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Wednesday 19 October 2011

Bad History: A Review

It’s quite disappointing to see how much flack this excellent little book has received. I was under no illusion that the book I was about to read was going to be a light read. The book’s title does imply that it is to be considered to be in the same category as Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” and Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy”. Despite both of these books being written for a lay audience they were not shot in details or text. Emma Marriot’s slim collection of short essays might be with Goldacre and Plait in sentiment, but the work isn’t intended to educate the reader in good historical research. However, it does provide examples of what good research achieves and how good historians view the past. Unfortunately I think many history buffs were looking forward to a heavily cited and in depth analysis of historical myths and a debunking of pseudohistory; not a book strictly for academics, but nevertheless one with a scholarly appeal. Recent years have seen some good academics, like Richard J Evans take on the postmodern anti-historical wave and others like David Aronovitch, Kathryn S. Olmsted and even sceptical scientist Michael Shermer produce sterling investigations that both debunk and seek to understand the nature of conspiracy theory.

Although such books are sorely needed in history writing – I think way too many academics underestimate the impact of conspiracy theories and pseudohistory – a book like this is arguably more needed. As Damien Thompson pointed out in “Counterknowledge”, more pseudohistorical books are finding their way over from the “New Age and Spiritual” section and into the “General History” section. Through a mixture of propaganda of the time, influential biased historians of later times, folklore and movies the general public have grown up often believing very distorted views of incidents in history. This isn’t helped with postmodernism arguing that virtually all accounts of the past are equally as valid as they are all just opinions. However, history is a serious study. We only ever have the past as a reference and this is what so much is based on from building businesses to deciding legal cases to planning strategies. Good historians understand the difference between a wild theory or biased idea about a past event and a view that is shaped by the most compelling empirical evidence. And yet, as this book demonstrates, the majority of us have a woeful understanding of the past.

Most people believe that a typical Roman gladiator fight will end with one of the participants dead. Abraham Lincoln is celebrated as the man who fought the American Civil War to win freedom for slaves in the south. Even academics have been known to venerate Galileo as the champion of science against the oppressive Catholic Church. And try to tell your average patriotic Irish man that their patron saint wasn’t really Irish and didn’t encounter a single snake in Ireland. Go into your local Works or even W.H. Smith and you will see no end of mass market “fact” books. Airports and service stations have no end of pulp non-fiction on sale. These books of myths, half-truths and gross generalizations ultimately make their way into the mind of the undemanding reader and are often found as last minute “educational” books for teenagers. They are then referenced in popular journalism and repeated through the generations. History has not been a compulsory subject in schools since the 1980s and yet the thirst for information on the past and its stories could not be greater, and can be seen by the existence of mainstream channels, expensive documentaries, mainstream magazines and big budget Hollywood blockbusters. People define their cultures, their national heritage, their politics and even their beliefs on what they think happened in the past. These undeniable facts alone should scream the importance of having more light and accessible reference books that points the casual reader in the direction of good history.

One of the criticisms targeted at “Bad History” is that the chapter titles are somehow misleading. For example, when the chapter proclaims the myth that “Gladiators Fought to the Death”, the chapter doesn’t provide the complete opposite to this statement. I don’t see the problem with at all. The chapter does assert that the very limited evidence we have of gladiatorial combats shows that this entertainment spectacle, born out of a human sacrifice ritual held at an aristocratic funeral, rarely resulted in deaths. The reasons for this are quite commonsensical. Why would businessmen invest so much money and time in the training of individuals only to risk losing them in their first fight? The fictional media and documentaries on these combatants present an overwhelming picture of every single fight being a fight to the death. Of course, some gladiators did die, as is the risk of anyone who enters into a full contact sport, and this rate of mortality would have been relative to the nature of the fights and the life expectancy of the times. The author explains that there were also other events featuring non-gladiators – Christians and criminals for example – where the outcome was most certainly death. I don’t see how this is not providing a rebuttal of the original assertion.

I admit we are only a little shakier ground with the chapter that purports to debunk the popular belief that Mary Tudor was a “Ruthless Persecutor of Protestants”. In this case, I concede to Marriot’s critics. Here Emma Marriot does not attempt to prove that Mary wasn’t a ruthless persecutor of Protestants - she just argues that the five year reigning queen wasn’t any worse than her father, Henry VIII, or her sister, Elizabeth I. We get a more rounded picture of Mary Tudor, a ruler who was unlucky in her campaigns and had her better qualities “forgotten” by the Protestant propaganda that followed her death.

