The Experience of History - Kenneth Bartlett - ebook

The Experience of History ebook

Kenneth Bartlett

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The Experience of History is a lively and passionate introduction to the field that encourages students to seek and appreciate history inside the classroom and beyond. This work: * Defines history as a discipline and the role of historians within it * Addresses the analytical and critical thinking skills needed to engage with the past * Discusses a variety of important topics in the study of history, such as historical evidence, primary documents, divisions of history, forms of historical writing, historiographical traditions, and recent categories of historical research Written by a renowned scholar of European history, this work helps students to become discerning examiners of history and historical evidence in a variety of modern settings like art, architecture, film, television, politics, current events, and more. Learn more about the author and his passion for history in this interview with popular blog Five Books:

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Table of Contents


Title Page


1 Introduction

We are All Part of the Evidence

A Personal Example

2 The Historian not the History

Ideological History

Ethnic or National History

Distant Voices

Historical Style or Genre

The Older Historian

History by Non‐Historians

Historical Jargon

History in Translation

3 If not the Historian, then Certainly the Evidence

The Nature of Evidence

Taxation Records

Court or Legal Documents

Eye‐Witness Evidence

Using Evidence Requires Skill and Experience

Drawings as Evidence

Photographs as Evidence

Aural Evidence

Missing or Negative Evidence


4 The Periods and Divisions of History

Historical Periodization: History as Chunks of Time

The Example of the Middle Ages

Historical Periods Defined by Dynamic Ideas

Historical Periods Defined by Great Men or Women

Historical Periods Defined by Specific Years or Centuries

The Study of History through Geographical Categories

History as Chunks of Space

5 The Many and Various Forms of Historical Writing: The More Traditional Structures

The Chronicle

Political History

Diplomatic History

Legal History

Military History

Economic History

Subgenres of Economic History

Cultural and Intellectual History

Church or Confessional History

Jewish History

Histories of other Heterodox Religious Communities

6 The Many and Various Forms of Historical Writing: More Recent Categories of Historical Research

Social History


Gendered Histories

Women’s History

Feminist History

Gender History

Queer History

Children’s History

Transnational History

Diaspora Studies

Holocaust Studies

Genocide Studies

World History

Big History

7 The Writing of History

The Writing of History in the Past

The Deeds of Great Men

History as a Divine Plan

The Scientific Revolution, The Enlightenment, and the ‘Laws’ of History

History and Social Darwinism

Writing History after the Second World War

The Writing of History Today

An Example

Framing the Question

The State of the Question

Deciding on a Beginning and an End

The Contract with your Audience


A Conclusion

Bibliographies and Notes

Maps and Illustrations


8 Experiencing History

History Around Us

Museums and Art Galleries

History as Breaking News

Film and Television

Electronic Records, Social Media, and History

History from Evidence on the Internet

9 Conclusion

We are All Historians

We are All Disciples of Descartes

Some Final Words

Suggestions for Further Reading


End User License Agreement



Table of Contents

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The Experience of History

Kenneth Bartlett











This edition first published 2017© 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd

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Library of Congress Cataloging‐in‐Publication Data

Names: Bartlett, Kenneth R., author.Title: The experience of history / Kenneth Bartlett.Description: Malden, MA : John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2016. | Includes bibliographical  references and index.Identifiers: LCCN 2016036795 (print) | LCCN 2016042775 (ebook) |  ISBN 9781118912010 (cloth) | ISBN 9781118912003 (pbk.) | ISBN 9781118911990 (pdf) | ISBN 9781118911983 (epub)Subjects: LCSH: History–Methodology. | History–Study and teaching.Classification: LCC D16 .B23 2016 (print) | LCC D16 (ebook) | DDC 907–dc23LC record available at

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Cover image: Michael Phillips/Gettyimages


