History is written by the victors, and the losers, and by everyone else as well


Victoria Stiles
Victoria Stileshttp://tattyjackets.blogspot.com/
Dr Victoria Stiles is a freelance historian specialising in fascism, imperialism and our wonky understanding of the past. She is also Vice-Chair of the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society.

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  • 1219 – William Marshall, “guardian of the king and kingdom” and arguably the most powerful man in England, dies peacefully in his bed aged around 72.
  • 1189 – William chooses to spare the life of the future King Richard I in battle, killing only his horse instead.
  • 1152 – King Stephen of England decides not to execute his six-year-old hostage, William Marshall, after the boy’s father betrays him.
  • 1168 – Eleanor of Aquitaine pays William’s ransom after he is captured while defending her from an ambush.
  • 1216 – William pledges to protect King Henry III, aged 9, even if every other knight abandons him.

Take a moment to think about what happened when you read the sentences above. Did it bother you that the events aren’t in chronological order? Did you put them in order to make sense of them, or look for connections between events? Maybe you picked out some things which could be possibly be labelled as causes or consequences, or found a theme running through the whole. You might have found in these facts a story about the rewards of chivalry and mercy, or perhaps you saw only how dangerous life was for children (and horses) in this period.

Did you fill in some gaps with information you already had, or wonder what was left out? In other words, how did you start to process this raw data and what processing instincts were you following? If you did anything at all other than ignore that list of events then you, dear reader, have been making history.

I said in my last column that the popular images we have of the home front in World War Two and the notion of Blitz Spirit exist because they have been shaped into those forms. In fact, for all aspects of history the most widespread and enduring images persist not because they are the most accurate but because they have been the most useful. This holds true whether history is being written by academics and other experts or by anyone else conveying these stories and images of the past, even people sharing memories and opinions on local history Facebook groups. The things that stick in our minds, which spark connections and ideas, and the fate and reach of the resulting narratives are influenced by a variety of secondary concerns, in large and small ways.

Even if the information is completely accurate, the overall picture can easily become warped. It has to become warped in order for us to make sense of it. It isn’t possible to have a 100% faithful account of the past because the past and history are two distinct things. There is always a trade-off between making a history comprehensive, accurate and useful, as there is with any method of representing reality.

A clock face with roman numerals on a black background

As Howard Zinn put it in A People’s History of the United States: “It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not others. This is as natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing for practical purposes, must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, then choose out of the bewildering mass of geographical information those things needed for the purpose of  this or that particular map.” To think of it another way, a time machine or perfect simulation of events wouldn’t grant us perfect understanding of every aspect of the past, as we would still have to make sense of that information. We can only make it useful by asking specific questions of this data, which means following an agenda.

There is an objective reality that once existed, in that people had lives, they moved and they communicated, they interacted with their environment and caused things to happen. But all we have afterwards are patchy remains and distorted echoes. There is no completely objective history which can be written from these flawed pieces. There are only judgement calls, some better than others, made in good or bad faith. All of this makes unhelpfully skewed histories difficult to debunk.  We can nit-pick details but that can be a distraction from more significant problems of misuse, of misapplied lessons, of the shape of the story as a whole being a comforting lie, which aren’t a “neutral” matter of facts but are nonetheless essential to discuss openly.

Should museums and educators not trust their audiences more rather than lecturing or spoon-feeding them by interpreting objects and events? Is it even fair to judge the past with modern eyes and modern ideas of morality? Could we stick to “just the facts” and have a neutral, accurate history; the equivalent of an aerial photograph instead of a drawn map, at least as a starting point for individual enquiry? Unfortunately, humans are great at spotting patterns even in random data, and at filling in gaps in line with our existing biases and expectations, however little information we have to work with.

We saw with this year’s US election results how even raw numbers, revealed in a particular order within a certain context, can gather extra significance and become woven into a story.

Even the barest historical data, just the “what happened” can lead us to see misleading patterns, partly due to the narrative conventions we’re used to. The story of someone who lost a fortune and then regained it feels different than the story of someone who gained a fortune and then lost it, even though the timeline contains the same basic components. We saw with this year’s US election results how even raw numbers, revealed in a particular order within a certain context, can gather extra significance and become woven into a story.

It would be irresponsible to purport to be presenting neutral information while making no attempt to compensate for the biases that already exist out in the world and the framing devices which are most commonly shared by one’s audience. There is no such thing as agenda-free history, only agendas that we’re so used to that they pass without notice, and new ones which we can either learn from or reject.

To take the example of the recent arguments over the role of the National Trust or last year’s debates over statues in public places: none of these objects speak for themselves without the help of contextual clues and our own understanding of what these things are. A large house filled with beautiful artwork and furnishings transmits messages about the success and respectable social standing of its past owners and this feeds into wider messages about what it means to be successful, to command respect, and to leave one’s mark on history.

We also know from example the difference between a statue celebrating the life, achievements and by extension the positive qualities of an individual, and a memorial to the victims of an injustice. The former cannot work as the latter without significant and jarring alteration or re-contextualisation (and placing it underwater could, for example, be one effective step towards achieving this).

An artefact presented neutrally, with no agenda, will amplify the most dominant messages around it, which serves the status quo just fine but does not help us to enquire, inform, or progress towards a better, fuller understanding.

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