Policy Papers

Why history matters - and why medieval history also matters

John Arnold |

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Executive Summary

  • Why History Matters is a very welcome publication, but can be critiqued
  • Historians have long - always? - tended to feel that they are undervalued by a 'public' audience
  • The nature and scope of that 'public' has however changed over history; only recently has it been considered a mass audience, with a universal franchise
  • Connecting with this mass audience is necessarily a difficult task
  • One must be clear about the purpose of public engagement; if it is to be part of political discussion, this may have to embrace a particular political stance, rather than claiming to be a general public 'good'
  • Furthermore, any presentation of history may be received and interpreted in ways unintended by the public historian
  • History has more clearly been used by politicians as a source for policy legitimation rather than policy determination. Better history would not have saved us from the invasion of Iraq; only better politicians.
  • Pre-modern history presents some alternative reasons for why history matters, most often as a means to critique present certainties about what is 'natural', or 'necessary', or 'new'
  • History which successfully intervenes politically may have to be difficult and demanding rather than 'accessible' and bite-sized
  • History in Higher Education has long provided a path through which more demanding history reaches a wider audience of potential opinion-formers


Why History Matters is thought provoking and challenging, in its insistent and urgent call for a closer engagement between history and public political discourse. It makes a strong case that an informed and nuanced sense of history is an essential part of civic empowerment, developing the remit of 'public history' far from its default grounds of heritage and identity. My admiration notwithstanding, in this response to his book I would like to question some of the author's ideas and assumptions, consider some less welcome potential effects of political/historical engagement, and ask what the role of pre-modern history might also play.

The historian and the public

A grounding assumption of Why History Matters is the existence of an unwelcome and problematic gap between academic historians and the general public, a gap which has arisen as the profession has become increasingly specialised and marginalised in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This notion, however, strikes a number of ironic earlier echoes. When were historians and the public more closely conjoined? How far back must we look for our earlier golden age of authoritative and useful public history? George Macaulay Trevelyan, writing in 1903, claimed that:

Two generations back, history was a part of our national literature, written by persons moving at large in the world of letters or politics ... Of recent years, the popular influence of history has greatly diminished. The thought and feeling of the rising generation is but little affected by historians. History was, by her own friends, proclaimed a 'science' for specialists, not 'literature' for the common reader of books.


To head a little further back, Henry Thomas Buckle, writing his History of Civilisation in England (1857), begins confidently enough:

Of all the great branches of human knowledge, history is that upon which most has been written, and which has always been popular... This confidence in the value of history is very widely diffused, as we see in the extent to which it is read, and in the share it occupies in all plans of education.


However, Buckle - an extraordinary autodidact with no formal education - goes on to bewail the divisive specialisation of historians, and their subsequent inability to create and communicate grand analyses (something Buckle aimed to correct by discovering 'the principles which govern the character and destiny of nations').

One could multiply the examples, heading further back through time; there appears to be a recurrent tendency for historians to be seen (by themselves, or others) as unfairly separated from central public discourse. Thucydides begins his History of the Peloponnesian Wars with an 'apology' to (and simultaneous demand upon) his imagined reader:


The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but I shall be content if it is judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aide to the interpretation of the future... My history has been composed to be an everlasting possession, not the show-piece of an hour.


Here in the fifth century BCE we find an historian drawing a distinction between a spuriously entertaining 'public history' and serious 'proper history'.

The politics of 'relevance'

Note that Thucydides is particularly concerned with only a portion of his potential readership - those inquirers wanting an 'exact knowledge' rather than entertainment. The nature of the desired audience is what really matters here. The aspiring public historian's sense of purchase upon his or her readership has always been dependent upon the nature of 'the public' to whom he or she wishes to make connection. When the educated and political audience desired by historians was, of its socio-political nature, small, the sense of connection and influence was at its strongest. The pernicious phrase 'As every schoolboy knows' always implied only those public school boys who were taught Latin grammar, certain team sports, and indeed Thucydides. Connecting with them - and the governing class they grew up to become - was not so very difficult, for there were not so very many of them, and they were educated in much the same way. Connecting to the masses was always less simple, for they were greater in number, and the media by which they might be reached were more numerous and less predictable.

To put it another way, if one wishes to connect with a modern mass audience (as John Tosh does), we should not be surprised to find it a harder job than in years gone by, when 'the reading public' was unproblematically assumed to be a rather smaller group of elite individuals. As the franchise has widened, and the political public multiplied, the historian must necessarily struggle harder to get her or his voice heard. And depending upon one's political position, this may be both a good or a bad thing: harder for a liberal historian such as John Tosh to upset and complicate the received narratives of modern politics and thus potentially radicalise a general readership; but harder also for a conservative historian such as Paul Johnson or Jonathan Clark to programme patriotism and conservative values into a mass populace via a received national narrative.

