Writing History: The Process & Pitfalls
Disclaimer: While I tried to be as thorough as possible, I will have missed a majority of what I hoped to achieve. I hope you read this with a grain of salt and examine for yourselves the validity of what is written here.
Credit for Thumbnail: Arpit Rastogi
When I was younger, I would wonder why we had history. What’s the purpose of learning anything beyond the here and now? In hindsight, that’s pretty childish. We learn about history to not repeat it, and to gain a better understanding of the future and the best course of action. History is like the diary of humanity, telling us what we have done and what caused it to happen in the hopes we avoid similar catastrophes and replicate successes. However, while many of us think about the past in our daily lives, rarely any of us actually take a step back and wonder how history was written.
Historiography? Never Heard Of It
Historiography is defined as “the writing of history” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.), but it doesn’t end there. Beyond just writing about history, Vann (2020) tells us that historiography is all about critical thinking, selective discernment, and sound logic. History proposes itself based on the truth, and this can only be backed up by some sort of proof. In recent years, new sources of information have arisen. Vann (2020) writes, “... historians sometimes create their own evidence by interviewing people. In the 20th century the scope of historical evidence was greatly expanded to include, among many other things, aerial photographs, the rings of trees, old coins, clothes, motion pictures, and houses.” The process of writing history - that’s what historiography is. History is, after all, a process.
While many of us, myself previously included, like to believe history is infallible, that is far from the case. Damen (2019) likened the process of writing history like that of a police investigation. He writes, “... it's often difficult to piece together different people's versions of the "truth" and construct one coherent narrative on which everyone agrees. In fact, it's impossible.” That is because at any given moment, there are infinitely many possible actions taking place and to know something accurately and truthfully requires omnipotence. In an article entitled Finding Truth in History written by Farnam Street (2017), Tolstoy is quoted: “... no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behavior, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.”
What's True-ish In History
While perfection in history is impossible, it’s not like that was what we were going for. We just want to see the applicable and somewhat truthful events of the past. Whether every minute detail, time, or date is correct matters very little, right? Well even then, history is often filled with interpretation and muddiness. The American Historical Association (n.d.) writes “Historians often disagree over what the facts are as well as over how they should be interpreted. The problem is complicated for major events that produce winners and losers since we are more likely to have sources written by the winners.” To top it off, the writers of these histories aren’t completely accurate or unbiased. Tacitus, a renowned Roman historian, was not immune to his own biases. Damen (2019) writes, “... much of what he says is true, confirmed by external sources, but the spin he put on events, in particular, his failure to include certain details which did not conform with his pessimistic vision of the times, makes his history less a calm and reasoned account of the early Empire.”
You may be thinking, “Why don’t we look at numbers, censuses, statistics, records, and the like?” That surely must be the truth. In response to this, let’s learn a bit about how information is gathered to write history. Brown (n.d.) writes that we have two main sources of data, primary and secondary. Brown says primary sources are laws, clothes, books, etc. that were formed during the time period you are observing. Brown goes on to differentiate, saying secondary sources are reviews, introductions, compilations, or other forms of evidence where the source refers to the past time period. Brown surmises that secondary sources are “... twice removed from the actual event or process you’re going to be writing about.” Now armed with this information, you may have noticed that data and numbers also stem from humans. This is where the aforementioned selective discernment is important. To choose which sources are accurate and to analyze the lives of the writers and crafters of these sources are incredibly difficult tasks. Zachary Herrmann (2017) writes “Data matters in history, but it’s also important to know who gathered it, how, and why.” The sheer number of perspectives, ideas, opinions, sides, and points makes it difficult to include everyone in the “correct” course of history.
When History Misses the Mark
In an interview with English Heritage, Bettany Hughes (2016), a historian and broadcaster, noted how women were overlooked in history. She goes on, “... it’s the inconvenient truth that women have always been 50% of the population, but only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history.” When asked why this was, Bettany Hughes provided a very historian-like answer. She stated that in the sophistication of modern society, women held high power. However, when these societies wished to grow and expand, the focus of control shifts to physical strength and militarization. In modern times, she argues that military strength has become the norm and standard of achievement, directly diminishing women’s role in history. However, the reason behind the lack of women in history is not their minute role in it, she states “I don’t think that there are malign forces at work here; it’s just a practical issue. Physically the stories of women have been written out of history rather than written in.” Many perspectives are often overlooked. Vann (2020) explains that due to a lack of documentation, Westerners ignored indigenous the African and Polynesian histories. As previously mentioned, the winners are often those writing history. That is why Herodotus, whom many consider the “Father of History” has such an important role in all of this.
