The western historical tradition began with tales of heroes and villains, victors and vanquished. Homer’s epic myths The Iliad and The Odyssey, written during the 8th century BC, tell tales of adventurers and voyagers in the age of gods and heroes. For those more fastidious about what counts as history, The Histories of Herodotus, written three centuries later, begin by recounting the downfall of the vainglorious King Croesus of Lydia whose name is still a byword for wealth and power. History, has a claim to pre-eminence as the narration of the lives and deeds of heroic or vicious individuals.
Ancient and Medieval times
Since then heroic narratives have been central to many traditions of explaining the past. The Greek and Roman tendency to shape the social past around the deeds of great men was augmented by the accounts of the lives of the prophets in the great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Christian lore, the life of Jesus, narrated from multiple perspectives in the Gospels, gives the ultimate imprimatur to this form of historical account. It helped form medieval hagiography, (telling the stories of the lives of saints) which, although not always linear narratives, tend to end in a culminating moment of conversion.
Age after age has found its own focus for heroic narrative, each expressing the values and mores of their society. For writers Chretien des Troyes in twelfth-century France and Sir Thomas Mallory in fifteenth-century England, medieval chivalry provided the moral purpose as well as the narrative drive for mythological histories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this form of narrative, this way of telling, was alive and well even if the heroes had changed in character. For John Foxe, the lives of the Christian martyrs and particularly the Protestant victims of Catholic persecution provided the cast of characters in narratives that simultaneously vilified Catholicism and provided a heroic basis for the history of Protestantism.
Kings, princes, and engineers
By the eighteenth century, the need to narrate the origins of a structure as complex as the nation-state was already a problem. As modern histories replaced medieval romances, national histories, replete with military heroes, came to replace the story of monarchs and monarchy. Monarchies are powerful institutions, however, and their importance has never been eclipsed in modern historiography.
The power of heroic individualism as a way of narrating history does not end with the noble and the highborn; it has been translated into a modern idiom. Histories of a phenomenon as structurally complex as the industrial revolution began with explanations that prioritised the deeds of a couple of generations of entrepreneurial adventurers.
The inventors’ spinning-jennies, self-acting mules, power looms and steam engines transformed industry; they reshaped the face of the country with their canals, roads, great bridges and finally the railways. The mid-Victorian version of Britain’s rise to greatness through the vision of Arkwright, Watt, Telford, Brunel and a host of others is given full moral, didactic and historical force in The Lives of the Engineers (1861) by Samuel Smiles, the most determined chronicler of heroic individualism of his time.
Narrating history through the medium of the individual is still an important way of explaining the past. Walk into any good bookshop and you will see ample evidence in the publishing explosion in popular science, much of it getting its momentum from highly contextualised biographies of established heroes like Sir Isaac Newton, or the recovery of 'unjustly neglected' figures. Richard Hamblyn’s Invention of Clouds (2002), explaining Luke Howard’s part in the creation of modern meteorology is an excellent example.
The growth of complexity in history
Modern societies need histories that reflect their own complexity. What is demanded of history and historians has changed to reflect the underlying transformation of the industrialised, globalised world and, in response to this, approaches to history have had to be adapted. Since at least the eighteenth century, critical standards of evidence and verification emerged to become the industry standard of what is now the historical profession. Here, history exists alongside other disciplines in the arts, sciences and social sciences, each with their own exacting standards of scholarship. In spite of this, history organised around the straight line of a significant lifetime remains a mainstay both inside and outside the academy.
Why this persistence? Why this pre-eminence? One obvious factor is that these stories are easily told and easily understood. But biography can be an exacting form and, in any case, there has to be more than the offer of undemanding amusement, important as that might be. The role of the valorised individual, the exemplary life of great purpose, must play some part.
Certainly, setting up moral examples of courage, devotion, chivalry, integrity, probity, industry, intelligence, even for that matter wickedness, cunning and ruthlessness, has been a consistent feature of historical writing since the earliest times. The particular content of the moral message may change from the chivalric to the industrious but the need for moral example seems to be a recurrent theme.
Beyond heroes and villains?
The key questions for our own society seems to be less to do with whether we do or don’t need these historical tales (we clearly do) but whether they alone are adequate for our needs? It is not that we have outgrown the needs felt by our ancestors but that we have developed new needs that reflect the complexity and diversity of society’s economic, social and political processes, structures and institutions.
The reasons for this are reflected in the names of the major sub-disciplines of modern history: political history, economic history, social history, cultural history. We need political histories that reflect the intricacies and interplay of factors involved in the development of our political system - not just accounts of the lives of politicians. In the case of modern economies, their vaster, more impersonal structures like institutions and markets make the need for complex impersonal histories even clearer. Heroic accounts of the industrial revolutionaries have been all but eclipsed by the interplay of supply and demand, the role of population growth, of labour supply, the contribution of agricultural development, the part played by empire and slavery – the list could go on.
If one answer to the question is that we now write more complex histories because we need to explain the origins of more complex social formations, another might be that we actually also write more complex forms of heroic narrative. History told through exemplary lives was always about meeting the needs of people and society; our histories reflect our needs just as much as the Greeks did.
Just as the monarch was an individual cipher for a complex political institution, so we turn complex institutions and structures into quasi-individuals to help make sense of them and turn them into functioning explanations. Peter Ackroyd’s London (2000) has the subtitle ‘the biography’. John Birmingham's Leviathan (2000) claims to be Sydney's 'unauthorised biography'. Nation-states have always been imbued with a kind of personality, and in the English language this personality is even gendered as ‘she’. Business corporations are built around the legal fiction that they are corporate individuals. In E.P.Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class previously unknown heroes brilliantly emerge from obscurity but the working class itself seems to take on the organic unity of an individual.
The wonder is not so much that we have failed to transcend the need for heroic accounts of our collective pasts. Instead, it is the ability of this mode of recalling and retelling to shape itself to astonishingly different social needs.
Samuel Smiles The Life of George Stephenson (University Press of the Pacific, 2001) - one of Smiles' highly influential works of hero-worship, designed to inspire as much as to inform.
Richard Hamblyn The Invention of Clouds: how an amateur meteorologist forged the language of the skies (Picador 2002) – an example of the widespread modern genre of historical writing which uses the story of one person's life to illuminate an issue.
John Birmingham Leviathan: the unauthorised biography of Sydney (Vintage, 2000) - an urban history written by an Australian journalist, in which Sydney is the hero, (or the villain).
Robert Bickers Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (Penguin, 2004) - an evocation of the twentieth-century British Empire through the life of a Shanghai policeman.
Great Britons - the 2002 series in which the nation voted for the "Greatest" Briton of all time