The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David; oil on canvas, 1787. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

In defence of narrative history

Stories make scholarship human

Just about the worst insult one academic can throw at another is the phrase “you write like a journalist”. The problem is not using short sentences with strong verbs, nor a structure that puts the most important information first. It’s much worse than that: journalists narrate. They tell people stories about what happened. Narrative, as readers may have noticed, has long been out of fashion in academic history.

It wasn’t always thus. 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke (now himself deeply unpopular) spoke of writing history “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”, as it actually was. He rejected the notion that it was the historian’s job to judge the past or instruct the present. This empirical school of history arranged facts into narratives, to the end that we might come to understand the universal aspects of history whilst still taking delight in the particular. 

Mid-20th century historians like Fernand Braudel, Walter Benjamin and E.H. Carr opposed Rankean historical empiricism along various lines. Though their historiographical theories differed, what each had in common was a thoroughgoing relativism — a rejection of the idea that history is an accretion of facts that can be built into anything like an empirical framework or used to produce a narrative about how events actually happened in the past.

Narrative history can be scintillating, exciting, absorbing — and utterly wrong

Carr et al’s critiques of historical empiricism were not wholly wrong. Historians don’t — and can’t — stand outside of history. The way they understand and recount history really is influenced by the political, cultural and social milieu in which they write, if only because human beings are human. They have finite attention, which they tend to focus on things that interest them. However, in attacking the very basis of narrative history — by rejecting the notion of historical contingency and even the idea that there are such things as intrinsically important historical facts that one can gather in order to narrate them — Carr and his contemporaries set the stage for its demise.

Of course, even historians like me who have very little sympathy for the relativist school of historiography would agree that narrative history can be scintillating, exciting, absorbing — and utterly wrong. Readers of Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) or Sir Steven Runciman’s three-volume A History of the Crusades (1951–54) might believe that these exquisitely detailed and yet rollicking narratives are at the same time providing them with an historically accurate view of the Italian Renaissance or the Crusades. They would be wrong. Whilst the “historical facts” cited by Burckhardt and Runciman are not arbitrarily determined to be such based on their personal agendas, as Carr would argue, the way they construct their narratives is certainly biassed. Readers will learn a lot more about the mental furniture of Burckhardt and Runciman than about the subjects they nominally cover — without, however, realising this to be the case.

Much of the antipathy to narrative amongst modern academic historians turns on such examples of narratives that lead readers away from, rather than towards, a sound scholarly understanding of history. Better, it is thought, to present dispassionate analysis dispassionately, even if this bores the socks off a generation or three of historians, for narrative is a dangerous drug. Perhaps it’s been a price worth paying — or perhaps not. Inscrutable prose and an obstinate refusal to arrange one’s material in any comprehensible order is no guarantee of disinterested scholarship, as readers of many a modern history tome will agree.

Noticeably absent in the debate between empirical and relativist schools of historiography (and their many heirs and successors) has been an understanding of human psychology. Human beings learn, remember and communicate through storytelling. We use narratives in order to get dates, places and happenings straight in our head, and only then can we begin to get our heads round the nuance. One can’t analyse historical sources, let alone challenge existing interpretations of history, without knowing what they are and how they relate to one another.

Both professional and amateur historians can hopefully agree that whilst narrative is an essential place to start, it’s a bad place to end. Even the most scintillating narrative is meaningless unless it’s set in a wider analytical frame that helps us understand why the history matters. Narrative cannot come at the expense of analysis and critical engagement with sources, but neither can we analyse or critically engage with disconnected bits of who-knows-what.

After decades in the wilderness, narrative may be on the way back

May I propose a via media? Let’s have neither dust-dry empiricism nor mushy relativism, but something much better: proper narrative history. It is, I believe, possible to write an interesting narrative that is also academically sound and acts as a basis for analysis and source criticism. It is possible to give schoolchildren and the reading public an accurate narrative on which to hang the rest of their understanding, without forcing them to de-construct historical sources for themselves almost before they have any conception of the events to which they relate.

The best academic history already does this, as does the best popular history. After decades in the wilderness, narrative may at last be on the way back. Teaching in schools has yet to catch up, however. Don’t even mention Michael Gove’s disastrous “reforms” to history education, which have killed the intrinsic love of history in many a schoolchild over the last decade.

Like any via media, the one I propose is a narrow path. Narrative is a dangerous drug, and it can be used to shape our understanding of history either for good or ill — often in ways that escape our conscious notice. Nevertheless, if we want to get and keep people interested in history — which is, after all, the most fascinating thing anyone can study — we could do much worse than to try giving them a proper narrative.

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