The Historian's Many Hats

By John Arnold
The historian has to create a narrative that can stand the test of time - and to get it right has to see things from many points of view. Whether as detective, judge or political analyst, how many hats should a historian wear?
Medieval religious procession - the flagellants of Tournai 

Heretical beliefs

On 14 November 1534 John Hogsflesh of Lewes was not having a good day. He had to walk through the streets of Chichester at market time, wearing only a shirt, shoes and a strip of linen around his waist, whilst carrying a faggot.

'The faggot - a bundle of sticks - symbolised his conviction for heresy'

Once he got to the marketplace, he was to climb onto a small platform and read out a statement declaring that he had been convicted for heretical beliefs (namely, that no-one need honour the Virgin Mary, that Christ's body was not present in the Eucharist, and that he could be saved without confession to a priest). These beliefs he now renounced. His speech - written for him by the church authorities - concluded thus:

I do this penance here this day, beseeching you all and every one of you to take no example of any of my misdoing or saying, but that this my punishment may be a warning unto you to abstain from all such and other heresies and prohibit opinions at all times.

Hogsflesh had to repeat this ritual on 19 November at Midhurst market, and on 21 November at Lewes market. Finally, on Sunday 22nd November, John Hogsflesh was to join in the religious procession at Chichester Cathedral, still carrying the faggot, to complete his penance.

The faggot - a bundle of sticks - symbolised his conviction for heresy. If he had refused or failed to carry out the penance, he would have been placed upon a stack of faggots and burnt to death.

Roles of a historian

Image of a Greek historian from a French manuscript
A Greek historian puts quill to manuscript
Here, then, is a little piece of history. We know about what John Hogsflesh had to do because his prosecutor, Bishop Sherburne, kept a record of his trial and penance.

At its most simple, the role of the historian is to read records like this, report on what he or she finds there, and thus inform the wider world about the past. The most basic forms of history might cease at this point - simply arranging a report of events into a chronological order, and providing no further comment or discussion. We usually call such histories 'chronicles', and although they were quite common in the middle ages, they are not (with certain exceptions) the kind of history we are used to today.

'... historians treat their sources with fidelity (that is, do not pretend that the records say things that they do not ...'

So what else does the historian do? What roles does he or she play? There are a variety of things, some overlapping and common to most historians, some more divided and particular to individual historians.

There are some shared skills and methods that all reputable historians deploy. For example, they treat their sources with fidelity (that is, they do not pretend that the records say things that they do not, and do not deliberately ignore records that contradict the historian's argument).

The task of the historian, however, is more complicated than that of simply reporting what the records say. At the very least, the records that survive for most periods of history are both incomplete and often contradictory, and the historian therefore has to try, in some fashion, to address those gaps and contradictions. That is, he or she has to act as an interpreter.

Interpreting history

Image of a pre-Reformation nun and monk
A 15th-century nun and monk
We would probably want a historian to supply some interpretation of the case of John Hogsflesh. There are a number of options here, which will vary from person to person. How we understand or make sense of Hogsflesh's crime and penance depends firstly on the particular context into which we place it.

One historian might point out that in 1534 England was at the beginning of its religious Reformation, as Henry VIII detached the Church of England from Rome. Elements of Hogsflesh's ideas - particularly the rejection of Mary, which probably implied a rejection of belief in all the saints - were beginning to gain a national foothold, with elements of support from the king and his advisors.

'... his trial and penance formed part of a pattern for controlling religious belief ...'

This historian might therefore present Hogsflesh as evidence for a general shift in religious beliefs, and suggest he was unluckily caught out because he expressed his views a few years too early, at a point when the church was still arguing about what orthodox belief should be on such matters.

Another historian might place Hogsflesh's experience into the context of heresy trials, and point out that his trial and penance formed part of a pattern for controlling religious belief that stretched back (in England) to the late 14th century.

Someone interested in heresy itself might note that the beliefs Hogsflesh expressed (including his doubt about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist) can be found in many earlier periods and places - and thus draw attention away from the Reformation to a longer history of dissenting thought.

Someone else again might think about the public nature of Hogsflesh's penance (semi-naked in those marketplaces), and remind us that a variety of people and things were displayed in English marketplaces during this period, from people being punished for more secular crimes to popular entertainments or shows.

A choice of histories

Image of Cesare Baronio
Cesare Baronio, interpreter of 16th-century ecclesiastical history
John Hogsflesh can therefore be made to fit into a number of different contexts. The 'history' produced around him will vary according to the historian and his or her interpretation.

There is, therefore, a difference between 'the past' (all the things that happened in previous times) and 'history' (the bits of those things presented, in various ways, by historians to a wider public). How these different histories vary depends on the roles that the historian adopts.

