Historical Theory. If you’re writing historical fiction, researching history for pleasure, doing some kind of historical study or anything else related to the past, you need to understand at least the basics of some of the arguments that have done the rounds when it comes to history. There isn’t time to cover all of them, but here are some of the key questions with very brief answers, at least.
1. Can we actually know anything about the past? Assuming we can know anything for certain about anything, possibly. We have evidence about the past. That evidence points to things happening or not happening.
2. Is what we write as history an accurate representation of the past? Can we tell? We’ll never know for sure, because we don’t have access to the past. We can tell if an explanation is consistent with the evidence, though.
3. What did event A mean? Facts are facts, but meaning is a layer of interpretation inserted afterwards by historians. Or made up, if you prefer.
4. Is it possible to be objective? Are you a robot? Then no, regardless of what certain nineteenth century historians may have felt.
5. What about metanarratives? Metanarratives are large stories about the sweep of history (such as the inevitable rise of Marxism, the Whig view of the inevitability of British Parliamentary Democracy, or the general notion of progress) like all meanings, they’re added afterwards. They’re generally something to avoid.
6. Which bits of history are worth researching? Which bits do you feel like? The point is that you’ll automatically make selections based on what you feel is important/interesting, which is part of why you can’t really be objective.
7. Do we just tell stories when we write history? Quite possibly. The narrativist school certainly thinks so. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
8. Can I apply my theory/technique to historical research? Maybe, and if it lets us genuinely interpret history in a new way, it might be useful. Or it might be made up nonsense, like the psycho-analytical approach to history.
9. What is history for? Since I’m largely a narrativist, I’m going to go with ‘all the things that stories are for’ and leave it at that.