What is History?

Barbra Tuchman’s definition of history struck me as beautifully romantic. Her emphasis on the story, the narrative, the personal effect history can have on an individual in my mind rang true to the core. Her story regarding her time spent writing her first thesis struck a particular chord. Immersed in literature, Tuchman almost literally had history flow through her as she wrote; it seemed to act as her muse. Her tale, unlike Edward Carr’s, deals with a more scientific and concrete interpretation of the subject. He speaks of a continuous process, a process built upon interaction between historian and facts; a historical dialogue between past and present.

History to me, much like Tuchman, is all about the story. I can remember back to my youth and listening to my father tell me stories about King Arthur and his knights of the round table or being captivated by tales of the adventures of Robin Hood made me curious about the subject. My thirst for knowledge about history came primarily from those stories, and as I grew older and began to read on my own, I found that reality was even more fascinating than the fantasies my father had told me. I was captivated by the lives of people such as Richard the Lionheart, Harold of Essex, Henry V, and other medieval  figures of note. From this captivation, I delved more deeply into the subject of history, specifically the history of medieval society. From that childish interest and excitement I matured into a genuine love for history in general. The dates and facts, however, always came second to the story as a whole. As I got older I began to think of the subject in a much larger sense, a sense which Tuchman took to heart as well. History to me is the world’s novel, a novel in which each society throughout time contributes a chapter. A novel whose protagonist is human kind, one which shifts it’s nature from time period to time period, reflecting the direction in which society is heading.

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One thought on “What is History?

  1. Charle’s A. Beard’s piece, “Written History as an Act of Faith” assesses the numerous obstacles and transformations history making and historiography have faced throughout history. He analyzes how history as actuality is impossible to achieve. History is relative cannot be confined to any one scientific or philosophical theory. History is a complex and subjective ordering of events, relations, places, facts, trends, cultures and peoples. A historian chooses how to frame and order the past as actuality, and constructs a subjective interpretation of history. Beard says that historians perform an act of faith when writing history to add some value to the complex and difficult to define concept of history.

    Becker explains that we can never be sure about the accuracy of history, events happened, they are in the past and cannot be revived. They now imperfectly exist as knowledge of what happened. He reduces the definition of history to “History is the memory of things said and done”. He goes on to analyze a case where a common man can be a historian and how every day acts incorporate functions of history, or knowledge of history.

    He goes on to explain how humans are capable of “extending their specious moment” and create history by recording past events. Our knowledge of the past effects our present and future decisions.

    Historical fact, similar to Beard’s history as actuality, cannot be achieved, to an ultimately accurate end. Historical interpretation changes with each generation, it is relative to the context in which each historian writes.

    History is important to understanding the human condition, the grand social relation and continuum of time that is unstable, chaotic and difficult to define or understand. However, as these authors explain it is essential for historians as well as non-historians to understand where they have come from, and where they seek to go.

    History is a complex study of past events, developments, perspectives and identities. How history is recorded and interpreted is represented by the contestation of different perspectives, and through the investigation, reinvestigation and dialog opened up by competing interpretations, history is created and affirmed.

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