History: A Very Short Introduction by John Arnold

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

1 Response

  1. 64 BakerSt says:

    oooohh! I looked at the list of titles and star­ted drool­ing. There are loads of things that I want to know a little bit about — but not too much.

    looks like I’ll be spend­ing that money I was plan­ning on saving…