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Thursday, 7 October 2021

How the World forgot about Far-Western Eurasia

[I am at a bit of a loss as to how to open The End of Western Antiquity. I essayed an alternative opening on here before. I still like that, but one of the things that I want to do in this book is, while writing about western Europe, not give the impression that this history is in some sense privileged. I want to attempt to decentre Europe while writing about it (indeed I would argue that the western concept of 'Europe' belongs to this period of what I think of as the 'closing of far western Eurasia'). I have talked about this before. A lot of recent history has tried to make the case for information networks between east and west and these, to be sure, existed. I think, though, that for all the effort the harvest is pretty meagre and that the interest is largely one-way. At the same time, though, I don't think that the West was in thrall to the 'Byzantine' East or slavishly copying it. I think it was going its own way, but it was a way that ran separately to the great networks of early medieval world history. See what you think, anyway. This is very much a first draft and, in this version at any rate, it lacks any references.]

Sometime around the middle of the sixth century, the scholar and bureaucrat Procopius of Caesarea was finishing the eighth and final book of his greatest work, The Histories, narrating the closing stages of the Gothic War in Italy. Around the middle of that book, however, in a somewhat unexpected detour, he decided to tell a story that he had heard about a war between the Varni (a people) and the soldiers who live on the island of Brittia.  In this tale he locates the Varni beyond the Ister (the river Danube) with their territory reaching as far as the Ocean, along the other side of the Rhine from the Franks, the people who by this time ruled what had been Roman Gaul (and who obviously gave their name to modern France). Procopius says that peoples like the Franks, the Varni and others all had their own tribal names but really they were all Germanoi (‘Germans’).  This is intriguing in its own right but when Procopius turns to the island of Brittia things get stranger. Brittia, he says, lies opposite the mouth of the Rhine. We could be forgiven for thinking, on those grounds, that Procopius means Britain but he confounds that expectation. Brittia, he tells us, lies between Britain (Brettania) and Thule, which in his geography appears to be Scandinavia. Procopius says that Brittia is inhabited by three peoples: the Angiloi, the Frissones, and the Brittones – the Angles (eventually the English), the Frisians and the Britons. Later, Procopius mentions a great wall built in ancient times, which divides this island into two. The replacement of the Saxons by the Frisians in the list of peoples we might expect to encounter in sixth-century Britain is interesting and the account of Hadrian’s wall is garbled but nonetheless Brittia seems, in spite of Procopius’ earlier comment, to be Britain after all. What is this Brittia that is not Britannia, this Britain that is not Britain? 

There are plausible-looking elements of sixth-century history in Procopius’ story but they are embedded in what looks like a fairy tale. In his account, the Varni were ruled by a king called Hermegiscel who allied with Theudebert, king of the Austrasian Franks, and married his sister. Hermegiscel had a son called Radegis by a previous, deceased wife, whom he had betrothed to a princess, born in Brittia and sister of the king of the Angiloi. After allegedly predicting his own death from something he heard in the croak of a bird in a tree, Hermegiscel advised his son to discard his betrothed and instead marry his stepmother, on the grounds that the Franks were a more dangerous neighbour than the Angiloi. After his father died (as predicted), Radegis did as he had been advised and married his father’s widow. Although he compensated his fiancée, the latter was not satisfied and, when diplomacy failed to make a difference, she led an expedition of 100,000 men in 400 ships to the land of the Varni, alongside one of her other brothers. After describing the sail-less vessels of the Angiloi and how neither they nor the Varni have any mounted warriors (in the case of the Angiloi because no horse has, according to Procopius, ever been seen in Brittia) Procopius tells how the Angiloi defeated the Varni. Radegis, hiding in a wood, was captured but the spurned princess, far from killing or injuring him, berated him for his fickleness and compelled him to make good his promise of marriage. So Radegis returned his step-mother to the Franks and married the young woman from Brittia.  This is one of those stories that present a puzzle to historians of Late Antiquity. Some of its elements admittedly look interesting and plausible  but can we justifiably sift them from a context that is obviously mired in the mythic? A garbled – but genuine – historical event or an old folktale with modern names inserted to increase its plausibility? The remainder of the chapter does not reduce the problem, for Procopius goes on to tell us about the ancient wall that divides the island. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, this divides the island east from west. More than that, according to Procopius, whereas all the land east of the wall is fertile and prosperous, the land to the west is so fetid and toxic that no man can live once he has entered it. As if that is not strange enough, Procopius rounds off the chapter with a story that even he admits sounds like mythology. However, says he, since many other people have written about the story or claim to be first-hand witnesses of it, he will record it because, although he thinks people must just have dreamed it, it would look as though he was ignorant of the nature of this island if he left it out. On the coast of the kingdom of the Franks, says Procopius, live fishermen who pay no tribute to the Franks in return for performing the service of transporting the souls of the dead to the island of Brittia. At night they hear a mysterious voice summoning them to this task and are drawn to crew boats which appear on the shore. Although no one can be seen in them, they feel heavy and sink low in the water. The fishermen row these boats across to the island of Brittia where they hear a voice which calls out the names, careers and fathers’ names of the men or the names of the husbands of the women, feminism evidently not really being a thing on the Isle of the Dead. After this, the boats seem quite empty and skip lightly over the water back to the land of the Franks.  

What is going on here? The wall is clearly a bizarre rendition of Hadrian’s Wall, and the story of Brittia as the Isle of the Dead is possibly a play on the similarity between Thanatos – death – and Thanet, the eastern tip of Kent, and an island in antiquity.  That misunderstanding, or possibly pun, was known in late antiquity. In the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville repeated information from Julius Solinus’ third-century Wonders of the World, which said that the name of the island of Thanet came from the Greek word for death but (possibly confusing it with Ireland) that this was because snakes could not live there and that soil from the island would kill them.  Something like this might lie behind Procopius’ story but two points should be made.  One is that the text itself does not name the island as Tanatos (Thanet), rather than Brittia, or speak of death or the dead; it talks rather of souls (psyche). The other is that a Thanet/Thanatos wordplay could only have originated among native Greek-speakers in Procopius’ own world or the much reduced and rapidly declining number of educated westerners who, like Isidore, knew Greek.  The fruitfulness of the east of the island possibly came from a source like Solinus, who says that Thanet is bounteous and fertile, but if so it had been badly mangled by the time it reached Procopius, for Solinus clearly gives the name of the island as Thanet; there is no Brittia in his account. In any case Procopius’ story of the isle of the dead contains not the faintest echo of anything in Solinus’ account, in which Thanet is simply the most prosperous of the many islands off Britain. 

Wherever he obtained his information, the strange reports about Brittia seem to have been a problem to Procopius, who made clear his scepticism about at least some of them. The difference between the islands of Britannia and Brittia, which Procopius expressed as geographical, is probably historical.  Until the end of the fourth century, Britain had been part of the Roman world, close to its administrative centre and frequently involved in high-level politics, as Procopius was aware. He knew from various written sources that early in the fifth century it had raised the usurper Constantine against Emperor Honorius and that, after Constantine’s suppression, it had not been recovered by the Empire but had been ruled by tyrants. In his own day, the stories that reached him from Britain were of a quite different order; Procopius himself thought they were only marginally credible. They were more akin to the tales told in classical ethnography about the isles of remote north-western Barbaricum, at the end of the world.  How could a Roman province, even one now ruled by ‘tyrants’, be the source of such mad tales? Procopius appears to have refused to accept that it could be; the stories must have originated in Barbaricum and so he invented the additional North Sea island of Brittia. The opposition between civilised Bretannia and weird, barbarous Brittia illustrates how, between the beginning of the fifth and the middle of the sixth century, the former north-western provinces of the Roman Empire had, for educated inhabitants of the Mediterranean, simply dropped off the edge of the known world. 

