Aware and transparent

The 12th-century English historian William of Malmesbury is one of the top-ranking medieval historians, according to modern scholars. He’s particularly admired for his alignment with the ideas we make of good history writing. Here, the opening of one of his works, the Deeds of the English Kings (Gesta Regum Anglorum), in London, British Library, Arundel 35.

What makes a good historian today? The debate has been raging for centuries and shows no sign of abating. Whatever the answer might be, everyone agrees that the historical profession has come a long way since its foundations were laid in ancient Greece over 2,500 years ago.

Looking back, modern historians feel that ancient and medieval experts of the past, such as chroniclers, genealogists, annalists, panegyrists, biographers, belong to the same professional family, despite the differences between themselves and those who examine them from the other side of history.

It doesn’t come natural to us to judge things on their own terms. Although we endorse ideas and ideals of contextuality (the past in its own context), relativism (each age, each culture acts according to its own generated values) and objectivity (the past as object detached from the interests of the examiner) – we practise a very subtle kind of anachronism, especially when we assess the work of past historians. It may not be always articulated and clearly formulated, but the expectation that ancient and medieval historians should espouse the values we hold dear in history is still there at the back of our minds. We value those writers of history who were aware and transparent. Aware of their profession, their mission, the scene they were describing, the ideas they were discussing, the implications those scenes and ideas had on their own subjective consciousness; aware, in fine, of time, place, and the style of writing adopted and promoted. We also expect them to be transparent. We want to know what they had read before they started writing, we want them to tell us what sources they used. We want them to declare their conflicts of interest, like a good employee would do; to explain why they’ve fallen in favour of this leader or that idea. Some ancient and medieval historians did some of these things better than others. We judge them, extolling their virtues and condemning their shortcomings. How many times have I read the accusation of bias levelled against a medieval chronicler. Or that paratactic narrative (simple unconnected, unrelated sentences) shouldn’t be considered history at all. Considerations of this sort say more about us than about the historians and the works we’ve set to examine. And we forget that it shouldn’t be about us.

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