The Blog

Why the Study of History Is Imperative Today

I love studying history. I don't think I will ever tire of it. It's exciting, it's full of drama and passion, heartbreak and victories: it has a better plot than any novel you can buy. There's nothing I love more than rifling through the wardrobe accounts of Edward IV or debating the implications of Richard III's actions.

I love studying history. I don't think I will ever tire of it. It's exciting, it's full of drama and passion, heartbreak and victories: it has a better plot than any novel you can buy. There's nothing I love more than rifling through the wardrobe accounts of Edward IV or debating the implications of Richard III's actions. There are many reasons why I think it is important to study history today, not least the old adage that we are doomed to repeat it otherwise, and for developing a sense of our own identity and heritage, as well as just purely for the love of it. Yet there is one overwhelming reason why it should be studied, which eclipses all of these, especially in the current climate. If you have truly understood the problems of historical interpretation, of distance, sources and the dangers of making assumptions, you have learned something very valuable for today's world.

History should teach us compassion. It should teach us not to assume, but to reserve judgement about people whose values and beliefs are different to ours. When it comes to looking back at the experiences of men and women who lived five or six centuries ago, we are forced to confront the barriers to understanding, the pitfalls of interpretation, of twenty-first century thinking against that of the medieval world. We learn that there are some things we have in common with our ancestors, and there are other things that make them seem very different. Basic human emotions don't change, so of course we can sympathise with their love and fear, their ambition and anger. We can connect with their aspirations for their children, their fear in battle, or in illness, we can understand their motivation of love or revenge. We might feel for Catherine of Aragon, losing child after child, while we can still recognise Henry VIII's desire to father a son. Centuries cannot change the passions of the human heart.

However, the way we make sense of those passions does differ. Interpretation is time-specific, dependent upon cultural and religious contexts that are very different from those of today. Although our ancestors experienced the same emotions we do, their methods of decoding and giving meaning to such feelings and events, were determined by a very different mental landscape. Quite simply, our wallpaper has changed. When we plan a journey, we might consult a map and pack a suitcase, whereas the medieval man or woman would ask an astrologer to suggest an auspicious day. If we have a headache, we can take an aspirin, explaining it by saying we're tired, or dehydrated, or our eyes are strained: we wouldn't automatically consider witchcraft and foul play. The distance of centuries shows us it is futile and potentially dangerous to attempt to decode the behaviour of others according to our own understanding, or lack of it. We can make leaps of imaginative and empathetic faith but we simply cannot imagine we know why people of the past thought and behaved the way they did, any more than we can assume we know the motivation of twenty-first century individuals and groups that are vastly different from our own. This is why questions such as why Mary I burned Catholics or why Elizabeth Woodville relinquished her second son to Richard III still elicit such judgemental, limited responses.

Of course, I use "our own" in a strictly white, feminist Western middle-class privileged way, in the knowledge that every individual's experiences and upbringing are different. As Frank Boaz, father of modern anthropology reminds us, we are all perceiving the world through a set of cultural glasses, the phenomenon he identifies as "kulturbrille," by which we decode our worlds and construct meaning. No one can escape this. Author Robert Anton Wilson informs us that we all exist in a "reality tunnel," which is a form of brainwashing, and the easiest way to be brainwashed is to be born. By definition, everyone's identity will set them in an oppositional relationship with at least one group, whether by gender, class, race, religion, location or simple luck, these different group will be their "others." There will probably be many of them, distanced by circumstances that are fixed at birth, or shaped by chance. It's often completely random. Six centuries ago, just as now, you could not control what gender you were born as, which family you arrived in, or the fortunes of your dynastic house; but even then you might marry, or change allegiance, or exert some degree of limited control over your ordained path. The court records are full of people who attempted to oppose their perceived fates, frequently with tragic consequences. In comparison, modern lives are infinitely more free, yet those freedoms are gifts, rather than rights, still denied to many. But we can at least be aware of our goggles. The study of history helps us identify them.

When we look at "others," whether through the lens of history or the "glasses" of our own times, at religions, races, countries to which we do not belong, it is in the differences, the "otherness" that we can see their humanity, and extend that understanding to "others" separated from us today not by 500 years, but by 500 or 5,000 miles. Studying the behaviour of people from the past, often devoid of context or surviving material, has taught me that I cannot judge what I do not know. This might be my neighbour, a politician, refugees, Syrian families. Yet there is hope. I can't go back and ask Richard III what happened to the Princes in the Tower, or read Anne Boleyn's lost diaries, to discover their secret motivation, but in today's world the differences are less final, less prohibitive, less distancing. We can understand each other through dialogue, by asking questions, by listening to the answers, by listening when people present their cases and recognising a sphere of human experience we have not yet entered into, whether these are campaigners for the rights of those experiencing problems in mental health, or child poverty, or the plight of refugees or those radicalised by extremist religions. Studying history has made me more politically aware, more compassionate, more willing to listen, more willing to see the similarities in "others" and embrace the important differences. Set against the problems of our modern world, the study of history as an academic discipline is essentially a luxury. And yet this vital aspect of it is an essential lesson in compassion and empathy, in the way we relate to the "others" we perceive to be a threat to our peace, our tolerance and our ways of life. As students of history we might just be able to use the past to determine our future.

Before You Go