Procopius’ ignorance about Britain is nonetheless not surprising. When Procopius was finishing his Histories, Georgius Florentius was a young boy growing up in the Auvergne, the heart of the Massif Central in the centre of the southern Gaul. Thirty years later, as Bishop Gregory of Tours, he would be composing his own Histories, moved to write by the profound changes of the later sixth-century whose analysis lies at the heart of the present book. Gregory was fairly well-informed about the Mediterranean world and had a reasonable knowledge of political events in the Eastern Roman Empire. But of Britain, he knew, or at least said, next to nothing in spite of it lying considerably closer to his world than to that of Procopius; indeed, it was geographically much closer to his world than the Mediterranean regions he tells us so much more about. He twice mentions the marriage of a Frankish princess to a Kentish notable, variously described as a ‘man’ and as a ‘son of a king’, and that is it. His gaze, as is well-known, firmly faced the south and the east. When one remembers that, during this period, it produced no historians of its own to make up for mainland European writers’ lack of interest in its affairs, it is no surprise that Britain effectively falls out of recorded history between c.410 and c.597. 

Procopius’ ignorance did not start at the Channel, though. His knowledge even of Gallic history and geography was tenuous and littered with strange stories and misunderstandings. Here, the contrast with his fourth-century precursor Ammianus Marcellinus, another Greek-speaker from the Levantine coast,  is if anything even clearer. Ammianus finished his Res Gestae (loosely ‘Deeds Done’) a little over 150 years before Procopius completed the first seven books of his Histories but it is inconceivable that he could have been as confused about Gallic geography as Procopius was. It would be wrong to say that the western provinces had been central to fourth- and fifth-century works composed in the Eastern Empire but they had featured nevertheless. How could they not? An Emperor resided in northern Gaul for much of that period; Gallic bishops like Hilary of Poitiers had played important roles in imperial theological controversies. Within two or three generations of Procopius, however, Eastern Roman historians barely mentioned Gaul, let alone Britain. Italy mattered of course; some of it remained imperial territory and the home of the Pope. The Iberian peninsula, however, was drifting beyond their consciousness.  By contrast, western writers, especially in Spain and Italy, continued to write about events in the East. The mid-seventh-century Burgundian chronicler known as Fredegar knew of some political and military happenings in the Eastern Empire and its neighbours, even if his accounts were sometimes confused. This interest was, however, barely reciprocated by writers in the eastern Mediterranean or beyond. East of the Adriatic, among even educated people, by the seventh century the western tip of the Eurasian land-mass had, for whatever reason, simply ceased to matter.

Nonetheless, as will be discussed in more detail later in this volume, maritime trade continued to connect the eastern and western Mediterranean until well into the last quarter of the sixth century and beyond. When Procopius was writing, such seaborne networks continued to reach around the Iberian Peninsula, up the west coast of Gaul and thence to the eastern shores, especially, of the Irish Sea. In fact, in the fifth and earlier sixth centuries the western regions of what had been Roman Britain had more extensive and important contacts with the Mediterranean world than they had during the four centuries of imperial rule. One reason for that was that the longer-distance seaborne routes between the formerly Roman parts of mainland Europe and lowland Britain – now becoming ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms – appear generally to have atrophied in the fifth century. Stories could have reached Procopius from the Romanised magnates of Western Britain suggesting that Britannia was still recognisably a former Roman province. Whatever stories arrived from the eastern side of the island came via another route and seemed to represent a very different world resembling the mythical islands described by classical authors. By the end of the period that concerns this book these commercial networks too had largely vanished, replaced by rather different webs of interaction.

This disjuncture between the trading links and the seeming disconnection of the written sources is important. Historians and archaeologists have become ever more interested in recreating past networks, an interest boosted by the development of statistical tools and ‘network theory’. Yet, although we can plot lines on maps that ultimately connect places like Tintagel in Cornwall with Carthage in North Africa or Phocaea in the Levant, what did that mean to the people who lived their lives at each end of such a connection? In the last third of the sixth century there were sailors who knew of certain products, such as tin,  that could be obtained from formerly Roman Britain. They knew that there was a market there for Mediterranean wine, oil and high-quality table-ware. The people from whom they bought, or perhaps for whom they sold, their wares and to whom they brought back, and possibly sold, other goods and materials seem, however, to have had no more interest in these far western lands than they had had, in previous centuries, in the lands whence came the amber in their jewellery. Britain, it seems, even lost its rhetorical function as the northern limit of civilisation. Meanwhile, for those in the former western Roman provinces, the east was fast becoming a land of Christian legend and infrequent pilgrimage. Once, a network had radiated from the Mediterranean in all directions, joining up with similar webs spun from China and India; by c.600 the capes and archipelagos of far western Eurasia had largely fallen out of that network of connections.

What are the implications of this isolation? In traditional grand narratives, from Henri Pirenne through to Perry Anderson, these shifts forced western Europe to turn in on itself. For Pirenne the closure of the Mediterranean, which he ascribed to the Arab invasions of the later seventh century, compelled a shift of the western European centre of gravity from the Mediterranean northwards to the Rhineland, and an increased focus on North Sea commerce. Hence Pirenne’s famous dictum that ‘without Mohammed, Charlemagne is inconceivable’. Things did not end there, though. This was only the first chapter in a narrative of the rise of the great European trading cities which in time became the foundation for Western European capitalism and Empire. In Anderson’s Marxist vision, the ‘inward turn’ of Europe after Rome produced feudalism which, in turn, provided the dynamics for urban rebirth, technological advancement and, again, eventually capitalism and the domination of the West. 

The isolation of the far western edges of Eurasia from the great cultural and economic networks of the Early Middle Ages has somehow become part of a triumphalist European grand narrative, explaining how those peripheral western peninsulas and the archipelago just off its shore became the centres of world-exploiting colonial empires. It is, however, worth shedding a different light on this period. It is perhaps helpful to remember that this was a period when what became western Europe (not a geographical term of the time) was peripheral in a global sense; when, as continued to be the case for a millennium afterwards, it had little to offer the great trading networks, when the Empires at the heart of the Eurasian landmass had little to no interest in it.

Monday, 19 July 2021

A Difficult Decade; An Apology

 Readers of this blog will know that I have long suffered with mental health issues, especially depression. I haven't made any secret of this, largely because I felt it was one small way of confronting the stigma which continues to be associated with mental illness.

It's been a difficult decade or so for me, including a minor 'breakdown' (as it would have been called) in late 2015 and several spectacular screw-ups which have been linked one way or another to my mental health.  It was, however, only around the end of 2019 that I began to realise that the depression might be more of a symptom of something else than the whole problem in itself. Reassessing some of my own problematic behaviour led to reading some online articles about Autism Spectrum Disorder, then some books, and taking some fairly well-respected tests(1). The results seemed pretty clear; I am 'on the spectrum'; neurodivergent. Now, this may not come as a surprise to a lot of you, but it did to me. Like a lot of so-called 'high-functioning' (problematic term) adults, I had managed to conceal my neurodiversity even from myself.(2) It was also a case of me having the usual caricature preconceptions of autism. I can't draw the Houses of Parliament from memory after having looked at them for a few seconds; I can't remember 80-digit strings of numbers; whatever. Indeed, for a lot of my lifetime, nobody really was aware of quite how broad the spectrum is or of how it can present over time, at different stages of life. I still don't have a formal diagnosis; the NHS has an 18-month-to-two-year waiting list and obviously (as it should) prioritises people who need more basic support in negotiating everyday life. Private organisations have 6-month waiting lists and a diagnosis can cost £2-3k. Fortunately I am in a position to set some wheels in motion on that front. I do have an opinion from a qualified professional (a specialist counsellor), though, and for now that's good enough for me.

What has become very clear to me is that most of my 'masking' strategies were age-related or even age-appropriate. I masked my uneasiness in social situations and not 'getting' the rules either by making a joke, being a clown or otherwise being consciously unconventional. We autistic (or likely autistic) folk tend to prefer straight talking and - as is well known - don't really 'get' meanings that are wrapped up in diplomatic-speak (this is possibly even more a problem in the UK)(3); my default setting to asking a question after a paper, if there was something I didn't agree with or wanted to discuss, was just to come out and say so; if someone asked me if X might be the case rather than Y, as I had suggested, my natural response is to say 'no - it's not'. You asked a question; I answered. What's the problem? If someone gave a bad paper or wrote a bad book, you say so, right? I never 'got' the idea that you'd be really complimentary about a piece of work and trash it in private conversation. To be honest, I still don't really get that, even if I have learned - slowly and painfully - not just to 'have a go' like I used to. It took me 20 years to learn to say 'thank you for your paper [etc]' before asking a question and to say 'thank you for your question; it's a good question...' before answering and it still seems unnatural, as though I am stiltedly reciting a script and everyone must notice that.

