Monday, September 15, 2014

On The Reading Of History

LET me at the beginning of this short article present two facts to the reader. Neither can be disputed, and that is why I call them facts and put them in the forefront before I begin upon my theories.

The first fact is that the record of what men have done in the past and how they have done it is the chief positive guide to present action. The second fact is that most men must now receive the impression of the past through reading.

Put these two facts together and you get the fundamental truth that upon the right reading of history the right use of citizenship in England today will depend. It will of course depend upon other things as well: chiefly upon the human conscience; for if you were to pack off to an island a hundred families as ignorant as any human families can be of tradition, and wholly ignorant of positive history, those families would yet be able to create a human society and the voice of God within them would give just limits to their actions.

Still, of those factors in civic action amenable to civic direction, conscious and positively effective, there is nothing to compare with the right teaching and the right reading of history. Now teaching is today ruined. The old machinery by which the whole nation could be got to know all essential human things, has been destroyed, and the teaching of history in particular has been not only ruined but rendered ridiculous. There is no historical school properly so-called in modern England; that is, there is no organization framed with the sole object of extending and co-ordinating historical knowledge and of choosing men for their capacity to discover upon the one hand and to teach upon the other. There is nothing approaching to it in the two ancient universities, because the choice of teachers there depends upon a multitude of considerations quite separate from those mentioned, and the capacity to discover, to know, and to teach history, though it may be present in a tutor, will only be accidentally so present: while as for co-ordination of knowledge, there is no attempt at it. Even where very hard work is done, and, when it concerns local history, very useful work, history as a general study is not grasped because the universities have not grasped it.

History is to be had by the modern Englishman from his own reading only; and I am here concerned with the question how he shall read history with profit.

To read history with profit, history must be true, or at any rate the reader must have a power of discerning what is true in the midst of much that may be false. I will bargain, for instance, that in the summer of 1899 the great mass of men, and especially the great mass of men who had passed through the universities, were under the impression that armies had left England for the purpose of conquest in distant countries with invariable success: that that success had been unique, unsupported and always decisive, and that the wealth of the country after each success had increased, not diminished. In other words, had history been studied even by the tiny minority who have education today in England, Sir William Butler would have counted more than the Joels, and the late Mr. Barnato (as he called himself); the South African War would not have taken place in a society which knew its past.

Again, you may pick almost any phrase referring to the Middle Ages out of any newspaper—if you are a man read in the Middle Ages—and you will find in it not only a definite historical falsehood with regard to the fact referred to, or the analogy drawn, but also a false philosophy.

For instance, the other day I read this phrase with regard to the burial of a certain gentleman of my neighbourhood in Sussex: "We are surely past the phase of mediaeval thought in which it was imagined that a few words spoken over the lifeless clay would determine the fate of the soul for all eternity." Just notice the myriad falsehoods of a phrase like that! I will not discuss what is connoted by the words "past the phase of mediaeval thought"—it connotes of course that the human mind changes fundamentally with the centuries, and therefore that whatever we think is probably wrong, and that what we are sure of we cannot be sure of, an absurd conclusion. I will only note the historical falsehoods. When on earth did the "Middle Ages" lay down that a "few words over lifeless clay determined the fate of the soul for all eternity"? On the contrary, the Middle Ages laid it down—it was their peculiar doctrine—that it was impossible to determine the fate of the soul; that no one could tell the fate of any one individual soul; that it was a grievous sin, among the most grievous of sins, to affirm positive knowledge that any individual had lost his soul. More than this, the Middle Ages were peculiar in their insistence upon the doctrine that a man might have been very bad and might have had all the appearance of having lost his soul so far as human judgment went, and yet was liable to a midway place between salvation and damnation, and they affirmed that this midway place did not lead to either fate but necessarily to salvation and to salvation only.

Again, whatever could help the human soul to salvation was by the most rigorous theological definition of the Middle Ages applicable only before death. After death the fate of the soul was sealed, and the man once dead, the "lifeless clay" (as the journalist put it—and the Middle Ages was the only source from which he got the idea of clay at all), whether it were that of a Pope or of some random highwayman, had no effect whatsoever upon the fate of the soul. The greatest saint might have offered the most solemn sacrifice on its behalf for years, and if the soul were damned his sacrifice would have been of no avail.

