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The Hidden Meanings of Historical Writing

The subjective nature of historical writing may make for an agreeable discussion into the night, but it can be alarming for the student needing to use history books to get accurate notes. It is important, therefore, to be aware that historical writing works on at least two levels:

a) an outline of what happened – the 'facts' or 'the story'
b) an interpretation of those facts – the historian's opinion

This does not mean, however, that these two aspects are clearly divided in the text, nor that those parts which fall into a) are somehow factual or neutral: remember that the very language in which a) is expressed is itself a reflection of the interpretation in b). For example, a historian might write an apparently straightforward 'factual' statement:

The Battle of Hastings took place in 1066.

However, even this carries its own interpretation. Firstly, it assumes we all agree on what we mean by 'battle'. But do we? Compared with later conflicts, the Battle of Hastings was small in scale, lasted a day and was fought over a tiny area compared with, say, the Battle of the Somme, fought over a period of four months in 1916 and covering a large area of northern France. The 'Battle of Hastings' did not take place in the streets of Hastings, nor was it a siege of the town: it was fought on a hill some five miles away: today there is a separate town on the site, called Battle. The conflict could be more accurately termed 'a major skirmish in Sussex'. The date 1066 is written in the widely used Christian calendar; other calendar systems, such as the Jewish or Islamic, would date it differently.

We can take this example a step further. Why is this date and event so familiar, even to people who know and care little about history? The answer lies in the Whig interpretation of English history, which was widely believed in through the nineteenth, and well into the twentieth, century. According to this school of thought, 1066 marked the destruction of a golden age of law and liberty in Anglo-Saxon England and the imposition of what was called the 'Norman yoke'. The Whigs held that English history was the story of a long struggle to regain the supposed liberties that had existed before 1066. For that reason the date was drummed into schoolchildren, helped by the easy rhythm with which it trips off the tongue, embedding itself so firmly in the national consciousness that it survived even the radical changes in history teaching of the late twentieth century, which saw other familiar dates and events disappear from the nation's classrooms and memories.

Thus, the language of 'The Battle of Hastings took place in 1066'; the fact that it comes so readily to mind as an example of an apparently straightforward statement; and the fact that you, the reader, are very likely to know at least in outline what it refers, all show that this particular historical statement carries much more meaning and significance than might at first appear. What goes for that statement applies even more so to full historical works.

The extracts in this section will enable you to see this complexity of meaning in a selection of historical works stretching from Roman times to the modern day. You don't have to know anything about the periods they are written about, nor about the times when they were written. You will find that different historians have had very different ideas of what 'writing history' entails.

Secondary Source Exercises >>