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18 September 2014
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The Historian's Many Hats

By John Arnold
Attaching meaning

Image of inquisitors questioning a heretic
Inquisitors question a heretic ©
For example, we might look for other documents on John Hogsflesh himself. We could be lucky, and find something (a will, or a mention in a taxation record), but given that we're looking at an ordinary chap in the early 16th century, we may well not find anything. If, however, we look for other people convicted of heresy in the period, we may have better fortune.

Equally, if we decide that our theme is going to be the English Reformation, we could look to some very different kinds of sources - the records of Royal government for example - and find a wealth of material on Henry VIII, his advisors, and what they were doing and thinking at the time. Taking this route would probably shift attention away from Hogsflesh - he might become a footnote in a history more interested in the decisions and actions of the Crown.

'... many historians have questioned whether such a neutral and objective position is ever actually possible ...'

In recent years, however, many historians have taken the opposite direction. In trying, for example, to understand the Reformation, they have looked increasingly at local records about ordinary people (like Hogsflesh) in order to see how they were part of the process of religious change. Reasons for this change in direction are complex.

They include practical matters (the foundation of many local record offices in the 1950s and 60s made these sources more easily available), the existing context of scholarship (the need to look at areas that have not already been well covered by other historians), and political or conceptual motivations (the desire, for example, to show that ordinary people like John Hogsflesh have a place in history, and are not forgotten or hidden by the 'big' histories of church and state).

This points to another role for the historian, again overlapping with the first two. If the historian must interpret the historical record, this necessarily involves making choices not only about the context but also the meaning of historical events.

There are a number of ways of describing this role. At the most neutral, we might call it the role of analyst - looking dispassionately at the evidence and presenting one's findings. Indeed, the 'scientific' image of this role was particularly popular amongst historians early in the 20th century (and still, to some extent, today). However, many historians have questioned whether such a neutral and objective position is ever actually possible, not least because of the choices that every historian must make in how he or she sets about analysing something.

Published: 2005-01-28

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