- The Art of History
IT WOULD BE HARD TO ARGUE THAT IAN MORTIMER IS NOT one of the most innovative historians writing today. He has explored the potential of new historical frameworks in two recent books. His The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England (Bodley Head, 2008) is written wholly in the present tense and addressed to the reader as if he or she really could visit 14th-century England. And his most recent book, 1415: Henry V's Year of Glory (Bodley Head, 2009), examines Henry V on a day-by-day basis, juxtaposing simultaneous developments around Europe to create a fully integrated narrative. In these books and several think pieces Mortimer has advanced a number of provocative notions about the nature of history. A self-employed writer since 2001, he holds a Ph.D. in history and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He was awarded the Alexander Prize by the Royal Historical Society in 2004, and was made an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter shortly thereafter.
We follow Mortimer's essay below, "The Art of History," with senior editor Donald A. Yerxa's interview with Mortimer conducted in March 2010.
Most professional historians do not understand the art of history. Quite what constitutes the "art" seems to be the problem. Is it originality of thought, a distinct literary voice, innovative writing, sensitivity to public perceptions and assumptions about the past, or clarity of expression? Or something else entirely? Whatever the answer, these suggestions by themselves indicate that some of the activities associated with the "art" do not figure prominently in university departments. Literary skill is almost always downgraded by academics to a supplementary role—supporting an analytical process but always subordinate to it. Originality is surprisingly rarely valued in academic circles: when it is most clearly displayed, it often proves to be the catalyst for its protagonist to be declared a "maverick." No historical departments (as far as I know) encourage their members to be sensitive to public perceptions and assumptions. Few historians have actively explored what drama, suspense, and literary conceits can add to a narrative. Creative writing is never discussed in historical journals, even though it is implicit in the very act of writing something new. All in all, historians seem generally oblivious to the basic fact that when expressing ideas about the past, the way one writes is as important as what one writes.
The consequences of this failure to understand the art of history are profound. Many sectors of the public have become averse to history on principle, frequently blaming a syllabus that left them with the impression that studying the past is a tedious and irrelevant exercise. Society has gradually lost interest in what historians have to say. It does not matter whether the historian in question is a cultural, political, or social historian, or whether he or she uses quantitative or qualitative techniques. By writing in a style that is routine, unadventurous, and unoriginal, the historian tacitly suggests that what he or she has to say is also routine, unadventurous, and unoriginal. History has slipped from its position at the very heart of our culture to a relatively quiet backwater. Regardless of the real and exciting innovations in certain fields of historical research, the public sees historians as saying the same old sorts of things in the same old way—with just the occasional discovery of a new "fact" or object worthy of the attention of the national press.
The peculiar thing is that historians themselves seem not to have noticed this slippage. Indeed, many vehemently deny that it is the case. In the British press, when accusations are raised at the loss of status for history, professional historians point out that academic courses are more heavily subscribed than ever, that history is more often on TV than ever, and that bookstores are packed with history books. Maybe. But context is everything. We have dozens of cheap TV shows now, so it is not surprising that more low-budget, intellectually gentle history programs are included. Bookstores may be packed with history books but few make it on to the best-seller lists, few...