All of this was exacerbated by being of my generation. Most, if not all, of us have role models; we try to teach like the people who we respected as teachers, to write like the people whose writing we admire, and so on. This is especially important, though, to those of us on (or likely on) the spectrum. We learn to cope in social situations by copying the behaviour of people who seem to be good at it.(4) Now, when I was young what we'd now see as aggressive, 'macho' - even really unnecessarily dismissive - behaviour seemed to be the mark of the 'fearsome intellectual' (of whatever sex/sexuality). I remember an interview for a Junior Research Fellowship at Oxford when, after a well-known historian of Anglo-Saxon England really laid into me and this really knocked me over, I was told that the correct response was 'to come right back at them'. My PhD viva consisted of 3 hours of another well-known Oxford historian/archaeologist basically being rude about my work (after having told me at the beginning that I had passed, so that was OK). None of this was especially easy to deal with, especially when your default reaction when confronted by people who have the sort of cast-iron self-confidence that comes with a certain British socio-educational background, is to assume they must be right. In those days, spectacularly critical book reviews - often downright rude - were frequently shared with awe and admiration. Dorothy Parker/Margot Asquith-style put-downs seemed to be prized. Not by everyone, obviously (there were some people who were forward thinking), but it was a very common attitude, and some of the forward-thinkers seemed to be just as capable of being vicious in other ways. My first head of department (who once threw a set of keys at me and, on another occasion, shouted at me and told me I didn't do any work, in front of the whole department) was someone who shouldered their way to the very top of the profession. These things make a big impression when you have no instinctive idea of how to manage social situations. Although we have difficulty with unwritten social conventions, we autistics can simultaneously rigidly observe more obvious hierarchies/rules, so I tended to look up to senior folk that behaved like this. I still find it difficult not to treat the 'great and good' with probably excessive intellectual deference. They may not realise this! 

Anyway, all of this was OK when I was a young/er academic. You can be a clown, a joker, and also a bit brash - a bit of a fire-eater - when you're a young man in academia.(5) There were some of the great and good that took against me in c.1991 and have never accepted me since; I always assumed this was a class thing (and to some extent I still think it was) but I now realise this was probably mostly because of my social difficulties. But generally you can get on pretty well as an 'enfant terrible' - up to a point. If you work hard and you are a good teacher, being unconventional, a joker, etc., is 'cool' and you can get away with being a bit of a hard task-master on occasion; it was all part of the package that was 'Guy'.(6) But - for obvious reasons - none of this still works when you're in your late 40s/50s and a 'senior professor'. Well, the reasons are obvious if you have some sort of natural understanding of social situations and how they work. If you don't, well, not so much. My masking strategies have serially failed and left me very exposed. And unhappy. In consequence I have done a number of silly things, some of which I regret for reasons other than that they made me look like a twat.

Part of the problem has also been that I treat most people in pretty much the same way (this is classic ASD behaviour) but, having that possibly excessive deference to my elders, I have expected the respect due to the status I have earned, not in obvious deference, but just in respect that Inabe been doing this a long time, know what I am talking about, and am good at what I do. I think that was what I saw as the pay-off for me generally being informal with people of whatever status (I am not saying that any of this is logically consistent or 'correct'). I have often, as a result, got really angry when I have thought people were talking down to me (of course they may very well not have been). It's symptomatic of a classic ASD obsession with fairness and justice. Unfortunately I have often not realised how what I say has different effects on different people. To be basic, when I say 'oh don't be a dick' to an old friend and (now) fellow-prof, it has very different effects to when I say the same thing to a post-grad, although I mean it no differently. This may seem obvious to you... That's the point. I have had to learn all this and it has taken too long.

The discovery that I am very likely on the spectrum has been a lot to take in. A considerable amount of that has been like turning a light on all sorts of my life; why I am the way I am. Some of it has been regret; if only I had known this when I was [whatever age], either I maybe wouldn't have behaved like that or I would have known how to explain it, or how to get support.(7) Sometimes it makes me retrospectively angry (or yet angrier): so that's why those people bullied me, marked my card in career terms. I have essentially taken partial retirement because of the ongoing failure of my employer to take account of mental illness. It's really not been a retrospective 'get out of jail free card' for my bad behaviour, though; quite the opposite. Previously if I had a melt-down with someone, although I might have wished, for myself, that I hadn't done it, I comforted myself with the idea that at least I was in the right. Now, quite apart from realising that the effect of my words might have been much more hurtful than I supposed (see above) or intended, I also realise that there was also a very high chance that I had the wrong end of the stick and that I had not understood the situation at all.

So, with that in mind I would like, here and now, to make a public apology to the following, all of whom I have lost my rag with either in person or online in a way that - regardless of anything else - was inappropriate, offensive and possibly hurtful:

Mr Jack Wiegand
Dr Jen Edwards
Dr Jon Jarrett
Dr John Jenkins
Ms Kataya McKeever-Willis
Dr Rachel Stone.

Regardless of any other rights and wrongs, I shouldn't have said what I said in the way I said or in the context in which I did so.  There are doubtless others who deserve such an apology; I may therefore add to the list above. There are certainly other people I have had rows with in public and have gone about things the wrong way; let's just say that either, for one reason or another, I don't feel as bad about them or I have publicly apologised before.

It's possible that I will blog more about my experience of neurodiversity in academia, or possibly set up a new blog for that. In the meantime, thanks for reading.


1: The common tests are problematic, as is fairly well known, but the problems seem to concern subjects who aren't white males. Funnily enough, my own demographic appears to have been the default setting (hardly anything surprising about that, and far more widespread in medicine than just in issues of psychology/psychiatry). More socially disadvantaged or marginalised groups tend to 'mask' in more extensive and different ways. As far as I can tell, though, these tests are OK for white males.

2: To the extent that when I went through the tests with my partner I would be reading out symptoms and saying 'well, that's not really me is it?' and she'd reply 'er, hello? What about x, y and z?'

3: Once, when I was about to something that turned out to do me a fair amount of harm, a senior colleague told me that I needed to 'think carefully' before doing it. So I thought carefully about it. And did it. Afterwards he said 'obviously I meant you shouldn't do it; you should have realised that'. 

4: Check out my writings about social theory. This all seems to take on a new significance now.

5: This again points up all of the everyday sexism in academia, as well as in the diagnosis of autism.

6: I had a colleague over a decade ago now who told me how impressed he was that all the students just refer to me as 'Guy'. I was pretty cool in those days, even if I say so myself, but that was then. 

7: Obviously, for someone my age, the frustration is only increased by the fact that awareness of many relevant aspects of ASD simply didn't exist back then. 

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

History: The True Story Uncovered (Part 2)

[In this second part of the chapter I develop the argument that history has the same features as language in general. It is incapable of being pinned down to a single factual original simply because we retell history in language. The way history is written - even at the most basic level - is mired in linguistic and other choices that have nothing to do with fact. Again, that is just how history is and the alternative is practically inconceivable anyway. 'Facts' and 'events' in history also have the same features as other units of language aimed at conveying information; they all have their signifieds, and are all capable of infinite repetition so that, again, there is no fixed originary meaning. In conclusion I repeat that none of this renders history detached from the importance of empirical accuracy, and is no licence to make things up or to deny that things happen. It is simply the way that history is, but we need to emrace the possibilities that that presents - which is what the second half of Why History Doesn't Matter is about.

The same caveats apply as for part one and, for the same reasons, the notes start at 'iv.'..]