The initial hat a historian usually wears is that of a detective - finding out something by locating historical documents. As we have seen, the next role is that of interpreter - saying something about what these things mean. In fact the boundaries of these roles are blurred.

'To make sense of Hogsflesh (or any other bit of the past), we need to find other material to provide context ...'

To make sense of Hogsflesh, or any other bit of the past, we need to find other material to provide context (as we have just seen). The direction of the particular detective work a historian undertakes therefore depends, in part, on the kind of interpretation he or she wants or is able to pursue.

This is affected by a number of things, including the availability of different kinds of sources, the interests of the historian, the knowledge already made available by other scholars.

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.

Subjective history

Image of a 15th-century pilgrim
A 15th-century pilgrim
If the historian is seen as a more subjective interpreter - not a fiction maker or liar, but nonetheless an interpreter influenced by their particular, personal position - his or her role might be described in different ways, depending on the kind of interpretation he or she wants to put forward.

For example, the historian might be seen as a judge, offering an assessment of the rights or wrongs (according to his or her own viewpoint) of what happened in the past. One can certainly find historians who discuss the Reformation in this way, arguing for example that the Reformation was imposed from above, was not popular with most people at the time, and that it would have been better if it had not happened.

'... the historian might take the role of political campaigner ...'

It doesn't mean that this kind of historian is writing bad history, only that they have taken a particular line of argument. Equally, the historian might take the role of political campaigner. Another part of the impetus to looking at people like John Hogsflesh (rather than just studying Henry VIII) was the left-wing political commitments of various historians such as Edward Thompson and Christopher Hill in the second half of the 20th century.

They felt (and other historians still feel) that through showing the place of ordinary people in history, the historian could contribute to political discussion about the place of ordinary people today.

Yet again, the historian might take the role of philosopher, concentrating on the questions of knowledge and ideas that looking at history throws up. For example, the role of philosopher might prompt a historian to ask difficult questions about our 'knowledge' of John Hogsflesh, whether we can really know about what he said, did and felt, or only what the surviving records (created by powerful authorities) represented as his actions. (The gaps between what the sources tell us, and the past reality that is now lost, is another reason why various people have doubted that the historian can really be an objective, 'scientific' analyst).

Combining roles

Image of Samuel Johnson holding court
Samuel Johnson, historian and essayist, holds court
The roles of analyst, judge, political campaigner and philosopher are not mutually exclusive. Nor does a historian pick only one of these 'hats' to wear - rather, they overlap and shift. However, all of these things involve two other roles that every historian, in one way or another, must play.

The first is that of synthesizer - someone who brings together a variety of things (pieces of evidence, ideas, other historians' works) and forges them into a new pattern. Again, this involves making choices (what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasize, what to diminish), and, again, these choices are unavoidable.The role of synthesizer is essential. Without it, there would be no history as we understand it - only piles and piles of records, lacking shape or coherence.

'... every historian is, in some fashion, a story teller.'

In addition, every historian is, in some fashion, a story teller. In producing a synthesis, the historian has to make it available to a wider audience - whether through writing, the radio or television.

The history that we see as a public is the final production (after the historian has completed all his or her other roles), and it is necessarily a kind of narrative. Sometimes the story elements are very clear, for example the short account of John Hogsflesh with which we began is presented as a little tale.

Sometimes, the 'story' is less obviously that. For example, if we had started with a table displaying some statistics for people convicted of religious deviance in England, that would look less like a tale and more like a piece of maths. It would still, however, be a story, or part of a story. As soon as the historian starts to analyse and explain, we are led, as readers, from a beginning to a middle to an end. If the table has a point to make ('this shows that ...'), it is telling us a story.

This is not to suggest that history (the thing produced from the roles of the historian) is not true. Unless the historian has cheated or been lazy or sloppy, the story is true in that it has fidelity to the sources. But it is to note that it is a story, and that had the historian adopted a different role, the tale would have appeared a little differently.

A choice of context

Image of someone reading
Reading history - an active experience
So to conclude the tale in question here. Unfortunately, we don't know anything more about John Hogsflesh, although I have briefly presented certain contexts that might explain the meaning of his actions.

In doing this, I have adopted certain roles as a historian - not least, that I chose to present the story of John Hogsflesh (rather than, say, that of Henry VIII) to you in the first place. Which suggests to me that there is another question here about roles, the role adopted by the reader or audience of history.

Is the audience best served by passively accepting everything that historians say or write? Or might the reader also want to ask questions, think of arguments - and wonder about what roles the historian adopted in producing his or her 'history'?

Published on BBC History: 2005-01-28
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