Thinking About History
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Thinking About History

Sarah Maza

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eBook - ePub

Thinking About History

Sarah Maza

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What distinguishes history as a discipline from other fields of study? That's the animating question of Sarah Maza's Thinking About History, a general introduction to the field of history that revels in its eclecticism and highlights the inherent tensions and controversies that shape it.Designed for the classroom, Thinking About History is organized around big questions: Whose history do we write, and how does that affect what stories get told and how they are told? How did we come to view the nation as the inevitable context for history, and what happens when we move outside those boundaries? What is the relation among popular, academic, and public history, and how should we evaluate sources? What is the difference between description and interpretation, and how do we balance them? Maza provides choice examples in place of definitive answers, and the result is a book that will spark classroom discussion and offer students a view of history as a vibrant, ever-changing field of inquiry that is thoroughly relevant to our daily lives.

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World History




Who are the actors of history? Until a few generations ago, the answer seemed self-evident. The “makers of history” were men with the power to affect the course of events in the world around them. The rulers, military commanders, and other leaders of past societies mattered more than anyone else because they made the decisions that shaped the experience of thousands or millions of their contemporaries. When individuals hold that sort of sway, their lives can seem indistinguishable from the history of their times. People write and read the stories of Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler, or Mao Zedong as organizing principles for the history of their times.
Widespread interest in the history of “great men” (and sometimes women) is very much alive today: best-seller lists in the United States nearly always include biographies of American Founding Fathers and presidents, or of admired or controversial figures like Winston Churchill or Marie-Antoinette. The success of this type of historical writing is due to the very genre of biography. To the general reader, history books can sometimes seem abstract or confusingly detailed. Connecting the events of a period to the life of a prominent individual gives both shape and color to the past. Readers who might otherwise be intimidated by the history of the Russian Revolution are drawn in by the dramatic destiny of the last tsar, Nicholas II, brutally executed in a basement room along with his wife and five children by the Bolshevik authorities.1 Historical biography thrives not just because it makes for great reading, but because the actions and personalities of some individuals did have a defining impact on their contemporaries. This is especially true for all-powerful rulers in political systems characterized by a porous boundary between private and public life: who would deny the impact on English history of Henry VIII’s erotic and dynastic obsessions? Henry’s decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Ann Boleyn, thereby precipitating the English Church’s break from Rome and unleashing generations of confessional violence, is a classic instance of a deliberate choice by a single individual that unquestionably shaped the religious, social, political, and diplomatic life of his contemporaries and of later generations.
The oldest histories, in most world cultures, center on political and military leadership. In the West, from classical antiquity to the comparatively recent past, the “who” that mattered most to historians was a nation’s leader, and the most important activity of that leader was the waging of war: classic political history has overlapped considerably with military and diplomatic history. From Herodotus to last week’s crop of books about Abraham Lincoln, the extraordinary leader enjoys a loyal following of scholars and readers for whom his deeds offer history’s most thrilling episodes. Implicit in the “great man” genre (which includes a sprinkling of “great women” like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Indira Gandhi) is often the view that the actions of a single individual can shape an era, and the corollary that without them events would have unfolded in a completely different manner.
It is of course possible to take the view that “great men” are mostly the products of circumstance. In the late 1790s the French had just lived through a revolution that left the country bitterly divided and the political class mostly discredited and ineffective. The only thing going well for France was a European war in which a mass of fervently patriotic citizen-soldiers regularly routed their opponents. Generals enjoyed far more prestige than politicians, and the latter came to rely on the former for political support. Under these circumstances, was it not extremely likely that someone like Napoleon Bonaparte would seize control of the nation, even had it been a military leader less brilliant and charismatic than the diminutive Corsican officer? Was it a stroke of extraordinary good luck that Nelson Mandela, a shrewd, widely revered, and generous leader, was at hand to oversee South Africa’s transition out of apartheid in the early 1990s, or was the historical moment just right for such a figure to emerge? “Personality or circumstance?” is a traditional topic for classroom debate, an ultimately unanswerable question that is good for getting students to line up social and political conditions on one side and personal traits on the other, and to think about the connections between them.