Historical narrative is “structured like a language”

Words matter. It is of crucial importance, if we are to explore how History can create a role for itself separate from simple chronicling and antiquarianism, to develop the point about the literary or rather linguistic nature not just of historical writing but of historical narrative itself. Even the dullest chronicle is trapped in a linguistic net that makes it much more than a simple description. The vocabulary we use to describe past events never bears a simple or direct to the historical object being discussed. Let us take as an example a seemingly uncontroversial description of a well-known event: The Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815). To name it the Battle of Waterloo is already a decision to accept the name given to the encounter by the victors, rather than the (now much less common) French name of La Belle Alliance. To call it “a British victory” (let alone an English victory!) is to make several more decisions. First, one has ascribed the victory to the British, rather than “the Allies”; although the army might have been commanded by the Duke of Wellington, his Dutch and German allies made up 60% of the army.[iv] Even to label the battle an allied victory would be controversial to those who see the intervention of the Prussians as the decisive element. That, since 1815, convention in anglophone history has passed from referring to the battle as an English victory, through ascribing the success to the British, to acknowledging that the battle was won by allies drawn from numerous nations – leaving aside those who wish to call it a Prussian, or even “the German”,[v] victory – is proof enough of the baggage that even seemingly straightforward descriptions can carry. More importantly, though, all those options still use the word “victory”, implicitly therefore categorising the event from the perspective of the winners, be they British, allied or Prussian. It is a meaningful difference from the choice to describe the engagement as a French defeat. None of these various permutations of vocabulary – and we have left aside more obviously contentious language, such as describing it as a triumph or a catastrophe[vi] – is entirely neutral. Apart from the description of the victory as “English”, each can be argued to work perfectly well as a description of the events of 18 June 1815. On the other hand, those events themselves impose no specific vocabulary on the historian. Even a phrase as banal as “on 18 June 1815 the Allied army won the Battle of Waterloo” is thus already tangled up in a network of linguistic choices that take it away from bearing an unmediated relationship to the object described. To escape the latter, one would have to describe the day in something like the following manner:
On the date identified in conventional calendars as 18 June 1815, several hours of heavy fighting took place around various farms and hamlets to the south of Brussels, at the end of which the army comprising troops from Britain, the southern and northern Netherlands, Prussia and various other German states moved forward towards the south and the army largely but not entirely composed of French soldiers fighting for Napoleon Bonaparte moved back away from them and towards Paris after losing more men killed and wounded.
No one can seriously envisage any kind of history of the Napoleonic Wars being written in that kind of laborious prose! To the purveyor and consumer of writing that chronicles history’s many interesting tales, this sort of issue is of no more than stylistic importance[vii] or interest at best, and rightly so. However, minor though it may seem, this point lies at the heart of what I will suggest are the potential reasons why historical research could matter. The choices that I described above are in some ways all the more important for being barely conscious ones relating to a comparatively banal piece of labelling. Even they have political or other connotations; the decisions are those of the writer; they are not empirically imposed by the evidence itself. As we move further into the nature of historical writing, the results of such decisions become more significant still.

Here we must consider some philosophy, which will be expanded, and its implications developed, later. This might look like a detour from the subject of this chapter but it will be vital for my argument and it needs to be introduced here for reasons which will become apparent. In elementary linguistic theory, the letters D-O-G are obviously enough not actually, in and of themselves, a dog; what linguists call the sign (e.g. the word “dog”) is a fusion of the signifier (in our example, the letters D-O-G) and the signified (here the concept of a barking, tail-wagging quadruped). That speakers of a language agree on that sign is something that has developed over centuries and which continues to evolve. That raises the absolutely crucial point that to carry meaning the sign must be “iterable” (that is to say repeatable in any situation involving speakers of a language and the idea of a dog). This applies to any system of communication, even if devised as a private language between two siblings and no one else. If I tell you that I saw a mnyargle going past the window, you won’t have the faintest idea what I am on about, because I just made the word up. If I explain that a mnyargle is a furry, tail-wagging, barking quadruped, however, you will understand. Now that you understand, though, I can go on talking about mnyargles to my heart’s content, albeit at the expense of you thinking that I have lost my mind. More importantly, though, you can pass this book to someone else, who can read this passage and thereby also know what a mnyargle is, or you can leave the book on the bus, it can be picked up by someone else and they too can understand the meaning of mnyargle, even though neither of us is present. Someone can find a copy of this book decades after my death and yours, discover what the word means and use it correctly. This issue does not only, as was once generally assumed, apply only to writing but to speech too (substitute “recording” for “book” in the example above and the point remains the same). Indeed, all signifying systems, whether spoken and written or not, share these same features. If I see a dog I understand what it is because of an iterable concept or category of what a dog is.

Because of all that, there is no point where a particular word or term relates to a specific object in a pure, unadulterated form. Even in a hypothetical situation where I live alone on an island and have never spoken to anyone else (how that is possible need not concern us; it’s like Tarzan), the first time I see a dog, and understand it as member of the category “dog” (rather than as “friendly animal” or “threatening animal” or “Mr Woofy”[viii]), logically that category must already be in my mind and does not exclusively refer to that specific beast in that particular encounter. Logically (if not temporally) the concept precedes its first use. This is because all words convey their meaning by virtue of their difference from all the other words or categories in the language. So, it is not simply the case that D-O-G = furry, barking, tail-wagging quadruped, but also that D-O-G ≠ Cat (or pig, or iguana, or hat, or…). The preceding discussion, and especially the points about the radical separability of signifying systems and their particular users, summarises, as some readers will have noticed, the ideas of the still unjustly-maligned and calumniated French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Invoking Derrida’s name can act as something of a shibboleth, which is why I have held off from mentioning it until after I have described the key points of his theory.

Returning to the latter, in sum the meaning of a word is perpetually deferred – you can never get back to its pure, originary meaning – and stuck in equally endless chains of difference.[ix] For this reason, Derrida coined the word différance[x] to combine these features and describe this essential feature of language. Again, the point applies to every sign in every signifying system. They all function, in Derrida’s terms, “textually”, in that they share the essential features of text, with meaning conveyed by spacing, juxtaposition, différance and so on. Thus, when Derrida said that there is nothing outside text this was what he meant; you can never get outside différance; you can never get access to some sort of “beyond-text” (hors-texte) where meaning is pure and absolute.[xi] This in some ways is acknowledged in the famous beginning of Saint John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the word [Gk logos; Latin uerbum]. And the word was God and the word was with God.”[xii] The point where meaning is absolute and outside différance can only be the divine. Outside the sphere of the theological, though, there is always the potential for slippage. In this fact lie the linguistic resources for irony, sarcasm and pun. After all, the word ‘d-o-g’, with which I began can also be a verb, but let us leave that there. I would not want dogged discussion of dogs to dog our steps through the rest of this chapter.

More importantly still, there are always points where writers make jumps, in their choice of words or concepts, that are not governed, empirically, by the nature of the thing they are discussing. In the Waterloo example above, these would be in the decision to refer to the engagement as a victory or a defeat. Where we can identify those points, which Derrida called “aporias”, we can open up points of decision that allow us to look at the writer’s assumptions and at alternative meanings or readings. Again, this is not an issue that is important to the consumer of public chronicling or antiquarianism, and that is fine. I will gradually present an argument, however, about why it is essential to making history matter.

For now, though, I would stress that this throws the problems with the idea that there are “true stories” that students can be taught into yet starker relief. The sorts of problems I have just briefly outlined saturate any narration, not only in the choice of words but also in the choice of content. The points that Derrida made about “text” can be seen to apply equally well to events. After all, within a historical narrative it is not only the case that “the Battle of Marston Moor” = “the events that took place on 2 July 1644 between the villages of Tockwith and Long Marston, north of York”, but also that “the Battle of Marston Moor” ≠ “the Battle of Naseby” (or “the battle of Edgehill”, or “the Battle of Lostwithiel”, etc.). The “does not equal” sign in the previous sentence encompasses the relative chronology, the differing preceding campaigns, subsequent consequences and military contexts, different tactical outcomes and so on. All those differences help constitute the things that identify Marston Moor and thus, within historical narration, make up the “signified” of the “signifier” “Battle of Marston Moor”. Even the notion of “the battle of X” is iterable. After all, staying within the mid-seventeenth century, there were two “Battles of Breitenfeld”, two “Battles of Nördlingen” and, returning to England, two “Battles of Newbury”. The point is perhaps driven home by the fact that there were also two “Battles of Lützen”: one in 1632 during the Thirty Years’ War and one in 1813 during the Napoleonic Wars. Unlike the battles listed earlier, which all took place during the same war and thus at least get numbered by historians for convenience, these are both simply called “the” Battle of Lützen. If I were to tell you that one of my ancestors was killed at the battle of Lützen, you might go away impressed that I could trace my ancestry back to the 1630s, when I was only talking about 1813. Within a narrative, then, events take on a function similar to those of words within a sentence or passage. They are chosen and placed to convey meaning according to positioning and juxtaposition with other events. We have seen this in the example of the “Northumbrian feud” and the sacked diarist discussed earlier, as well as in the events chosen for depiction in the films about the Zulu War. Just as aporias are encountered in authors’ choice of words, they exist equally in the choices of the events that make up a narrative. Those structural or functional similarities also permit the same kinds of slippage or miscommunication, so that a story can be taken quite a different way from that intended, as was seen earlier.

