Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Mapping the past – the Historian’s dilemma.

The nub of the problem centres on the fact that history is not the past, it is the past mediated through the mind of the historian. The historian does not reproduce the past but rather, maps it for us. As the cartographer creates a graphic image of a place, the historian creates a written image of an event. The map is not the place, but rather a guide to it. The cartographer selects the information that they feel best conveys the clearest image of that place and presents it in their own style. The same place can be mapped and remapped as new information comes to light; each map will be different, some will be more accurate, others more decorative; different cartographers will emphasise different features, some will focus on transport infrastructure others will highlight topography. History writing is not cartography but different historians will write different histories of the same event, they will prioritise certain features on the temporal landscape over others, and provide us with what they believe is the clearest map of that past event in their own personal style. Much as technology has improved accuracy in cartography Geoffrey Elton would have us believe that proper historical method has done the same for History. His firm belief is that a historian, using proper methods, can interrogate the sources, and rising above their own prejudice, identify historical truth which is there ‘to be discovered if we can only find it’

His insistence on the achievability of objective knowledge of the past came in response to E. H. Carr’s published lecture series What is History? Carr accepted that certain facts of history can be identified by consensus among historians but he points out that each of these had to selected by a historian in the first place from all other available facts before being elevated to the status of undisputed fact of history. In that sense, Carr acknowledged that historians select one thing over another from the past and advises that ‘before you study the history study the historian.’ However Carr still argues that history can be objective. He places his trust in objective historians, who, by virtue of their having what he calls ‘a long-term vision over the past and over the future’ have the ability to choose the ‘right facts’. In so doing he steps back from the relativist position he went so close to arguing.

Others since Carr have not been so reticent and have applied post modernist thinking to the history debate. Challenging the view that Human reason can arrive at truth, post modernist thinking would argue that the historian’s selection and interpretation of aspects of the past make all history a matter of individual opinion. Taken to its extreme, post-modern relativism tends towards nihilism and begins to question the very point of history. Hayden White goes so far as to suggest that ‘history itself may lose its status as an autonomous and self-authenticating mode of thought’Taking a more positive (if not positivist) view is Keith Jenkins who suggests that the relativist problem, whereby all versions of history are deemed equally valid, is overcome by the fact that ‘power bases that exist at any given moment…structure and distribute the meanings of histories along a dominant-marginal spectrum.’Jenkins while not actually saying that History is written by the victor, certainly seems to suggest that it is the victor who decides which history is taught in the schools.

The power of the past has been known to man from the earliest times. As Orwell pointed out in 1984, ‘those who control the present control the past and those who control the past control the future’ Historians have had the privilege and responsibility of bringing knowledge of the past into the present. They have not always seen their role as entirely independent mediators of that past. They have been selective in the facts they presented, at times consciously, at times unwittingly, not even aware that objectivity was a requirement. Even when historians strove for truth and objectivity it proved an impossible task.

Even if complete objectivity is something of an illusive dream, that is not to say that history will one day become a branch of literature. If we take the map analogy again; just as people will always need maps to guide them and locate them in their physical world, they will equally need history to locate them in their temporal world. Our past is part of what goes into constructing our individual and collective identity. Humans being curious and vain, will always seek knowledge of their past. The role of the historian must be to endeavour to answer that need dispassionately, acknowledging that they carry their own ideological baggage they should strive to rise above it, as far as possible. History should stand or fall not as Jenkins suggests, on the basis of power structures but on a historian’s ability to convince by thoroughness of research, strength of evidence and weight of argument that theirs is a plausible interpretation of the past. There is nothing to stop historians taking from the past what suits their needs, and to some extent, all historians will, but the nature of the discipline will ensure that historians will continue to test historians in the continuing discourse that is Historiography.



1Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Fifty key thinkers on History, (London, 2000), p. 156.

2John Warren, History and the Historians, (London, 1999), p. 31.

3Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History, (London, 2003), p. 21.

4Richard J. Evans, In defence of History, (London, 1997), p. 17.

5John Warren, History and the Historians, (London, 1999), p. 65.

6G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, (London, 1967), p. 74.

7E. H. Carr, What is History 2nd. edition, (London, 1987), p. 44.

8Ibid. p. 123.

9Hayden White, Topics of discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, (Baltimore, Maryland, 1978), p. 29.

10Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History, (London, 2003), p. 32.



Appleby J., Hunt L., Jacob M., Telling the truth about history, (New York, 1994).

Bloch, Marc, The historians craft, (Manchester, 1954).

Carr, E. H., What is History 2nd. edition, (London, 1987).

Elton, G.R., The Practice of History, (London, 1967).

Evans, Richard J., In defence of History, (London, 1997).

Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, Fifty key thinkers on History, (London, 2000).

Jenkins, Keith, Re-thinking History, (London, 2003).

Warren, John, History and the Historians, (London, 1999).

White, Hayden, Topics of discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, (Baltimore, Maryland, 1978).


Leave a Reply