Some years ago I was occasionally visited in my office at Victoria College in the University of Toronto by an editor from Wiley‐Blackwell, Tessa Harvey. She lived in Britain and worked out of the Oxford office of John Wiley & Sons but she had relatives in Toronto and consequently took advantage of the family connection to solicit authors and textbook adoptions from the faculty of my university. During these visits we talked of history as a discipline and how it had developed, what forms it took, and how its study could provide the platform for a liberal education and the skills needed in a complex world. Understanding the dynamic of the past and the causes of events are, we agreed, essential elements both in a student’s preparation for life and work and in an educated citizen’s understanding of how the world we live in functions. After several of these conversations, Tessa asked me to write a book on the study of history that would not be an undergraduate or upper‐school textbook in the traditional sense but a consideration of history as a discipline. The idea was to produce a book that would be interesting to an educated lay audience wishing to engage with history as a means of understanding how the past served as a prologue to our own time and as an instrument for appreciating how every generation of historian recasts the evidence. I argued at the time that the study of history was an ideal way to access the perspectives of the past and assess how the present is constantly forcing a re‐evaluation of what we believed happened before we were born. Although I was committed to other projects at the time, I was convinced by Tessa that this would be a worthwhile enterprise and one which would help anyone with even a cursory interest in the past to follow the contours of a notoriously fractious discipline, populated by articulate but frustratingly argumentative practitioners.

My arguments against writing this book were partly driven by the question of whether I was the best historian to attempt it. I have practised the study and teaching of history for over 30 years. I have taught every level of student from newly admitted first years in European surveys to senior graduate seminars. I have supervised doctoral theses in history and I have published a significant bibliography ranging across many aspects of the past from translations and editions to monographs and a great many articles in journals. I have spoken at a long list of academic conferences around the world and I have made educational video series and appeared on television. I am very active as a public speaker on historical subjects to groups ranging from senior alumni to dining clubs; and I lead academic tour groups, as well as teaching in my university’s study abroad programmes in Europe. I have had the honour of being recognized as a fine educator, winning a great many awards for teaching, service, and scholarship. I have held administrative positions that gave me the opportunity to experiment with new means of delivering the university curriculum and establishing what that curriculum should be. My courses are both traditional – including the large, 500‐student introductory survey in European history – and interdisciplinary, having taught on my college’s interdisciplinary programme in Renaissance Studies since its inception.

I am providing this cursus honorum not to establish my credentials for writing this book but to declare that, despite this long and successful career, I am still not certain what history is and what it does; indeed, one of the reasons I agreed to write this book was to help in the process of defining my own discipline and how historians fit into it. In this voyage of discovery, I have been more successful than I thought I might be, inasmuch as I believe that I have at least raised the questions that everyone who confronts the past must address, whether first‐year undergraduates or renowned scholars. The categories, skills, and methods I describe in my book do appear to have worked for me; however, as in any engagement with students of any kind, the sure knowledge that a deep and meaningful understanding of the process of historical writing and research has been transmitted remains uncertain.

The second issue, which I discussed at length with my editors, first Tessa, and after her retirement, Peter Coveney from the Boston office of Wiley, was whether a historian of the European Renaissance could bring sufficient examples and methods from other areas of research and teaching to make the book universally attractive and useful. I confessed that my own work has taken me exclusively into the study of Europe and its culture, even though I have lectured and consulted for universities in China and the Middle East, and even though my own students represent likely the most diverse student body in the world. In my large class, about half of the students were born outside Canada and speak dozens of languages from around the world at home. This, of course, merely reflects the multicultural metropolis that is Toronto; but it also reflects the interest that these diverse students take in studying Europe, particularly those who are recent immigrants or whose origins are very distant from British North America. When I meet with them, my students always say that that they are in my class because they want to understand the culture and institutions of the West, because those are the elements which will necessarily shape their lives in Canada. Even though they admit that confronting certain subjects is challenging to their own traditions, religions, and attitudes, mostly learnt from their families but still very much part of their world‐view, they also affirm the importance of knowing how and why their traditions vary from those in a western, free enterprise, parliamentary democracy. This imposes a serious responsibility on me as a historian and teacher. It is heartening and humbling and requires sensitivity and openness; but it works.

