A Matter of Judgement

An inherent tension between the past and the present becomes explicit when we make our assessments of historical figures, argues Suzannah Lipscomb.

Were the lampooning authors of 1066 and All That actually onto something with their list of ‘103 Good Things and 5 Bad Kings’? Is it ultimately the business of a historian to be umpire, referee and magistrate?

Traditional undergraduate historiography would demur. The medievalist David Knowles argues: ‘The historian is not a judge, still less a hanging judge.’ E.H. Carr thought the historian ought to approach his subjects rather like French newspapers approach their politicians: ‘History does not turn aside to pronounce moral judgements on the private lives of individuals who appear in his pages … [the historian] has other things to do.’ Carr concluded therefore: ‘Henry VIII may have been a bad husband and a good king. But the historian is interested in him in the former capacity only insofar as it affected historical events …’ Even so, few today would contend that Henry VIII’s colourful marital life does not constitute a series of ‘historical events’. 

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