Historical winners…

1 04 2008

There is a general historical myth which explains simply that “history is written by the winners”. I wish to explore such an idea briefly.

Call me old-fashioned if you will, but the stereotypical conception of a historian is someone old, surrounded by hundreds of dust covered books peering at you disdainfully over the top of his or her round glasses. To me (as a historian), it used to be only these people who wrote history, and what they wrote stood.

Obviously as I have progressed, that image has been shattered by meeting various historians for whom such a cliche does not fit the bill. Likewise whatever they write should nearly always be treated with a hint of suspicion. Why are they writing, and what are they writing for? What do they hope to achieve in writing these works?

The phrase with which I opened already seems a tad simplistic. The obvious problems I have with the word “written” is nothing compared to the problems I have justifying who the “winners” were at any given time in history. Would it then be more accurate to suggest that history is not written by the winners (who ever they may be) but instead is written about the winners?

This latter thought though is still not entirely true. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are characters throughout the course of history who lost yet still have books aplenty written about them (Harold Godwinson, Napoloen Bonaparte, Charles I, and Adolf Hitler to name but a few). The implication of the statement is that the information we have available is from sources which were either sympathetic towards the ‘victors’ or had been influenced by the ‘victors’ in some way. This, it seems to me, is a problem for historians who are concerned with older periods of history. The twentieth century saw expansion of documentation from all sides of any conflict on a scale unknown previously. For those who study earlier periods, there is less in the way of this quantity of resources for the historian to work with. Obviously, this becomes more of a problem the further back you go, written documentation from the early medieval period, for example, is much more patchy than documents from the Second World War. We have few sources from the earlier period, and those we have, such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are woefully unreliable for basic information (dates and names for example).

This then helps give rise to the myth that history was written by the winners. Older documents like the two named above, are examples of the winners recording a history which was favourable to them (Bede wanted to show the growth and significance of the church for example).  For the historically naive person, that would be where it stops. However, there is a growing concern amongst historians of these periods to think about the social aspects of the period, and aided by archeology, this can, to some extent by commented upon.

History, I would argue, is not written by the winners, nor is it written about the winners, at least not exclusively. Historians of the modern era are writing about various different elements of historical study, including social history, including military history, including counter-factual history. These studies are being made into a wide variety of time periods too. Post-modernist thought has lead to a widespread re-evaluation of historical understanding, and consequently history is no longer about the winners. It’s also becoming less about those who take part. History is becoming something much different. It is becoming something that the bespectacled dinosaur buried underneath books and manuscripts would barely recognise.

It is becoming popular.

And, I maintain, it is because of this one development, history can no longer be written by, or about the winners. History must be wide reaching enough to continue to engage with people who are suddenly fascinated by how people suffered bubonic plague, or how Joe Bloggs reacted to the reformation of the church. Popularity of the subject, I feel, necessarily means that history cannot be about those exclusive men or groups who won a battle.

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One response

2 04 2008
Nachum Meyers

Hi,

I’m new to blogging and do not remember the structure of my blog site’s name. However, I do write primarily on history. If you send me an email, when I get back to my computer, I’d like to send you further thoughts.
Your comment about the writers of history is an interesting one because it feeds into my thesis that Santaya had things backward. I believe that power elites study history in order to replicate whatever led to “victory.” Victory is the acquisition, the protection of, and the aggrandizement of power. I really don’t think it important to generalize about who the writers of history are or were. I believe they were observers of recent events and had access to the Power Elites of the time to obtain their views of the events of their day. Or they were observers with a bent for communicating what they believed was important information to future generations. ALso, because religion played so important a part in the transmission of history, it is wise to incorporate their perceptions of “victory” as well as their need to expand their influence by purveying their views of “historical” events.
I’ll cogitate on your question. I like it. It is important!

Nachum

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