Consequently, my examples in this book are almost all from Europe, from antiquity to the modern world: those are the traditions that have shaped western historical discourse and our use of evidence. And, frankly, these are the examples that I know and understand best. I learnt early from my very diverse students that to try to enter into another culture or tradition without a deep grasp of the complex forces at work within that distant civilization leads to superficial judgments and false analogies, those faux amis that are so glaring when a scholar moves well outside his or her own area of experience. This I honestly learnt from my students: they work hard to avoid such generalizations and shallow narratives, so I must do the same. Furthermore, in the study of history the examples and references matter less than one would expect. Of course, the sources are different and the academic practices of scholarship vary from place to place. But we are, as I note near the end of my book, all disciples of Descartes (René Descartes 1596–1650) in one way or another. Scientific method, empiricism, rigorous, honest research in primary documents, and a deep knowledge of what others have written obtain everywhere, not just in North America and not just in Renaissance European History. Nevertheless, if there are readers who expected a world vision in this book, I apologize because I am not the historian to provide it; there are others better equipped. What I am is an educator and scholar who is faced with a complex interdisciplinary area of research and who has taught students from every small corner of the planet. From them I learnt how to make my work accessible to a broad audience, and to them I am greatly indebted.

History is a particularly complex discipline because it includes almost every aspect of the human condition. It is far from the old political narrative of what happened when; now it follows the contours of our past – actually our several pasts – in such a way that the shared humanity of all of those who have gone before is revealed. I attempt to indicate the importance of this both in my discussion of what kinds of evidence survive and how that evidence should be approached and in my taxonomy of the discipline, dividing my subject into its various subcategories in a manner that might appear almost Linnaean. The purpose of this detailed analysis in the book is to witness and reinforce the wonderful explosion of new historical perspectives that have developed since the Second World War, in some instances during the past few decades. Today, there are so many ways of accessing the experience of our fellow humans in times past that no one scholar or student can ever master them all or even review them all in anything like a comprehensive way. One consequence of this is what many lay readers of history lament: the proliferation of studies that are very sharply focused on a very narrow aspect of the past. The broad sweeps that we associate either with popular history or with some of the great works of earlier scholarship are seldom seen and are even more seldom produced by professional historians. An academic wit once remarked that a professor of history is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he or she knows everything about nothing. This is, of course, a joke; but many see a grain of truth in the observation that academic historical writing appears to have left the general reader behind.

The cause of this results in part from the way in which PhD students in history are trained and their need to produce a substantial publication from the finished thesis to be competitive in a very difficult academic labour market. A broad sweeping study would not easily provide this material. But the current situation also results from our expansion of what constitutes evidence and what we consider to be important. By seeing almost every kind of survival from the past as useful documentation and by desiring a comprehensive picture of moments in the past that shed light on previously obscure spaces, historians are creating pieces of a puzzle which, when put together, reveal a much richer picture of the worlds we have lost. We now know so much more about the lives, attitudes, and circumstances of our ancestors that we should rejoice in this richness, not lament a lost golden age of accessible historical writing. That genre of popular or accessible history is still available and is often extremely well done in several media. I myself have produced video courses and appeared on television to bring an aspect of my own professional interest and knowledge to a general audience. What we see, then, is not a distancing of history from the educated wider population but a much richer choice of books, subjects, media, and interests. To complain that we are losing our sense of collective self‐knowledge by not having a single, clearly formulated national or cultural narrative is to rail against the diversity and complexity of the modern world.

