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The New Nature of History

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 25 Apr 2024, 19:04

My A111 tutor had highlighted Arthur Marwick as someone to think about reading - particularly ahead of future modules covering 20th century history - so I was pleased to find this second hand copy of 'The New Nature of History', which includes some pretty forcefully made points on the nature and practice of history ūüėÄ. Marwick was the foundation Professor of History at the OU and looks to have strongly shaped the nature of the teaching and course content. He¬†died¬†in 2006.

These are just a few notes on points I want to remember.

The book is a rewriting of an earlier text 'The Nature of History', which had been a set text on the OU History course. The revision was apparently stimulated by Marwick engaging with, and seeking to combat, post-modernist perspectives on history. 

In the preface Marwick emphasises the importance of the sub-title: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. He defines history as the production of a body of knowledge about the past, one built on evidence and where language in the past has to be understood and in the present used with precision to ensure accurate communication. He has no truck with ideas that history is an entirely subjective expression of contemporary actors, trapped within language that is laden and fraught with power.

In this diagram he tries to summarise his ideas about the relationships between historians, the past and history.

The book contains two detailed chapters on 'How the discipline of history evolved'. I've kept a list below (with subheadings that come from Marwick's chapters) that I may link/annotate as my studies go on - and also as a prompt to revisit Marwick's (often trenchant) views on key scholars and writers as I progress and encounter more of them.

Ranke: his disciples and critics  
Jules Michelet (1798-1874)
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59)
Positivism and Marxism   
Auguste Comte (1798-1857) Karl Marx (1818-1883)Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-89) 
Anglo-Saxon attitudes   
Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) William Stubbs (1825-1901)Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-92)  
John Richard Green (1837-83) 
FW Maitland (1850-96) 
George Bancroft (1800-91) 
Scientific history?   
CW Langlois (1863-1929)  Charles Seignobos (1854-1942) J.B. Bury (1861-1927)
'New' history   
American 'new history'   
Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932)    
Annales School    
Lucien Febvre (1878-1956)  Marc Bloch (1886-1944) [link]Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) 
C. Ernest Labrousse (1895-1988) 
Georges Lefebvre (1874-1959) 
History of ideas    
Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954)  Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) Gerhard Ritter (1888-1967)  
British labour and economic histories   
G.M. Trevelyan (1876-1962)  Arnold Toynbee (1852-83) R.H.Tawney (1880-1962)  
J.H. Clapham (1873-1946) 

Political histories    
Lewis Namier (1888-1960) [link] G.R. Elton (1921-94) A.J.P.Taylor (1906-88)  
Latter-day Marxism    
John Tosh (1945-)  E.H.Carr (1892-1982) [link]E.P.Thompson (1924-93)  
Christopher Hill (1912-2003) 
David Cannadine (1950-) 
Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012)  
Eugene Genovese (1930-2012)
Herbert Gutmann (1928-85) 
Jurgen Kocka (1941-) 

Annales: 2nd and 3rd generations   
Fernand Braudel (1902-83) Georges Duby (1919-1996) Roger Chartier (1945-) 

New histories of economics, society,
science and culture 
R.W.Fogel (1926-2013)  E.A.Wrigley (1931-2022) Asa Briggs (1921-2016)  
Olwen Hufton (1938- ) 
Hayden White (1928-2018) 
Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) 
Michel Foucault (1926-1984)  Natalie Zemon Davis (1928 - ) Carlo Ginzburg (1939- ) 
Robert Darnton (1939- )    

This looks like another useful set of prompts on questions to ask of any primary source - understandably, given Marwick's role at the OU, they already seem familiar.

The Catechism

  1. Is the source authentic, is it what it purports to be?
  2. When exactly was the source produced? What is its date? How close is its date to the date of the events to which it relates, or to dates relevant to the topic being investigated? How does this particular source relate chronologically to other relevant sources?
  3. What type of source is it? A private letter? Or an official report, a public document of record, or what?
  4. How did the source come into existence in the first place, and for what purpose? What person, or group of persons, created the source? What basic attitudes, prejudices, vested interests would he, she or they be likely to have? Who was it written for or addressed to?
  5. How far is the author of the source really in a good position to provide first-hand information on the particular topic the historian is interested in? Is the writer dependent, perhaps, on hearsay?
  6. How exactly was the document understood by contemporaries? What, precisely, does it say?
  7. How does the source relate to knowledge obtained from other sources, both primary and secondary?

Finally, what Marwick describes as a 'hierarchy of explanatory factors' - he proposes this as a structure for 'explanation' in historical writing. Interestingly he quotes this framework in his book on 'The Sixties' (pp. 23-25).

1. Structural, ideological and institutional circumstances

  1. Structural (geographical, demographic, economic and technological)
  2. Ideological (what is believed and is possible to be believed, religious faiths, existing political and social philosophies)
  3. Institutions (systems of government, justice, policing, voting and education, religious organisations, working-class organisations, the family)
2. Events
3. Human agencies
4. Convergence and contingency

It will be interesting in reading 'The Sixties' to reflect on how Marwick actually uses this framework - does it structure his writing, or is it in the background shaping his overall ideas?

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