What Sort of History Should Historians Write?

The blog entry below is the second in a series of responses to a question, ‘Who should historians write history for?’, that was posed by an event of the same name held in the history department at KCL on the 14th of January 2015. These responses are intended to respond to the debate initiated recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto about the public role of history.

After I submitted my PhD proposal I realised how it was exactly the sort of history which had recently been labelled as utterly redundant. Needless to say, this made me feel a little sad. This stark come down came in the form of Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto. For these scholars, to produce an account of the ways in which science informed the politics of the British Left between 1964 and 1979 would be about as useless as a modernist historian explaining the minutia of an Anglo-Saxon hill fort. In fact, perhaps worse. As to Guldi and Armitage histories based in a single country over a short period of time, micro-studies, are representative of everything wrong with modern day academic history. To these scholars, since micro-studies could only ever be small, insular and irrelevant, such work embodies as well as ensures the slow demise of history into an immaterial subject of no contemporary importance. So Guldi and Armitage suggest all historians (including would-be historians in training) should all ditch the particulars and work solely in terms of big data and the longue durée. Only through doing so can historians hope to be of any relevance outside of three other researchers in their field.

For many reasons, it is a relief that I do not exactly agree with the arguments laid out within the History Manifesto. Actually, I think it would be difficult for me to disagree with them more, but I’ll keep this focused. My most central objection is to how Guldi and Armitage conceive of what constitutes good history and, more specifically, I take issue with their misplaced emphasis on the utility of quantifiable knowledge within historical practice.

I agreed with something which David Edgerton put forward at the event organised on this topic. He made the excellent point that there are, of course, a plurality of historical approaches and histories. This makes Guldi and Armitage’s dogmatic stance on a single type of history seem a little odd. In fact, Edgerton went so far to say that the History Manifesto presupposes a stage theory of history which would make Stalin blush. It is clearly strange to state that a single type of history should dominate over all others. But I also think we can level a more specific critique at the type of history which Guldi and Armitage put forward as the sort which they feel should dominate historical practice.

Guldi and Armitage argued all historical work must use big data as it is only through presenting quantifiable knowledge over a long period of time can history “speak truth to power.” The first issue I have with this idea is the strange assumption that history speaks any truth whatsoever. Isn’t this the sort of thing that an undergraduate would be scolded for? Yet, throughout the criticism and discussion on the History Manifesto the problem of historical truth is not really discussed. However, this is a really important thing to talk about not only in and of itself, but because it reveals to us what I think is the real importance of history. I believe the radical potential of history rests not in any mysterious claims to objectivity, but in its very subjectivity. This is not to lead us far down the terrifying far reaches of a postmodern rabbit hole. In fact, quite the opposite. I think that through understanding how the power of history lays in its subjectivity we can produce not only better scholarship, but also ensure that our histories can play a vital part in contemporary political discourse.

I turn to international development as an important example of where historical thinking, and not the big data stuff, can help us think about very real policy issues. Michael Woolcock, Vijayendra Rao and Simon Szreter in their 2010 paper ‘How and Why Does History Matter for Development Policy’ argued that in contrast to the universalising abstractions of economists, historians can provide localized, nuanced and self-aware accounts of the impact of development policies. This is particularly useful as Woolcock, Rao and Szeter stressed how historians can appreciate, for instance, that the consequences of policies might be unexpected or that the same policy can mean different things to various groups of people. What is important here is how history has the capacity to treat human beings as human beings. This is what historians of the longue durée and big data can miss out on by conceiving of people through numbers. So history might not tell the truth, but if it doesn’t attempt to this can make it all the more useful.

So, for me, the wonder of history is not in its ability to “speak truth to power,” but in its potential to speak another language than that of power. Not one of arrogance, data and economic growth, but one of humility, scepticism and self-awareness. I believe that the central question which the History Manifesto raises is certainly not one which it intended to. It makes us think why do Guldi and Armitage suppose the link between quantifiable knowledge and relevance? I feel answering this could tell us a lot about the modern world and looking at this question historically could result in some interesting research. I think it is fair to say that, perhaps, it would produce arguments that would neither span over three-hundred years nor have their basis in numbers.

Tom Kelsey is currently a student on the Science, Technology, and Medicine in History MA at King’s College London.

