The history of history

History changes. One might think that the only updates history books require is an additional chapter every few years to cover the last events. If one thought that, one would be wrong. We continue to learn more about our past, requiring revisions of our earlier writings about history. Consider the following examples:

  • In 2012, a construction project in England unearthed a skeleton that archaeologists and historians hoped might belong to King Richard III. The condition of the skeleton was compared to details known about the king, and careful study of the chemical composition of the bones was conducted; both kinds of tests demonstrated a convincing case that the remains were indeed those of Richard. Further chemical examination of the skeleton and studies of its form provided additional information about King Richard, including information about his diseases, his diet, and the injuries he sustained in his last battle. All this data helped to add details to our understanding of Richard III, of his life and death, and of conditions in England when he was alive.
  • Until recently, history textbooks reported that we can only guess at the number of slaves imported from Africa into the western hemisphere between 1500 and 1800. A team of young historians, aware that the slave trade was a business, went searching for business records. They found them. Historians now can say with confidence that twelve million slaves were sold and purchased from the African coast during those three hundred years—most of them sold by African tribes to European traders—and that nine million slaves were sold in the western hemisphere as part of the same trade. These numbers demonstrate that three million Africans died while being transported across the Atlantic Ocean in those three centuries—and their death was largely dismissed as part of the cost of doing business.
  • During the Roman Empire, a man named Ptolemy created a map and geography textbook of the inhabited world, to the best of educated knowledge at that time. Ptolemy included cities of Germanic groups in northern Europe on his map. For centuries, historians scoffed at Ptolemy’s invention of European cities, since historians knew he never visited that part of the world, and since other Roman soldiers described the German tribes as wanderers with no fixed abode. But when researchers decided to test Ptolemy’s claims, they found that the cities he located on his map were in the same location as some contemporary German cities. They then learned that ancient artifacts had been found in most of those cities. No one had ever considered the possibility that those were ancient German cities, since “everyone knew” that the Germans didn’t live in cities before crossing into the Roman Empire. Now the German heritage, and the early history of those cities, is better understood.

Earlier historians debated among themselves whether great people create history or history creates great people. Would the Christian Church have experienced a Reformation without Martin Luther? Would the American colonies have revolted against the British and later created a Presidency without George Washington? For some historians, history was essentially biography. For others, biographies distracted students from real history. Tolstoy in his novel War and Peace insisted that Napoleon was not a great man, that he was moved by historic forces he did not understand, and that his rise and fall would have happened to anyone who happened to become the leader of France at that particular time.

Current historians favor the latter approach. Recognizing the cliché that “the winners write the histories,” many historians work hard to learn about the losers and about those who were living ordinary lives at the time of great events. More than ever before, history focuses on the lives and conditions of people who never wrote a book, painted a masterpiece, led an army or a government, or sparked a new religion or philosophy. Modern science helps through its study of trace chemicals and of details such as pollen collected from various archaeological sites. Climate change can be traced in its warmer and cooler patterns by observing available crops in different areas, migration of people and of animals, and even studying tree rings. Global warming one thousand years ago made Viking settlements possible in Iceland, Greenland, and North America. When the planet cooled, those settlements were abandoned.

Karl Marx studied history as a battle between economic forces. Many historians today follow Marxist patterns by observing the contrasting economic situations of successful and unsuccessful civilized groups. Many historians focus on groups that were considered unsuccessful at the time. Today there are feminist histories, black histories, Native American histories, and many other efforts to document people who were marginalized in their own lifetimes and were incapable of writing and publishing their own histories, their own experiences, and their own perceptions.

Targeted studies of such groups have great value. At the same time, awareness of minority groups or oppressed peoples cannot fully replace the larger framework of history that has been built over the centuries. In earlier years, and in survey courses, students need to learn about the broad picture of human history. Given that broad picture, they develop an ability to evaluate and interpret the experiences of marginalized groups. Efforts to include these accounts within the basic and elementary presentations of history defeat the purpose of an educated society. Instead of creating a fuller and more accurate picture, these histories of oppression confuse students, distort their understanding of history, and crush their interest in learning more about themselves and their origins.

History of the marginalized and oppressed must continue to be studied and taught, but it must always be placed within the context of fuller history. It cannot be used as a substitute for traditional history lessons. The traditional history, even with its simplifications and other flaws, unites society and gives people a common ground, a place from which they can discuss the detailed nuances of history. Sacrificing traditional history to honor those who struggled and suffered, in the end, serves no good or worthy purpose. J.