I have taken this example absolutely at random. But the modern reader, apart from sentences as clearly provocative of criticism as this, is perpetually coming across references, allusions, and parallels which take a certain course of human European and English history for granted. How is he to distinguish when that course is rightly drawn from when it is wrongly drawn?

Thus in some newspaper article written by an able man, and dealing, let us say, with the territorial army, one might come across a sentence like this: "Napoleon himself used troops so raw that they were actually drilled on the march to the battlefield." That would be a perfectly true statement. Any amount of criticism of it lies in connexion with Mr. Haldane's scheme, but still it is a true piece of history. Napoleon did get raw recruits into his battalions just before any one of his famous marches began, and drill them on the way to victory. In the next column of the newspaper the reader may be presented with a sentence like this: "The captures of English by privateers in the Revolutionary War should teach us what foreign cruisers can do."

There were plenty of captures by privateers in the Revolutionary Wars; if I remember rightly, many many hundreds, all discreetly hidden from the common or garden reader until party politics necessitated their resurrection a hundred years after the event, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with modern circumstances.

Both statements are true then, and yet one can be truthfully applied today, while the other cannot.

How is the plain reader to distinguish between two historical truths, one of which is a useful modern analogy, the other of which is a ludicrously misleading one?

The reader, it would seem, has no criterion by which to distinguish what has been withheld from him and what has been emphasized; he may, from his knowledge of the historian's character or bias, stand upon his guard, but he can do little more.

There is another difficulty. It is less subtle and less common, but it exists. I mean brute lying. You do not often get the lie direct in official history; it would be too dangerous a game to play in the face of the critics, though some historians, and notably the French historian Taine, have played it boldly enough, and have stated dogmatically, as historical happenings, things that never happened and that they knew never happened. But the plain or brute historical lie is more commonly found in the pages of ephemeral journalism. Thus the other day, with regard to the Budget, I saw some financial operation alluded to as comparable with "the pulling out of Jews' teeth for money in the Middle Ages." When did anyone in the Middle Ages pull out a Jew's teeth for money? There is just one very doubtful story told about King John, and that story is told without proof by one of John's worst enemies, in a mass of other accusations many of which can be proved to be false.

Again, I turn to an Oxford History of the French Revolution, and I find the remark that the massacres of September were organized by the men from Marseilles. They were not organized by the men from Marseilles. The men from Marseilles had nothing to do with them, and the fact has been public property since the publication of Pollio and Marcel's monograph twenty years ago.

What criterion can the ordinary reader choose when he is confronted by difficulties of this sort? I will suggest to him one which seems to me by far the most valuable. It is the reading of firsthand authorities. It is all a matter of habit. When the original authorities upon which history is based were difficult to get at, when few of those in foreign tongues had been translated, and when those that had been published were published in the most expensive form, the ordinary reader had to depend upon an historian who would summarize for him the reading of another. The ordinary reader was compelled to read secondary history or none. Now secondary history is among the most valuable of literary efforts; where evidence is slight, the judgment of an historian who knows from other reading the general character of the period, is most valuable. Where evidence is abundant, and therefore confusing, the historian used to the selection and weighing of it performs a most valuable function. Still, the reader who is not acquainted with original authorities does not really know history and is at the mercy of whatever myth or tradition may be handed to him in print.

We should remember that today, even in England, original authorities are quite easy to get at. Two little books, for instance, occur to me out of hundreds: Mr. Rait's book on Mary Stuart and Mr. Archer's on the Third Crusade. In each of these the reader gets in a cheap form, in modern and readable English, the kind of evidence upon which historians base their history, and he can use that evidence in the light of his own knowledge of human nature and his own judgment of human life.

Or again, if he wants to know what the Romans really knew or said they knew about the German tribes who, as pirates, so greatly influenced the history of England, let him get Mr. Rouse's edition of Grenewey's translation of the Germania in Blackie's series of English texts; it will only cost sixpence, and for that money he will get a bit of Caesar's Gallic War and the Agricola as well. But the list nowadays is a very long one, luckily, and the lay reader has only to choose what period he would like to read up, and he will find for nearly every one first-hand evidence ready, cheap and published in a readable modern form. That he should take such first-hand evidence is the very best advice that any honest historian can give.

~Hilaire Belloc: First and Last.

Episodes in Roman History, by Luigi Ademollo.
Fresco, 1820's; Palazzo Ducale, Lucca.

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