One must then be clear about the purpose of public engagement. Does the historian aim (as Thucydides, and many thereafter him, considered themselves to have aimed) at simply providing a useful storehouse of examples for posterity? Or does one have to admit that any attempt to make history 'matter' to a wider audience must at some level commit to a particular politics, and this in turn must align with a particular interpretation of history? Whilst John Tosh is clearly liberal and left-leaning in his politics, Why History Matters makes an admirable attempt to incorporate the views of people with whom the author disagrees. But I am not sure that historians should be offering a synthesis view with which most members of the profession could agree. If our interpretations are not to some extent partisan, are they actually politically engaged at all?

Elsewhere I have made one claim for why history matters: that 'History gives us the tools to dissent'. This presupposes, of course, that we should dissent; the political position is written into the claim for history's importance. But the 'history' I envision here is less a storehouse of facts and examples, and more the critical ability to ask questions and demur from absolutes. There would be at least some support for this position in John Tosh's book. But even here, the passage from historian to public is fraught, for how the history we present is received is another matter. BBC History magazine, in its Behind the News slot, ran a feature on Youth Culture and Crime in January 2008, a major point of which was to demonstrate that contemporary concerns of 'crisis' had long historical precedents. A letter to that same magazine in May 2008 demonstrates how interpretation may vary from authorial intention: approving heartily of the piece, and acknowledging that "gangs are not a new phenomenon but have existed for centuries", the correspondent concludes that:


parents of our modern generation do not seem to take the matter of bringing up a family as an important priority ... it's the parents that need educating and bringing into line - not just their kids. Our past provides us with that example.


Even when agreed on 'the facts', the politics of reception may precede and overwhelm whatever 'challenge' one supposes history to present.

The dangers of relevance

I wonder how much of John Tosh's book is really a call for better politicians and a better press? One can nicely envisage a 'Bad History' column, as a complement to Ben Goldacre's award-winning 'Bad Science' column in the Guardian. More broadly however there are issues here of ideology and motive: is John Tosh calling for more history, or the right kind of interpretation? And, even if one goes along with an idea of a 'better' (more supportable) interpretation of the past, is it ever sufficiently strong to resist ideological reinterpretation? It seems to me that John Tosh is strongest when critiquing the inadequacies of current political interpretation, and weakest when mistaking legitimation for motive. On the last point, take the example of the close connection between President Woodrow Wilson and the influential American medievalist Charles Homer Haskins (a friend and political advisor to the president). Did Wilson implement a strongly interventionist state policy partly because of his awareness of Haskins's interpretation of the beneficial emergence of the high medieval state? Or were Haskins's views a useful means by which such policies could be legitimated? It seems to me that having more potential analogues upon which to draw when discussing land war in Asia (an example John Tosh discusses in detail) is not likely actually to affect policy decisions; only the means by which they are legitimated and sold to the public. Better history would not have saved us from the invasion of Iraq; only better politicians.

History does of course matter, and is of course political. But there is a danger that if one did serve up policy history, packaged and directed toward public political discourse, it would nonetheless remain re-appropriable by ideologies one opposes. And the possibility is that in so doing - in providing history 'fit for purpose' for politicians and media commentators - one allows the terrain of debate to be diminished, hedged in, and commodified. Sometimes history has to be difficult, because history is difficult.

The relevance of the pre-modern

Finally, when making history 'matter' to the public, is there a place for the pre-modern, or is it only contemporary history which has any clear political point? There are several ways in which the pre-modern matters perhaps even more than the last couple of centuries. Take any deep-rooted argument about nature, identity, nationalism and the like. Contemporary political ideology often grounds its authority through either a claim to radical novelty, or an assumption of what is 'natural' or 'traditional'. Only through a long view can these claims be successfully critiqued: for example, notions of what constitute a 'family' or the varying claims of nationhood or the disparate forms of collective social action through which many communities have prospered. Many influential political theories have based their claims about 'humanity' through a highly partial reading of history, frequently jumping from antiquity to the Enlightenment. The pre-modern again has a critical role to play here, for example in current debates about religion and politics, the 'West' and the 'East', grounded in part upon assumed caricatures of the medieval church and what changed with the Reformation. The middle ages has in fact been implicit to all arguments about modernity - it is that which is silently invoked by everything which proclaims itself 'modern' and 'western'. But too often the idea of what is 'medieval' owes more to Walter Scott and Hollywood than anything found in pre-modern archives. Medievalists have an important revisionary role here, when and where they are able to find a public voice.

Of course, none of this is an easy sale to politicians accustomed to thinking in five-year (or five-day) timeframes. But it can perhaps have some purchase on other 'opinion formers': those few journalists who read and reflect on the wider world, the researchers and producers of TV and radio shows, and most importantly, the next generations of undergraduates who will be taught by academic historians, some of whom may actually read and benefit from our obscure journal articles and arcane monographs. At Birkbeck, where I teach, the students come to study history because of their love for the subject and curiosity about the past. In their encounter with the pre-modern, their sense of what the world has been and could contain, and how that world has worked and could yet change, is necessarily broadened. This is itself political - and always has been.

This paper is an expanded version of a speech given by John Arnold at the launch of John Tosh's book Why History Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) at Birkbeck College, London, on 28 May 2008.

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