Launch of The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire

Special Event

Launch of a new book by Professor Susan Pedersen (Columbia), The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford University Press)
5.00 pm, 22 May, King’s College London, History Open Space, History Department, 8th Floor Strand Building, King’s College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS

In this masterful history of the mandates system, Susan Pedersen illuminates the role the League of Nations played in creating the modern world. Tracing the system from its creation in 1920 until its demise in 1939, Pedersen examines its workings from the realm of international diplomacy; the viewpoints of the League’s experts and officials; and the arena of local struggles within the territories themselves. A riveting work of global history, The Guardians enables us to look back at the League with new eyes, and in doing so, appreciate how complex, multivalent, and consequential this first great experiment in internationalism really was.

Professor Pedersen will introduce her book and there will be comments from Professor Richard Vinen and Dr Jon Wilson (both of King’s College), and drinks to follow. All welcome!

David Edgerton

‘The Mystery of Time’: Film and Science in the ‘Atomic Age’

Dr Caitjan Gainty is Lecturer in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in the History department at King’s College London. Alongside her book project on the concept of efficiency in twentieth century American medicine Dr Gainty is also working on a comparative (US/UK) history of instructional and entertainment films of childbirth and on the aesthetics of science in post World War II American life. Here she explores these themes through the films of Irwin Moon.

In 1957, The Mystery of Time introduced audiences to the fantastical instruments of the Moody Bible College’s Institute of Science. Written, produced and hosted by Irwin Moon, the film ushers the viewer into the Moody Lab, where the typical tools of laboratory science are replaced by instruments of perspectival manipulation. There, “time microscopes” and “time compressors” – time-lapse and high-speed cameras – capture and replay images too fast or slow for the naked eye. But after an arrow slowly shatters an egg, and a rose blossoms and dies in quick succession, the lesson in temporal perspective shifts to the grander scale of relativity. With the aid of a special Panavision lens, Moon seems to bend and compress space and time, relishing the challenge their interconnected elasticity poses to human perception. He clarifies that we have just witnessed a lesson in divine omniscience and omnipresence, and in his performance he hints at the immortal soul. As the camera slows in a lesson on lightspeed travel, Moon’s voice slows and distorts. “My heart would cease to beat,” he tells us, “and I wouldn’t die.”

Irwin Moon, visually demonstrating the time- and space-elasticizing qualities of his Panavision lens.

Irwin Moon, visually demonstrating the time- and space-elasticizing qualities of his Panavision lens.

The Mystery of Time was not a new venture for Moon, whose Moody Institute of Science film series explored the overlap between science and religion throughout its run. The idea of the film series was itself inspired by Moon’s “Sermons from Science”, a series of live performances put on in the 1930s and 40s at public venues across the United States. He also traveled abroad, joining the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the United Service Organization (USO) entertainment program for American troops serving overseas in World War II. Billed as the “Million Volt Preacher,” Moon put on shows that were by all accounts far more exciting than those of the Hollywood stars. For his finale, Moon darkened the stage, removed his shoes, placed thimbles on his fingers and stood on top of a transformer as the promised one million volts of electricity coursed through his body. The sparks that shot out of his outstretched hands reached up to six feet in length: a dramatic display that Moon would finally capture on film in his 1954 Facts of Faith.moons thimbles

How Moon has been remembered in the years since his evangelical film forays has been very much a matter of perspective. To some, he was an evangelist who successfully used science to save souls; to others, a filmmaker who won a significant number of science awards for his film work. For still others, he represented the vanguard of “intelligent design,” or stood mainly as the unintentional director and and star of a collection of quirky films that flirt with cult status. Moon and his films have not, however, received the scholarly attention deserving of such an important nexus between science and religion in the “atomic age.” Indeed, The Mystery of Time makes one immediately aware that Moon’s evangelical stylings were not merely a generic invocation of science in pursuit of religious ends, but rather a very particular exploration of what Moon described as the great advances of science of the atomic age. In The Mystery of Time, the theory of relativity is explicitly recognized as having made the atomic age possible while also at the same time enabling a new age of metaphysical understanding. Einstein’s theory offered not only a key to the power of the atom, but also a language that described the profundity of time, space and interconnectedness through which one might finally comprehend the existence of the divine.

