The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 29, 2001
Lead Article

Dusting history off shelves & adding sparkle to the story
V.N. Datta

A FUNDAMENTAL question that a historian has to answer is how history ought to be written. This article raises issues that are of primary concern for all those interested in the reading and writing of history. There are never any final answers to any enquiry. History remains an interim report that is open for modification, and even dismissal, in favour of a new interpretation and appraisal.

There is good history and there is bad history! What is good or bad history depends on the historian’s perception of it. An ambiguous word, history denotes past events that no longer exist or writings about past events. Historians construct narratives to explain past events, which is why history is regarded as a reconstruction or resurrection of past events.


Nineteenth century Europe witnessed fierce controversies concerning history, science, ethics and education. Darwin’s theory of evolution produced strong reactions from the Church. Physical sciences had affected traditions and changed the religious and cosmological outlook of the educated world. J.B. Bury, a classical scholar, who had brought out a new edition of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire declared in his inaugural address in 1903 that history was science, no more, no less, and that it had nothing to do with literature.

Bury’s provocative remarks generated much controversy. He was completely disenchanted with the type of narrative history that Lord Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle had produced.

Macaulay’s History of England had been a great success and its famous fourth chapter was the pioneer of social history. Macaulay was the exemplar of the narrative history which gave primary importance to the role of imagination in the reconstruction of the past. However, mere possession of the elegant prose style was not to decide whether a given historian belonged to the literary school rather than the scientific one.

Historians who used the narrative method to reconstruct history concentrated more on the descriptive rather than the analytical. They took up broad themes, used literary skills of a high order, and gave a ‘feel’ of the times gone by in their compositions. Despite limited source-material and inadequate analysis, the narrative historians contributed substantially to the development of historical-mindedness. Their work acted as a corrective to some of the flaws extant in scientific analysis.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, largely due to the influence of German School of History founded by Leopold Ranke, narrative history which had gained ascendancy previously came under severe attack. Macaulay and Carlyle were no longer looked on as models to be emulated but were dubbed as ‘charlatans’ who touched only the surface of things. History was henceforth not to be treated as a branch of literature, but was an independent, autonomous discipline by itself, a rational mode of thinking that focused on explaining the past for its own sake in its totality. In the early twentieth century, the second attack came from Sir Lewis Namier and R.H. Tawney who emphasised that the historians should analyse structures rather than events. The French historians followed the same line.

Because of the shift from the narrative to the scientific mode of writing history, historians began to concentrate more and more on less and less. The underlying assumption of this shift in focus was that it was not enough to recreate the past but to analyse it. The scientific approach widened the scope of history and enriched it. History became a highly specialised field and sophisticated methods were used to illuminate the past. Historians began to ask a new set of questions. Questions and answers were regarded as co-relative in the scheme of historical knowledge.

The difference between the narrative and scientific type of history was not on ideology but on research, agenda, methodology and style. The scientific method made history a structural piece of analysis. Because of highly specialised new themes and technical virtuosity displayed in the use of evidence, history became almost a sub-section of science. The use of cliometrics deeply influenced the writings of social and constitutional history. Sir Lewis Namier in his study, Structure of politics at the accession of George III made a sophisticated use of the quantitative method of investigation, and gave a new perspective to the study of politics.

Historians have used techniques of analysis drawn from various disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and geography. Because of these diverse techniques, the nature of writing in history has undergone a substantial change. Instead of a general historian, we have now a technical historian trained in the austerities of historical discipline immersed in minute details. Long tables and graphs, numerous footnotes and strings of quotations drawn from diverse sources clog a free and easy flow of narrative. This type of history is a burden on memory and loses its educational value.

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur is right to speak of the ‘eclipse of historical narrative in our time’. In the platform of the so-called Annales school, there is now little space left for events, and the role of personality in human affairs.

It is not often realised that some of the fiction-writers substantially contributed to the understanding of the past. Sir Walter Scott not only invented the historical novel but widened the scope of history by showing a profound comprehension of the merits of different points of view which is one of the virtues of history.

In his novel A Passage to India, E.M. Forster showed profound sensitivity to the problem of racial cleavage that affected Indo-British relations, a theme on which professional historians have tended to provide only stereotyped representations. Tolstoy demolished the notion of the ‘Hero in History’, yet in his classic work War and Peace, he captured brilliantly the enigmatic spirit of the Napoleonic grandeur with economy of thought.

There are a number of professional historians, versatile in the technique of scientific analysis, who have produced first-class works of narrative history; and on the other hand, there are narrative historians who have maintained in their studies exacting standards of rigorous analysis. But, speaking generally, there exists a wide gap between the two approaches, the scientific and the narrative. Neither of these modes of research is sufficient to deal with the questions that concern historians. There is a need for methodological flexibility by striking a just balance between the two approaches. Historians should use all those possible techniques which enrich against which all historical works ought to be judged. There are other factors in historical evidence than are embodied in current interpretations of history. It is by reflections on such evidence itself which is usually neglected by historians that vital clues rise up like bubbles that help resolve some of the vital questions that concern writing of history.

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