Tag Archives: elliott

Trends Don’t Indicate Superior Content

The foreword to J. H. Elliott’s famous book on Spanish history, Imperial Spain, has an absolutely fabulous observation:

“I am naturally delighted that, in spite of this, Imperial Spain is still considered worthy of being reprinted. If written today it would obviously be a very different, although not necessarily a better, book.”

This comes right after Elliott speaks extensively on the current trends in historiography. He pointed out that these largely originated with the rather Marxist Annales school which tended to focus on what was frequently dubbed as mentalités. 

The idea was that we could know more about history by talking about the social, cultural, and mental histories of people rather than political and historic events that may have only had a short term impact. From the Wikipedia, you can also see a fabulous summary on the “precepts” of the Annales school of thought:

“[Annales historians] relegated the sensational to the sidelines and was reluctant to give a simple accounting of events, but strived on the contrary to pose and solve problems and, neglecting surface disturbances, to observe the long and medium-term evolution of economy, society and civilisation.” (Wikipedia)

No doubt, this school of thought has had a very lasting influence on how the West likes to engage history to this day. Indeed, we have now created entire departments focused on telling the histories and trends of specific identities — gender studies, LGBTQ studies, women’s studies, Asian studies, etc. — and every historian is always striving to deconstruct the roles of a place. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear some historian muse about “late 19th century Turkish mental asylums as intersectional places” or how early 20th century North Africa experienced a process of racialization under French colonization.

You could also view the trend in doing entire historical overviews of a single product as not dissimilar. Histories about tobacco or salt as similar means of telling grandiose social histories through the lens of some history of trade.

Elliott’s position of different eras writing different books (and none of them being necessarily better) is very astute.

No matter what decision we make, there are shortcomings to it. Just as such, the perspectives that we choose to take on history merely reveal our own biases and shortcomings in different ways while perhaps doing a much better job than previous generations at telling an overlooked part of the story.

These aspects play to certain strengths and weaknesses…

Is it really better? Some people would have you believe so but perhaps the more holistic the attitude, the better.

We all have our own biases and our own favorites, but can we really say that the people who have focused on economic history have made a poor choice? Of course not. All knowledge and all fields of study, that slowly fills in the details of things that were not properly categorized & sorted and thereby left out of our perceptions of history, do a service in telling the story of history.

Ultimately, what is dangerous about current trends is that they are, by nature, highly politicized. Elliott himself even implying that the Annales school was too Marxissant. After all, those who tell history as if it is the evolution of man are literally describing the world through dialectical materialism.

While those who work on these topics help us cover more and show some interesting diversions for us… we must never believe that their method is categorically superior.