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Some Thoughts on History

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Some Thoughts on History

Post  Susan Abernethy on Mon Jan 06, 2014 6:25 pm



Some Thoughts on History

It’s the start of a new year and I’ve been having some thoughts on history, what it means to me and what I’ve learned in the last two years.  http://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/was started about a year and a half ago and with all the learning I’ve done since then, I’ve had some revelations I’d like to share.  These opinions are entirely my own.

History is not an exact science!  Far from it.  In some cases especially the farther back you go, the records are so scanty, it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t.  And every historian has their own interpretation of these records.  You could have ten historians read a passage and you could get ten different ideas about what it means.  No one is 100% right when it comes to history.  When researching a post for the blog, I try to read as much about the records as I can and get one or more interpretations from other historians.  I then make up my own mind about what it means.  

History can change.  Nothing is written in stone.  There can be new discoveries or an examination of the old theories that make a new interpretation necessary.  This is perfectly normal and natural.  There can be archaeological finds that might change the records or confirm some interpretations.  Just look at the discovery of the bones of King Richard III of England.  Some records say he was a hunchback or deformed in some way.  Well, the bones verified that he did have a curvature of the spine.  Another example is portraits of people which many thought were one person but when the evidence is examined and other portraits compared, it turns out it might be someone else entirely.  As historians, we must keep an open mind.

One thing I have learned a lot about is sources for writing about history.  In this day and age there are so many sources available right at our fingertips.  As long as you have a computer, you can usually find what you need.  Personally, I always like to have books; real books that I can put my hands on.  I’ve always been a great reader and I take great pleasure in reading a history book.  And books have indexes that can help you find the information you need.  

There are many books online as well as magazine articles and other blogs.  I’ve had some really good luck with Google Books.  You can put in a search term and if there is a book that has information on that subject, those pages will come up.  This has saved me many times.  Another good source is online databases.  I recently signed up with my local public library and have found some good resources there.  The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has been very helpful and is available in the library of one of our local universities.  Access to it is free.  One nice thing about these databases and online articles is many times they have a list of sources at the end where you can explore a topic further.

Another pleasant discovery in doing all of this research is serendipity.  Serendipity is the accidental discovery of something pleasant, valuable or useful.  How many times have I found another interesting woman or fascinating battle or historical incident while doing research on another topic?  This is a big part of what makes history and research fun for me.  History is always fascinating.  Thank you to all the loyal followers and readers for joining with me here at The Freelance History Writer.
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Re: Some Thoughts on History

Post  Elena on Fri Jan 10, 2014 11:27 pm

Thank you, Susan, for this excellent commentary! I love you 

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Re: Some Thoughts on History

Post  Susan Abernethy on Sat Jan 11, 2014 1:57 am

Elena wrote:Thank you, Susan, for this excellent commentary! I love you 

You're welcome Elena. My favorite subject: History!  Wink 
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Re: Some Thoughts on History

Post  Bunnies on Thu Jan 16, 2014 1:37 pm

History is not an exact science!  Far from it.  In some cases especially the farther back you go, the records are so scanty, it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t.  And every historian has their own interpretation of these records.

No, it isn't! And it's frustrating that so many seem to believe it it. I cannot tell you how often I have encountered someone who has taken offense to an objection I had over their assertion of some historical factoid. "But I read in this book that---" Well, how novel for you. I've found books that say Anne Boleyn was a Protestant Martyr and some that call her a straying Catholic harlot; they can't both be true. But then comes the inevitable, 'So you just arbitrarily pick the argument that suits you!!' which is absurd; as though all jury trials in history have been decided by a flip of the coin in the deliberation room (though I'm sure some have). It's evidence, evidence, evidence against speculation, speculation, speculation.

Regarding the difficulties of more ancient historical epochs: you're right. It is difficult to construct a cohesive narrative with medieval records even with the most popular of figures; Eleanor of Aquitaine, for example, poses difficulties for even her most zealous of biographers. There's just not enough there to trace her life with the precision we can trace a more modern figure like Alexander Hamilton. But, on the other hand, Eleanor of Aquitaine's biographer is less likely going to have a political bias that alters their judgment of her person. [That said, someone may have a judgment as to whether Eleanor should have supported Richard or John, or "who was the better king" which would bring in the author's judgment of what makes a 'good king.' Conquest? Richard wins. Avoiding war? Well, John wins. However, I've rarely seen this analyzed so it seems more of an exception than the rule; but I'm not specialist.]  

