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Monday, 25 March 2013

History Never Happened

[This is the next rough draft instalment of my work in progress, Why History Doesn't Matter, which (currently) follows on from the second part of 'The Siege' (here).  Essentially the argument in this section (which is hardly novel or original, I admit) is that history - as opposed to The Past - doesn't exist until we shape 'the past' into 'history' in the present and that there are some key issues involved in history-writing that differentiate it from chronicling or description of the past.  This will lead (in subsequent sections) to a dissection of common justifications for history and an exploration of the ethical and political demands that inhere in history-writing.  The issue of remembrance and mourning, or a confrontation with what might seem to be the implication of the argument in this section, which is a trivialisation of events like The Holocaust, will be dealt with later.

I've no idea why the font changes part-way through and then changes back again.  It's something to do with importing the file from my computer, but there you go.]

Thurbrand and Uhtred

To illustrate the difference between serious conceptions of history and popular presentations of the past, I offer a deliberately provocative-sounding epigram: history never happened.  To illustrate this, I will employ a tale written in twelfth-century northern England.[1]  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 East Riding of Yorkshire.  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.  Some time 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 but what makes it relevant to my argument is the way that historians have read this story as the tale of a ‘feud’: a vendetta with each murder justified by the last and justifying the next.  In other words, they have seen the characters in this tale as impelled to act by the past events that weighed upon their shoulders.  In this way of seeing, individuals were bound to act in particular ways because of the demand of the ‘blood-feud’.  They had no choice; such was the burden of expectations about honour and duty weighing upon them.  They are prisoners of their history.  For these reasons, what we can call the Northumbrian ‘feud’ can stand as a useful illustration of common conceptions of the individual’s relationship to history.  A person is constructed by the events of the past; her identity is forged and defined by those events; membership of a group is determined by shared memories; actions are largely explained as brought about by specific historical inheritance, or heritage.  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 commonly also used as the word for ‘a story’.[2]  The account also shows that how we choose to tell that story is crucial.  This point is often associated with the ‘post-modern’ turn in historiography but it has actually been made since the very earliest days of what we might think of as modern history-writing.  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 episodes in the story of the Northumbrian ‘feud’ sound unproblematic, linked by a straightforward chain of cause and effect unfolding through time.  They fit the model of early medieval man, caught within a web of relationships and demands, not of his own making but inherited from the past.  In fact, though, long gaps separated the acts of violence.  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 ‘some time later, the grandson of Earl Ealdred, Earl Waltheof, … avenged the killing of his grandfather with the utmost slaughter.’  Some time 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. 
These four acts of murderous violence were thus spread over fifty-eight or fifty-nine years.  Most were separated by at least a decade.  A fairly long list of other lethal episodes can be compiled for Northumbrian history in this period – several are mentioned by our source.  They involve some of the men and families involved in the story of the ‘feud’, largely because these were prominent families competing for political authority, but as far as we know they did not result in vendettas.  This casts doubt on the idea that eleventh-century people really were governed by the demands of blood-feud.  Furthermore, if blood-feud compelled individuals to act to defend family honour, as we are often given to believe, the Northumbrian events make even less sense; some of the people involved were almost as closely related to the people they were killing as to the people they were (allegedly) avenging.
A lot of selection is going on here, from a background of violence and killing, in order to create this story, this long, unilinear saga of murder and revenge.  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; it never actually happened.
When Waltheof slew Carl’s sons it is very likely that he said he was avenging his maternal grandfather, appealing to the notions of vengeance that existed at the time.  Similarly, when Carl killed Ealdred it is likely that he justified this in terms of avenging his father, Thurbrand’s, death at Ealdred’s hands.  Yet, each episode of the Northumbrian ‘feud’ can be explained according to the precise political circumstances that pertained when it took place.  Uhtred’s and Thurbrand’s families were important Northumbrian kindreds, members of which occasionally found themselves in competition for authority.  This region was distant from the power-centres of the eleventh-century kingdom of England so such rivalry was frequently resolved violently.  The principal aim of each act was to remove a rival, not to avenge the murder of a long-dead kinsman.  The deed was then justified by appeal to such a past wrong.  Put another way, the actors in the story played for very specific stakes grounded in the politics of the present but legitimised and explained their actions by selecting an event from the past.  This, they claimed (rather than the desire to own more land in Teesdale, for example), compelled them to do what they did.  The past, in their view, absolved them of responsibility for wrong-doing in the present.  They depicted their deeds as having been motivated by a higher principle. 
The so-called Northumbrian feud neatly illustrates how people relate to the past and how they connect their conception of the past to their actions in the present.  The past is used today not very differently, if at all.  The past is dead and gone and is (beyond the ‘aesthetic moment’ discussed in chapter 1) incapable of exerting any force or pressure on anyone.  That – perhaps rather obvious – point is the cornerstone of this book’s argument.  When we say we are defined by the past, let alone prisoners of the past, we are in fact saying that we choose to define ourselves, or to constrain our own actions, according to our conception of what happened in the past.  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.  So, in an important sense, 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 may serve as a further illustration.  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 (we will return to the issue of chronicling).  But even here the meaning of the events takes shape not just from their naming (‘breakfast’, ‘work’) but from their sequence.  ‘Came home, went to bed, had breakfast’ would not usually make much sense (unless of course one worked the night shift and had breakfast in bed). 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, we have breakfast, go to work and are summoned to see the boss.  We are then told that we’ve been 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 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 I met my partner’, possibly one of the most important days of your life – one would like to think so.  Yet, at the time that that event happened, at the time that that ‘history’ was made, you didn’t even notice it.  Only later does 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. 

