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Interpreting history

December 3, 2013

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Interpreting history

December 3, 2013

"History is not fable agreed upon, but truth disagreed upon."  IVAN PANIN, Thoughts

 

I have forever wondered in awe and amazement how historians can fill in the gaps with such prose and detail of past events and get into the heads of those involved. It is said that historians reference the present in their study of the past, but in doing so, are they distorting facts by their own beliefs, morals and personality influenced by today's advanced environment.

 

Is this why historians often arrive at opposing opinions?

 

I use as an example the famous or infamous (depending on who you read) Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly. Some historians portray him as a being harassed and persecuted by the police until he is forced to retaliate by shooting them. Others suggest he was just a ruthless bushranger, bank robber and police murdered. By all recorded accounts, both could be actuate. But it must be asked why the difference in interpretation. Surely history, being in the past, can be proven if sufficient records are found. But what if certain records of certain events are not found or never existed? Well, this is where historians fill in the gaps and quite often disagree on interpretations.

 

Of course this puts a heavy responsibility on the historian as many of the facts uncovered can be ambiguous. On top of that, historians can uncover different facts that produce different outcomes or interpretations. This can mean a unique document is produced to the benefit of any one particular author.

 

When evaluating a historian's interpretation one must ask, what was the initial thesis? Did the supporting evidence in fact prove the author's claims? Are their errors of fact or questionable procedures? And, does the author have a controversial or argumentative purpose? If so, does it cloud the outcome. If not, is there a veiled agenda?

 

There is most certainly as many past mysteries as there are mysteries in their historical interpretation.

 

I'm not alone in commenting on this subject:

 

"Historians exercise great power and some of them know it. They recreate the past, changing it to fit their own interpretations. Thus, they change the future as well."  FRANK HERBERT, Heretics of Dune


"History viewed from the inside is always a dark, digestive mess, far different from the easily recognizable cow viewed from afar by historians."  DAN SIMMONS, Hyperion


"History is the distillation of rumor."  THOMAS CARLYLE


"The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice."  MARK TWAIN, Following the Equator


"Myths ... collected like barnacles on history, obscuring the truth."  BRIAN HERBERT & KEVIN J. ANDERSON, Dune: House Harkonnen


"It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of skunk."  REBECCA WEST, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon


"History is the autobiography of a madman."  ALEXANDER HERZEN, Dr. Krupov


"The memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from."  JOHN STILL, The Jungle Tide


"History is more or less bunk."  HENRY FORD, Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916


"Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history."  PLATO, Ion


"History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors and issues." T.S. ELIOT, Gerontion
And finally


"You know you're getting older when you notice that more and more history questions happened in your lifetime!" TOM WILSON, Ziggy, Jul. 3, 1999

 

NED KELLY AT BAY illustration
From a sketch drawn on the spot by Mr. T Carrington

 

 

 

 

 

 

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