History is not everything from now backwards. That is the past...
The historian A.J.P. Taylor declared that ‘History is not just a catalogue of events put in the right order like a railway timetable’. This is a modern way of expressing the root of the word history itself, which comes from the Greek word, historia, meaning inquiry. Herodotus, generally acknowledged as the first European historian, first used this term in the mid-fifth century BC. Before him, in Homer, a history was someone who passed judgement based on the facts as the result of an investigation. Immediately, by thinking of history as inquiry we move from simply thinking about it as the past, to asking questions of the past and therefore seeking answers. As soon as we move towards this understanding of history we are starting to think both about analysis, and how the different kinds of questions we might ask will shape the answers we can construct. Added to this, the audience for any history is important – who is this history being written for? how will read it? why will they read it? All these issues feed into not only the questions we ask of our evidence, but how we shape and present our writing of history.
At its simplest level today history is probably accepted as being an account of the past, based on evidence. This highlights how historians no longer believe there can be one single history. Instead history is seen as being made up of multiple accounts and multiple perspectives; but the importance of evidence to support that account takes history, in theory at least, out of the realm of fiction, of myth and of legend. And yet, our look at propoganda and the history of nationalisms shows just how fuzzy this line can sometimes be, and how contested the idea of truth can become.
Across the pages of the website we explore some of these ideas in more depth. We range far and wide, across time and place, sometimes zooming into the details of micro-histories, at other times exploring large-scales changes over time and across empires. We look at the writings and ideas of key historians and thinkers, from the ‘fathers of history’, Herodotus and Thucydides to Burke, Gramsci, and the British historians of the twentieth century. In doing this we see how writing history has its own history, and how it has changed over time. We look at the history of Gypsies and Travellers and other ‘overlooked’ groups, in order to examine how looking at history from the margins can change and enrich our understanding of the past. We see how reading landscapes, and using other forms evidence, from technology, literature and film to objects and biographies can produce different sorts of historical understanding.
Taken together they show the richness and diversity of history both across the past and today.
"History is not just a catalogue of events put in the right order like a railway timetable."
‘A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad’.
Gregory of Tours
‘The function off the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present’.
E. H. Carr, What is History? (1961)
‘History . . . is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind’.
Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89)
‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history’.