As well as the implicit spaces in historical language between words (or signs) and meaning, and between what is said overtly and what could just as easily have been said, there are other gaps that can be opened. These are the ones closed in the processes of selection and narrative. As was shown in the example of the “Northumbrian Feud” events are linked by juxtaposition. Placing one episode directly after another, a causal link is suggested even without necessarily using overt vocabulary like “as a result”, “consequently” or “therefore”. The time between the events, and everything that happened during that time, are closed up or covered over in such juxtaposition. The Durham Anonymous closed up spaces of about ten, at least seven and thirty-six years by placing one after another the events that he wished to link in a chain of cause and effect. This juxtaposition and the closing up of time that it involves are vital in giving events their precise significance and signification. When Cy Endfield opened Zulu with shots of the devastation of the British army’s camp at iSandlwana, replete with dead redcoats, he was building a particular story. Endfield and John Prebble, who co-authored the screenplay, also – shamefully – made out that the Zulus launched their attack on the British while pretending to discuss peace (the diametrical opposite of the events of late 1878 and early 1879). So, having swept aside the main British army in their attack, the Zulus were storming on towards Rorke’s Drift, where only 100 British soldiers stood in their way. Keep watching to see what happened… Fifteen years later, in Zulu Dawn, Hickox worked from a screen-play by Endfield, who perhaps wanted to make up for the distortions of his earlier film. The prequel opens the temporal space closed by Zulu, to recount how the British troops at iSandlwana came to find themselves being slaughtered and their camp destroyed. Telling a story of British imperial and aristocratic arrogance, the immediate background to Rorke’s Drift, and thus the battle itself, take on quite another appearance. Watch Zulu directly after watching Zulu Dawn and you are likely to “read” it rather differently from the way intended by its writer and director. Again, it must be said that this does not only apply to screenplays or fiction. ‘[T]he narrative of the barbarian invasion and settlements can be said to have begun’ in 376, says Ian Wood.[xiii] Indeed it can, but for not any particularly decisive reason. Historians all have to choose starting- and end-points for their work, almost always out of convenience. Without wanting to embroil the reader in a technical discussion of late Roman History, the narrative of the barbarian migrations could as easily start in any number of dates other than 376. People (including me)[xiv] have tended to start in 376 for several reasons including simple historiographical custom. One reason for that traditional starting date, however, is the assumption that the Goths who sacked in Rome in 410 and went on to settle in the south-east of what is now France in 418/19 were the same people who had crossed into the Roman Empire in 376 and defeated the Eastern Roman army at the battle of Adrianople (378). It is assumed that they remained an effectively unsubdued “people” within the Empire, who eventually rebelled again under Alaric in the 390s and the rest, as they say, “is history”. But the traditional narrative, like the story of the Northumbrian Feud, closes up time, in this case a decade or so between the end (in 382) of the Gothic crisis that erupted in 376 and the outbreak of the Gothic rebellion under Alaric in the mid-390s. If that closed space is recognised and opened it is possible to argue that the resolution of that crisis, in fact marked the end of any meaningful story of the Goths who crossed the Danube in 376 as a distinct group of people.[xv] On the other hand, opening the space closed by starting the narrative in 376 can, in the same way that Zulu Dawn does for Zulu, find a prequel that casts the later story in quite a different light. In this case we could see the origins of the Gothic crisis not in the appearance out of the blue of the Huns, a historical deus ex machina, but in the destabilising of the region north of the Danube by Emperor Valens’ Gothic War of 367-9.[xvi] We could even take the story right back to a treaty between the Goths and Emperor Constantine I in 332.[xvii] In some ways one critical task of the historian is to create innumerable ‘prequels’ to other historical narratives.#


In this chapter, I have attempted to illustrate the relationship between time, experience, record and the creation of history and to suggest the literary and, especially, linguistic features that saturate the latter. Any meaning that events have depends upon their place in a retrospectively constructed narrative. It depends on their juxtaposition with the other events selected within the narrative and upon the type of narrative that is told. All that depends entirely upon the contingent attitude of the historian/narrator/rememberer. None of that affects the relative historicity or the facticity of the events recorded in the sources. Let’s be clear: what I have said is not a license to deny that things occurred. The past, as the unity of all time, thought and action up until this very moment, here, now, happened and cannot be changed. But, as I have shown, it is absolutely meaningless in and of itself. It only takes on meaning through the way its contents are selected and arranged in the present. That history is something that can be and is changed. Regularly. To uncover the true story of history is to discover that no single “true story” ever happened and that none of history’s myriad stories is, in itself, “true”. And any account that demands to be accepted as the true story or the national narrative is almost certainly myth.


[iv] See above, p.000 and p.000, n.000

[v] Peter Hofschröer, Waterloo: The German Victory

[vi] Note that at the start of this chapter I deliberately described iSandlwana as a “disastrous British defeat” rather than as a “triumphal Zulu victory”. The latter would have made no sense given the point of the story that I wanted to tell.

[vii] As for instance in the way I have used “battle”, “encounter” and “engagement” as descriptions of Waterloo to avoid repetition of the same word.

[viii] Jacques Derrida argued, correctly, that even personal names are ultimately subject to the movements of différance. Derrida, De la grammatologie

[ix] The best analogy is that dictionary definitions only really point you at other definitions and so on, ad infinitum.

[x] Pronounced exactly the same as différence. The fact that the difference between the two words is only detectable in the written form but nevertheless conveyable in speech is deliberate, to underscore Derrida’s point about the fundamental equivalences of writing and spoken language.

[xi] Derrida De la grammatologie p.227 (Of Grammatology p.158): Il n’y a pas de hors-texte (there is no “beyond- (outer-, or outside-) text”. Typically, rather than make any attempt to engage with this point, Derrida’s “analytic” detractors have generally just retreated into their usual lazy, ill-informed traduction and mockery. If there’s nothing outside text how can you be hit by a bus? S. Blackburn, Truth. A guide for the Perplexed (London, 2004), p.170. Ho ho. The response of course is that if the bus exists outside a network of meaning and différance, how would you know to get out of the way? Blackburn, another of the self-appointed policemen of analytical rigour, had never actually read Derrida, much less tried to understand his point. If he had, he would have known that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” did (and does) not mean “there is nothing outside the text” as he claims.

[xii] John 1.1

[xiii] I.N. Wood, ‘The barbarian invasions and first settlements’, in The Cambridge Ancient History, vol.13: The Late Empire, A.D. 337-425 ed. Cameron, A.M., & Garnsey, P., (Cambridge, 1998), pp.516-37, at p.517.

[xiv] G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge, 2007),

[xv] Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 180-185.

[xvi] Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 170-75

[xvii] As, e.g., P. Heather, Goths and Romans, 332-489 (Oxford, 1991).

History: The True Story Uncovered (Part 1)

[As some of you know, I have for the last decade been trying to put together my ideas on a philosophy of history that attempts to do two things: first returning academic history to a place (if it ever had one) where it is taken seriously as an intellectual discipline rather than a bourgeois pastime or a service industry for popular entertainment; and second where it has a coherent ethical/political framework for those who, like me, think that the writing of history is inescapably political and that the politics of history should be emancipatory. The first part of this book (Why History Doesn't Matter) essays a deconstruction of the current practice of history by setting what seem to be uncontroversial ideas about the practice of history against the most frequent statements about its purpose and value, and finding them contradictory and incoherent.

