Posts Tagged ‘history and fiction’

History is always a few documented events connected by speculation

June 1, 2018

History is  a narrative of the past, a story. It must be a story consistent with the present and with the available evidence of past events. The further back into the past we go the less is the surviving evidence. Evidence of a past event may be direct in the form of surviving documents or artefacts but it may also be indirect as calculations and estimates in the now about the past. The credibility of the narrative is enhanced by the weight of evidence that can be marshalled but – of necessity – the available evidence for past events , even in the immediate past,  is always spotty and incomplete. Where evidence is not available the historian is free to speculate as long as his narrative includes those events for which evidence does exist and the entire narrative is credible.

Most events in our lives are not recorded and leave no evidence. Even where evidence of actions remain, the prevailing emotions are rarely recorded. The actions of minor players, even if they were crucial, are rarely recorded. Much of what I did yesterday can be remembered but cannot be “proven”. And much of what I did yesterday is already forgotten. For periods without evidence (or memory) any credible narrative is valid.

Histories are never as objective and dispassionate and free of bias as their authors suppose. They are always written and rewritten to suit the present.  Inevitably they carry the current prejudices and biases of the historian. They are often written with a political agenda to justify current actions or to influence the actions of the future. Many histories, for example of Rome, which survive are themselves “rewritten histories” with political bias inbuilt. Yet when they are used as “documentation” for subsequent histories, the speculation of their authors are elevated to be “documented events”.

The actual happenings of the past can never be changed. But the story of those happenings is always changeable as long as the narrative remains credible. The credibility lies primarily in not making statements which are contradicted by the available evidence. From the recent past (such as WW 2) there is an abundance of records of varying accuracy available. Some of the records are intended disinformation where the intention has been lost. Other records are inconsistent or even contradictory. From the distant past there is a paucity of evidence which necessitates a great deal of interpretation and reinterpretation.  Socialist historians bring their prejudices to bear and “free market” historians have their own interpretations.. Liberal historians in the US are rewriting the history of the age of slavery based on their values today. Nationalist historians in India are reinterpreting colonial times based on their current values. A false history written today may a thousand years hence, if it survives, become “documentary evidence” of events which never took place. Histories are written in the present for the present and as long they are credible, what actually happened is irrelevant.

History scholars like to pretend that they can be objective. Scholarly histories and historical fiction are essentially the same genre of literature. A scholarly history has a high density of documented events and a minimum of speculation. But any scholarly work cannot avoid speculation and cannot avoid being political. Historical fiction on the other hand has some story to tell which is hung on a few historical events as the backdrop for the story. The difference lies only in how much of the content is speculation and how much is a reporting of documented events. Whereas historical fiction can tolerate content being contradicted by evidence, scholarly histories cannot.


 

 

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