What is the role of an historian?

Historians should not be confused with a chroniclers; History is not merely the cataloging of events. It would be a redundant subject otherwise. History, however, in one form or another, is the employment of what we learn from the past. How to go about learning, interpreting and consolidating information from records is, however, a difficult, often ambiguous task. We need to make sense of the obscure patterns and regularities of the past, the bias and the validity of what we know. Many historians have arrived at different conclusions on how to use History, all with subtle differences which may appeal to different audiences. Before approaching the different styles historians have used on confronting historical material, it is important to know how such conceptions came about.

Prior to the 19th century, there were considerable weaknesses in historical studies, Arthur Marwick – author of ‘The Nature of History’ – underlined some these problems. Without the systematic use of sources, historians used accounts made by previous historians. The initial problem with this method was that there was a huge reliance on work that easily could have been subjected to biases. For example, the disapproval of a monarch, an authority or a political stream could lead to the alteration of historical documents. Parts of a source could be dissembled, censored and removed so that they became more socially acceptable, creating a distorted image of the past. The actions of the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shin Huang, as he attempted to strip society of previous historical articles, involved the persecution of scholars and demonstrated how others can manipulate the authenticity of past records. The intimidating mood, created by executing scholars, resulted in academics falling into a state of restraint in their writing which left future scholars in doubt of what they base their knowledge on. Such problems are uncommon especially under suppressive, draconian regimes. Another prevalent problem associated to pre-1900 historical work was that there was no systematic teaching of History at University. In the absence of such provision and training, History was merely recorded by the literate and thus, the elite of the class system, narrowing perception and making it more difficult to ascertain fact from fiction.

In the many styles taken to deal with History, one of the earliest and more progressive styles was of Thomas Carlyle (1785-1881). In his experiences, Carlyle came to believe that anything important was affiliated more often than not with ‘great men’ and by isolating individuals we could learn from the vital parts of the past. In dismissing the great majority of those in the past – the indifferent, the un-educated and the those too disorganised to shape the future – much time could be reserved to focus on the more important and influential people of the time. Although this partiality does not give us a wholly representative depiction of the past, its main advantage is clarity. It gives a structured approach by assessing key figures and innovators only. In Carlyle’s book, ‘Heroes’, he gave detailed analysis on a range of characters from different cultures and periods of History, with the underlying similarity that they were all ‘heroes’ in some way and gained followers. These ‘heroes’ include Napoleon, Shakespeare and Muhammad. In addition, it is argued that, by examining such individuals in detail, it can be profitable to one’s own heroic side as the inspiration can be drawn from the study.

Whilst Thomas Carlyle saw History as a biography of great men, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) stressed that History is something that shows how it essentially was, ‘Wie es eigentlich gewesen.’ Ranke’s thinking is far more inclusive than Carlyle’s, principally in the sense that as historians we must speak of those who could not speak for themselves, the poor and powerless, and document the suffrage and emotions of the majority. Leopold von Ranke introduced a new approach to Historical studies. He insisted on a number of methods. Firstly, all historical writing must be based on primary sources. Secondly, all of his books should include full scholarly apparatus (footnotes, references and bibliography). Finally, one should be determined to tackle the past and only seek to show the past as it really was. Ranke’s contributions were not merely his advice alone; he also founded the teaching of History at the University of Berlin where he spread his methodology.

Frank McDonough’s contributions to Historical studies are also rather valuable. Historians, in their approach to the past, should avoid studying individuals, especially Hagiography (the study of saints), and instead, learn from History through individual experiences and those of others. For History to be a ‘breathing subject’, it should appear relevant to the present. This concept is reflected well in the career of civil servant E.H. Carr, who through his work in the British Foreign Office, grew to have an instrumental view on History. He was only interested in what would serve the making of policy and to dealing with existing situations. Essentially, McDonough’s approach to History is expedient by nature, and is strong in the fact that connections should be made between past events and those of the future to which we should be prepared to take on.

To conclude, there are some fundamental skills that should be taken on board when attempting to understand the past. From Thomas Carlyle, we can note the importance of treating Heroes with consideration, the great men and embodiments who fulfilled the interests of the general masses. From Leopold von Ranke, we can learn that we must not forget to document the truth; no illusion or false impressions should be created in our study of the past. Finally to McDonough, who has taught that by making connections and identifying the conditions of problems in the past in our own experiences, we will be better adapted to deal with problems that face us in the future.

Contributed by Bertie Bricusse

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