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On This Day in History

History Today Reviews Feed

Feed of all stories, blog posts and videos from the History Today website
  • Burke to the Future: The Evolution of Conservatism

    The Conservatives are enduring a crisis of identity and purpose. Not for the first time, the work of the great 18th-century philosopher, Edmund Burke, is seen as offering a path to the party’s reinvention. 

  • Let Them Eat Meat

    Faced with an extortionate rise in the price of kosher meat, Jewish women in New York’s Lower East Side employed protest tactics borrowed from the radical political movements that prospered in their neighbourhood. 

  • Christopher Who?

    Columbus kept a daily journal recording his encounters with the indigenous peoples of the New World. But what did they think of him? 

  • On the Spot: David Olusoga

    On the Spot: David Olusoga

    By History Today

    We ask leading historians 20 questions on why their research matters, one book everyone should read and their views on the Tudors...
    [[{"fid":"31481","view_mode":"float_right","fields":{"format":"float_right","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"David Olusoga"},"type":"media","link_text":null,"attributes":{"title":"David Olusoga","class":"media-element file-float-right"}}]]David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster. He was the recipient of the Longman-History Today Trustees’ Award 2017 for his outstanding contribution to history. His most recent TV documentary was Black and British: a Forgotten History (BBC, 2016). His Civilisations, co-presented with Simon Schama and Mary Beard, will be broadcast on BBC2 in 2018. Why are you a historian?My mission is to make history accessible and tell stories of the past across every medium. In genre terms, I am a historian of empire. What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?That the people of the past are, in their intellect and nature, exactly the same as us. Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.  What book in your field should everyone read?The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. Now a little dated and the work of an art historian, but it remains nevertheless one of the most vividly written histories. Which moment would you most like to go back to?I’d love to have seen Paris during the first weeks of the Revolution. When what ruled was optimism not terror.Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?Hannah Arendt. She’s not a historian, although her writing on political theory was steeped in historical analysis.  Which person in history would you most like to have met?Hendrik Witbooi, a brilliant African leader who died fighting the Germans in 1905. How many languages do you speak?Poor German, worse French and a tiny amount of Yoruba, so as to not offend my older Nigerian relatives. What’s the point of counterfactualism?It draws people to history and makes the point that the events of the past were contingent. What’s the most exciting field in history today?New forensic techniques, such as radio isotope testing, have the potential to unlock the stories of human remains excavated centuries ago. What historical topic have you changed your mind on?I’m still not a fan of General Haig but I better appreciate the issues. Which genre of history do you like least?The idea of genre itself. Is there a key historical text you have not read?Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples. What’s your favourite archive?The US Library of Congress.What’s the best museum?The Imperial War Museum, the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, the In Flanders Field Museum. Tudors or Stuarts?Tudors. Normans or Anglo-Saxons?Normans. Rome or Athens?Rome.Cromwell or Charles I?Cromwell. Braudel or Gibbon?Braudel, every time.
  • Something More than an Art

    Something More than an Art

    By Suzannah Lipscomb

    Both history and historical fiction depend on a combination of imagination and rigorous research. The difference is found in the balance of these ingredients. 
    Hilary Mantel, in her formidably brilliant Reith Lectures, has set out to remind us of the unknowability of the past: unknowable because of the partiality of the surviving evidence, that all we have is that which has happened to remain, ‘what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have fallen through it’.It is into this lacuna that, she suggests, the historical novelist speaks: she can practise her trade ‘at the point where the satisfactions of the official story break down’. In response to the challenges often posed to historical novelists – is what they are doing legitimate? is their story true? – she observes that historians, while ‘not consciously fictionalis[ing]’, reach differing interpretations. In other words, they may be unconsciously or unwittingly fictionalising, because they cannot all be right. Mantel says this does not make historians ‘corrupt’, just human. History, she notes, ‘is not a science’; writing history and writing historical novels are ‘complementary trades’. We are doing similar things. Fact and fiction blur. In fact, there is, arguably, no fact, there is only fiction. It is historical novelists who are the ones being honest about their fictionalising, whereas historians fail to own up to the fact, or perhaps even to realise, that their subjective, fallible, versions of the past are not the truth. Historians fail, in short, to own up to the fact that they make up the past. I want to acknowledge the ways in which I think this is both right and, well, not quite right. Not all historical novelists are of Mantel’s calibre, but let us imagine for a moment that they are. If each one were as well versed in the primary sources of their period and had done research as deep and profound as any historian, then it would be fair to say that the two are complementary trades, for the fiction would be built only on the fact. In a small way, historians do this, too. We are all hostages of the sources. As a historian, I know we reach points where the evidence does not say conclusively one thing or another, or it leads persuasively in one direction, but still requires a final reasoned, intelligent guess. In those interstices, historians and historical novelists embark on a similar ‘thinking into’ the characters and circumstances of the period. The best history is one that can make these imaginative hops (not quite leaps) after a long run-up, following the markers of the evidence all the way until the end. The best historical fiction does likewise. All historical narrative and analysis has, ultimately, flickering moments of fictional character. Scholarship demands it. As Simon Schama has put it, to ‘write history without the play of imagination is to dig in an intellectual graveyard’; one should ‘bring a world to life rather than entomb it’.Yet there is still a distinction to be drawn between the trades. As the historian Gordon S. Wood puts it, ‘one can accept the view that the historical record is fragmentary and incomplete, that recovery of the past is partial and difficult and that historians will never finally agree in their interpretations’ – and, we might add, should admit their subjectivity – without giving up on the ideas that something in the past did happen and that we can reveal it more or less faithfully. As Timothy May asked in response to Mantel’s first lecture, is it not ‘the responsibility of the historian to adjudicate between credible narratives, whereas it is not the responsibility of the fictionalised versions of history to do that’? Mantel also notes that ‘in any novel, once it is finished, you cannot separate fact from fiction – it’s like trying to return mayonnaise to oil and egg yolk’. This should never be true of history: any imaginative, thinking-into a period must be clearly labelled as such. The way of adjudicating the more from the less credible is related to the application of the historical method. History is not a science, but it is something more than an art. In German, the word wissenschaft – for which there is no exact equivalent in English, although it is often translated as ‘science’ – is used for any study that involves systematic research. History is a wissenschaft. The closest idea of the sort of research and analysis conveyed by it is ‘forensic’.The best history, therefore, needs imagination – art – and forensic research – wissenschaft. The best historical fiction needs the same. But the quantities differ and while, in historical fiction, the two should be soluble, in history they must be immiscible – more oil and vinegar than oil and egg yolk. 

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