While most people would acknowledge that circumstances play at least some role in the emergence of remarkable figures, many of us are still beholden to an idea of individual “genius” inherited from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western culture.2 Even the most committed social determinists are easily mesmerized by individuals as obviously exceptional as Martin Luther, Mohandas Gandhi, or, in a different register, Adolf Hitler. As the example of Luther suggests, the “great man” approach to the past has not been limited solely to rulers and political leaders. While political and military matters are the oldest subjects of historical writing (think of the book of Kings in the Old Testament, or Homer’s stories of the Trojan War), the history of ideas, broadly defined, runs a close second. Here too, major historical changes in the way we think and believe are commonly chalked up to the genius of individuals like Confucius, Copernicus, Karl Marx, or Simone de Beauvoir. Elements of change may have been in the air, but it took that exceptional individual—the Adam Smith, Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Steve Jobs—to formulate the “idea that changed the world.” Intellectual “geniuses” have been the objects of traditional history for the same reason as political and military leaders: the assumption that the most interesting or most significant lives in our past are those of exceptionally gifted and influential people.
Asking “whose history?” amounts to pondering what sphere of human activity matters. For a very long time the answer to that question seemed obvious: the history that counted was about politics, and “politics” was defined as the exercise of, or struggles over, public power. In the West until the eighteenth century, the only conceivable political history was that of legitimate dynasties, princes, monarchs, and established ruling families like the Medici in Florence. The family trees of rulers might get trimmed, pruned, staked, or even cloned by struggles between family branches or the claims of upstart pretenders, but roughly the same horticultural entity remained in place. In the late 1700s the American and French Revolutions inaugurated a tree-chopping tradition that expanded the canon of “great national leaders” to include individuals who fundamentally challenged and sometimes destroyed established political systems. Political histories thereafter included oppositional or revolutionary heroes like Robespierre, Ho Chi Minh, and Martin Luther King, whose leadership credentials frequently offer some combination of political, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions.
No ruler or leader exercises power in a social vacuum, and in much of traditional “top-down” history they share the limelight with a “ruling” or “political” class. The biographical enthusiasm of historians has always extended to powerful individuals like ministers, royal advisers, and leading military commanders in absolute monarchies, prime ministers and influential politicians in mixed systems like the British one, and a larger cast of characters in democracies. Even dictators have close collaborators whose actions are grist for many narrative mills. Leaders and their associates always operate within a larger group of elite political actors making up a royal or princely court, a presidential cabinet, or some form of representative assembly. Historians have for centuries chronicled the activities of men and women in those settings.
Until about half a century ago most professional historians believed that the history of leaders, political elites, and state-related activity was the one that mattered most, and indeed many people both inside and outside of academia are still of that opinion. Implicit in the traditional prioritizing of political history are a set of assumptions, all of which have been seriously challenged, if not necessarily overturned, over the last few decades: that the state and government are the most important arenas of human activity, that political leaders more than anyone drive historical change, and that “politics” is an activity that happens in the public sphere. Some champions of political history would go even further. The outspokenly conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has argued, following Aristotle, that political history should matter above all else because the state is where humans pursue their highest form of rationality, “reflected in the rational ordering and organization of society by means of laws, constitutions, and political institutions.” She approvingly cites Aristotle’s view that politics, which ultimately distinguishes humans from animals, is an activity that takes place in “the higher sphere of the polis where men achieve the purest expressions of reason in pursuit of the common good and ‘the good life.’”3