But given my work on films of science and medicine more generally, The Mystery of Time and indeed nearly all of Moon’s film are interesting to me also for their reliance on cameras as tools of science. Moon’s cameras are nearly exclusively about looking, about shifting and manipulating perspective, and finding in those shifts the crucial nexus of science and religion. In their use of cameras, however, Moon’s films also recall a much earlier tradition of using still and motion picture cameras as proper scientific instruments that relied precisely on shifted perspectives to make new claims about the natural world. Phenomena too fast, too slow, too small, or too large to be appreciated by the naked eye could be captured and manipulated, played and replayed, forward and back ad infinitum (or at least until the film gave out). Placing Moon in this tradition suggests a different kind of significance for his evangelical practice and its use of scientific spaces. His films have something new to tell us about science, not just in terms of the proposed profundity that Moon himself claims for the scientific ideas he explores, but also about the more basic role of the visual and the spectacular – and aesthetics more generally – as intrinsically enmeshed in the very making of modern science.

Deciphering the Archive

I hate handwriting with a vengeance. This is not because I see no value in writing things by hand, nor do I disagree with the idea that the use of handwriting influences the way we learn things, as some neuroscientists claim. My problem is with reading it. Just as the past is a different country, Victorian handwriting is a different language. However, even contemporaries complained about the handwriting of their day. In 1861, it was observed that the increased pressure to write quickly in the Foreign Office meant that ‘despatches received from some of our Ministers abroad [were] so ill written that the originals could not be sent to her Majesty’. At the end of the decade, An Old Rugbeian wrote sympathetically to the editor of The Times, claiming that the English public school was to blame for the ‘abominable’ handwriting of the English gentleman.


As someone with a dreadful handwriting myself, I sympathise with this inability to write intelligibly, but my difficulties in reading other people’s jumbled words still makes my archival visits a bit of a hassle. The writing I come across is often leaning heavily in one direction, giving the impression that the entire page is about to capsize. Then there is the kind of handwriting that at first glance seems to be composed of random dots and dashes rather than any characters known to man. Tiny fluctuations mark the delineation between the letters, making the words seem like series of small waves, on a calm ocean, gently lapping against a shore of incomprehensibility.

While Foreign Office handwriting might be dreadful, it seems Victorian army officers wrote with utter contempt for their readers. While on a recent research trip to Edinburgh I was looking through a number of letters from one such officer. As I had only a limited amount of time to spend in the archive before I had to get back to London, and as I was anxious both to make my time there count and not to miss anything important, I was uncertain where to begin.

I suspect that all researchers, more or less openly, hope to find something through serendipitously stumbling over it in an archive. Preferably something that no one else has used before, a juicy lost letter or memorandum that will change our ideas about a particular aspect of history. The real Hitler diaries; a forgotten manuscript; or a letter from Heloise, telling Abelard to grow a pair. Though not as lucky as this, I have had archival visits where, through sheer luck, I’ve struck gold, finding something useful by accident. The discoveries we make by chance, as an aside to what we were really looking for, are often those that drive the research forward. At least, they can add flavor to the argument. But serendipitous discoveries cannot, naturally, be planned in advance.

This raises the question of how we read archival material, and what we search for when flipping through papers. I look for words or phrases that stand out and relate to what I am looking for. But since handwriting is so difficult to read at times, the things that actually make me pause and that I notice are often the sentences that I can actually decipher, whether related to what I am looking for or not. In this instance I also looked through other papers, including a letter book where the handwriting was legible and pleasurable to read. Therefore, those papers were what I ended up spending a lot of time reading. Like the proverbial drunkard, looking for his keys under a streetlight, rather than where he actually lost them.

However, while useful, the letters I read as an aside because of their intelligible handwriting were not where the important discoveries of the archival trip were found. Sometimes, annoyingly enough, the process of wading through seemingly incomprehensible handwriting is necessary. And it was in the Victorian officer’s letters that I found what I was actually looking for, in addition to some juicy, previously unused material. The serendipitous discoveries were, of course, right in front of me. All that was needed was deciphering the language they were written in.

Christian Melby is a Postgraduate Researcher in the History Department working on invasion scares between 1870 and 1914