Monday, 19 August 2013

Why study history? Part 1

History: a ground for endless argument and debate, lending itself to wide, varied interpretation and opinion, based on the same range of evidence.

I was introduced to the question of 'why study history?' in a history extension class at college. Initially, this question seemed pointless, with no real value to me; I already knew that I enjoyed history, so why did I need to search for further reasons as to why I had chosen to study history? Despite my scepticism, this question has become invaluable, particularly in the historical exploration I do besides my A-Level studies.

This single question has indirectly led me to the main reason for which I have chosen to study history. I am an argumentative person, relishing the scope to disagree with other opinions, whilst still retaining validity and credibility. Historians must study various factors which led to/contributed to a specific event, often unable to seek certainty or reach a solid, definite conclusion. The lack of solid evidence, particularly spanning from prehistory to the early modern period, allows historians to take entirely opposing slants on one subject and completely disagree with one another, whilst holding equal amounts of credibility and esteem. In particular, this idea has been presented to me in my study of the Wars of the Roses; Shakespeare famously dubbed Margaret of Anjou as the 'she wolf of France', which has had a lasting effect throughout history. Some historians choose to agree with Shakespeare (at least to some extent, taking into consideration Shakespeare's position as a court playwright, suiting the interests of Elizabeth I/James I), for instance Alison Weir presents Queen Margaret in a somewhat cruel light in 'Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses', suggesting that she was more interested in promoting her own position than focusing on the political agenda and order across England. Weir also focuses largely on action taken by Margaret against the Yorkists, presenting a matriarchal monarchy, whereby the Queen possessed more power than her husband, King Henry VI. Naturally, we cannot forget that Henry VI's rule was, at points, taken over by his bouts of mental illness, making him unfit to rule. In contrast, Helen Castor criticises the lasting influence which Shakespeare has had on the portrayal of Margaret of Anjou, describing the judgement of this queen as being 'through the wrong end of the historical microscope'; Castor addresses the fact that historians must consider all available evidence, before jumping to potentially non-credible conclusions. As an argumentative person, I relish the constant debate which ensues in history.

However, it must be recognised that historical debate and disagreement does not always allow historians to retain/hold credibility; evidence must all be considered and assessed in a realistic manner, without taking innate hatred or extreme emotions (without historical value), into account. Spanning to modern history, the Holocaust has also become subject to much debate and disagreement, although many Holocaust deniers (particularly extreme Hitler sympathisers, eg. David Irving), have totally lost credibility with their views. Whilst reading an article by lecturer Roni Stauber, I was horrified to discover that Irving claimed, at a time, that Dachau was nothing but a myth and that the infamous gas chambers never existed, being installed later by Americans. Irving's opinions completely destroyed the credibility and reputation which he had previously possessed. He was given a 10 year ban from Germany for his denial of the Holocaust and was forced to retract his sweeping conclusions. On this ground, I believe that history is often not a ground for presenting opinions of huge extremity; as in the case of Irving, these conclusions may be based too widely on sheer opinion, without sufficient evidence as backing. 

It fascinates me that two different historians can study the same documents, yet reach opposing conclusions on their meaning. The ever-changing face of history provides us with a range of opinion and viewpoints on all aspects and events in history, often reflecting political or social interests, but also evoking the historical debate which I relish.

In part two (which I will try to publish soon - I'm currently working on my personal statement and an endless pile of essays), I'll explore comparative history, and assess the importance of history as a ground of learning from mistakes.

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