Have you ever heard the phrase “History is told by the victors?” If so, then you have an inkling of what Historiography is. But why is it important to know ? What is this crazy “historiography” word that you’re using? Did you mean “history” but somehow spliced it with “geography” or something when you were typing it?
According to Furay and Salevouris in The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide (as per Wikipedia), Historiography is “the study of the way history has been and is written — the history of historical writing… When you study ‘historiography’ you do not study the events of the past directly, but the changing interpretations of those events in the works of individual historians.”
Because History is taught horribly wrong in most schools that I know of, the vast majority of people in the world believe that it is static, defined, and unchangeable. Guess what? It’s not. History is as malleable and shaded as the top headlines on Yahoo! News.
Whoa! Wait a minute, you say. Are you telling me that all those standardized tests I took in high school and all those textbooks I was forced to lug around were wrong?
Um, well, no, not exactly, but they only show part of the truth.
The thing is, the events of History have been interpreted differently by the peoples of various generations, nationalities, and interests. It’s all spin. A single event can be interpreted in dozens of different ways starting with the same set of facts. Some details are emphasized, others are ignored, and still more are twisted to fit someone’s previous agenda. No matter what the subject or incident is, there will always be multiple ways to interpret it.
Yeah, I know that, you say. I deal with that every day when I turn on Fox News.
Okay, we all know that information comes to us through filters. But for whatever reason people forget this when it comes to History. They think that whatever their textbooks said, whatever their teacher or their TV told them, and whatever has become “common knowledge” must be right. Wow! That couldn’t be more wrong!
Take one of my favorite subjects, the Middle Ages. I don’t know how many times I’ve had people try to tell me that Medieval peasants were dirty, ignorant, and had bad teeth. Says who? Oh, it’s common knowledge, you say. No it isn’t! Medieval peasants were no more dirty on average than any modern agricultural worker. Sure, they may have been around dirt all day, but they did know what stinky was and how to get rid of it. And no, most Medieval peasants were not literate, but they knew a lot more about the land, about herb lore, about survival techniques and caring for animals and repairing roofs than most modern people. It takes intelligence to do those things too. And the bad teeth thing? True, they didn’t have Colgate and plastic toothbrushes, but they did have teeth-cleaning tools. And guess what? They didn’t have Coke, Hershey’s, and high fructose corn syrup. There was very little sugar in a peasant diet. Did some people have horrible teeth? Yes, of course. But so do plenty of people I run into on a daily basis.
So where did this idea of dirty, ignorant peasants come from? It came from the Victorians. Yep. In a newly Industrial world there was a concerted effort to make the old rural ways seem as undesirable as possible. “Superior modern people” lived in cities and were interested in new technology (which could be purchased for a very reasonable sum at your local store). They bought tooth powder and ordered fancy clothes from catalogs. And since we all know that the Victorians were the masters of the world, the sun never set on the British Empire, and God was an English aristocrat (and certainly not French or German), of course those nasty Medieval peasants were horrible.
Someone was trying to sell something. If you dig just a little bit into any History book, including the textbooks, you can get an idea of who is selling what. Once you know that you’ll be able to see behind the curtain to get an idea of why a particular history writer would record things a certain way.
Remember the Soviet Union? There were entire eras of Russian History that were completely left out of Soviet History textbooks. Why? Because the Communist government wanted people to believe that Communism was the best way, the only way, and that the Motherland was lost without it. Think that only happens in Russia? Think again. I’ve kept all of the History textbooks I’ve ever had since my Freshman year of high school (yes, I’m a nerd), and in 1988 the only mention made of Native Americans was of how they were killed off by diseases before the Europeans ever came, leaving the way open for expansion. When I was in Toronto last year visiting some friends I got to take a look at a Canadian middle school history textbook. There is an entire thick section about the indigenous people of Canada, before and after European settlement. We’ve come a long way.
I’ve gone on long enough about this for one day, but I want to leave you with a vivid illustration of how the spin has changed over time. This is actually a section of my final paper for a Historiography class I took in college. (And by some miracle the exact clips I used in my presentation are on YouTube!) My paper was about how Native Americans have been portrayed in film over the decades.
In the 50s “Cowboy and Indian” movies were huge. I think we can all recall some. Whooping savages, dashing, clean-cut men in uniform following Custer, the hero. So not PC. But why? Why were portrayals like this? Because we had just come out of World War II. America was the big hero who (in our eyes) had swooped in and saved the world from the ravages of fascism. Plus ours was the only economy left undamaged. Americans were riding high. So our films reflected what people wanted to see. We were the shining heroes, bringing civilization and commerce to the world. I used the Errol Flynn film They Died With Their Boots On and the John Wayne film I Will Fight No More Forever to demonstrate this era.
I then contrasted that interpretation with the Dustin Hoffman film Little Big Man. In this film a white boy is taken captive and raised by Indians. He adopts their ways, then rejects them in favor of white culture, then returns to the Indians, and back to the whites when he vows revenge on Custer for killing his family at Washita. In his bouncing back and forth the film shows Native American culture in a sane, noble, spiritual light and white culture as insane, immoral, and bloodthirsty. Why? Why this interpretation? Because when this film was made we were deep in the middle of the Vietnam War. Social conscience was growing and with it a movement towards more Eastern and esoteric forms of faith and away from what was perceived as American militantism.
I also went on to show a clip from Dances With Wolves. In this movie Native Americans are seen fighting each other with the whites as a looming force that will destroy them all. The Sioux are seen as noble people with flaws and John Dunbar, the main character, is a white man with a conscience caught up in something bigger than him. Why this? Why then? Because we were coming out of the 80s, the era of greed. Old political demons, like the Soviet Union, were disappearing and we as a nation were starting to see that we were our own worst enemy.
You get the picture.
So next time you hear a chapter of History reported in a certain way, stop and ask yourself who is telling the story. Ask when the book or article was written or what the age of the person telling you the story is. Consider that no matter how authoritative the story sounds, it might just be one take on a much more complex issue.
So I leave you with two clips from two drastically different films that really, REALLY drives this point home. Please please watch them in their entirety if you have time. (and then go out and rent Little Big Man! Trust me, it’s worth it!) These clips demonstrate what I mentioned above while using the exact same song to prove their point: