On Reading Historians (Un-) Critically.

Historians, as a rule, like to trust historians.

Unless they’re from before 1990.

We like to believe that we are engaged in some joint endeavour – an attempt to clarify the events of the past, to record them for posterity. Mutual purpose, and shared ‘Method’, lead to assumptions of rigour and reliability.

Assumptions do not last. Historians of the not-so-distant past are declared ‘biased’. They are labelled ‘foundational scholars’ while we dismiss their conclusions, situated as they are in the intellectual decadence of the 20th Century. Virtually any historiographical trend can be mobilised as a method of dismissal – Hobsbawm is ‘too Socialist’, Braudel ‘too Annalist’, Clark ‘too Feminist’.

This worries me. I worry we are abandoning good histories, while ignoring the issues with their replacements.

Like Hobsbawm, like Braudel, like Clark, the historians of today are situated within a context. Ward-Perkins and European immigration, Darnton and the rise of anecdotal history, Hunt and 21st century gender constructions – historians are a product of their time.

Perhaps, if we are lucky, we will remember this in analyses of contemporaries.

And (perhaps, if we are sensible) we can find the value in those who went before.


(This ramble owes much to the essays of Lyotard, Kellner and Barthes found in The Postmodern History Reader, ed. K. Jenkins, London, 1997.)

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