BBC’s In Our Time on Historiography

Melvyn BraggIn last week’s episode of In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg hosted a discussion on the history of history.

From ancient epics to medieval hagiographies and modern deconstructions, historians have endlessly chronicled, surveyed and analysed the great many things that keep happening, declaring some of them good and some of them bad.

But the writing of history always illuminates two periods—the one history is written about and the one it is written in. And to look at how the writing of history has changed is to examine the way successive ages have understood their world. In short, there is a history to history.

Unfortunately, the panel focuses on the Ancients for too long and gets bogged down in details unrelated to the larger theme.  But then they skip ahead and discuss feminist history.  Although they miss a bunch of stuff in between, what they do end up talking about is really interesting.

Other freely available episodes from the BBC archives, varying on this theme, include:

  • The Venerable Bede. In 731 AD, in the most far-flung corner of the known universe, a book was written that represented a height of scholarship and erudition that was not to be equalled for centuries to come. It was called the Ecclesiastical History of the Angle Peoples and its author was Bede. A long way from Rome, in a monastery at Jarrow in the North East of England, his works cast a light across the whole of Western Civilisation and Bede became a bestseller, an internationally renowned scholar and eventually a saint. His Ecclesiastical History has been in copy or in print ever since it was written in the eighth century and his edition of the Bible remains the Catholic Church’s most authoritative Latin version to this day.
  • The Translation Movement. One night in Baghdad, the 9th century Caliph Al-Mamun was visited by a dream. The philosopher Aristotle appeared to him, saying that the reason of the Greeks and the revelation of Islam were not opposed. On waking, the Caliph demanded that all of Aristotle’s works be translated into Arabic. And they were.
  • The Scientist. The word “science” first appeared in the English language in 1340 and ever since its meaning has been in a state of flux. The notion of “the scientist” has had a similarly evolving history. For some, “the scientist” does not truly appear until after the Renaissance, others put its emergence much later than that.
  • Archaeology and Imperialism. In 1842 a young English adventurer called Austen Henry Layard set out to excavate what he hoped were the remains of the biblical city of Nineveh in Mesopotamia. On arrival he discovered that the local French consul, Paul Emile Botta, was already hard at work. Across the Middle East and in Egypt, archaeologists, antiquarians and adventurers were exploring cities older than the Bible and shipping spectacular monuments down the Nile and the Tigris to burgeoning European museums.
  • History of Heritage. What role have history and heritage played in the formation of the British national identity? Historians have often maintained a guarded relationship with the so-called “heritage industry,” believing that it presents a distorted version of national life: a Merrie England that is politically acceptable and economically rewarding. History, in contrast, is held to reveal the truth about the past—objectively and scientifically. Our understanding of history changed since the 19th century and, as historians interpret our time and our society so will our ideas of heritage and history.
  • Karl Popper. Karl Popper is one of the most significant philosophers of the 20th Century, whose ideas about science and politics robustly challenged the accepted ideas of the day. He strongly resisted the prevailing empiricist consensus that scientists’ theories could be proved true. He called for a clear demarcation between good science, in which theories are constantly challenged, and what he called “pseudo sciences” which couldn’t be tested. His debunking of such ideologies led some to describe him as the “murderer of Freud and Marx”.
  • History of Hell. Writers and painters like Dante and Hieronymus Bosch gave free rein to their imaginations, depicting a complex hierarchical world filled with the writhing bodies of tormented sinners. In the 20th century hell can be found on earth in portrayals of war and the Holocaust but also in the mind, particularly in the works of TS Eliot and Primo Levi. So what is the purpose of hell and why is it found mainly in religions concerned with salvation? Why has hell proved so inspirational for artists through the ages, perhaps more so than heaven? And why do some ideas of hell require a Satan figure while others don’t?

See also:

  • Victorian Realism. It was a forum for the confusions of the Victorian age over Christianity and Darwinism, economics, morality and psychology, yet it was also a domestic novel concerned with the individuality of human relationships. From the provincialism of George Eliot’s Middlemarch to Hardy’s bleak and brutal Wessex, Victorian Realism touched all the great Victorian authors, but can it truly be the touchstone of an age which produced the fantasy of Alice in Wonderland, the escapism of The Waterbabies and the abundant grotesquerie of Dickensian London?
  • Pragmatism. William James, along with John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce, was the founder of an American philosophical movement which flowered during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century and the first twenty years of the twentieth century. It purported that knowledge is only meaningful when coupled with action. Nothing is true or false – it either works or it doesn’t. It was a philosophy which was deeply embedded in the reality of life, concerned firstly with the individual’s direct experience of the world he inhabited. In essence, practical application was all.
  • Relativism. Relativism is a school of philosophical thought which holds to the idea that there are no absolute truths. Instead, truth is situated within different frameworks of understanding that are governed by our history, culture and critical perspective.
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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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