Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Whig Interpretation of History

This was one of those 'historiography' books that people say you should read when you're studying history so that you understand the subject.  For those of you who aren't historians, historiography is effectively the study of history--and the history of history.  It can be quite interesting, it can be rather dull.  Most books that I've read so far (actually, make that: the two books excluding this one) are in the rather dull and slightly incomprehensible category.  This one was in the 'actually, that was rather interesting and well written' category.

Apparently, this book was rather influential, although the 'whigish' method of history which was criticised was beginning to fall out of favour even before its publication.  At any rate, some of what's said seems like common sense to me now, based on what we've been told about doing history in lectures etc, but I am beginning to wonder whether seeing what I know about history in this book is like (hopefully!) seeing what a preacher talks about in the Bible.

At any rate, it's a nice short book (fall on the floor stunned!) and apart from a criticism of Lord Acton in the final chapter of the book does a remarkably good job of attacking ideas and principles rather than specific historians.  In short, unlike Evans' 'In Defence of History' and one or two other things I've looked at, it doesn't feel like the historian has a personal grudge they want to settle with a fellow historian they fell out with at high school.  (Although Evans' 'In Defence of History' is still a pretty decent book, and for those of you who happen to be studying history might have noticed, a rather standard authority in terms of historical practice, even if it does confuse the issues of postmodernism rather more than it helps clarify them).  Sorry.  That was a rather long digression from what was meant to be a review of 'The Whig Interpretation of History'.  Wait, I should be using italics, not quotes...  One of the many things I have discovered about footnoting while at Cambridge is that I can never seem to manage to follow all of the little rules at once.  And so I have apparently yet to submit an essay which has the footnotes done completely right.  But anyway.  That's even more of a digression.

The Whig Interpretation of History is remarkably well written, and constantly tied down to a specific historical period--for most of the book, the Reformation and Luther, though other bits receive mention.  The basic argument is that abridged history becomes, almost by default, very 'whiggish' in its tone and outlook, showing the great 'march of progress' and smoothing over historical complications by relegating everyone to either pro or anti progress.  So, for example, the Catholics were reactionaries trying to preserve a corrupt old order and Luther was a revolutionary thinker who brought about religious liberty and created the modern rights to freedom of worship.  But Butterfield makes the point succinctly that in fact, history is rather more complex than that.  Luther wanted, ideally, an equally dominating religious autocracy on slightly different lines to the Catholic set up.  What really created religious toleration was the clash of ideologies.  An interesting point, and certainly one that seems viable.

History, Butterfield argues, is complication.  And from what I've seen of it since starting A-levels it certainly seems to be.  People defy neat categorisation.  For example, how would a historian in fifty years time slot me into their equations?  I'm studying at Cambridge--therefore I'm of an academic turn of mind.  I'm a young female who happens to have a thing for aircraft and builds Airfix models--usually the stereotypical preserve of older men.  I'm a Christian, but not a member of the 'established' church--both churches that I go to (up here in Preston and down in Cambridge) are 'free' churches with an emphasis on salvation by grace.  Spirit fill churches, would probably be the best way of describing them.  Aren't people who are 'intelligent' meant to be atheists too?  Whenever the library does a display of 'books for men' and 'books for women', I find half the books on the men's stand are ones I've read, and I've rarely read any on the women's stand.  Oh, and I live in a 'nuclear' family--mum, dad (been married for nearly 30 years) and younger brother.  Aren't we supposed to be in a society where most people don't live in that sort of family?  At any rate, you could classify me in any one of several dozen methods, and the same is true of any person.  Societies have multiple layers of meaning and interaction, and it's impossible to completely unravel the complexities of our own time, let alone in the past when we have to start relying on sources that by their very appearance and survival tend to be atypical.

So, I think what I'm trying to say is that this is a very interesting book that also happens to be well written and isn't excessively long.  In short, a wonderful historiography book to take a look at.  And perfectly comprehensible.

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