This is the current draft of the projected chapter 1 ('The True Story Uncovered') of that book, which I want to share because discussions of the teaching of history (especially with regard to the British Empire) have come round again. I am fairly sure I have posted at least some of it before but if nothing else, this is an updated version. Here I have split it into two parts for ease of reading. In this first part, I set out why history is inescapably - always - about the writing of stories. I set out how histories are always shaped by various choices about where and when to start and end and about how they can always be read in any number of different ways, regardless of the writer's intention. They can't be pinned down. Then I use a medieval story to show how, as a narrative rather than an atomised collection of facts, history (as opposed to 'the past) never happens - that narratives are not in themselves facts. They are conected by imaginative, narrative, argumentative links which can be more or less plausible but are never empirical. None of this means that facts aren't important. Nor does any of this render history impossible; it is just how history is Indeed it is History's very condition of possibility. Think about it, if all this weren't the case, if explanations and narratives could be proved, the whole historical project would be finite. Finally in this part I try to demonstrate how the past cannot even be conceived of effectively without turning it into a story.

Note that this is still a draft and that the footnotes are neither complete nor consistent. Note also that for reasons to do with cutting, pasting and rearranging this text from it's original word document, the notes start again from i in the last section.] 

But let us be wise enough to learn the true history so that we can recognise a myth when we see one.
- Dee Brown[i]
In a newspaper piece setting out his vision of how history should be taught in British schools, Simon Schama enjoined educators to “[t]ell a classroom of 12-year-olds the story of the British (for they took place across our [sic] nations) civil wars of the 17th century…”[ii] It is difficult to disagree with many of the points Schama makes along the way but overall his argument is profoundly incoherent. My response to Schama’s injunction that we tell a classroom of 12-year-olds “the story of the British civil wars” is simple enough: which story? Let me explain.

Zulus and Redcoats

When I was young, my family habitually spent Christmas with my paternal grandparents in Blackpool. One Christmas I forewent a last-minute shopping trip into town to watch the TV première of the film Zulu Dawn about the disastrous British defeat at the battle of iSandlwana (1879).[iii] When my family got back later, my father, aware of the movie’s subject-matter, asked drily if it had “had a happy ending”: we laughed. A few years later, I read an article in a wargaming magazine which described Zulu Dawn as “very good historically” but “less satisfying [than the 1964 classic Zulu] as a piece of cinema”.[iv] I imagine, of course, that it has a happier ending and is less unsatisfying as a movie if you don’t view the story from the British side. Indeed, I once read a reminiscence by someone who had seen Zulu in a Jamaican cinema, where the audience greeted each shooting or skewering of a redcoat with rapturous cheers. [n.b. I cannot for the life of me track down this story, but I haven't made it up. I have discussed it in correspondence with Ian Knight who also remembered reading it but could not identify it either. If anyone can help, please get in touch.]

Among aficionados at least, it is well-known that Zulu barely comes within waving distance of being an accurate portrayal of the battle of Rorke’s Drift and that even Zulu Dawn makes some inexplicable departures from fact.[v] To an extent of course, this is understandable in the process of rendering a historical event into an entertaining cinematic experience lasting a couple of hours. Zulu Dawn – one can legitimately argue – has little choice but to telescope the events between Chelmsford’s crossing of the Mzinyathi/Buffalo River and the battle itself, fusing discrete episodes into single actions. Nonetheless, even if both movies stuck rigidly to historically-attestable fact or academically defensible interpretations thereof,[vi] several points would remain unchanged and would apply just as well to historians.

Some things, naturally, differ profoundly between composing the screenplay for a “historical” drama and writing actual history. Historians get things wrong for all sorts of reasons. Mistakes are made in the reading of sources whether through carelessness, a lack of scholarly sophistication or simple human error. Sometimes historians get things wrong for reasons beyond their control: new evidence is discovered that renders earlier accounts obsolete;[vii] new scholarship reveals that what had hitherto been regarded as solid evidence is anything but reliable. But one of the very few things that all historians would agree on would be that writers who knowingly distorted the empirical picture given in the surviving evidence would be committing gross professional malpractice. Nonetheless, important similarities with screenplay-writing remain. One is the element of selection to which we will return; even if it wanted to, no history (or film) can tell everything, even if it is aware of everything (which inevitably it is not).[viii] All historians decide which events are important to the story they want to tell. Most importantly they decide the beginning- and end-points of the story. That itself shapes a “narrative arc” and the flavour or form of the story told. To return to our cinematic examples, the choice to start Zulu Dawn in the discussions immediately preceding the invasion of Zululand and to end with Chelmsford’s return to the wreckage of his camp governs the tone of the narrative, of hubris and tragedy. On the other hand, Zulu’s opening with the aftermath of iSandlwana and closure with the relief of the post at Rorke’s Drift frames a story of heroism and triumph over the odds. The same points apply to historical writing. A history that starts with the rise to power of Napoleon and ends with Waterloo, for example, tells one type of story. One that begins with Waterloo and ends with the accession to power of Napoleon III tells quite another. The “facts”, in and of themselves, whether disputed or not, determine neither the content nor the shape of history.

Historical narrative is also much more than a string of events placed in chronological order. Schama thought schoolteachers should tell their classes the story of the seventeenth-century British Civil Wars, but he knows that the story is not composed simply of a sequence of events of indisputable facticity. In the same article, he further instructs schoolteachers to “reinvent the art and science of storytelling in the classroom”. Once you recognise that history is about storytelling, arguments about the value of knowing historical facts begin to empty out their content. Schama wants children to learn “the history of how we [sic] came to execute our [sic] king”. Leaving aside the use of the first person plural,[ix] several important points arise. First, history lies in the “how people came to execute their king”. That “how they came to” cannot be not encompassed in any selection and sequence of events but in the story that the events are chosen to support. Some historians might see that story as reaching right back into the reign of Elizabeth I and composed of a serious of constitutional steps (or mis-steps) leading inevitably to crisis; others might see the story as having a much shorter arc and as being characterised by the failure by various parliamentarians, even Cromwell, to get an obdurate Charles to accept any number of compromises that would have kept his bum on his throne and his head on his shoulders after the end of the First Civil War. What sort of end-point does Charles’ execution represent? Was it a dramatic constitutional (as well as personal) moment, altering the nature of monarchy, or had monarchy already been irrevocably changed with the Elizabethan settlement? In other words, were the parliamentarians, in killing Charles, doing any more than – metaphorically – beheading a corpse?[x] There is still more to it than that. Do children learn of Charles I’s beheading as some sort of whiggish[xi] step on the road to modern constitutional monarchy and representative parliamentary democracy, or as the martyrdom of “Saint Charles”? Are Cromwell, Ireton and the rest champions of democracy or regicides, king-killers? Does 1649 represent triumph or tragedy? All of these stories are equally possible; none of them is empirically wrong. Which one does Schama want “all schoolchildren” to learn? Arguments like Schama’s[xii] that all schoolchildren must learn certain things about “our” history and that the story of the British Civil Wars would be one of them, clearly imply that someone, somewhere, must decide which story they learn, from all the permutations just mentioned. I do not think that that would serve children well and it certainly restricts history to a form of fact-learning, no matter how lively the story is that you put those facts into.

One might suggest getting schoolchildren to discuss whether the events of January 1649 were the inevitable outcome of eighty years of political events or a historical accident, contingent on the personalities of 1646-48, which no one had really wanted to bring about. You could ask them whether they thought it was a triumph in the rise of parliament or a tragedy of the demise of kingship.[xiii] I would suggest that both of those would be educationally more valuable than telling them a predetermined story that everyone learnt. However, if you accept that those activities, interpretations and debates are, educationally, the bit that matters, that undermines the argument about having to know certain stories. The choice of which story to use becomes incidental.[xiv] The educational value of that sort of unpicking of narrative could equally well be served by a study of the Ming dynasty or indeed the downfall of the Zulu kingdom.

