Rob made some interesting points in the last set of comments these have inspired me to think about the nature of history:

Its surely the job of the historian to arrive at balanced judgements about events and personalities – based on secure facts or (at worst) reasonable assumptions.

which cuts to the centre of what we are actually doing here.  What is history?  A question that makes serious historians groan and is a massive topic in itself.  The philosophy of history (Dan Dan Daa)  What do we mean when we say judgements?  or even facts?  Those of you who did not have the privilege of Patrick Finneys lectures on a Thursday evening at Lampeter will probably wonder if I have gone off my rocker but these are actually big questions.  As historians we move beyond the traces of the past, we do not deal with the actual past but only the footprint of the past, and move into explaining why.  The Lunt Roman fort has to be explained in the context of bigger movements, narratives, themes and ideas.  To just focus on the artifacts,which I am not suggesting Rob is suggesting, would be to become a soulless antiquarian like many re-enactors (sorry re-enactors).

Facts is a fascinating area because facts are so prevalent and historians so selective about which ones they use.  I myself am guilty of focusing on the courage, determination and ambition of Constantine as opposed to his cruelty and uxoricide (try to guess what it means before hitting the link) By focusing on the positive or negative leads to two very different histories of the same man.  We can write balanced histories but it is very hard and often lack the force of a history written with a specific case to prove.  Look at the work of David Starky or Taylor, popular historians who like me tend to forget words like “probably” or “might have”.  Facts and the choosing of “relevant” (spot the weasel word) facts is a trap for lazy historians and a opportunity for the less moral of our brethren and the only way to identify this is to accept two things, the first is that at best fact provide us with a wobbly set of stepping stones and the second is facts are promiscuous they go with anybody.  But this is not to say that history is impossible but rather that it is hard, takes time and you need to have a friend like Rob to check you  speling.

The detachment afforded by the passage of time often enables the responsible student of the past to make far better judgements about the likes of Constantine or Hitler than was ever possible by their contemporaries.

This makes me a little uncomfortable because it both feels right and wrong at the same time, like eating a icecream floating in milkshake.  I am not sure that we are capable of making better judgements but rather just different ones.  Our judgements might be fuller, having access to classified documents, what the other side was thinking or even the work of other historians but our judgement is of the same quality as that made by the past.

The passage of time is important both to dull the sense of sectarianism (I say this in the face of re enactors who are fiercely loyal to parliament, king Charles, the House of York or Lancashire even the Romans against the Celts) allowing us to consider the other persons point of view objectively but at the same time we lose that passion, jingoism, excitement and relief that accompanied the abolition of slavery, declaration of the first world war or the relief of Mafeking.   No one could now think about the beginning of the first world war without a sense of dread but nearly a hundred years ago that was the last thing in the public imagination and that must effect the way we write our history.  Which is why historians need imagination and the courage to think and feel the ideas of past ages.  This is what I tried to do when I imagined the day before the battle of Watling Street (Celts, Romans) and I must say I think that it is some of the best posts I have ever written.

And the idea that I wouldnt have done any better than Hitler if I had lived his life, is entirely fallacious. If I had lived Hitler’s life – I would be Hitler.

On this final point I am sorry but I have to disagree because the implication is that a person is only the product of his environment.  A man is only different to animals in that he can choose his reaction to a particular stimulus.  Hitler did not have to act the way he did, he could have chosen not to be a racist, but either chose antisemitism or just went with the flow.

Here endth the lesson…

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