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A Stealing of Histories
on 18 December 2010
If you never read historical introductions and conclusions, then you should pay particular attention to John Burrow's introduction to A History of Histories. Burrow advocates his choice of historical method, which is indeed a surprising choice as the narrative form is considered obsolete and anachronistic in the writing of professional history. Burrow maintains however the work is "not exclusively devoted to narrative, but narrative has long been at the core of it" (xvi), and the reader should also abstractedly consider the "potentially illuminating questions" he cut from the final publication.
Narrative soon reveals itself to be difficult to consume. It quickly becomes repetitive despite Burrow's own attraction towards the dynamic material of history. There is very little to be learned from such history as it is merely an aggregation of facts bound up with literary artifice. Despite Burrow adding pedantic euphemisms to aggrandise the text, it fails to broaden or enliven A History of Histories: "So far so simple.... But inquiry, systematic research, is not the only characteristic of historiography. Another is the rendering of the results of the inquiry into connected historical prose: narrative" (3). Whether Burrow considers he is qualified to challenge historians or their work is relatively unclear, and would explain his failure to bring forth fresh interpretation for classically held ideas. It is this distinct lack of questioning history which abstracts the text, turning it into something other than history. Whether this is by design is also unclear. Plutarch is considered "psychologically complex" and no further examination of Plutarch's historiographical intensity is approached, and he is brushed aside because "one does not go to him for historical vision or explanation." (119). To compensate for this avoidance of complex issues Burrow instead relies upon literary artifice to substantiate his "grand-narrative", and for the untrained it seems Shakespeare and other fiction writers are utilised to further historical explanation: "Shakespeare followed Plutarch so closely, sometimes quoting the translation almost verbatim, that even for new readers they have an air of familiarity... though the prose works are more detailed." (118). We are therefore left in a large measure of confusion whether Burrow is calling upon the less complex Shakespeare to substantiate the validity of Plutarch, or whether Plutarch was giving credence to Shakespeare? Perhaps the worst aspect of all this inference and substantiation is Plutarch was writing biography: "Of everything other than thought, there can be no history. Thus a biography, for example, however much history it contains, is constructed on principles that are not only non-historical but anti-historical" (Collingwood, The Idea of History, 304). This not only controverts Collingwood but so too Burrow when he states he must exclude biography from his work (xvi).
This may be why Burrow leans upon literature in many areas of A History of Histories, because there is so much emotion and spectacle in prose it can enliven a relatively dry and static discipline: "the stories are indeed gripping" (Burrow, 121). This is the crux of Burrow's failing as he is bound up within the dramatic material of history and largely disregards the subtleties and the intricacies of historical thought. It may be unfair to be so critical for a historian trying to enliven the past, but when this enlivening impedes upon the nature of historiography, intervention must occur. Christian history for Burrow "seems hardly a history at all" which is correct, but to consider there to be "virtually no events" inhabiting a period of 800 years is clearly incorrect. One therefore has to assume Burrow does not go looking with any positive regard, and prefers to hang around the annals of the past awaiting some dramatic episode. Does Burrow really consider a period of relative peace to be an event undeserving of analysis? Collingwood examines the nature of this supposed peaceful period, seeing history splitting itself between the past and the future, and will divide again and again based on the structural basis of a critical event; the birth of Christ, with the opposing tendency being the death of Christ. Again and again the history divides, "to distinguish other events, not so important... but important in their way, which make everything after them different in quality from what went before" (Collingwood, 50). Therefore this continual folding of history becomes "epoch-making" historiography, into a definite fabric of time, a cohesive narrative with the fixed all-encompassing structural event at the centre and moving between the past, the present and the future to come: The Holy Trinity.
This concentration on the material of history soon blinds Burrow, and while he focuses upon the sin and venality that brought down civilizations, he quickly ignores the structural processes of historiography that brought about sin and venality and consequentially Christianity. These themes drift into the medieval period through a relativistic crusade between the French and the English. Although Gregory of Tours does seek to explain the Christian ethics of the Franks in the 800s, Burrow never considers it raises itself from the macabre and the disturbing. In contrast, the English writers of history in this period are bright, vibrant, and in one case, unbelievable. If this were the case of the time, then England existed in a relative Golden Age. Along with subtle jingoism Burrow also commits perhaps the greatest crime a historian can commit; bias. Examining the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth we sense Burrow is overawed by the mythic nature of Geoffrey, in particular the questionable history of King Arthur: "Arthur's historical credentials, in fact, are thin almost to vanishing point, but his legend, like the stories of the Greek heroes and the Iliad, and Aeneas and Romulus in Rome, is a historical fact of a kind - and an important one, in the sense that it powerfully influenced or even dominated the picture many people in Britain, including the English, had of their past, particularly from the twelfth to the seventeenth century" (232). The conjecture of Arthur, or Geoffrey, in some way runs parallel with the Bible. Both are stories handed down to the historian, both are authorless, and credible references are fairly non-existent; "Arthur is not dead but will return" (235). In conclusion we are left to judge Geoffrey in our own terms, and he is either a Geoffrey Chaucer or a historical empiricist of note, and we imagine Burrow prefers the later, especially in contrast to Gregory of Tours: "Gregory himself is hardly a great historian: he is too episodic, too uninterested in generalization and context, and takes too much for granted" (212).
The crimes against Burrow are too numerous to detail, but personally the greatest is the lifting of RG Collingwood's scheme from The Idea of History. It would seem obvious why Burrow has done this, but failing to improve upon this seminal work is unforgivable. Perhaps this was a concerted attack upon Collingwood's examination of scientific history, but his final chapter is another lifting of another work; Peter Novick's The Objectivity Question. Compact and condensed, but still a virtual copy of Novick's work on the American Historical Profession. If you are interested in history then you would be far better off reading the actual historians examined in this work, or seek out a competent historian who examines history and provides an empiricist examination of their chosen history. This work will only lead you astray.