One vital lesson to emerge from the very brief discussion of cinematic history with which I began is that the producer of history (whether the latter be on celluloid or in scholarly monograph) has no control over how it is received. The story arc of Zulu Dawn may have been conceived as the tale of how Victorian imperial hubris and injustice led to a disaster and the slaughter of over 1,000 men, a rather clunky but well-intentioned critique of imperialism and the British class system, but it might as easily be consumed as the story of how the arrogant white man picked a fight with the Zulu and how the whole might of the British Empire was humbled by brave African warriors as a result: a happy ending indeed. Then again, even this might be too simplistic. King Cetshwayo and many other Zulus regarded the battle and the heavy losses as anything but a triumph. Zulu was intended to tell the tale of how brave, heroic British soldiers fought off 4,000 Zulus.[xv] The plot clearly aims to create a sort of “will they be able to hold out?” tension, especially as casualties mount and the Zulus take the hospital, the British being gradually forced back.[xvi] Yet the Jamaican audience cheered when the Zulus speared a soldier, seemingly urging the warriors to press on heroically and finish the job in the teeth of the white man’s murderous modern rifle-fire. Ian Knight, furthermore, estimates that perhaps as many as one in three of the Zulus who attacked the British post became casualties, and most of those were killed. It’s worth noting that these were for the most part not young men but they pressed their attacks for four hours.[xvii] That would make for a quite different narrative (or reading) of bravery and determination without any of the “facts” changing at all. Tell the story of how the English executed their king in 1649 as a triumphal step on the road to modern democracy and students may still consume it as the tragic downfall of Renaissance monarchy. The facts of the matter remain the same, be they the events of recorded history or the actions depicted on the screen, but the stories and their reading take on lives of their own. History is about the writing and reading of stories and, as we have seen, stories or narratives are compositions, not “facts”.

It is important to stress this because some historians have been wont to dismiss the idea that history is a “literary fiction” on the basis that the historian is chained to the immovable rocks of things that did or did not happen – or at least which are (or are not) recorded as happening in our surviving evidence. The recorded events are indeed immovable rocks for the historian but the argument that this renders historical writing other than a literary creation is flimsy. History flows lightly over and around the rocks that it chooses and it takes its shape from the spaces in between. This by no means reduces history’s power to do what it does (or has always done); it is simply enough how history is. If we want to restore to the historical discipline some power to matter intellectually, we need to recognise that and embrace its possibilities.

Thurbrand and Uhtred: History never happened

The implication of what I have been saying is that, if you conceive of it as stories, as more than simple collections of fact, then “history” never happened. To explain, I will employ a tale written in twelfth-century northern England.[xviii] It goes like this: Once upon a time there was a powerful and energetic earl called Uhtred who saved Durham from the Scots. Uhtred was married three times. His second marriage was to the daughter of one Styr Ulfsson and was contracted on condition that Uhtred would kill Styr’s enemy, Thurbrand. Alas, when Uhtred came to swear allegiance to King Cnut, his new ruler (and old enemy), in around 1018-20, Thurbrand and the king’s soldiers ambushed him and forty other chief men and killed them all. Uhtred’s brother Eadwulf succeeded him in the earldom but when he died Ealdred, Uhtred’s son by his first wife, became earl and killed Thurbrand. Thurbrand’s son, Carl, then campaigned against Ealdred until the two were prevailed upon to become sworn brothers and go on pilgrimage together to Rome. Unfortunately, the ship upon which they were to sail was delayed by bad weather so whilst they waited, Carl entertained Ealdred at his home in Holderness in the Yorkshire East Riding. One day, whilst showing Ealdred around his estate Carl killed Ealdred in (to quote the source)
a wood called Risewood and still today the place of his murder is marked by a small stone cross. Sometime later, the grandson of Earl Ealdred, Earl Waltheof, who was the son of his daughter, sent a large band of young men and avenged the killing of his grandfather with the utmost slaughter. For when the sons of Carl were feasting together at their elder brother’s house at Settrington, not far from York, the men who had been sent caught them unawares and savagely killed them together, except for Cnut whose life they spared because of his innate goodness. Sumerled, who was not there, survives to this day. Having massacred the sons and grandsons of Carl, they returned home bringing with them much booty of various kinds.
This is a fascinating story for many reasons; what makes it relevant to my argument is how historians have read it as the tale of a “feud”: a vendetta with each murder justified by the last and justifying the next.[xix] But let us look at this story more closely. It illustrates beautifully the fact that history is only constructed after the event. It is written as a story; English is perhaps the only western European language where the word for “history” is not also the usual word for “a story”.[xx] The account also confirms that, as suggested earlier, how we choose to tell that story is crucial. This point is often associated with the “post-modern” turn in historiography[xxi] but it has actually been made since the very earliest days of what we might think of as modern history-writing.[xxii] People like the author of this story (known to scholars as “the Durham Anonymous”) select episodes from the past and link them together to make a single strand of narrative. In this case, it was the story of a feud. But did it really happen like that or were the events simply written up in that way?

As related by the anonymous author, the story of the Northumbrian “feud” sounds unproblematic, united by a straightforward thread of cause and effect unfolding through time. In fact, though, long gaps separated the acts of violence and cut that thread. It took ten years for any violence to erupt as a result of Styr’s alleged injunction to Uhtred to kill Thurbrand. Styr’s daughter had died and Uhtred had remarried in the interim, surely freeing him from Styr’s demand. Furthermore, it was actually Thurbrand who did the only recorded attacking. A further seven years or more must have elapsed before Ealdred exacted his revenge on Thurbrand. The episode after that is interesting. Thurbrand’s son Carl is not described as trying to find an occasion to carry out his vengeance killing. Instead, he and Ealdred tried to do away with each other. This period was another long one. Carl’s killing of Ealdred dates to 1038, twenty-three years after his father had killed Ealdred’s father (the first event in the “feud”), and at least ten after Thurbrand’s murder (the second event). The anonymous narrator proceeds from Ealdred’s death to say simply that “sometime later, the grandson of Earl Ealdred, Earl Waltheof, … avenged the killing of his grandfather with the utmost slaughter.” Sometime later … In fact, the Settrington massacre, the fourth and final episode of the Northumbrian “feud”, took place in 1073/4, thirty-six years after Ealdred’s murder. Carl killed Ealdred four years before Waltheof was even born. A lot of selection is going on here, from a background of violence and killing, in order to create this long, unilinear saga of murder and revenge.[xxiii] Like all historians, the “Durham Anonymous” chose which story to tell and how to tell it. The history of eleventh-century Northumbria has thus come to be that of the “feud” between the families of Uhtred and Thurbrand. However, the events were not experienced like that that as they occurred, as the complex mass of events unfolded. The hi/story of the Northumbrian feud was made after the event. There’s no reason to doubt that the different events described happened; the “story”, however, never did.

Selection and narrative composition are inevitable; they are not things that “bad historians” do. The past includes everything that happened between the Big Bang and a second ago: innumerable doings, sayings, thoughts. The past is incapable even of being comprehended as such, except in the most abstract temporal sense of “stuff that has happened”. Before it can properly be envisaged, it must be converted into a narrative, a hi/story. I will return to this. In an important sense, therefore, history comes before the past! To be comprehended, the past must be given a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end (even if that end is not really an end but simply the present – a deferred ending).

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away

A simple thought experiment illustrates this further. At any given time, we can conceive of yesterday in general abstract terms as “the day before today” but before we can have any real grasp of it, for example in writing up a diary, we have to decide upon what things happened that give shape to that general concept, in other words the things that turn it into a narrative. It may be that one simply selects the main structuring events of the day: got up; had breakfast; went to work; came home; watched TV; went to bed. It might be that, as here, these things have no especially marked “plot” to them; they are just the things that happened: a sort of bare chronicle.[i] But even here the meaning of the events takes shape not just from their naming (“breakfast”, “work”) but from their sequence and juxtaposition. That record gives shape and meaning to the abstract twenty-four hours of “yesterday” and turns it into the narrative of an ordinary day. There has still been selection. This is hardly a record, even a chronicle, of the whole day. A selection of what, at the time, we thought mattered has been made. All the conversations at work and at home, the details of the trip to and from work, what was on the telly, what was eaten for breakfast (and lunch and dinner have even been omitted) and many other things have been left out.

Now suppose that, having written our diary for the previous day, we have breakfast, go to work and are summoned to see the boss. We are then told that we’re to be made redundant. Now yesterday goes from being a dull day, its hours frittered and wasted in an off-hand way, to being “my last day in the job”. From being just another day those twenty-four little hours now acquire an added, perhaps even a certain tragic, quality. The diary could be amended accordingly. Certainly, how our diarist saw that day would change importantly.

Let us continue the experiment. Suppose that the person who asked you the time at the bus stop yesterday, and with whom you had a brief exchange of pleasantries, began to be a regular at the bus stop, someone you got to know, and who in time became your husband/wife/partner. Something that didn’t even seem worth recording on the day it happened and possibly for some time afterwards becomes a major shaping event of your life. The dull day has become the day you met your partner, possibly one of the most important days of your life – one would like to think so. Yet, when that event happened, at the time that that “history” was made, you didn’t even notice it. Only later did it become part of a history that made you who you are. Any number of variations on this basic scenario are possible, turning a bland unit of time into a key structuring element of the history of a life. The occurrences that matter have been chosen and placed in order (sometimes, of course, they are moved out of chronological sequence, whether deliberately or otherwise[ii]).

