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Non-Definitive History: If you don’t like the past change it

Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time. Frederick Jackson Turner

All history is non-definitive: facts, situations, and experiences that are based on interpretation. An individual’s experience comes from their education, skills, culture, and the time they live. The knowledge and background of a historian from the 1920s will be radically different to a contemporary historian.

For a quick example of how history changes, read How Stuff Works’ article on 10 historical misconceptions while have 5 baffling discoveries proving our history books wrong!

Knowledge is not static. It is a living, growing wellspring.
Image source: Patricia Leslie [Darwin]

Stories from our past are layered.

The layers are the viewpoints of the people involved and everybody has a different viewpoint. Ask any writer or reader of historical fiction.

One army conquers another. The General in charge of the winning army makes their report - essentially based on fact, but shaped by experience and bias and sends it up the line. It’s tarted up here and there to make it more exciting and impressive, and spread around to the population. The years go by and the tarted up story becomes the truth (per se). When enough time goes by, the story becomes history. However, this may not take into account the experience of the soldiers who fought in the war or the stories of the losing side. The experience of the families and villages involved may also be missing.

Monument to Leonidas & image from the movie “300”

We can see this too in the missing histories of women.

Traditionally, many periods of history (and those that record it) have ignored or downplayed the

stories of women. I’ve recently read Kate Forsyth’s The Wild Girl, the story of Dortchen Wild, wife to Wilhelm Grimm and the source of many of the stories the Grimm Brothers are famous for. Little is known about Dortchen, yet Kate has researched the history of the period and the Grimm Brothers extensively to create a believable story that speaks true to the reader.

Cover of 'The Wild Girl' by Kate Forsyth

A person might also think that women in Ancient Greece did nothing but sit silently in a corner somewhere with no involvement in their community; no opinion, no skills, no voice. Ancient historians saw and reported everything from the point of view of men. Try finding information on what the women were up to as recorded by Herodotus

or Aristotle. Historians have cobbled together popular ‘knowledge’ about the women in Ancient Greece and based findings on interpretation of artworks, drama and poetry, and stories from surrounding cultures, and even that can be sketchy. Look at this blog post on Ancient Priestesses more powerful than supposed for an example on how unbalanced our general knowledge of history can be.

The history of the dispossessed is not always kept.

History has been too one-sided. What has happened to women is also clear where the dominant culture ignores the indigenous culture (or even just the one that went before), where one culture writes stories down and other cultures speak their history, and where languages fade away and die. Many histories would have us believe that before the “white man” landed, indigenous Australians or Americans (and no doubt many other cultures) had little in the way of perceivable civilisation.

Rock painting, ca. 6000 B.C.E Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia.

Modern historians more often take the broader view as well. They may look in the spaces of a story to find the fuller picture, yet experience, culture, interpretation too shapes their work. They are informed and influenced by the stories they are told, and sometimes, by who pays their wages. There are still viewpoints not being heard and there always will be.

Modern fiction writers take an even broader view than historians. As long as somewhere in their story is a kernel or two of truth, the truth they weave around it can be more believable than any history textbook. This works especially well with obscure topics.

In my upcoming “yet to be named” novel, I go way back and fill in some gaps left vacant by early historians. With as much research as possible, I’ve tried to create a story where “facts” are checkable and others are an interpretation of what might have happened. I cast my research net wide so that the journey of the story has a good foundation.

I’m attempting to do the same thing about people who appear recorded in the history of Ancient Gaul as little more than footnotes. A hard task, but not impossible if you’re prepared to look far afield to pull the strings of story together.

Defining history is as impossible as possessing ultimate knowledge or holding time still.

If you do not like the past, change it. William L. Burton
(quote source: American Historical Association Newsletter 20:2 (1982). The Use and Abuse of History)

This article originally appeared on my previous wordpress site as: If you don’t like the past change it: non-definitive history - JULY 4, 2013


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