Right then, how to start our A to Z of blogging this fine month? With a look back at hundred year old historians, of course. Better known as antiquarians. That’s what modern historians tend to call historians and archaeologists who popped up before the arrival of the modern professional historian. They are seen in much the same way as the modern professional cricketer might view Douglas Jardine, or we writers might see some fine Victorian chap dabbling in a bit of literature.
Except of course that’s a reasonable description of Charles Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle. We wouldn’t be that patronising as writers, yet it is common in historical circles. The antiquarians didn’t have the benefit of modern historical theory, the argument goes. They didn’t have our archaeological technology. They were, famously, more interested in kings, battles and grand institutions than the things we’re interested in today. They also had an unfortunate tendency to rip holes in the ground to take out any interesting looking artefacts without necessarily recording the context as well as we might like.
Yet they were often, in their ways, quite brilliant. Remember that these are people who often did what they did out of a pure love for it, rather than because it happens to be the career they trained for. They often had much better Latin and Greek than most academics today (me included) and if some of them were awful… well, I can point you at more than a few modern ‘historians’ who pass off anecdote as fact and build cases on webs of conjecture. My own personal favourite is Arthur Francis Leach, who wrote on grammar schools and minster churches, and whose 1880s-1890s works on Beverley, Ripon and Southwell I so often found preceding me in my arguments.
My point is simply this: we believe so strongly in progress that we assume that we must be better than those who went before, yet when did you last take the time to really look?