I just read Lake’s chapter “Retrospective: Wentworth’s political world in revisionist and post-revisionist perspective” in Merritt ed., The Political World of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, 1561-1641 (1996). I have to say that I am impressed. It’s just another one of those occasions where I feel utterly incapable of the profession I am trying to enter. However, as a graduate student, that is nothing too new and I have moved on.
Even though the chapter is over a decade old, it is still a useful signpost of the direction that the historiography is headed as well as an astute discussion of what revisionism was. Yes, it was destructive and iconoclastic even in its attack on whiggery, marxism, and whatever other form of “modernization theory” it could find (I am an American, so I will spell it with a “z”). However, the real use of it was in returning high politics to the story and replacing “rising middle class”/”striving for democracy” with other long term problems, like the “functional breakdown” of the government and the divisions within Christianity. Revisionism was destructive, but it was also constructive, it’s just that the new problems seemed so unique and isolated; how could historians continue to talk to each other?
The way forward is to look at other centers of power besides parliament and the king. Important though they may be, they were not the whole show. For Lake, in the short term, historians have to engage in histoire événementielle, looking at well defined events and following throughout England and different social and political milieu. Lake is looking for a “multiplicity of narratives” to replace the master narrative.
This future (and ongoing) historiography is more intellectually satisfying, more postmodern, and more capable of dealing with disorder. It is an historiography without an end, because how could we ever run out of events? It seems that we have secured our jobs for the foreseeable future.
Or have we? My question is: how do we teach it? How do you teach history without a narrative? How many people can stomach history without a point? In a sense, this new history is more pure; it is history written to the taste of historians. Yet, in a place where the president is proposing increasing funding to the other side of campus, can the humanities really expect to prosper without appearing useful?
This is all obviously beyond the scope of Peter Lake’s chapter, which was very insightful (the complexity of the discussion is not done justice here) and has given me some direction in writing my dissertation, and some grounding in a larger historiographical trend which I find gratifying, but it has made me start to wonder about what it is that we do. Marc Bloch told us to live in our world, even while writing about one long gone. I mean, the man was executed by the Nazis. What is that we do?
I am not advocating pandering to the ill-conceived notions of undergraduates. Whether or not they enjoy finding out that Marx was wrong, that history did not magic up the United States, and that perhaps science and religion aren’t the worst of enemies, we should teach them to think differently. Certainly, we are not here merely to confirm what they already misguidedly believe.
Perhaps the answer is with Marc Bloch, too. Our prey, like the mythical giant, is wherever we catch the human scent. We study humanity: in society, by himself, and all the myriad things it is that the human animal does. We engage in that age old art of storytelling. But then again, didn’t those stories have a point?