Shifting Sands: Historians Change Their Minds

Inspired by a recent article in the New Statesman, we asked seven historians about how their understanding of the past has changed.

History Today | Published in 20 Jun 2016

Queen Elizabeth, attended by her Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, detecting Babington's conspiracy, by John Charles Bromley, 1830.

I learned to revel in uncertainty

Unfirm ground is what makes history so thrilling: that sense that the plates are always shifting and that one discovery might change everything. I have not experienced a seismic swallowing up of a once-cherished opinion, but, researching my last book on Catholic dissidents in Elizabethan England, I felt as though I was changing my mind almost every day. I agonised over the relative lenience of Elizabeth I in religious matters. I was kept awake by the nagging feeling that the Catholic family I was writing about was not quite as loyal as it claimed to be. I drew a spider diagram, of the kind used in modern intelligence, and was thrown by the family’s links to the Babington Plot of 1586, even though I could not quite pin them to it. I veered between revulsion at the persecutory practices of the Elizabethan state and sympathy for its operatives, who had to deal with sophisticated terror networks and some very slippery language.

I am not as admiring of Elizabeth as I used to be, but I also realise that the distinction between a loyal Catholic majority and a hardcore radical fringe is simplistic. The spectrum of loyalty was fluid and diffuse.

Certainty is the enemy of history. I do not research and write chapter by chapter. I read everything I can get my hands on, then I write. If research is a giant compost heap, then it is all the maggoty doubts that provide nourishment and, ultimately, enrichment.

Jessie Childs is the author of Henry VIII’s Last Victim and God’s Traitors. @childs_jessie

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there

When I began writing about history, I was drawn to the 18th century primarily because the people felt like us: they had left behind the medieval mindset and were moving towards the modern. Admittedly, their jokes were crude and terrible and they had some suspect laws and traditions, not to mention fashions, but for me they were more similar to the way we live now in terms of intellectual curiosity and society than the people who came after them.

The Victorians, the Edwardians and the people of the early 20th century who experienced the two catastrophic world wars were all markedly different generations, affected by varied, rapid changes in society and the trauma of war. Since writing a new book, on the history of humanity’s relationship with opium, I have come to believe that the people who exist in each frame of history are completely different. The experiences of love, war, family, ageing or for instance, as with opium, addiction, are common threads, but the people are ultimately unique and individual.

How we see the world, and accomplish change within it, has been changing constantly for millennia and the pace of that change will only accelerate in the future. In the next century, technology will deepen the gulf between us and those who follow to a degree previously unimaginable. And in a world where everything is ‘smart-wired’ to your subjective preference, from the cradle onwards, how does society nurture objectivity? The collective and individual legacies we leave will be examined by these future generations of historians, but this is our time, and they will be a very different people.

Lucy Inglis is the author of Georgian London: Into the Streets (Penguin, 2013). Her next book is Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium (Pan Macmillan, forthcoming). @lucyinglis

Read deeper and don't accept things at face value

When I began research on my doctorate, I mainly worked on a primary source from the middle of the 12th century called the Alexiad by Anna Komnene. The text is one of the jewels of Byzantine literature. Written in beautiful Greek, it is the work of a highly intelligent author who was able to draw on a glittering array of contemporary resources, including letters, official documents, imperial orders and eyewitness accounts.

Although the Alexiad was very well known, it had not been subject to a great deal of critical attention. Many had written about Anna as an author; not surprisingly given hers is the first narrative history written by a woman in a European language. My great breakthrough was to establish that the sequence of events presented in the text was extremely unreliable. Misleading, in fact, to the point of distorting the history of the Byzantine Empire in the late 11th and early 12th centuries; a crucial period in the history of Byzantium but also of the Islamic world, of Russia, of the Caucasus and of Western Europe as a result of the First Crusade and the capture of Jerusalem.

Reconfiguring the chronology of what had actually happened when was therefore extremely important: challenging, but also highly rewarding and satisfying. Like solving a puzzle (or, as I often told myself late at night, hunched over my notes, like solving a complex crime).

The big question, though, was why the chronology was wrong. For years, I was convinced that the errors were all unintentional, the result of an author juggling with complicated and conflicting accounts, doing her best to make sense of the material at her disposal and re-assemble a picture of events that she knew about, and in a few cases, and seen for herself. Slowly, though, I began to query if I had not been over-generous or even misled. All too often it turned out that it was rather convenient that sequencing errors had crept in, all too apt that something was in the wrong place. The wheels began to turn as I realised that perhaps I did not really understand the text at all, that there were layers I had not recognised and allusions, nods and winks that I had not been able to see.

The penny only really dropped when I translated the Alexiad for Penguin Classics. Then I was forced to deal with the text line by line, to ponder quotations and borrowings from Homer, Hesiod and Horace and to wonder why well-known verses from the Book of Proverbs contained a mistake. It finally dawned on me that these slips were intentional, sometimes meant as in-jokes that would have brought smiles to those who read or listened to the text.

The results brought me about turn with how I have understood this seminal text – but also of the dangers of not understanding primary sources in general: that, of course, is the greatest lesson any historian can learn. My own raw, mistaken views about the simplicity of the text are one thing; but I think that my formation as a historian owes a great deal to the fact that not only did I learn how to really read, but that I also learned how to recognise that changing my opinion and keeping an open mind is the best thing someone who looks at the past can – and must – do.

