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A post from Revise and Dissent archived here. You can add your comment on this at HNN.

History VSIAt Leicester there’s a small group of people who will evangelise to whoever will listen about the Very Short Introduction series. In recent years the series, published by OUP has gained the ultimate in accolades. The format has been ripped-off by other publishers. The concept, a pocket-sized introduction to the problems of an academic field is easy enough to copy, but there is more to the success of the series than that. The writing is usually extremely good and History: Very Short Introduction by John Arnold is an excellent example.

The book opens with an action sequence. It concerns Guilhem Déjean, a man on the trail of Cathars in Languedoc. His arrival in the village Tarascon sets in train a series of events which leads to the murder of Déjean at the hands of heretics who seek to hide from the Catholic church. It’s a pacey and well-written start that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond film, if James Bond relocated to 14th century France.

The point of the graphic opening is to give the reader a piece of the past to work with. Certainly there’s a story to be told, but is that it? Arnold asks “Is history the truth of the past re-told in the present?” In this book Arnold aims to show that history is not synonymous with the past. As David mentioned earlier, History is an investigation and this book tackles the questions of what we investigate and how we can do it. He also challenges the reader to think about what history is for, a point to which he returns at the end of the book.

The second and third chapters are a brief history of History. Starting with Nabonidus of Babylon and Herodotus he shows how what we would call history has evolved along with changes in the society that it is in. Arnold makes a strong case that one of the driving forces in the change of society and the history it wrote was the changing nature of Christianity. The later chapter explores the influence of Leopold von Ranke on history and the professionalisation of the subject which Kevin Levin touched upon yesterday. Arnold notes:

First, there has been an increasing gulf between the general reading public and the academic historian: writing for learned journals or publishing monographs with university presses generally means writing for an audience of under five hundred people. Much that is interesting and important to every reader is hidden away under an off-putting blanket of professional apparatus. Secondly becoming ‘professionals’ has sometimes made historians pretend to an Olympic detachment from, and an objective judgement on, the present and past . . . simply note that professional does not mean ‘impartial’; it merely means ‘paid’.

If chapters two and three about about why we do history then chapters four and five are about how we do it. Chapter four starts with a fire at the Norwich Record Office in 1994 and what the rebuilding of the archive reveals about history. This leads to a description of a brief note of a Mrs Burdett getting an annuity of 20 marks per annum because her husband had left her to go to New England. From here he shows how various records and archives can be examined to draw up a story of George Burdett, a radical preacher who left for Massachusetts in 1630 and returned to England to fight for the King in the English Civil War in the 1640s. The next chapter moves from the detail of the earlier case study and starts showing how we can frame wider questions about societal processes and how this relates to the historical record.

The final two chapters tackle the problem of relating the past to the present. Chapter Six is titled “The killing of cats; or, is the past a foreign country?” which provides a useful starting point both for Friday Cat Blogging and instant notoriety should I ever follow up on it. The aim is to show that when we look at the past we’re not examining life as we would have lived it if we didn’t have electricity. Society was in some ways very different from the world of today. The problems this leads to are tackled in the final chapter with another case study when Sojourner Truth stood up to speak to the Ohio Women’s Right Convention in Akron, what did she say? Arnold presents two versions and talks about the difference between the reality and the perception of how she acted. If one version written down more accurately reflects the effect she had on society then is it a truth even if it isn’t what actually happened? In another context, is Pericles funeral oration written by Thucydides historically important even if it is what Thucydides thought was said or what Thucydides thought ought to have been said rather than what actually happened?

Like many of the VSIs the book is a joy to read. It’s accessible but not shallow. Theory of History has the potential to be a mind-numbingly dull subject, but in this book John Arnold shows how having an idea of what you’re doing, and why, can make a historical story more interesting and add more depth by suggesting questions that might not otherwise occur to you. It doesn’t eliminate story of narrative from History but offers a scaffold on which to build a stronger narrative.

By the end of the book he makes a very good case for his central argument: History is not about the past it’s about searching for meaning in what happened in the past. It’s a beautifully written essay on what makes History interesting. Essential reading, not for history students but for TV producers who clog up the airwaves with those awful World War II documentaries which reel off a string of battle names with archive footage and call it history.
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