Thursday, 26 June 2008

Uses for History 3: Keeping Statos Busy

Did you know that the municipal borrowing of Nurnberg rose from 1.8 million gulden to 7.4 million over the course of the Thirty Years War? That in 1821 only 23% of Frances notables were not land owners? That the mean value of a prebend at Southwell Minster in 1291 was twenty pounds, thirteen shillings, two and a half pence? No, neither did I, except for the last one, which I calculated.

Somewhere along the line, history got to be about statistics and lists. Whether it's analysis of medieval friendship networks by counting the number of times different latin words for friend are used in letters, sticking the whole of Domesday Book onto computer database, or counting the exact number of horses involved in English requisitions for their wars against the Scots as a way of assessing something about troop numbers, we spend half our time adding up. Not that these aren't all worthy points (not least because they're all examples taken from people associated with Hull's history department) but there are days when I long to make a few sweeping generalisations without having to back them up to two decimal places. I'm more into people and the way they thought than exactly how much a canon of Beverley had to pay his vicar each year (40s in two parts, since you ask).

The reasons for this are probably twofold. Firstly, we live in societies increasingly obsessed with statistics. Everything is calculated, often at the expense of the human detail. Secondly, there's a feeling that there isn't really that much history to go round anymore. I blame Lord Acton. For those who done know, he was a 19th century writer on history whose big idea (and I might be paraphrasing just a touch here) was that they'd have the major details of history sorted out by the end of the century, leaving the rest of the millenium off for golf.

The result of this, naturally, is a nagging feeling that he might have been right, that we are, after all, just messing around with the fine detail. To make an impact, we think, we have to constantly apply new methodologies, metanarratives or ways of thinking. There was a vogue for trying to psychoanalyse history at one point, and then there was Braudel's big emphasis on the mentalitie of an era, and then the emphasis on picking apart micro-events in cultural history. Handing history over to the sort of person who fills in a cricket scorebook in different coloured pens is just the latest in a long line of these things.

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