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A follower of things historical

May 15, 2017


My love of history started very young with the Ladybird book of Julius Caesar and Roman Britain. It has been a lifelong pursuit, the subject I studied at university and a major source of ongoing interest ever since.  Furthermore, it has been, I would argue an immensely practical training for the career I have pursued.  For how can one plan for the future without what, and just as importantly, why and how things happened in the past?

History, our ability to develop a collective understanding of who we are as individuals and groups and how we have been shaped by what has happened to us is at the heart of what makes us human. It is a crucial intellectual discipline in itself but also a critical part of understanding many other issues, medicine and healthcare to give but one example.

History operates at two levels. The first is the process of research: the discovery and analysis of records and other sources of evidence; the sifting of truth from falsehood; the piecing together of a story from disparate facts.  Historical periods come in two varieties.  Those like the ones I studied at University where sources and data are thin on the ground and where the process of reconstruction can, at the best, be only partial.  Those like our own times where there is too much information and the challenge is to spot the wood for the trees.

The other level of history is broader and more strategic. The task here is to draw together evidence to construct a wider narrative about what has happened in the past and what it means for us in the present.  This can involve, at times, opening up new aspects of inquiry or recasting the traditional interpretations of events or bringing new models of thinking to the task of how we look at the past.

All subjects are, in their own way, ideological but history is explicitly so. George Orwell’s adage that “He who controls the past controls the future” is highly relevant and has often been at the heart of the motivations of those who have written or commissioned history.  Ideological bias has always to recognised but, I would argue, it has not always been a bad thing.  Marxist historians have brought many prejudices to the history they have written but they have also been responsible for a healthy willingness to broaden the focus of historical enquiry away from the rich and powerful to include the lives of ordinary people.

To finish this blog I wanted to share six of the historians whose work I have most appreciated. It was hard to stop at six but here goes.

My first choice has to be the Greek historian Thucydides whose account of the “History of the Peloponnese War” is one of the first pieces of serious historical writing which attempts to describe events and their causes. It remains gripping history two and a half millennia later.   The description of Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration provides a fascinating and powerful insight into the values and tensions of the first democratic society.

My second historian is Eric Hobsbawn whose four volume of the rise of industrial capitalism and modern society in the two centuries between 1789 and 1989 is monumental in the sweep and depth of its historical perspective. The last volume “The Age of Extremes” is a fascinating account of the last century, the scale of change in human life it entailed and the brutality it unleashed as part of those changes.

Third up is Roy Porter, originally a historian of the 18th century but one whose reputation is based on his work in describing the history of medicine and significantly that of mental illness.  His landmark book “The Greatest Benefit to Mankind” is a fascinating account of the history of medicine, both in terms of the tracking the scientific progress made by medicine but also the also the social role and motivations of those who have practiced medicine.  His extensive writings on mental illness are well worth reading, in particular for its determination to create a place for the lost voices of those who have been affected by mental illness in the past.

My next choice is the American historian Barbara Tuchman, one of the best historical narrators I have come across, whether in “August 1914”, her brilliant account of the first month of World War 1, “A Distant Mirror” an account of the 14th century and the Hundred Years’ War through the lens of the life of the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy of “The March of Folly”, a set of essays which prove Voltaire’s dictum “History does not repeat itself, men do.”

“Montaillou”, by the French historian Emmanuel le Roy La Durie remains one of the most fascinating historical bookds I have ever read. Due to the survival of the amazingly detailed records of the Inquisition, La Durie is able to reconstruct, in microscopic detail, the life and beliefs of a 13th century village in the Pyrenees which is gripped by the Cathar heresy. Such an insight into the daily lives, let alone thoughts and beliefs of past generations is rarely possible.  The past is indeed “a foreign country”.

It would not be unsurprising for me to finish with a Welsh historian, John Davies. His “Hanes Cymru”, written in Welsh but available also in England provides the best and most integrated account of the history of my own nation.  As this blog has tried to argue, history is essential to all sense of identity, particularly the identity of nations, however small.

Others will have their choices but all the six I have chosen I value not just for what they have to say about the past but what they can contribute to an understanding of the present.

We live in an uncertain times and that makes history, for me, an ever more essential area of study. For if we do not know where we have come from, how can we judge where we are going?






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