In college, my group showed up for a Torrey discussion to discover the professor was at home with the flu. It was too late to find a substitute, so we had to lead the class ourselves. The text was Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, a daunting book to say the least: 650 pages of speeches, political analysis, and dry, clinical descriptions of battles. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that when we decided to opt for some group bonding time instead of soldiering through the historical text unguided, James and I, the only history majors in our group, were the only disappointed ones. And, alas, Thucydides was one of only two historical texts we read over the four year course of the program.
This is typical. It has always been the story of my life. And it’s why I became a history teacher. You see, a lot of people claim to love history, but few of them know what it is. History is not “what happened.” That is the past. History is how we remember the past, and why we remember it that way. In some ways, that makes it a lot like literature. Just as in literature, the stories we tell reveal who we think we are. But unlike literature, history’s stories are an attempt to record (or obfuscate!) an event that actually occurred. This difference is key, and most people miss it. The trouble is, our culture is so obsessed with fiction that we’ve forgotten how to read history.
A story is static. Its interpretation might change, but the plot points and characters remain the same. History, our understanding of it, anyway, is always changing. As we learn more about the world around us, we gain insight into the records of our past. Sometimes that confirms what we think we know, but more often, it exposes us to blind spots in our view of the past.
Some see that shifting view of history as political correctness gone astray, “revisionism,” and a lot of “culture warriors” (but few professional historians) see it as their duty to argue against new histories. But the very fact that this debate has any serious traction indicates the near-destruction of historical thinking. All history is revision. Sometimes we’re tempted to think of historical research like throwing a net overboard and hauling all of the fish from a metaphorical lake into our metaphorical boat, then neatly sorting them out. In reality, it’s much more like standing in a dinghy in the middle of the ocean with a fishing pole and pulling random things up (a boot! kelp! a rock! a beluga!) one at a time. Sometimes that gives us a coherent picture of the past, and sometimes we discover a near-complete text of the “mythical” Book of Thoth and it forces us to reevaluate everything we thought we knew about late Egyptian history.
How cool is that? History isn’t a static list of dead white guys, it’s a dynamic interaction with what we think happened, knowing that at any moment we could uncover evidence that everything we thought we knew is wrong. It’s investigating who people are by examining what they say about the folks who came before them. It’s fiction, art, science, theology, and psychology all rolled into one great big messy knotted ball of string we get to try and untangle. Reading history is one of the greatest intellectual adventures our world offers.
All right, so maybe you’re interested. But where to begin? I always suggest (and by suggest, I mean assign) skipping ahead chronologically and starting with the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Apart from the fact that Bede is my favorite historian of all time, his magnum opus is a great place to start because it’s relatively easy to see how complex the process of constructing a history is while reading it, and because centuries of study have never exhausted its content.
Bede was a monk in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in the 8th century who spent most of his life translating Scripture and writing theological treatises, but it is his Ecclesiastical History that most shaped the world around him. Even the title Bede chose, taken by itself, is revolutionary: Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. When the book was completed in 731, there was no such thing as “England.” The island was divided into kingdoms such as Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria, and Kent, and its history was one of brutal civil war, of a tribal society divided by lineage, language, and religion. But Bede saw something different. He saw a people superficially divided who could be united under the Cross.
Through years of painstaking research in a day when that meant riding across several kingdoms (some of them hostile to visiting Northumbrians), and poring over handwritten monastic chronicles, Bede constructed a chronological history of Britain, tracing the line of archbishops with as much care as the lines of kings, and folding everything he could find into one coherent, surprisingly accurate narrative that forged the English identity. (In the process, he also popularized the tradition of a unified chronology based on the year of Christ’s birth, which we use to this day. No big deal.)
Bede wrote a preface to his history for King Ceolwulf, explaining that his purpose in recording history was moral instruction. But Bede’s history is much more than a moral tale. Among other things, it offers a fascinating study in worldview. On the same page as sophisticated political analysis that wouldn’t be out of place in an article in an academic journal, and with the same seriousness, Bede records miracles. Lame horses suddenly become sound when they walk over the site of a martyrdom, St. Alban’s executioner’s eyes fall out when he delivers the killing blow, springs of water appear to thirsty saints, and the angel of the Lord visits Edwin of Northumbria in his distress. This juxtaposition raises an interesting interpretive question: if we take Bede seriously about the politics of the Kentish court, why not about Alban’s execution? As in writing history, what we choose to believe when we read history tells much more about who we are than whether we’re clever enough to figure out “what really happened.”
And that’s why we must read history. Literature only takes us so far, and in a way, literature is far more static than history. We may discover alternate folios or lost letters from authors that shed new light on the texts we love, but when we read history, we wrestle with our epistemology and sift through our past. That struggle keeps us from settling into a static, stubborn worldview, and ensures that we can be thoughtful, active members of the global community.
Let Bede introduce you to the England before England. After that, dive into another history. Explore primary and secondary sources (and sources that are both at the same time). Dive into arguments over the language we use to describe atrocities and whether it prevents us from seeing the atrocities around us for what they are. Explore the difference between accuracy and reliability. Enjoy getting to know the people you’ll meet in the process. It will improve your faith, your relationships, your civic action, and your reasoning. It’ll also be a whole lot of fun.