‘History is the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another’. Discuss. History is a rather strange subject as it is really only when some historian comes across a dusty book in their research, that those collections of writings become history. Prior to that they were just writing’s which were perhaps preserved for means that have no connection with history such as government records, and frequently it is just luck that these documents get into the hands of the historian.
John Tosh puts this rather well stating ‘History is what people at the time think is interesting related to their own environment and not necessarily what they perceive to have some of future historical interest. ’ This is the ‘power’ of the historian to change just normal everyday things such as diaries and records and turn them into history. To the people that wrote many of the documents that are used by historians, the documents that they created were just want they wanted the record for themselves at the time.
Things like diaries or log books to keep track of their goods. These sorts of documents are invaluable to the modern historian as for the majority of studied history you cannot conduct an interview, so therefore you have to try and piece together what you can from the fragmented evidence that is available to us. Really is that not what history is people trying to rebuild the past trying to tell a story of the people before us so we can try an understand ourselves.
This line of thought has been running for hundreds of years even the create philosopher Cicero had something to say on the matter ‘Not to know what took place before you were born is to remain forever a child’. To project this into the future all of today’s written documents be they physical or digital will only become history when the peoples of future find something of ours ‘worth note’. There is a problem here though about the use of the term history. As in the sense used here it is meant in mostly and academic sense. But history is different to everyone.
Some see it as the things that have just happened or events that occurred hundreds of years ago. To the public history is mainly about nationhood and the family, or popular history such as Time Team; which may not be what the academics are interested in, unless they are studying the public’s views on history. So to say ‘History is the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another’ is to broad of a statement as in many cases history is a very personal pursuit, even to the academic who eventually narrow down their field to a tiny specialisation that interests them but perhaps not others.
Quentin Skinner tries to get a foothold on what history is The study of the great religious and philosophical systems of the past; the study of ordinary people’s beliefs about heaven and earth, past and future, metaphysics and science; the examination of our ancestors’ attitudes towards youth and age, war and peace, love and hate, cabbages and kings; the uncovering of their prejudices about what one ought to eat, how one should dress, whom one ought to admire; the analysis of their assumptions about health and illness, good and evil, morals and politics, birth, copulations and death-all these and a vast range of kindred topics fall within the capacious orbit of intellectual history. For they are all instances of the general subject-matter that preoccupies intellectual historians above all: the study of past thoughts. Even though Skinner is talking about intellectual history is shows the huge diversity of subject matter in the historical field to the extent that anything can become history from ‘cabbages’ to ‘kings’. History is a constantly changing field of study as what historians ‘find worthy of note’ is constantly changing. For instance in the beginnings of professional history in the nineteenth century the areas of common interest was very much a top down approach mainly looking at kings and the aristocracy.
Whereas in the last fifty or so years there has been a shift to a more bottom up approach looking at the common people. As this form of history allows you to get a grasp of what the populace and not of the select few at the top which gives a very narrow view of history in that period. However it must be remember that history is not just documents so therefore history itself has to be more than what past ages thought worthy of putting down. In many cases there are no physical records of an event or age (especially when delving further and further into history) yet does this stop the historian try to capture the essence of what was happening no.
There are numerous types of unwritten sources that are able to give us an insight to the past such as buildings can help us in reconstructing how families may have lived, from charred remains in their fires you can know what their last meal may have been. Perhaps one of the best sources in this sense is Pompeii which has enabled us to gain an unprecedented snapshot of life in 79AD, which without nobody could have hoped to recreate in so much detail. Without historical endeavour by the academic historian and the wider public some parts of our history may have been lost or never discovered at all.
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