narratives… and  others have written about the text, and then you write…  how can there be an hierarchy of meaning?

New Historicism has history writing caught up in a web of relativist theories, a hall of mirrors. Over-think, looking for a day off, a way out.


BTW Terry Deary in his Groovy Greeks seems to have forgotten completely about the Minoans – Mycenean palaces in Crete indeed!

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