Certain elements in contemporary historical writing can be discordant. Some of these uncomfortable examples result from the movement of history out of the general areas of rhetoric, narrative, and traditional methodologies. We all like stories, and the etymological connections between those stories and history reveals how close they once were. Indeed, in the distant past, there was no distinction: Homer wrote poetry but also provided much of what we know about the Trojan War. Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, c. 69–after 122 AD) wrote gossip about the first 12 Roman emperors in a way that would not be inappropriate for supermarket tabloids; but, again, we have derived much important evidence from his observations. What we demand now, however, is not just a good story in poetry or prose but a fair and engaging assessment of a piece of our history which we can accept as reliable because of the rigorous use of evidence and analysis. The historian remains an important part of this exercise because it is she or he who puts the pieces together and draws conclusions from them. It is still the historian who speaks, not the evidence: in every good historian a bit of Homer and Suetonius lives. Evidence and documentation, as well as the received scholarship on the question, are passive, inert materials that require a historian to assemble them into a critical mass so that some kind of intellectual fission will occur. It is for this reason that I offer a chapter on the historian and privilege him or her over the materials he or she uses.

I do not let the historian off completely, however, from certain charges against the profession. There is never need for jargon or impenetrable language. If an interdisciplinary study of the past employs the language of another discipline, it should be explained and domesticated into plain, clear, effective speech. Levels of diction can remain high, as a memory of the fact that history was once a branch of rhetoric; but a sophisticated vocabulary is not the same as the precious speech of those scholars who want to limit their audiences to those who share their perspectives. This tendency to use jargon really proves Freud’s (Sigismund Freud, 1856–1939) observation about the narcissism of small differences. Language should be welcoming and inclusive, not a barrier to general understanding.

Finally, I would like to affirm my own belief in the efficacy of reading, studying, and writing history. It is an exacting discipline, but one which brings together every aspect of our knowledge and experience. To study history is to study the whole development of entire civilizations, even if only a small part at a time. The complexity of the human condition, the almost numberless forces at work on every society, and the actions that result from either careful or headlong decisions require a subtle and deep appreciation of what it is to be human, living in a community and balancing the public and private good. I tell my students that very few of them will graduate and find work as professional historians; but every one of them will be historians in that their training will give them the skills and knowledge to navigate a demanding and difficult world. To know how others have reacted to crisis or opportunity is to assist in the decisions that every citizen must make for him or herself, in the family, the community, the nation, and the world. To read or hear the news with a deeper understanding, or to cast a vote for a political candidate based on a more profound appreciation of the issues at stake is to validate the study of history. To see others – wherever and whenever they are encountered – as part of a common humanity or as fellow travellers on the shared paths of the human condition is to apply the lessons of history. When the Roman playwright Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, c. 195–c. 159 BC) wrote that ‘I am human, so nothing human should be alien to me’, he was stating the reason we study history, and why were are fortunate that there are now so many aspects to historical study that few elements of our humanity are excluded.

There are many people who contributed to the writing of this book, some actively and others unknowingly. In the former category, I mention and again, with sincere appreciation, Tessa Harvey, whose gentle intensity convinced me to embark on the work, Peter Coveney, who assumed Tessa’s role after her retirement and who has proved an insightful and rigorous reader, and finally Brian Stone who replaced Peter after his retirement. Then, as always, there is my wife, Gillian, my sharpest critic and most trusted editor. In the latter category I include all of my students, from first year to my PhD students, many of whom are now teaching history at other universities across the continent. These outstanding young people have forced me to constantly evaluate and re‐evaluate what I am saying and writing, and their rich diversity has shown me how important the concept of universal human principles and careful judgments are in teaching and research. Finally, my many colleagues in a great many disciplines over a long period of time deserve recognition. We have not always agreed professionally but the disagreements have for the most part been open and respectful discussions about varying interpretations of the past. You have brought so much of your own knowledge and wit to our formal and informal debates about history that I am much the richer for having heard your arguments and read your work.

My sincere hope is that this book will be used by students at every level and by anyone interested in navigating the modern practice of history. It is written to be provocative and as comprehensive as possible, given the limitations of its author. It acknowledges that there are a great many other ways of approaching the reading, writing, and assessing of history; thus any entry into history requires a guide, or in the world of contemporary technology, a GPS. That is what I hope this book offers.