However, as far as I am concerned we need more historians that try to present a more human figure of the popular “saints” and “demons” of our past. We are presented with the less ruthless and even admirable side of “The Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismark. Ian Mortimer’s excellent recent book on “Henry V” has caused a dramatic shift in opinion on the royal icon immortalized by his own propaganda machine and finally by the plays of William Shakespeare. This book, which presents the greatest amount of primary source research on the individual to date, puts over a compelling argument that Henry V was not the free-and-easy prince turned responsible and righteous warrior king that England remembers. Evidence reveals him to be a great organizer and brave warrior, but also a warmongering and humourless religious fanatic. Emma Marriott presents a condensed summary of Mortimer’s work in one of her chapters. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that “1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory” is not necessarily a book that your average casual history fan will read or even know about.

Marriott’s chapter on Cecil Rhodes, where the argument is put over whether or not he was a good or bad man reveals the crux of a point Marriott is trying to put over. Life and history are not that simple. Given that the chapters are light and written in a highly accessible way, the author does a fantastic job of presenting the grey areas and complexity of history. From the outset she explains in almost scientific terms how there are no absolutes in good history. We only see the facts as temporary conclusions reached by the consensus of informed opinion. This opinion is supported by the most convincing empirical evidence available. Often what we find is that myths are created to fall in line with a certain narrative of the time or even a narrative of today that simplified matters towards what people wanted to believe. Even the scientific community are susceptible to this and the facts about Galileo’s relationship with the Catholic Church are far from the clear-cut battle of science versus religion that many of us sceptics like to think it was. It turns out that his endorsement and elaboration on Copernican theory was challenged by his rival scientists first before the pope, a good friend of Galileo, was brought into the fray. Far from being thrown into a prison, he lived a life of luxury, albeit under a very loose house arrest, and remained a staunch Catholic throughout his life. 

However, if you are concerned that this might be a bit wishy-washy, fear not. There are plenty of historic myths that are shown to be complete nonsense. From the fascist propaganda that Mussolini made the trains run on time – a persistent myth that thrives thanks to a very twisted form of mainstream nostalgia – to the conspiracy theory that Pearl Harbour was a plot engineered by President Roosevelt. A lot of these facts might not be news to historians, but evidence shows that a large amount of the general public still believes them.

This includes the romanticized idea of the Bolsheviks storming the winter palace with Lenin at the head in 1917. This interesting little chapter shows just how easily fictionalized drama, in the form of film footage, was just as easily mistaken for reality in the past as it is today. See Charlie Brooker’s “How TV Ruined your Life” for modern day version of this folly, particularly the final episode entitled “Knowledge”. Marriott explains how a romantic dramatization of the storming of the Winter Palace ended up being reproduced on documentaries as actual footage of the event!

The book is annotated with footnotes, but Marriott quotes her reference material throughout. There is also a helpful bibliography and a fairly extensive index. The format of the book’s short chapters is executed in a fun way, containing several illustrations - these include technical maps by David Woodroffe and cartoons by Andrew Pinder. Again, the historian critics have their gripe with this, but this is just the nature of the book and if it makes it more accessible to a lay audience then that’s a good thing.

In conclusion “Bad History” is a much-needed book. It represents a moth of hope to battle against the Pandora’s Box of junk history and pop non-fiction that makes its way to casual history readers through well-meaning presents or as a last minute travel purchase. When I was 10 years old I received a great birthday present in the form of “The Hamlyn Book of Facts and Fallacies”. Since reading that children’s book numerous times I have discovered that some of these facts are untrue and that is the joy of the corrective nature of critical thinking. However, that book planted a seed in me to question accepted “truths” and ideas. For the most part the book revealed old wives tales, pseudoscience, pseudohistory and bad geography. I am grateful to that book because it helped me accept many years later that a lot the other fun educational books of facts well-meaning relatives gave me over the years contained a lot of nonsense. When I eventually got into scepticism properly - which was around 13 years or so later – I found it quite easy to dismiss sacred cows and become aware of my own biases. New information that challenged old ideas did not meet with a lot of resistance from me and I quickly understood how to filter out information that lacked substance. My point here is that “The Hamlyn Book of Facts and Fallacies” helped me to pursue learning by showing me that it is important to question. A scholarly book wouldn’t have had that sort of impact. I hope that “Bad History” will be the fish bait needed for those who will go on to study good history and be more readily aware of the myth-making process both in the past and of today.

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