Peter Frankopan is Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and author of The Silk Roads. @peterfrankopan

Have faith that the answers will come

My lightbulb moments as a historian often occur while travelling. One of the most enlightening took place in Trier, the Rhineland city where Constantine the Great (d. 337) resided during his first years as emperor. During the summer of 2007 three German museums staged a massive exhibition there with over 1,000 objects from the first Christian emperor’s lifetime. One comparatively modest case captured my imagination: a gold tray under a skylight bearing perhaps a dozen gold rings collected from excavations across the Roman Empire. Each bore an inscription in capital letters: FIDEM CONSTANTINO: ‘Faith to Constantine’. These were gifts given by the emperor to his most faithful generals – ‘faith’ here clearly meant some combination of unquestioning loyalty and willingness to win or die trying.

During the civil wars of the early fourth century Constantine gained fame as an outstanding leader of men, and already during his lifetime historians suggested that the secret of his success was in his Christian faith. But they have been arguing ever since about his conversion to Christianity. The emperor himself told the story that in October of 312, as he prepared to capture Rome – on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge – a vision told him that he would win under the sign of the cross. Accordingly he had new standards prepared for the decisive battle, which he resoundingly won. What did ‘faith’ mean to Constantine? I’m fairly sure he would tell us what he told his generals: don’t ask too many questions.

Kate Cooper is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Manchester. @KateAntiquity

Follow every new path

Being asked to think of a historical topic on which I have changed my mind is difficult because I am not sure I can come up with a single subject on which I haven’t changed my mind. Changing one’s mind as new information appears and new research leads on to new ideas is, surely, not merely the point of historical research, but also its joy.

Sometimes, the change comes simply by realising you were looking in the wrong direction. Discussing when women began to buy ready-made clothing, for example, I soon became aware that everything I had been reading (and, embarrassingly, everything I had been writing) about ‘women’ had, in reality, been about middle-class women. The situation for working-class women was entirely different. But by focusing on print culture – newspapers, magazines, books – I had mentally translated their more narrow reading audience into ‘all women’.

So finding new material, finding new arguments that make you read events differently is key. I can think of half a dozen moments when I have sat in the library (quietly) bouncing in my seat as a new path is opened up to me by another historian hacking through the wilderness of sources.

Not changing your mind is dull. Last month I thought the Duke of Wellington was a dreadful politician. Last week I thought the same. Today I still think so. See? Not interesting. But changing my mind? Changing it is when things get interesting.

Judith Flanders is the author of The Making of Home (Atlantic Books, 2014). @JudithFlanders

Scribes are people too

I came to history from a linguistics background, trained in an approach to language based on structure and rules. I tackled my research into late Anglo-Saxon scribes in this way, looking for the underlying rules in their work and trying to be an objective researcher. I started from the ground up, making no assumptions about their identity, location, training or resources, and tried to let the evidence speak for itself.

In many ways this was successful and I found lots of patterns in my scribes’ work that could be attributed to identifiable causes: continuities which proved quite conclusively which manuscript they had been copying from; spelling choices consistent with their dialect and training; punctuation and abbreviations which proved that there was no training for these aspects of writing.

But, equally, there were things which were contradictory and pointed to no straightforward conclusion, and some which were simply inexplicable.

Instead, I had to learn to solve a language question with more than just linguistics and detachment and to remember that these are humans and subject to as many influences as we are. Equally, there might be no cause, no error or fault, and their odd choices are just the vagaries of being a human being, not a machine.

This is not a novel or controversial idea, but I have now learnt to accept and embrace the unexplainable and to attribute more to ‘whim’. There is a temptation, when studying something, approaching it with a research question, to then answer it, to come up with a bold, declarative answer. But that answer so often can be, and should be, ‘I don’t know’. There is just as much worth in that.

Kate Wiles is an Anglo-Saxonist and Contributing Editor at History Today. @Katemond

The justice of the Carolingians

In 1976 I gave a paper ‘On the Limits of the Carolingian Renaissance’ at a conference whose theme was ‘Renaissance and Renewal in Christian History’. My paper was a riposte to a view of the Carolingian Renaissance presented by Walter Ullmann in 1969. He claimed that the earlier Middle Ages had ‘a Renaissance of Society’ that was much more than a revival of ‘corrected’ Latin learning. It could be compared with the Renaissance of the late Middle Ages. Ullmann’s view was maximal: could there be ‘a literary and cultural movement floating in a vacuum, and having no links with the society around it?’

My stress on the ‘limits’ of the Carolingian Renaissance focused first on law: I argued that whatever passed for law in the early Middle Ages was unsystematic, applied to individuals in terms of ethnicity (Frank, say, or Burgundian), was largely oral rather than written and was typified by the use of ordeals to ascertain guilt or innocence: fundamentally different, therefore, from a written law, impersonal and objective, applied and executed by professional judges acting rationally.

My second argument targeted early medieval religion as mechanistic, in which spiritual ideas remained the preserve of a clerical elite, reaching the laity only in the 11th and 12th centuries.

After spending 40 years taking others’ research on board and rethinking what I thought in 1976, I acknowledge my own limits then. Early medieval people’s law could deliver justice, and their religion incorporated ideas about individuals’ capacity to change their lives and behaviour towards others, which drew on the New Testament as well as the Old.

Janet L. Nelson is Emerita Professor of Medieval History at King's College London.