Does History Have an Expiry Date?

We welcome our new columnist George Garnett. Don’t tell him that history’s history.

Domesday Book, from Historic Byways and Highways of Old England, by William Andrews, 1900.
Domesday Book, from Historic Byways and Highways of Old England, by William Andrews, 1900. Wikimedia Commons.


Recently, I was instructed to revise the bibliography for a paper over which I had just assumed responsibility – on medieval British history. It is a tedious chore, best tackled late at night. It involves cutting as well as adding things, so that the bibliography does not grow too intimidatingly large. Obviously, any changes reflect the reviser’s view about what the best scholarly literature is on the subject. I inserted what I considered to be important, recent publications. That was the easy bit. But I could not avoid concluding that my predecessors had omitted, or included, things which really should, or should not, be there. After many reflective evenings, I submitted my efforts.

Imagine my sentiments when I was reprimanded for, among other offences, not deleting but inserting more items published before 1980. If these items had not been included previously, I was told, they should certainly not be added now. There was a strong implication, too, that any publications pre-1980 had had their day. They should be put out of their misery and replaced with up-to-the-minute material.

The assumption on which this ticking-off was based can only be that any historiography more than 40 years old is likely to be redundant. It is an assumption which one often encounters nowadays. But it is a strikingly unhistorical one: that the history of the discipline of history is a story of progressive perfection. It is closely linked to another common current assumption: that the latest fashions in historical scholarship, whatever they may be, are the only ones which now really merit attention. For both reasons we can condescend to historians of previous generations. They either were, or were not, on the right track – today’s track – but they had a long way to go to reach the sunlit uplands where we now bask in our own enlightenment. It is as if history were a natural science and scholars in the past took either right or wrong steps. If right, they have been superseded; if wrong, they should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

What this means is that contemporary historians who are contemptuous of Whig history are curiously and unconsciously Whiggish in their attitude to their own discipline. They fail to think of historical writing as itself an historical phenomenon. Everything else should be regarded historically, but they are somehow exempt. There is an unthinking arrogance in this: what E.P. Thompson termed (in a different context) ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. Historians should understand better than anyone that all fashions will change, that current ones are informed by current preoccupations, and will pass.

I am not saying that the historiography of the last 40 years should be ignored. Far from it. But I am saying that many older works are valuable for three reasons, all of them often interrelated.

First, they may have propounded innovations and discoveries, most obviously in technical aspects of source analysis, which have rendered subsequent developments possible. It is important to understand the foundations on which current interpretations are built, not least in order to gain some sense of how solid those foundations are. Second, the extent to which such historical writing was informed by assumptions which are already becoming foreign to us, and which are therefore far more obvious to us than they were to the authors, may be very instructive. And third, perhaps most importantly, it may well be that a scholar of long ago had an insight which has not hitherto been followed up, and which may prove immensely  fruitful. In that respect, wilfully ignoring works written more than a generation ago might foreclose lines of investigation which could prove productive of new approaches.

Two examples from my bibliography would be H.M. Chadwick’s Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (1905) and F.W. Maitland’s Domesday Book and Beyond (1897). Both historians had access to fewer sources, many of them much more poorly edited, than is now the case. With ingenuous candour, Maitland admits in passing that he had only once been to look at the manuscript of Great Domesday Book. He based his judgements on a printed edition, then already a century old. But this relative lack of resources renders the achievements of both scholars all the more remarkable. Chadwick raised questions about difficult sources which have still not been answered, or in some cases even addressed, perhaps because they are just too daunting. And Maitland’s masterpiece, probably the most original and stimulating book ever published on medieval England, uses late 11th-century Domesday Book to illuminate Anglo-Saxon England, back to the conversion to Christianity in the seventh century – the title’s ‘Beyond’, counterintuitively, means chronologically backwards into the dark. Maitland does so in ways which are inventive and imaginative to a degree which remains, even to a hardened reader of history books, breathtaking.

Of these two works of genius, Maitland’s is the more impressive because his overt and ultimate aim was, on the basis of fragmentary evidence, to attempt to reconstruct how people thought – ‘their common thoughts about common things’ – over half a millennium, ending 900 years ago. That is why he deserves commemoration in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, the only professional historian so honoured. But what is true of Chadwick and Maitland is true of many other historians of more than a generation ago – some of them of generations prior to these two giants. If we are determined to forget this, we shall be stunted indeed.

So I contemplated my rap over the knuckles for my revisions to the medieval British history bibliography, and re-revised them – by inserting several more luminous works published before 1980. 


George Garnett is Professor of Medieval History at Oxford University, Fellow of St Hugh’s College and the author of The Norman Conquest in English History: Volume I: A Broken Chain? (Oxford University Press, 2021).