Monday, March 03, 2014

Commonplace: the uses of history

WHAT HAS TRADITIONALLY set historians apart from all other commentators on the past is their conviction that the past has both the ability to elucidate itself and a right to do so. This has meant respecting the past and recognizing that it knows as much about human nature as we do. The trick has always been not to make the past more amenable to us in our terms, but to make ourselves more able to think in its terms. Historians who do their job well know how to vanish before their subjects. Their readers put down their books believing that they have gotten to know intimately not the mind of the historian but the people of another age, and that they have had their own values challenged in the process.

Because of the bias of much new history against literate people with means, there has been a tendency to lose sight of sources that best preserve the voice of the past. As historical subjects, voiceless people without means have admittedly proven more amenable to confirming the truths about human nature that modern historians hold to be self-evident. But having means and being literate do not necessarily preclude ordinary experience or make one incapable of exemplifying ordinary life. By the sixteenth century it is certainly common to find literate people from good families whose lives are ordinary to the point of impoverishment. And unlike the voiceless masses whose human experience and culture they share, these people are also able to speak for their age. They explain as well as act. They not only have experiences typical of their time but do so self-consciously. They enable the historian to interpret the past with evidence from contemporaries. As a result historical study becomes a genuine dialogue between past and present.

- Steven Ozment: Three Behaim Boys: Growing Up in Early Modern Germany
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. xii

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

A fascinating statement.

The liberal bias against the privileged view of history has by now become thoroughly familiar, and a bit tiresome.

Textual relativity and cultural bias have become the watch-words of the academy.

Attempts to un-think what the official story was, have begun to seem like a hackneyed, knee-jerk party-line.

But seeing significant life primarily as a dramatization of kings and queens and generals and land-mass is one that needed revision. I remember thinking, as an undergraduate, how skewed our sense of history was, when we were taught nothing about the complex histories of India, China, Japan, or Africa, which paralleled the same periods in Western Europe and "the New World." Those places were indeed "dark continents" of our consciousness.

Corroboration is a relatively new phenomenon in historicism. That triangulating an event from different accounts and claims, is a better source for the truth than following a single "authority's" version. Things happening at the same time and place may appear very differently to those differently placed.

Is history what happens to you, or to other people? Is history the soldier, or the general? Or the man who gets to write the story?