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The Uses of Facts

The past does not exist; it is gone in a moment and can never be recovered. But if the past itself has gone, it has left a vast amount of material behind from which historians construct their versions of it. For any age beyond living memory this material will be physical evidence, and from it historians construct a pattern of events which, they contend, actually happened. Historians usually do this with a certain degree of confidence, even if the evidence base is fairly small. For example, a historian might find, tucked away in a local newspaper, a review of a village pantomime in 1931. It might appear to be an example of resilience at local level during the difficult years of the Depression or an indication of the uses to which the village halls erected after the First World War were actually put. However, unless the historian were studying the village in detail, it is unlikely that he or she would seek corroborating evidence of the performance: there is nothing particularly startling in the idea of a village pantomime and we have no ostensible reason to assume the local paper would make such a thing up. The historian is thus presenting this pantomime as an event, as something that happened.

But how do historians decide which, among the thousands of facts they encounter, to marshal in support of their arguments? This issue was brought into new prominence in the early 1960s when Professor G. Kitson Clark gave a series of lectures at Oxford about The Making of Victorian England. He took a broad-brush approach, looking at British society in the first decades of Victoria’s reign, supporting his imagery with examples culled from his reading of court records, newspapers and so on, as one would expect of a historian with in-depth knowledge of the period. The following year, however, his work was latched onto in an unexpected way in a series of lectures given in Cambridge by Professor E.H. Carr, an eminent historian of the Soviet Union. Carr’s point related not to the Victorian subject matter but to Kitson Clark’s selection and use of his factual material.

 

G. Kitson Clark: The Making of Victorian England >>
E.H. Carr: What is History? >>