“History is one of the indispensable studies. No person can be educated or civilized who does not make a study of history, and a habit of reading history. This is because it stands alongside literature and the arts as one of the richest and best sources of understanding human experience and the human condition, and it equips us to understand ourselves, to organize our lives and societies, and to meet the future as best we may. As the saying derived from Thucydides has it, history is philosophy teaching by examples.” A. C. Grayling
The statement seems quaint to the post-literate and post-factual generation of today. Education in the classical sense is labelled non-productive and hence unnecessary – we may find our way to disaster alone, won’t we? Why should it matter what happened before our all-important present existence?
History is important. In centuries past this statement would have seemed self-evident. Ancient cultures devoted much time and effort to teaching their children family history. It was thought that the past helps a child understand who he is. Modern society, however, has turned its back on the past. We live in a time of rapid change, a time of progress. We prefer to define ourselves in terms of where we are going, not where we come from. Our ancestors hold no importance for us. They lived in times so different from our own that they are incapable of shedding light on our experience. Man is so much smarter now than he was even ten years ago that anything from the past is outdated and irrelevant to us. Therefore, the past, even the relatively recent past, is, in the minds of most of us, enshrouded by mists and only very vaguely perceived. Our ignorance of the past is not the result of a lack of information, but of indifference. We do not believe that history matters. But history does matter. It has been said that he who controls the past controls the future. Our view of history shapes the way we view the present, and therefore it dictates what answers we offer for existing problems. David Crabtree –The Importance of History
Never has the statement that who controls the past controls the future been more blindingly obvious that in our time of the Internet, Wikipedia and omnipresent surveillance. One of the most important objectives of the total news and history control executed by China is the suppression of the knowledge of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests and the subsequent massacre. The Chinese government is mortally afraid of the emancipation of the Chinese people. Its propaganda projects an image of political unity which is far from true – the problem is that most western people have little idea of it.
I happened to have a Chinese girlfriend in the 1980s – she was the owner of two restaurants – one in my birth town and a bigger one in the next major city. I accompanied her on many business trips and received a thorough education in inner-Chinese matters.
She showed me how there is not one communist party – there is one in every province, every town, every village – fiercely competitive – as there are not one Chinese people – obvious enough if we recall that before the implementation of the Mandarin language and script as lingua franca every province had its own lingo and people in private conversations still prefer their local dialects – just for safety. She described how she could tell only from the way the omnipresent dragons in the restaurants faced she could tell whether the owner was a party member or not, and what wing he favoured, or how the inclusion or exclusion of a dish on the menu could point out political expressions.
Suppression of history is a standard method of political control and the incidents are omnipresent. Hence, those that write and teach us history are on a truly noble quest and deserve our support. The better their discourse, the more we profit.
Hence, I decided to compose this short introduction to the main considerations and instruments the aspiring writer of history in the English language (or, rather, any writer) should be familiar with – ideally, have on his mind and desk at all times.
First: Know what you want. Are you planning a monograph, an excerpt about a partial aspect of a historic theme, an essay which points out your view of a question, a Wiki-Type entry that should, as short as possible and as short as necessary give an overview of a specific theme, or a full-fledged book on a period, personality or phenomenon? There is no precise formula on what to write and what not; this is your artistic challenge – the “Tour d’Horizon” you must define for yourself.
Second: Know Thyself! We are individuals with prejudices, likes and dislikes, and easily fall prey to let our preconceptions cloud our judgment – especially if the forces and/or actors we investigate act from motives we cannot clearly understand, or, even, may seem incomprehensible.
The most obvious case in point here is religion, which despite its reliance on theses inaccessible to falsification had, and has, often most dire consequences on the fate of man, even if we literally – from our modern point of view – fail to understand the relevance of many a hotly contested issue – e.g. Arianism vs. Athanasianism – wouldn’t they have found out the truth – so it existed – after their death anyway?
In general, is fruitless for the aspiring historian to take sides in religious , philosophical or ideological issues, because its near impossible not to become a propagandist for the chosen side or idea, which defeats the intention.
Man is a social animal, a collaborative species, and, for better or worse, owns an intellect able to conjure ideas – their implementation and outcome is what we report about.
A few simple precautions, I have realized, are sometimes overlooked in basic education. One thing is the use of maps. Let us take, for example, a Wikipedia map on the Rashidun and Umayyad expansion (Click for extended view):
Quite impressive, is it? Yet, the green colour in this map does not designate modern area states with more or less uniform nationalities, ethnicities, power projection and complex economies – such states did not exist in this part of the world at that time (and hardly anywhere else). What we see is a huge sea of a desert with a ring of a few miles of population centres around the coasts and a few trade towns and fortified places, just specks in a vast expanse of sand and rock. A few trade routes, poor farmers and villagers, who were not citizens of anything (except, if they followed the religious prescriptions, being parts of the Umma), but there existed no borders, no nationality, no loyalty but to the local strongman and his backers in the capital: in this case, a Caliph, who may well never heard of the place you live in.