Note, though, that – underlining the point made earlier – the events, the elements themselves, do not change; only how one characterises them, how one selects them and positions them within the narrative, and how one casts that narrative. Events rarely carry an inherent meaning – those that do are often the really traumatic ones. If we return to the diarist, losing her job that day may have been the beginning of a long period of unemployment and of being treated, in spite of one’s best efforts, as an idle scrounger by tabloid editors, journalists and their readers and by populist Conservative (and Labour) governments. Every moment of that conversation with the boss, every vain attempt to keep the job, to talk the boss out of her decision might become etched on the memory; the last day at work becomes a poignant twenty-four hours. Alternatively, though, the diarist might have gone home and applied for another job, been successful, risen to the top of the company, met her partner and lived a very happy period of her life. In that case, one doubts that any especial elements of the redundancy conversation are remembered and the event itself becomes something of a happy moment of transition to something better. And didn’t I show her in the end? That “last day at work” remains just as it was remembered at the start of the following day, as a boring, barely-remembered twenty-four hours. But in all the different scenarios just set out it happened just the same, in just the same way.

In the tale of Thurbrand and Uhtred, the “Northumbrian feud”, the same procedures were followed. A selection was made (whether by the anonymous writer or his informants) from a vast number of different events and this was then arranged in a sequence to form the story of a feud, culminating in the tale of how Earl Waltheof avenged his grandfather. Had the author or his sources been more inclined to support Carl’s family, one imagines that it would have been constructed in a very different way, probably from a different selection of past happenings.[iii] This compels us to think more closely about storytelling and especially about its linguistic and literary aspects.



[i] D. Brown, The American West (London 2004), p.26.

[ii] Simon Schama, ‘My Vision for History in Schools’. The Guardian, 9 November 2010 (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/nov/09/future-history-schools accessed 8 July, 2017). Schama was educated at a public school (Habadashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School) and Cambridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Schama#Early_life_and_education.  Schama is an exceptional historian by anyone’s definition but it takes that particular (and peculiarly British; as discussed below, p.000-n.000) kind of socio-cultural capital to take to the national newspapers to instruct teachers how to do their jobs, without having held any kind of educational post in the UK since 1980.

[iii] Dir.  D. Hickox (1979).  The movie culminates in a slaughter of Britain’s favourite character and TV actors (including – as well as token Hollywood star Burt Lancaster – Christopher Cazenove, Phil Daniels, Denholm Elliot, Bob Hoskins, Peter Vaughan, Simon Ward “and many more”) on a scale unsurpassed before the Great Celebrity Mortality of 2016.  In other cinematic trivia, Zulu Dawn may have occasioned the first use of the term “prequel”, a film telling the back-story to an earlier movie (in this case Zulu, dir C. Endfield, 1964), though another 1979 move, the banal and unnecessary Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (dir. R. Lester), also has a claim to that title.  I’ll have more to say about prequels. 

[iv] I. Knight, ‘The Zulu Wars Part 3: 1879’, Miniature Wargames 18 (November 1984), pp.39-43, at p.43.  Knight went on to be the pre-eminent authority on the Anglo-Zulu War (see p.000, n.000, above).  Knight’s cinematic judgment was certainly not based on pro-British/Imperial sympathies.

[v] Zulu Dawn made focused its story on Lt the Hon Standish Vereker, whom it depicts escaping the battle and, with his (presumably) dying shot, killing the Zulu making off with the captured British flag.  Vereker played a minor and little-documented role in the battle before being killed in the camp, shortly after having gallantly given a horse to an African soldier to escape on.  Ironically, and somewhat cruelly to Vereker’s memory, this episode is obviously not depicted.  “Boy” Pullen, played as a callow and nervous recruit by then twenty-year-old Phil Daniels was based on Quartermaster James Pullen.  Pullen, though, enlisted in 1851 and thus, at iSandlwana, must have been well over twenty years older than Daniels’ character.  Conversely, Zulu featured thirty-nine-year-old Nigel Green (a commanding 1.85m [6ft, 1”] tall) as a phlegmatic Colour Sergeant-Major Frank Bourne, who was actually only twenty-four at the time of Rorke’s Drift, only 1.6m (5ft, 4”) tall and nicknamed “the kid”!  The decision by Zulu’s script-writers to portray the upright teetotaller Private Alfred Henry Hook VC as a dissolute, malingering drunk raises rather different ethical questions, even if it did provide James Booth with his career-defining role. Knight, Zulu Rising.

[vi]  And, in so doing, doubtless condemned themselves to never getting beyond a screen-play.  Rigorously historically-accurate portrayals of battles rarely make great cinema.  See, e.g., Gettysburg (dir. R.F. Maxwell, 1993), which, while sometimes visually spectacular, doubtless represents four hours (244 minutes) irretrievably lost from the lives of viewers not interested in Civil War minutiae or typologies of mid-19th-century facial hair.  I loved it.

[vii] This is especially true in periods like late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages which are heavily reliant upon archaeology for much of the “big picture”.  This is not because of the “dramatic discoveries” beloved of the media but because the gradual assembly of information from excavations permits, in kaleidoscopic fashion, quite different pictures to emerge.

[viii] The point is nicely made satirically by The Onion’s review of Captain America: Civil War (https://www.theonion.com/the-onion-reviews-captain-america-civil-war-1819595940 accessed 17 November 2017) which notes that while some characters are known to viewers from earlier films, the directors had failed to make the other 2,500 films necessary to explain the back-stories and motivations of all the other people who appear in the movie, thus (allegedly) rendering the latter entirely confusing.

[ix] See below, ch.2

[x] To adapt Jacques Rancière’s account of Furet’s view of the significance of Louis XVI’s execution. J. Rancière, The Names of History, trans. H. Melehy (Minneapolis, 1994), p.39. On Rancière and history, see O. Davis, Jacques Ranciere (Cambridge, 2010), pp.36-73

[xi] Explain Whig history

[xii] Above, pp.000-000.

[xiii] I have no idea whether or to what extent this would be feasible; I’m not a schoolteacher.

[xiv] It seems to me that most arguments for the value of “cultural literacy” have in any case been undermined by the existence of Google.com and 4G wifi technology

[xv] Probably nearer 3,000 for what it’s worth; it still left the defenders facing odds of nearly 30:1.

[xvi] One episode in the film that, broadly, conforms to the accounts of what happened.

[xvii] Three Zulu amabutho (loosely, regiments) at Rorke’s Drift – the uThulwana, the nDloko, and the iNdlondlo – were formed of men born between c.1830 and c.1835, so in their mid- to late forties.  The other imbutho, the iNdluyengwe were comparative youngsters in their early thirties. I. Knight, The Anatomy of the Zulu Army from Shaka to Cetshwayo 1818-1879 (London, 1995), pp.265-7.  Before launching their attacks, these men had walked and (mostly) run 18km and crossed a flooded river, on an empty stomach. Knight, Zulu Rising, p.594.

[xviii] The story comes from an anonymous source called the De Obsessio DunelmiConcerning the Siege of Durham (a misleading title as the siege of Durham hardly features in this short but interesting tract). Refs

[xix] See further, below, ch.5.

[xx] Compare Geschichte, histoire, storia, historía, história, etc.

[xxi] See above, p.000, n.000.

[xxii] References

[xxiii] See, further, below, pp.000-000

[i] See above, p.000,

[ii] Modern scholars don’t do this, intentionally at least, but it happens regularly, alongside the confusion and conflation of events, in the sources upon which they base their analyses and it is frequently impossible to know if or when this has happened. In Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages this is a particular problem even at the level of high politics, but it is hardly confined to periods where documentary evidence is comparatively restricted. Exactly the same issues occur when looking at accounts of modern events. To return to the Zulu War example with which I started, the point is more than adequately illustrated throughout Knight’s examination of the surviving accounts of iSandlwana and Rorke’s Drift: Knight, Zulu Rising.

[iii] See chapter 5, below