Does history have an expiration date?
Sat. Sep 23rd, 2023
From The Domesday Book, Historic Byways and Highways of Old England, by William Andrews, 1900.

Does history have an expiration date?

From The Domesday Book, The Historic Byways and Highways of Old England, by William Andrews, 1900. Wikimedia Commons. R. Recently, I was assigned to revise the bibliography of a dissertation on medieval English history that I had just taken over. Since this is a tedious task, it is best done late at night. It cuts as well as adds so that the references don’t get horribly overgrown.

Clearly, any changes reflect the revisionist’s view of what is the best scholarly literature on the subject. I’ve included recent publications that I think are important. It was easy. But I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that my predecessors omitted or included things that really should or shouldn’t exist. After many nights of deliberation, I submitted my effort.

Imagine my feelings when I was reprimanded for adding rather than deleting items published before 1980, among other violations. I was told that if these items were not included before, they should not be added now. There was also a strong connotation that the pre-1980 publications were the end of an era. They should be put out of their misery and replaced with new content.

The only assumption behind this notation is that history books over 40 years old are likely to be redundant. It’s a common misconception that we encounter today. But it is surprisingly ahistorical: the history of historical scholarship is a story of gradual perfection. It goes hand in hand with another current popular assumption that the latest fad in historiography, whatever it is, is the only thing that really deserves attention at the moment.

For both reasons, we can look down on previous generations of historians. Either they were on the right path, the path today, or they were not, but it will be a long time before we reach the sunlit highlands where we are now immersed in our own enlightenment. There was a way. It’s as if history is a natural science, and past scholars have taken right or wrong steps. If correct, they have been replaced. If wrong, they should be thrown in the dustbin of history.

What this means is that modern historians who disdain Whig history are strangely unwittingly Whig in their attitudes toward their profession. They cannot consider historical writing to be a historical phenomenon in itself. Everything else should be considered historically, but somehow exempt. There is a mindless arrogance to this, which EP Thompson called (in another context) “a colossal condescension to posterity.” Historians know better than anyone that all fashions change and that current trends are informed by current interests and eventually pass.

I’m not saying that the historiography of the last 40 years should be ignored. Far from it. But my point is that many old works are valuable for three reasons, all of which are often interrelated.

First, they may have suggested innovations and discoveries, most evident in the technical aspects of source analysis, that enabled their subsequent development. It is important to understand the foundations on which the current interpretation is built, especially to some extent how strong those foundations are. Secondly, the extent to which such historical accounts are informed by assumptions already unfamiliar to us, which assumptions are therefore much more obvious to us than to their authors, is irrelevant.

It can be very beneficial. And third, and perhaps most importantly, it is possible that earlier scholars had insights that have heretofore been untracked and which have proved to be very informative. In that respect, willful ignorance of works written more than a generation ago can eliminate lines of investigation that might prove the productivity of new approaches.

Two examples from my references are from HM Chadwick. Research on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (1905) and FW Maitland’s The Doomsday Book and Beyond (1897). Historians on both sides had access to fewer sources, many of which were much less edited than they are today. Maitland, in his sincere candor, incidentally admitted that he had only been to the manuscript of the Great Doomsday Book once. He bases his judgment on printed editions published a century earlier. However, this relative lack of resources makes the work of both scholars all the more noteworthy.

Chadwick raised questions about difficult sources that have not yet been answered, or even addressed in some cases, perhaps because they are too daunting. And Maitland’s Masterpiece is perhaps the most original and provocative book about medieval England ever published, using the late 11th-century Domesday Book to its conversion to Christianity in the 7th century. It traces back to revealing Anglo-Saxon England. The title, “Beyond,” is counterintuitive, but it goes back in time and means darkness. Maitland does it in an original and imaginative way that is breathtaking even for avid readers of history books.

Of the works of these two geniuses, Maitland’s is the more impressive. For his clear and ultimate aim is to try to reconstruct, on the basis of fragmentary evidence, how people have thought for more than fifty years: “common ideas about common things.” Because there was 900 years ago. That is why he deserves to be commemorated in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, the only professional historian to be so honored. But what is true of Chadwick and Maitland is also true of many other historians more than a generation ago, some of them predating these two giants.

If we decide to forget this, we will certainly be stunted.

So I took my opinion seriously and re-revised it by inserting a few more glorious works published before 1980 for a revision of the Medieval British History Bibliography.

George Garnett Professor of Medieval History at Oxford University, Fellow at St Hughes College, and The Norman Conquest in British History: Volume 1: Broken Chains? (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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