Why not simply use Wikipedia a basis, many would ask? This is indeed useful, but there are indeed a few drawbacks for the inexperienced. One is that without a personal basis of general knowledge, the prospective author cannot truly judge whether what the Wiki article says is holy writ or not. There are many issues which are hotly discussed – but Wiki always feels it must present a “middle” point of view, which, however, may be tainted because the Wiki editors themselves, who are as fallible as the next pope, cannot get everything “right” – naturally – because the concept of “truth” or “rightness” in our field is a very questionable matter.
The second factor in favour of the old-fashioned “encyclopedia” type of books, of which I will recommend some below, is that we find ourselves leafing through them, scrolling and browsing, which we seldom do on Wiki. While I browse through Wiki an hour or more every day using the “Random Article” button, I am aware that not everybody has the time or inclination to do so. Naturally, the useful habit again depends somewhat on the extent of your basic knowledge of worldly, historical, geographical and intellectual affairs – for the greater they are, the more sense you can make of the possibly spurious information you are confronted with by simply browsing through.
Since the writing of history demands different qualities than the description of fictitious events, we need to build on a foundation of our own life experience and the underlying facts of the subject – or at least reasonable likelihoods.
In your romance, action or detective story you may invent persons or localities, give them the characteristics you feel necessary for the plot, kill them when they served their function or let them suffer every fate you see fit. Not so in our field.
In addition, history is subject to both official and unofficial peer review – for you will find out in a hurry that if your presentation, deductions and conclusions are debatable, you will realize, and be told, that you have may engaged, willingly or not, in superfluity or propaganda – which is an entirely different field.
So is speculation. On Facebook, for example, there are “History” groups who specialize in this exercise – military history mainly, in which there occurs a lot of discussions what would have happened if general X had ordered army Y to move to Z and so forth. Quite interesting at times – but somewhat off the mark unless it serves the inquiry why the general made the decision the specified way and not any other. The “What if?” scenario can be fascinating, but we must recall it is not history.
Perhaps the most important ability of a historian is to be a good detective. Always ask yourself – whether reading an original source or a secondary work – what was the motivation of the author? Did he or she write from a personal, that is, utilitarian point of view – does he or she want to sell you something – does he or she write in someone’s employ – are there any third-party interests? Ask yourself what a detective asks – Cui bono – To whom is it a benefit?
In the field of history, one must be aware of a few more specific caveats:
I. Maps: Many of the maps that you find in your history atlas paint – in vivid colours – what is understood in modern times as a nation – i.e. a more or less homogenous or uniform form of state. Please keep in mind that the modern notion of the state is … modern – a different animal than what it used to be. Let us view an example of a map of Europe in the 14th Century (from Brown University) and think of what we could say about the circumstances of life of three people living in the places we marked (1), (2) and (3):
Person (1) lives in the “Holy Roman Empire”, which, in reality, did not exist as a unified state. He (or she) lives in its southwestern part, what is today the part of Germany called “Baden-Württemberg”, one of the sixteen German Federal States. Who is his superior, who has a claim on his allegiance? The Kaiser? Now let us look at a contemporary map, which shows us in an instant that things might get complicated:
In other words, whether the person (1) lived a few kilometres east, west, north or south, he might owe allegiance and live under the rule of a different liege-lord, perhaps a Hohenzollern (light blue), the Duke of Baden-Baden (orange) or a Württemberger (yellow). He might belong to a small church holding or a local equestrian or baronet. Every war, or a simple business deal or even a noble marriage might change everything in his life, and we ought to be very careful not to see him as a “citizen” of the empire – for it did not have true statehood in the modern sense.
What can we say about person (2)? We would need to know the exact place and the exact date, for if we review the disambiguation of Serbia as a political entity in Wikipedia alone, we get:
In the case of person (3), somewhere in Lithuania, we have the choice of the following political entities – Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1236–1795), Kingdom of Lithuania (1251–63) and Duchy of Lithuania (13th century – 1413), which existed more or less simultaneously respectively overlapping.
In all these three cases, we may assume that the sole personification of the ruler was the annual appearance of the tax collector – seldom did the statelike structures have defined, fixed or fortified borders, or an effective bureaucracy, and we must not assume there was a central political organisation. This was the age of feudalism, which in itself came to pass precisely with the collapse of the tax structure of the Roman Empire and the subsequent impossibility of maintaining a standing army. Big coloured expanses on maps did not mean what they do today.
