History: A Very Short Introduction–A Very Short Review

History: A Very Short Introduction, by John Arnold (Oxford, 2000)

I have recently begun writing lectures for two halves of an American history survey I will be teaching in the fall, and I wanted to assign a book that will describe for my students what the actual practice of history amounts to, and not just give them a narrative of American history.  (That is for the textbook I’ve assigned them.)  I chose John Arnold’s contribution to Oxford’s A Very Short Introduction series, and I just wanted to give my two cents on it.  I know you’re just dying to hear it!

I am fond of the “Very Short Introduction” series from Oxford, but this is the first time I have ever assigned one of its books in a class before.  The first chapter “Questions About Murder and History” starts off with a description of a murder, written in the 14th century, by monk:  Arnold uses this to introduce the study of history.   “This then is history:  a true story of something that happened long ago, retold in the present.” (3-4)  Arnold stresses that history is a process, one that is fraught with limitations (of evidence, of bias, etc.); he also stresses that every history has an argument to make, one that must agree with the evidence but which is also bound up with interpretation:  “historians tell stories, in the sense they are out to persuade you (and themselves) of something.” (13)

The next two chapters deal with historiography up until the beginnings of academic history in the 19th century.  Chapter 4, “Voices and Silences,” looks at sources, and tries to give the reader some example of how one might interpret a source which gives some information about who wrote it, and why, but not very much.  Chapter 5, “Journey of a Thousand Miles,” deals with what might be called approaches to history–social, economic, cultural, and the like, as well as dealing with sticky terms such as “origins” and “cause and effect” with regards to historical judgments.  Chapter 6, “The Killing of Cats, or Is the Past a Foreign Country?”  examines the tricky terrain of “mentalities,” of looking at evidence not only for what happened in the past, but what people in the past thought about it, how they made sense of it. (96)  The issue of language is prominent in this chapter, not only the language of people in the past but of what types of language historians use as well.  Finally, in chapter 7,  “Telling Truth,” deals with the tricky issue of whether there is one single True history that one can write, or merely histories plural about a given issue.  Without wanting to assert that there are times when evidence does more or less settle a debate (he mentions the overwhelming evidence for the reality of the Holocaust as an example) he comes down on the side of what I would call a moderate relativism:  no, there is no one single history that encompasses them all, but that does not mean everything is up for grabs. He ends by suggesting three more limited, but very good reasons, for writing history.

On the whole, I liked the book, obviously, enough to put in on order at the campus bookstore.  My only caveats are a couple.  First, for an audience of American students, I’m afraid the historical examples he gives (which, with one exception, are drawn from medieval and early modern European history–Arnold is a medieval historian) might not resonate too well with my students.  The second is that, though I thoroughly agree with his strictures on the limits of what a historian can tell us about unchanging verities (after all, we study change, don’t we?) I’m not sure I’m comfortable with his assertion that historians are “not, and should not be of much use” in “divining essences of things,” and seems to think we do not need to trouble ourselves about “essential links between different peoples and times.”  (121) I agree that history can’t establish the truth of “essences” for human nature, but that it has nothing to say to it I think goes a bridge too far for me.  He apparently does not believe in unchanging “essences” or think they are important; I disagree with this obviously, but more than that I do think history has something to tell us in regard to questions like this, even if such questions (is there a God? what does it mean to live a good life?) are more philosophical in nature, and cannot be determined by historical inquiry alone.   Nevertheless, I do believe Arnold’s book is a fine introduction to the discipline of history; I just hope my students think so in the fall, too.



Alypius Minor


~ by Alypius on May 16, 2014.

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