As any historian will admit, objectivity is an impossible dream. And yet we all still, at least on some level, aim to attain it in our own work... or do we? The problem is a circular one: can you ever know your own biases? Historians of history – people whose work is in part the study of the practices, methods, and assumptions of previous historians – are perhaps the most attuned of any members of the profession to the extent to which history is never a single ‘true’ narrative. And yet we are equally aware that the spectre of objectivity haunted our predecessors, even those who would never wear the label of ‘historian’ in the modern sense. Walter Scott, the first truly popular historical novelist (think of him as the Hilary Mantel of his day), prided himself on the precision of his factual detail and the authenticity of his characters’ speech and manners. Scott, a master of fiction, managed to capture the reality (and complexity) of the past in a way that historians of his own day could only envy.
Perhaps this reflection on our practice is best brought into focus through a particular case study of how the past has been retold. Take the famous story of Queen Boudica, ancient leader of the Iceni tribe who rebelled against the Roman occupiers in 61AD. Interestingly, Boudica has very rarely been the subject of proper ‘academic’ history. This is in part because the profession is relatively new, while Queen Boudica’s story is more than 2000 years old. In the period before the late nineteenth century, when the professional discipline emerged, and sister subjects like archaeology became separated from it, the category of ‘history’ can be more accurately described as field of cultural production. Historical stories were told in ballads, dramas, song, poetry, art, and literature (especially once the novel emerged in the eighteenth century). Biography played its part, as did older varieties of intellectual activity like ‘chorography’ – a kind of blend of geography and history – and antiquarianism. The study of such items of ‘history’ is the study of ‘historical culture’.
Boudica’s story is visible in a great many examples of historical culture following the Renaissance, when the works of Tacitus (whose works present the first and most reliable account of Boudica’s actions) were reintroduced to a British audience. Sometimes we can see contemporary concerns with political power and nation-building at play. For example, when Britain was under threat from the Spanish Armada, Boudica became the subject of laudatory verse as “Voada, England’s happie Queene” (despite the fact that there was no such thing as “England” during Boudica’s lifetime!), and cast as predecessor to another warrior queen, Elizabeth I.
Boudica’s sex of course set her apart from the great many kings and heroes whose deeds made them visible in the historical record. This was problematic for some historians, not least John Milton, better known for his poetry than his prose history. Milton dismissed Boudica’s story as unworthy of being told in any detail: she was female, she was a savage, and she had almost certainly exaggerated the wrong-doing of the Romans (so Milton claimed). Yet, thankfully for Boudica, the spectre of objectivity haunted even the most biased of historians, and even Milton had to admit of her existence in the historical record. To do otherwise would be to cast doubt on the validity of Tacitus’ histories, which had by this stage taken on the status of canonical texts in European history. Milton’s contemporaries would not have countenanced such an omission.
Thus Boudica’s story illustrates a key dynamic in all historical production: the balancing of perspective and interpretation with the evidence of the available source base, and the knowledge that one’s perspective is open to counter-perspectives. It is something anyone who wishes to retell the past, particularly if they are doing so in a genre which lays claim to some degree of truth-telling, must confront.
Recent work on the history of history has only just begun to take account of the truly diverse nature of the category of ‘history’. Indeed, the rise of the designation ‘historical culture’ suggests the importance of understanding historical stories as emerging from beyond the narrow confines of the academic discipline or the historical profession. This in turn means taking account of all manner of new points of view, all of which come weighted with experience and therefore – back to that old chestnut – bias. But this presents an opportunity for historians – broadly defined – to explore the multiplicity of narratives that make up the story of our past.
The implications of this are profound, particularly for a historical discipline increasingly aware of culturally diverse perspectives. Oral testimony, balladry, poetry, and even custom and ritual, are all important ways in which the past has been re-told in cultures beyond (and indeed within, though this is often overlooked) the traditionally studied Western and European nation states. The historical profession has never had a monopoly on the past, and a greater understanding of the cultural production of that past will present a major step forward in our collective self-understanding.
And yet far from underlining differences and distinctions between individuals and communities, a growing awareness of the sheer variety of history, and of perspectives within it, might in fact lead to a greater sense of shared experience and to a greater degree of empathy. The more we understand each other’s unique perspectives as part of a greater whole, the more we might come to appreciate the beauty of unity in diversity.
Martha Vandrei is author of Queen Boudica and Historical Culture in Britain: An Image of Truth (OUP, 2018). Her current research project investigates the relationship between the development of academic disciplines and the activities of 'amateur' practitioners. The project seeks to investigate the ways in which intellectual history can be told demotically through the activities and social networks of ordinary individuals.