II. Peoples as Nations: It is a mistake to adopt the modern concept of a nation-state to premodern times. In some countries, the ethnogenesis of the dominant population was accelerated by natural borders, but not in all, and Germany is a well-known example. Please read in this context:
Peoples did not decide to fight or invade other peoples – rulers did.
III. Related to II., and in particular since 1914 respectively 1945, when issues like “War Guilt” and/or the odium of the “War of Aggression” have found an entry in historical discussions – keep in mind:
Unlike the precipitate causes of the Second World War, the antecedents of the First and their interpretation remains the
topic of a lively historic discussion. But before we dare to enter the abyss, we must remind ourselves of four instances in
which the pre-1914 world was much different from today, and we must keep these conditions in mind when we review
I. To wage war was considered the natural privilege of a state, a part of its governmental discretion. Smaller wars before the 1870s, say, the Prusso-Danish War of 1864, had essentially been the last “cabinet wars”, undertaken with limited resources to achieve specific political objectives. But the more technical and economic development allowed increases in army size and firepower, the more such changes aggravated the indeterminable risks – “the fog of war”, as Clausewitz famously called it – and this uncertainty ensured that after 1871 a relatively long period of peace graced much of the European continent. Even men who could reasonably be accused of having advocated war in July 1914 did so without an idea of the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe they invoked. The odium that two world wars were to inflict on the idea of war itself, it’s now increasingly doubtful legitimacy, did not exist in 1914.
II. Just as war was perceived as a simple, prosaic option of a government, the leadership of its armed forces was expected to be prepared for it. Every nation had copied the system of the Prussian and later German General Staff, and all these staffs were called upon to develop plans for every possible contingency; indeed, not to plan for a likely scenario would be tantamount to treason.
III. Due to false lessons drawn after the Crimean War of 1856 by generals worldwide, the dogma prevailing at European military academies in the years prior to 1914 embraced the superiority of attack; the French general staff called it “offensive à outrance”, and it became the principle underlying its catastrophic Plan XVII. In addition, the inbred conservatism of cavalry officers – noble to a man – led to the establishment of additional cavalry units in all armies right up to the eve of the war, which had two significant drawbacks: not only took cavalry an exceptional and inevitable drain on the chronically overburdened supply system, for one cavalry division of 4,000 men and twelve guns needed as many daily supply trains (forty) as an infantry division of 16,000 men and fifty-four guns, (1) but the invention of the machine-gun had punched the death ticket for cavalry attacks, who came to resemble mass suicide. Yet this was, of course, not realized until the occurrence of the first battles. But the reliance on attack would also guarantee, it was surmised, that the decisive battle and its unavoidable destruction would take place on the enemy’s soil, and, with luck, might disable some of his war industry – as it happened when Germany occupied the ten north-eastern French departments for much of 1914 to 1918 and thus took out approximately 70% of the pre-war French iron industry.
IV. The second half of the nineteenth century was the age of thriving imperialism, and all great powers attempted to partake in or project “world power”. Colonization was, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, the “white man’s burden”.The little drummer boy, p. 291 – 291
And now to the sine-qua-non list of technical issues:
The following list enumerates the standard reference books every history writer needs in print form – many similar compilations are to be found for free on the internet and may function as replacements. However, most of the works mentioned are to be found easily at very little cost (I acquired mine usually under $5) at used book shops and their acquisition is strongly suggested. Here’s a link to a comparison of the best online shops for used books.
In order of importance:
I. ROGET’s INTERNATIONAL THESAURUS 7th Edition or newer, Collins Reference (HarperCollins Publishers) ISBN 978-0-06-171523-5 (thumb-indexed)
II. OXFORD DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS 7th Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-9237717-3,
History comes alive in winged words …
III. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE – COMPLETE WORKS – The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Modern Library, New York (Random House modernlibrary.com), ISBN 978-0-679-64295-4,
The cradle of Modern English …
IV. DICTIONARY OF FOREIGN WORDS AND PHRASES 2nd Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, Andrew Delahunty (Ed.), ISBN 978-0-19-954368-7,
A proper historian must be a proper translator …
V. LATIN CONCISE DICTIONARY – HarperResource, ISBN 0-06-053690-X,
… with Supplements on Roman History and Culture …
VI. OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ALLUSIONS, Second Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-860919-3,
Who the heck was Jehoshabeath?
VII. THE READER’S COMPANION TO WORLD LITERATURE, Second Edition or newer, Signet Classics, ISBN 978-0-451-52841-4,
Basic info about the masterpieces of writing in one small collection …
VIII. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE ABBREVIATIONS DICTIONARY, Third Edition or newer, Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-618-62123-7,
Especially useful for scientific texts with abbreviations galore …
ADDENDUM: A LIST OF THE FUNDAMENTAL WORKS OF HISTORY EVERY WRITER SHOULD BE AWARE OF – with a slight Anglo-American bias:
(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)