What is the nature of historical knowledge? by Ben Dodds

One of the joys of studying history is the intellectual curiosity of fellow historians. On her first day at university, the undergraduate historian will meet a wide range of people, fellow students and tutors, all of whom share a thirst for knowledge about the past. She will meet people who also want to know more about propaganda in Soviet Russia or tactics at the Battle of Agincourt. Why should we worry about what this knowledge is and the purposes it serves when sheer contemplation of such exotic human diversity is wonderful in itself? This wonder can become a lifelong passion. The new history undergraduate’s excitement will be shared by those who have been studying history for much longer – the more the historian knows about the past, the more she wants to know.

In Durham, the historian’s passion for knowledge of the past is intensified by the fact that this passion has been felt by historians in the city for nearly a thousand years. As long ago as the late eleventh century, the Norman monk Symeon used archival records belonging to the community guarding the body of St Cuthbert to write a history of the origins of that community.  Symeon’s successors remained obsessed with the past, gathering information and writing new histories of Durham.  On the way to her lectures, the new history undergraduate might choose to walk round the cloisters in which her monastic predecessors discussed their historical interests many centuries before. The effect of this sense of a shared interest in the past is spine-tingling and makes our knowledge of distant periods and peoples very real.

As historians, though, we must take care. Historical knowledge can bring wonder and joy – but there is much more to it than that. We must remember that creating historical knowledge is not like digging up buried treasure. Understanding the past is not simply a matter of accumulating information: historical work will never be ‘finished’. This is because, without historical questions to guide us, knowledge means nothing. I am reminded of the hero of one of Borges’ stories ‘Funes the Memorious’. Funes has had a head injury which means he remembers everything he sees: he describes shifting cloud formations minute by minute; he learns every word in a language by simply reading a dictionary. Such prodigious knowledge acquisition had the effect of rendering him incapable of thought: his mind is constantly acquiring information and this makes it impossible for him to sift, to analyse, to select. As historians, we must bear Funes in mind because, until the historian understands the questions she is asking, she will not be able to understand the past.

When the Durham monks carried out historical research, they wanted to understand the relationship between the earthly community in which they lived and St Cuthbert, a heavenly figure who was a daily part of their earthly lives. In other words, they needed to understand the past in order to make sense of the present – and their understanding of the present was very different from ours. For the medieval historian and the twenty-first-century historian alike, then, knowledge must have a purpose. This is something which is easy to forget for those engaged in historical study. This may sound rather ominous, but it is no exaggeration to say that historical knowledge can be dangerous. Let us turn, for a moment, to the dictatorship of General Franco in Spain in the mid-twentieth century. Franco was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards and for the misery of millions more. He was also celebrated by many of his contemporaries as the hero who delivered Spain from chaos. Franco’s power to convince people of the legitimacy of his rule depended on historical ‘knowledge’: it depended on a glorious interpretation of Spain’s distant past and a bleak version of its transition into modernity.The reasons for the longevity of Franco’s brutal regime are complex, but it depended in part upon a particular body of historical ‘knowledge’. Much of this ‘knowledge’ had been assembled by historians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unaware of its potential as a justification for murder and torture.

This article is in part a celebration of the sheer wonder of historical knowledge – the dizzying sense of excitement the historian feels in learning about the past. This article is also a warning. Historians have great responsibility in their exploration of knowledge: we must try to understand where the knowledge comes from, why we are exploring it and the uses to which it might be put. What is more, we must encourage others to treat historical knowledge in the same way.

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