Herodotus was a Greek writer and studied the time of the Greco-Persian war (Hu, 2016). In his time as a writer, he inquired about many people and wrote about many topics. His Histories, Hu writes, stands as the starting point of our modern concept of history. However, as Anderson (2016) writes there have been many people who call his work fallacious. Histories, Anderson writes, contains alongside believable accounts of battles, “King Xerxes giving Hellespont 300 lashes after a storm destroys the bridge he has had built, and more fancifully, accounts of man-eating ants in India.” If this is the case, then why should we call Herodotus the “Father of History”. In fact, some call him the “Father of Lies.” However, this oversimplification fails to see the true reasons behind Herodotus. Bahr (2019) writes “For Herodotus, the operation of history, as a simple chronicle of place and time is somehow insufficient for understanding the human condition, for the sole reason that everything is in flux. The particulars, over time, matter, but their importance fades or becomes distorted, like the cities mentioned in the passage.” Herodotus, in his quest for information, wrote not from what was, but what people told him what was. It was the amalgamation of multiple sources, stories, folklore, and everything in between. He did not gather information from one “agreeable” perspective, but from as many as he could find (Hu, 2016). This ability to analyze what happened and what different people think happened is at the crux of modern history. The American Historical Association (n.d.) writes, “In fact, history is not a "collection of facts about the past" History consists of making arguments about what happened in the past on the basis of what people recorded (in written documents, cultural artifacts, or oral traditions) at the time.”
So What Now?
That is not to say history should not try to be accurate. In fact, accuracy is of great importance. Source checking, critical analysis, all these things have been expressed through all of these examples. Historians and people in general want to know what happened, and this search for pure understanding requires a truthful process. However, to expect the absolute truth from history is foolishness. Farnan Street (2017) writes, “We have a choice between these two perspectives: Either we can treat history as an impenetrable fog, or we can figure out how to use history while accepting that each day might reveal more, and we may have to update our thinking.”
But at the end of the day, why does any of this matter? What’s the point? Well, there isn’t a simple answer. My personal goal with this article is to help provide you with perspective, not just on history or how and why it’s written, but also on the way we think. The essence of history is critical examination and logical construction. Simply put, I wanted you to think about how you think. With the ever growing landscape of information around us, it is critical we know that we are prone to bias. It’s important to know we make mistakes and that our way of thinking can be flawed. But, like in history, if we acknowledge this and learn from our mistakes, we end up being better people. That’s what it’s all about. In every step we move forward. We do improve and get closer to what we seek. We slowly inch towards this truth we long for, in the hopes that we know more today than yesterday.
American Historical Association. (n.d.). Writing history: An introductory guide to how history is produced. Historians.org. https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/teaching-resources-for-historians/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-history-of-the-americas/the-conquest-of-mexico/for-students/writing-history-an-introductory-guide-to-how-history-is-produced
Anderson, A. (2016, July 1). Herodotus - The father of lies? Naxos Audio Books. https://naxosaudiobooks.com/herodotus-the-father-of-lies/
Bahr, D. (2019, March 15). Herodotus is a big, fat liar ... And better than any historian you have ever read. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidbahr1/2019/03/15/herodotus-is-a-big-fat-liar-and-better-than-any-historian-you-have-ever-read/?sh=303b9e004957
Brown, E. H. (n.d.). Writing about history. University of Toronto. https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/types-of-writing/history/
Daren. (2019). A guide to writing in history and classics. Utah State University. http://www.usu.edu/markdamen/1320Hist&Civ/chapters/01HIST.htm
Farnam Street. (2017). Finding truth in history. https://fs.blog/2017/10/finding-truth-history/
Herrmann, Z. (2017, May 10). Finding what's true. Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/uk/blog/finding-whats-true
Hu, R. (2016, February 11). Herodotus’ Histories and its reliability. The Johns Hopkins News-Letter. https://www.jhunewsletter.com/article/2016/02/40565
Hughes, B. (2016, February 29). Why were women written out of history? An interview with Bettany Hughes. English Heritage. https://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/women-written-history-interview-bettany-hughes/
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Historiography. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/historiography
Vann, R. T. (2020). Historiography. In Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/historiography