News and Opinion From a Team of Young People

The Case for Narrative History

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It is easy to assume, in the modern world of the Internet and the instant transfer of information that narrative history is losing its relevance, as this technology: ‘Allows historians to reduce the narrative of their work and let the facts and arguments speak for themselves under the harsh scrutiny of the world academic stage’, but such an approach would be unfounded. History may have become more scientific than ever before, but this does not necessitate a departure from the time-tested narrative style. Narrative history is often dismissed as simple ‘stories’ – romanticized tales of the past designed to glorify national heroes or support the beliefs of a particular ideology. The alternative –the analytical style- may seem to be a modern, empirical and scientific approach to history that makes more sense in world obsessed with data and evidence. The problem with this however is that it is impossible to ever really escape the narrative of history – to attempt to do so is both impractical and distasteful.

The basic fact of the matter is that almost all history follows a narrative. The very nature of history as a practice requires chronological progression and in describing this progression you are creating a narrative. Of course, a truly dedicated historian could attempt to focus on one very limited time period and embellish their work with more evidence and statistics than would be considered healthy; however there are very few historical time periods (beyond the past century) where the massive range of evidence required for this would be available. On top of this, would anyone really want to read a history book that is simply a glorified spreadsheet? It is important to remember that historians don’t write simply to impress their fellow academics, but to convey history to the masses. The general public is not interested in agricultural yields and balance sheets, but instead in stories. It is the duty of a historian to provide them with stories that are not only engaging but are also accurate – and accuracy can be achieved through a narrative style and without overloading the reader with evidence.

This is not to say that analytical styles do not have their advantages, however there are some areas that analysis of artifacts and economic data cannot quantify; thoughts, feelings and emotion. History is, at its heart, a human story. Though doubtless the environment and factors beyond human control have played their part, people have driven the vast majority of history’s greatest events. The revolutions of the 18th century, the unifications of the 19th century and the cataclysms of the 20th century were all caused by people and were hugely influenced by thoughts and emotions that cannot be read from tables and data. Even today, there is still huge debate about the intentions of such massive and controversial figures as Napoleon, Bismarck and Hitler; mostly because these are things that –though we can glean some idea of their emotions from personal letters or diaries- cannot be derived from data alone.

History is a human story, and is best interpreted on a personal level. Though it may be possible to perform some kind of psychoanalysis on historical figures to create an empirical, scientific picture of who these people were, it seems a far better (and easier) idea to allow readers to interpret the motives of these characters for themselves; to attempt to understand them on a personal level, as a human rather than simply numbers in a spreadsheet. We are empathetic animals, and we will find it far easier to understand the events of the past if we attempt to understand them in a human way rather than a scientific one.

Narrative is inseparably bound to the idea of history. Though narratives can be twisted to serve the purposes of one regime or another, so can all information – even science. Not only is narrative crucial for conveying accurate history to the everyday reader, but it also helps see history for what it truly is: a human story. There will be times when empirical data and analysis will be required to prove a certain point, but this data should only be used to supplement a narrative and support an argument – it should never become to bedrock of history. Narrative has been and always will be crucial to the study of history.

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