To clarify what I'm saying, let's say after his presidential term, Barack Obama decides to become an historian. Coincidentally, Dr. Ron Paul dabbles in the same field. They both write a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Is Obama's evaluation going to substantially differ from Paul's? No. Medieval England isn't a political battleground and Liberal or Libertarian viewpoints are unlikely to alter any interpretation of fact. But let's say that Paul and Obama instead write mutual biographies on Alexander Hamilton. Oh, suddenly Paul is saying that Hamilton's economic policies doomed the United States to bankruptcy and sent it careening down the path of totalitarianism and Obama is saying that Hamilton's secured the individual welfare of millions of otherwise impoverished Americans. One is saying he doomed America and the other is saying he saved it. The facts haven't changed. The bias has.

[Ancient ancient history, such as the Roman Empire, has the dual problem of sketchy sources that blend myth and fact and a politically charged historiography, likely making it the most difficult time period to study. Which is why I....tend to avoid it.]

That's why it's important to use an historian's interpretation as a springboard to your own conclusions and not a substitute for the same. Frankly, I'd rather someone disagree with my interpretation after having done their own research than to blindly agree with me.


Last edited by Bunnies on Thu Jan 16, 2014 8:48 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Re: Some Thoughts on History

Post  Susan Abernethy on Thu Jan 16, 2014 1:41 pm

Bunnies wrote:
History is not an exact science!  Far from it.  In some cases especially the farther back you go, the records are so scanty, it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t.  And every historian has their own interpretation of these records.

No, it isn't! And it's frustrating that so many seem to believe it it. I cannot tell you how often I have encountered someone who has taken offense to an objection I had over their assertion of some historical factoid. "But I read in this book that---" Well, how novel for you. I've found books that say Anne Boleyn was a Protestant Martyr and some that call her a straying Catholic harlot; they can't both be true. But then comes the inevitable, 'So you just arbitrarily pick the argument that suits you!!' which is absurd; as though all jury trials in history have been decided by a flip of the coin in the deliberation room (though I'm sure some have). It's evidence, evidence, evidence against speculation, speculation, speculation.

Regarding the difficulties of more ancient historical epochs: you're right. It is difficult to construct a cohesive narrative with medieval records even with the most popular of figures; Eleanor of Aquitaine, for example, poses difficulties for even her most zealous of biographers. There's just not enough there to trace her life with the precision we can trace a more modern figure like Alexander Hamilton. But, on the other hand, Eleanor of Aquitaine's biographer is less likely going to have a political bias that alters their judgment of her person. [That said, someone may have a judgment as to whether Eleanor should have supported Richard or John, or "who was the better king" which would bring in the author's judgment of what makes a 'good king.' Conquest? Richard wins. Avoiding war? Well, John wins. However, I've rarely seen this analyzed so it seems more of an exception than the rule; but I'm not specialist.]  

To clarify what I'm saying, let's say after his presidential term, Barack Obama decides to become an historian. Coincidentally, Dr. Ron Paul dabbles in the same field. They both write a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Is Obama's evaluation going to substantially differ from Paul's? No. Medieval England isn't a political battleground and Liberal or Libertarian viewpoints are unlikely to alter any interpretation of fact. But let's say that Bush and Obama instead write mutual biographies on Alexander Hamilton. Oh, suddenly Paul is saying that Hamilton's economic policies doomed the United States to bankruptcy and sent it careening down the path of totalitarianism and Obama is saying that Hamilton's secured the individual welfare of millions of otherwise impoverished Americans. One is saying he doomed America and the other is saying he saved it. The facts haven't changed. The bias has.

[Ancient ancient history, such as the Roman Empire, has the dual problem of sketchy sources that blend myth and fact and a politically charged historiography, likely making it the most difficult time period to study. Which is why I....tend to avoid it.]

That's why it's important to use an historian's interpretation as a springboard to your own conclusions and not a substitute for the same. Frankly, I'd rather someone disagree with my interpretation after having done their own research than to blindly agree with me.

Amen Bunnies! I love the last line you've written here.
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Re: Some Thoughts on History

Post  Bunnies on Sun Jan 26, 2014 10:35 pm

You're welcome! And it is true; the most valuable thing we can lift from history is not names and dates per se but in how to study those names and dates. It's an exercise in thinking. If you can detect a bias in Josephus you can detect a bias on CNN. History is politics, it's economics, it's religion, it's everything we're still dealing with today. It's a tool to learn how to think and how to perceive our world today. And unfortunately, very few educators treat it as such.


Last edited by Bunnies on Thu Jul 31, 2014 4:12 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Re: Some Thoughts on History

Post  Kaitlyn Lauren on Thu Jul 31, 2014 1:07 pm

There are some great thoughts here! Smile

History has always fascinated me and it's great to see so that so many other people have an interest in it and endeavor to learn the truth, based off of facts and evidence, carefully avoiding biases and "painting a prettier picture."
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Re: Some Thoughts on History

Post  Susan Abernethy on Thu Jul 31, 2014 1:39 pm

Thank you Kaitlyn!
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