Note, though, that the events, the elements themselves, do not change; it is 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 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 years 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 a boring, unremembered twenty-four hours.  But it happened just the same, in just the same way.  The historical Real, the un- (or pre-) symbolised mass of ‘things that happened’, the past, is always in its place.

Another variant future allows us to see the issue of how histories are made more clearly.  Suppose that, after a month or so on the dole the diarist gets a new job, similar to the last, and her life continues roughly as before.  How, and even whether, she remembers losing her old job is entirely a personal issue.  The act of being made redundant can be seen as a great personal affront or with equanimity as a hard decision that had to be made; the boss might become viewed as a personal enemy, even (or perhaps especially) if thought of in a friendly light earlier, or her standing in the eyes of the diarist might not change.  The diarist might still blame herself for not working harder, even though in fact she was a model employee, or retrospectively build herself up into a perfect company worker despite in reality having been a feckless slacker who was always likely to be first in line if job-losses had to be made.  And of course none of these histories is even capable of knowing the actual personal motivations of the boss herself, or the details of the company finances, etc.

These scenarios, at a micro level, illustrate the relationship between time, experience, record and the creation of history.  Such meaning that events have depends upon their place in a retrospectively constructed narrative.  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); their meaning depends on their juxtaposition with the other events selected within the type of narrative told; and that type of narrative depends entirely upon the contingent attitude of the narrator/rememberer.  However they are seen later on, though, at the time the events in the story were experienced in exactly the same way.  This is exactly how histories are made and written.  In the tale of Thurbrand and Uhtred, the ‘Northumbrian feud’, the exact 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.

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 just 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.

None of the foregoing represents a startling new departure in ways of thinking about the past and history, although it still makes some people uncomfortable.  After all, a removal of responsibility for present actions through placing the blame upon an inherited history is fairly comforting.  What the discussion shows is that the past in itself has no weight.  Being dead and gone it is as light as air.  What weighs upon us is our own creation of a past, our own choices of how to see the past; our own decision to see ourselves and our actions as made by the past.  The purpose of this book is to show how we should liberate ourselves from these notions as a means towards a freer future.  This means rethinking why we do (or should do) history: ‘why history matters’. 

[1] 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).
[2] Compare Geschichte, histoire, storia, historía, etc.


  1. Guy that is great. Top stuff. Brilliant deconstruction of the feud like we saw in last term's seminar - but then the second diary example brings it home. I'll be pre-ordering this book.

  2. Past more than a year. Hope don't bother you.

    Well, first of all: great post series. As a history student in formation, I think you deal with capstone problems about the History today. Thanks a lot for sharing this ideas with us (and I am eagerly waiting the whole book).

    But (always have one...): I don't think that English is the "only western European language where the word for ‘history’ is not commonly also used as the word for ‘a story’ ". Portuguese differentiate too: we have "história" and "estoria", in a sense much close to the english sense I think. Although, to say the truth, this different senses had going too broader in last decades (and it is interesting thinking about it, a signal perhaps?).

    That's it. Don't think I'm writing with a nationalist spirit or that I was offended. Far away from this. It's only a sentiment of approval. I really want the text might be improved.

    Good luck at UCL lecture next week and, if possible, share the text in the blog. Your writing is always intriguing (even when you poke Dawkins).

    All the best!

    PS: Sorry for the bad english.


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