The discipline of history does not evolve through the abrupt and complete replacement of one type of history by another. Political history, with its emphasis on government and leadership, is alive and well today, and conversely, social history has appeared at various points in the past, most notably in the nineteenth century. In France from the 1820s on, historians inspired by the Revolution, like Adolphe Thiers and Jules Michelet, wrote histories in which groups like “the bourgeoisie” or “the people” were the main movers in an epic struggle against a selfish aristocracy, which led to the nation’s revolutionary birth in 1789. Leading English historians wrote “social history” long before the 1960s: Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 1848 History of England from the Accession of James the Second, a landmark chronicle of the nation’s progress through political emancipation, includes a section on England in 1685 that covers everything from social classes to coffeehouses, street lighting, and newspapers.4 Nearly a century later, in the midst of World War II, Macaulay’s great-nephew, the Cambridge historian George Macaulay Trevelyan, wrote a highly successful volume entitled English Social History. First published in 1942, Trevelyan’s book is a six-hundred-page account of social conditions in England from the Middle Ages to 1901, which like Macaulay’s covers a breadth of topics, from trade routes and population trends to marriage customs and diets. Leafing through Trevelyan you may come across stories of young girls in the age of Chaucer being beaten into accepting unattractive marriage partners, reports on upper-class drinking and smoking habits in the late seventeenth century, or a vividly imagined account of what life felt like (extremely damp, among other things) in a peasant home around 1750.5
The type of social history written by Macaulay and Trevelyan, which has equivalents in other national traditions, was clearly subordinate and accessory to political history.6 In Macaulay’s History of England the lengthy opening section on “the state of England in 1685” serves as a scenic backdrop to the significant action taking place center-stage, the political maneuverings of James II, William of Orange, and their associates. Trevelyan wrote his English Social History as a late-career outtake from his previous works of political history; it was intended to boost wartime morale in the country at large as a sort of Shakespearean paean to the land of thatched cottages and “stout yeomen.” The volume aptly illustrates Trevelyan’s much-quoted, controversial, and pithy description of social history as “the history of a people with the politics left out.”7 The older “customs and living conditions” tradition of social history epitomized by Trevelyan’s book is indeed notable for the assumption that “politics” is purposeful activity that happens only in the highest realm and is therefore absent from society at large. The poor and middling are presumed not to affect historical change; as a result, a book like English Social History reads like a series of picturesque descriptions rather than an argument or a story.
Ordinary people, then, have never been completely ignored by historians; before the mid-twentieth century, however, they were rarely regarded as significant actors of history.8 When they were effective as a crowd—at the Boston Tea Party, the siege of the Bastille, or the storming of the Winter Palace—historians celebrated them for advancing the purpose of their forward-looking superiors, while never acknowledging them individually by name.
In the 1960s all of this began to change as “normal” (political, diplomatic, military) history became part of a binary that academic historians referred to early on as “history from above” versus “history from below,” or “top-down” versus “bottom-up.” Suddenly, it seemed, everyone wanted to write history from the point of view of the masses rather than the elites. The destabilizing creativity of the new historical shift in perspective is perhaps best illustrated by the book that in 1976 marked the advent of something called the new military history, The Face of Battle by John Keegan. The experience of the common foot soldier had not been absent from previous military history, but Keegan’s book was the first notable work to make it the central subject of investigation and thereby to upend our views of how battles are fought, won, and lost.
In The Face of Battle, Keegan took issue with the dominant assumption among military historians that success or failure in warfare depends on leadership, command, and discipline. Combat, he points out, “is as complicated and multiform as any other sort of human activity, and given the stakes at issue more so than most.”9 Even courageously idealistic soldiers do not necessarily want the same outcome as do their commanders, and the most commonly cited motivations for combatants to advance in the face of great danger—training, coercion, solidarity with their brethren—often evaporate in the presence of actual danger. Battles, Keegan insists, are won and lost by armies rather than commanders, and the most significant task for a military historian is therefore to understand what battles felt like at “ground level,” what circumstances might cause soldiers to stand their ground or to break rank and run.
In a brilliant reconstruction of the battle of Waterloo, which Napoleon’s army lost to the Duke of Wellington’s on June 18, 1815, Keegan first recreates the physical state and experiences of soldiers on both sides. Exhausted from extensive marching the previous day, sleep-deprived due to overnight damp and cold, and poorly fed, the combatants’ senses were assaulted on the battlefield by the fog of smoke from black-powder weapons and the rattle of bullets on swords that sounded “like a stick being drawn across park railings.”10 Reactions of sheer terror are hardly surprising under such conditions. When the French Imperial Guard found themselves suddenly facing a British brigade that rose out of the fog at speaking distance, their column fell apart and retreated, even though they outnumbered their enemies. At Waterloo, British soldiers stood their ground much better than their opponents, owing, Keegan speculates, not to superior command but, on the one hand, to a combination of exhaustion and alcohol and, on the other, to square formations that made them feel protected by their comrades (though in actuality such large formations were prime targets for artillery shelling).11 Keegan’s work offers a vivid example of the insights that can be gained by shifting perspectives from the officers in tents and on horses to the men groping through black smoke. His work strikingly evokes the effect that ordinary people can have—albeit in this case involuntarily—on “great events.”
By the 1970s the subfield of “social history” was sweeping the historical profession in the United States (the expressions “history from below” and “bottom-up” fell out of favor for sounding judgmental or mildly salacious). In 1948 virtually no dissertations in social history had been filed in American Universities; by 1978 the proportion was one-quarter and growing. In the late 1950s the number of courses in social history offered each year at places like Harvard, Yale, Michigan, and Wisconsin ranged from zero to two; twenty years later those same institutions listed thirteen to seventeen each.12
Even in its heyday as the cutting edge of the discipline, however, there was little consensus as to what “social history” was or how to do it. One early popular view held that social history is the history of the social structure and that the best way to capture “society” is through the systematic gathering of the largest possible amount of comparable data about human beings in the past. History, in other words, should be approached as a social science. If one takes it for granted that numbers don’t lie, and that the bigger the sample the more it can be trusted, then the most solid truths about history must be found in large numbers. The upshot of this reasoning was the advent, and prominence for a time in the 1960s and 1970s, of what was known as quantitative history.
Quantification, still practiced by many historians, was initially a way of establishing the “scientific” credentials of social history. Collecting and comparing vast amounts of data and tracking variations over time provides unarguable evidence in a way that literary or descriptive evidence, of the sort Trevelyan used, does not. A notable feature of quantitative history is that its most reliable sources cluster in predictable areas. Authorities of various sorts in centuries past have kept track over time of economic activity, such as prices and yields, and recorded the major milestones in people’s lives, such as birth, marriage, and death. Governments started centuries ago drawing up censuses that allowed for more effective taxation, and modern democracies have usually kept track of the residence patterns and political choices of voters. Quantification, in short, works best for broad historical questions about population, the economy, and mass politics.
Sustained use of quantification in historical resea...