The Blog

The Historians Are Revolting


It's been a week where books have been put back on the shelves and the gloves have come off: historians have gone into overdrive following an article in History Today in which the Cambridge academic, David Abulafia, argues that Britain's history is unique and distinct from the rest of Europe.

The article represents the views of a group of academics and writers called 'Historians for Britain', who not only want reform of Britain's relations with the European Union, but believe that 'Britain has developed traditions and practices which are peculiar to our shores'.

The twittersphere lit up as a result, with angst-wridden historians tweeting, blogging, posting and issuing solemn statements (in the manner of Central Committee press releases issued in Moscow circa 1980), and hashtags #HistoriansforBritain #HistoriansforEurope and #HistoriansforHistory trending. The debate quickly found its way into the national press.

I don't want to talk about the article itself, whose flaws and flimsy interpretation have been raked over by others well-enough. Nor am I interested in the banal, self-congratulatory and intellectually vapid stance of saying how wonderful it is that history is so 'alive' that the debate shows how important studying the past is - as though the fact of argument is as important as the content or the conclusions.

What is interesting and important, though, is what it shows about how History and Historians have lost their way; this all looks to me like fiddling while Rome burns.

We live in an age where historians should be looking at parts of the world where our knowledge, understanding and engagement have been woeful. We should be looking outwards to understand regions of profound political, and economic importance in the Arabic-speaking world, in Iran, in Russia and beyond; we should be trying to make sense of regions that are going through instablity that has a direct impact on the wider world - whether as the result of migration, human rights abuses or cultural destruction.

We should be looking at exchanges, continuities and borrowings across cultures, faiths and language groups - rather than to seal the bottle and rejoice in insularity.

The boxed in way that many are trying to look at history - and at the world as a whole - means the past is looked at through a perversely limited and entirely misleading lens. It is bad enough to read Little Britain type history and to trumpet the idea of trying to build walls around our past; seeing historians try to knit into a theme of Little Europe, where the west is equally sealed off from the great sweep of the global past is not much better.

Not surprising, then, that we struggle to make sense of what is going on in regions we have deliberately chosen not to study - like Syria and Iraq, like the Ukraine and the Caucasus, like Iran, Central Asia and China.

All this typified by a book I received this morning, grandly titled A History of Medieval Christianity 1050-1500, with chapters by some of the best scholars in the field. There is barely a whisper about the church in the east - in Byzantium (one reference!!!), let alone in Asia - even though there were far more Christians spread across Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, Asia Minor the Balkans, the Caucasus, Iran and even Western China in this period.

This is where the problem of narrowing down come. Subjects, even those covered by very distinguished scholars, provide partial, blinkered and disingenuous pictures of the past. We should be looking to cast off our historical straight-jackets, rather than tighten them. The furious hashtag frenzy of my peers has left me feeling rather depressed - and concerned about the lack of historical perspective that is perpetuated, rather than brought to an end.

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