Kenneth BartlettVictoria CollegeUniversity of Toronto


The American industrialist, Henry Ford, once famously said that history is bunk. Although he fortunately changed his opinion, he was speaking for a number of those who saw the past as irrelevant or at best an antiquarian interest in the silent, if entertaining, dead. This opinion did not die with him. Recently, a financial guru has said that the past can teach us nothing, that everything worthwhile should come from the file ‘going forward’. For his highly lucrative profession, then, his advice was to ignore what went before and concentrate on what was to come. I could, of course, provide a great many more quotes and examples. Or, I could counter each and every one with an opposite observation praising the value of studying history made by scholars and politicians of the stature of the ancient Roman statesman Cicero (d. 43 BC) or the modern British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (d. 1965). But, to those who see little value in history, this would just be testimony from those same irrelevant, dead advocates of an essentially useless discipline.

So, why study history, if there is a debate as to whether it is of any use in the modern world? And, if it is useful, where exactly is its value to be found? How can we gain significance and guidance from what happened before we were born or in distant lands so different from our own? The answers to these questions and the brief in favour of the study of history are what this book is about. To be sure, the past is a foreign country but one not only worth visiting, but instructive, insightful, and useful. The experience of the past and what men and women have made of those experiences subsequently constitute the record of human civilization and the platform on which our modern world is built. To ignore or disparage this journey through time, this desire to see the past through modern eyes, is to miss an opportunity to give nuance and explanation to not only what happened before we were born but more urgently to the universe we are inhabiting at this very moment. Also, the trajectory of the past can provide clues to the unfolding of the future. I am not saying that history repeats itself; but it does, if used skilfully, reveal patterns and motives that can inform our own decisions. So, to the financial guru, I would counter that he is simply wrong: he has chosen to ignore one of the most effective guides to success in his profession. Financial markets and the global economy are driven by people. Any deeper insight we can gather into what drives people to make the choices they do, favour one product over another, embrace or reject the foreign and exotic or simply aspire to something different or new is more than useful: it is necessary.

Another argument thrown against studying history is that historians seem unable to agree on anything, that they use the past as ammunition in wars that have not much to do with what might have occurred long ago but have much to say about the current state of our own world. In other words, history is rewritten to justify the failures or ambitions of those who write it and those who read it. Well, I could not agree more: this is exactly what results from the study of historiography (the formal study of written history over time as a discipline). And, it is a good thing. Let me explain.

To have any relevance or validity, the past must speak to the needs and concerns of the present and future. Consequently, as those imperatives change with time, location, ideology or prejudice, the view of the past will change as well. This is what makes history a dynamic, vital, and living discipline. It will always be current and its interpretation accordingly changes with its environment. There is something almost evolutionary in the way in which history adapts to the environment in which it is written. And, as with surviving species, the most adaptable and the strongest – at least in terms of evidence and argument – will endure. These surviving historical interpretations will always be challenged by new, even more adaptable and effective interpretations; and some of the dominant schools of historical thought that had lasted for generations, even centuries, will eventually be discarded as no longer useful. That is the glory and strength of history: the fact that it is always in a state of flux, changing and alive. The past is not dead because those who study and interpret the past are very much alive.

What then about ‘facts’, those dates, events, reigns, wars, elections, victories, and defeats that are often the popular definition of historical research? They exist, that I concede. But in themselves they have little utility or value. They are simply records of particular moments on which most students and historians agree, with appropriate evidence to substantiate this belief. But, these ‘facts of history’ have no purpose and use beyond how they are interpreted, what they meant at the time and afterwards, and what they mean to us. These ‘facts’ are like pegs on a wall: they are useful for hanging deeper study and analysis. To know these ‘facts’ is convenient, as they provide a logical chronology and structure for understanding the past. And, they serve as a generally accepted vocabulary in the discourse among historians. What matters, then, is not the ‘facts’ but how these operate as evidence, as points of agreement or departure, elements of structure and design.

