A Definition of What is History
The definition of history, is a question which has sparked international debate for centuries between the writers, readers, and the makers of history. In the words of acclaimed historian Edward Gibbon, “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” A more romantic view on the subject was taken by Cicero. He said, “History is the witness that testifies the passing of time. It illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance of daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity”.
History, described in the simplest of terms, can be seen as a record of events that have occurred in the past that the historian has taken the trouble to document. It is the accuracy of this documentation, that has been called into question. The task of the historian is not an enviable one. There must be an element of the philosopher in him, so that he can apply reason to and interpret the subject so that it forms a logical sequence and format for the reader.
The reader for example, already knows that President Kennedy was assassinated. The historian’s task is do study the events leading up to the assassination, decide who were the key personnel working within those events, and to establish a conclusion as to the reasons why it may have occurred. With the benefit of the knowledge of how the country changed after the assassination, he may even wish to discuss the consequences that arose from it.
In composing his work, the historian will consult a variety of sources. Primary source material, such as original documents, letters or artefacts from the period is deemed to be of greater accuracy. This type of source may be in limited supply and he may need to consult a secondary source, that is, the works of other historians. In Edward Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the main source was a secondary one, in that he studied the Le Main de Tillemontis edited twenty volumes of Roman and church history pning six centuries.
There is of course the argument, that even primary source evidence can be somewhat tainted. Propaganda by rulers and governments has been used a major tool to promote popularity amongst their people. For example, in Russia at the turn of the century writers who wrote critically about the internal affairs of government were censured, persecuted and sometimes imprisoned or executed.
In 1537 to 1574, The massive censorship exercised by Cosimo I del Medici of Florence precipitated a decline in historiography in Florence. The extreme wealth and power of the Medici family extended even further into the art of the Renaissance period and their depiction was prevalent as saintly figures in the works of these artists. Fear of persecution could drive an otherwise intelligent scholar to be biased and one sided.
Even today bias and prejudice is apparent in the accounting of daily events in newspapers and television. The events revealed to the public are those which the editor or director chooses to be relevant. The Daily Telegraph for example, is widely perceived as being supportive of the Tories. In the world of films we never read this is a true story! In the credits but that it is based on a true story. The director, has used artistic licence to inject either a romantic or personal view.
Many of the mass audience will understand the events portrayed to be factual and will never care to consult the evidence. History has followed a somewhat changeable course over the centuries. The style of Edward Gibbon’s work can be defined as Liberal or Whig history, in so much as he has fitted the evidence to suit his theory.
Subsequent to Liberal history, there was a call for historians to write objectively in an effort for the works presented to be more realistic. This type of historiography was known as Tory history. The style is apparent in the works of GR Elton and Lewis Nanier. In producing their texts, Tory historians consulted primary sources as far as possible for their evidence and the finished product was regarded as highly factual. No interpretations were presented and no opinions were offered. The reading of these works is fairly heavy going and the writings themselves, rather stagnant. One could argue, that only a historian could gain pleasure from such a text.
Every historian develops his own style of writing and applies it to his study. A Marxist historian for example will apply the philosophy found in the works of Karl Marx to each study of history that he undertakes. Marx’s theory of all of history being a history of class struggle between the elite and the impoverished is a elementary factor in this philosophy.
The Post Modernists, have widely criticised the historian to date, and they would argue that objectivity is impossible to achieve in the field of history. These views, compelled Richard Evans to defend the historian in his work In Defence of History Against the Post Modemist Attack. In his book, he states that “historical sources are not capable.