In this book we will talk a great deal about evidence, including ‘facts’, that is, evidence which is broadly accepted and substantiated by documents or records. But, we will also argue that the interpretation of this evidence matters far more and that even our assessment of ‘facts’ changes. Let me give you an example: for millennia the study of history was structured according to theological ‘facts’, evidence that emerged from the revealed texts of faith, such as the Bible or the Koran. No one in the cultures that produced these histories would ever have disputed the fundamental truth of these ‘facts’. But, after the Renaissance and Enlightenment in Europe, and certainly today, hardly anyone, whether a professional historian or not, would accept these religious ‘facts’ as valid evidence of what happened to real men and women eons ago, even if they can indeed offer clues. So, everything can change, including fundamental ideas or structures that have guided historians for centuries.

That is not to say that even such traditional and now outmoded structures have been altogether thrown into the dustbin of history. Just look at how we measure the passage of time itself. In the Christian world, the past is divided by the letters BC or AD, that, is Before Christ and Anno Domini, that is, in Latin, in the year of our Lord. The incarnation, then, becomes the most significant element in recording time and bisects Christian history. Similarly, Muslims date the past from the Christian year 672 AD, that is, the year of the Hajira, when Mohammad fled from Mecca to Medina. Thus, 2015 is the year 1343. Jews record time from the creation of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, as described in Genesis; and the year begins on that day. So, in the Hebrew calendar, 2015 is the year 5775. I should note, though, that in the secular west there is now an attempt to negate the Christian associations of BC and AD by replacing these religiously structured terms with BCE – or Before Common Era – and CE, or Common Era. The concept of Common Era would, however, be lost on Muslims and Jews who retain their own dating and do not necessarily see the past as ‘Common’.

The study of history has often been defined as the study of change over time. And, historians change, too, as does acceptable evidence. Thus, things we completely accept, indeed privilege, had little or no purchase among the historians of the past. Economic History hardly existed at all until quite recently; Social History was either curious antiquarianism or ignored until about the same time. Women’s History came into its own as a respected sub‐discipline just in the last century and Queer History is now just developing into an effective and recognized genre of its own. The documents, evidence, insights, and texts used by these branches of history were certainly available and known previously, but they were only identified as valid, useful, and in fact necessary when the society of those writing and reading history realized that these perspectives added important aspects to our understanding both of the past and the present. These sub‐disciplines became the instruments for illuminating what had been before the dark corners of human experience and they gave a powerful and effective voice to those whose pasts had been ignored or even unjustly vilified. As a result we are all much richer and the experience of being human in a complex and diverse world is greatly expanded.

We are All Part of the Evidence

Later in this book, in the chapter on evidence, I note that documents from what amounts to daily life constitute essential evidence from the past, evidence that the historian might use to fashion a set of carefully crafted conclusions about the society that created these documents and the individuals and groups who inhabit them. Census records, taxation rolls, property deeds, judicial, and official government files, and so many other tesserae in the mosaic of the lives and communities of those who went before us remain among the most important evidentiary platforms on which history is constructed. Consider our own lives. Think of the documents we sign and file every year, almost every day. There are the important ones that we conserve in a safe or a secure drawer in a desk, often with duplicates kept in lawyers’ offices or bank vaults: birth certificates, marriage licences, college or university diplomas, property deeds or rental leases, and wills, just to note the most common. These are the same documents that historians have used to discover the contours of past societies; so, we are saving the evidence for tomorrow’s history.

Consider as well the intimate and personal material that every one of us keeps, often in places more secure than those protecting our legal and financial personae. Love letters, diaries, correspondence through a war or unwanted separation, photographs, home movies, cards, newspaper clippings celebrating personal or family achievements, a marriage or birth, or an obituary, or just something that spoke to you in an intimate manner. We keep letters offering employment, personal notes from employers, co‐workers, neighbours or friends, or just something that reflects an act of personal connection or kindness. Then, there are the negative categories: letters of rejection – of us or a manuscript – a notice of termination of employment, accusatory correspondence from the local troublemaker, taxation office interrogatories or a warning of legal proceedings. These are kept as well either as protection against future loss or as a record of a clouded time. Here again, we are conserving the evidence that social historians find invaluable, as it records the details of a life in our community at a particular moment.