Skip to content

The Big Question: What is history?

Updated Friday, 30th August 2019

The past is the past, and what's done is done. But in that case: what is history?

Historical monument? A memorial to the Havana Revolution Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

History is often quoted in the justification of many actions and events - from territorial claims to long-running conflicts. As we are urged to learn its lessons for the future, many politicians are anxious about how history will remember them.

But what do we actually mean by history? Is it the events of the past or the telling of the stories of those events? Can history possibly be all fact or is there always an element of fiction? The Big Question: What is History?

To discuss this Big Question, Emma Joseph meets historian John Arnold from Birkbeck College in London, author of History: A Very Short Introduction . John quotes the British historian, E H Carr, who distinguishes between events of the past and the study of the past, in his book What is History?. For John Arnold, history is the study of the past.

Why is history important? For the ancient Greeks, history was a storehouse of examples to guide future actions. Do today's world leaders learn the lessons of history? Can the study of history give people a new perspective on current matters and can it help people understand themselves? The Big Question hears from a Scottish history student, Jim Hewitson who says a book called The Scottish Nation: A History by Tom Devine has provided the opportunity for the Scottish people to reassess their past and their futures.

So where do historians get their material? For many, it is the dusty ancient manuscripts stored away in vaults. These historical records offer researchers the chance to trace stories back through time.

The Big Question visits the British Library, home to millions of printed books and hundreds of thousands of manuscripts - the oldest dates back to more than four thousand years ago. The curator of medieval manuscripts, Dr Justin Clegg shows Emma a six-hundred year-old manual called Practica inquisitionis heretice pravitatis - The Conduct of Inquiry Concerning Heretical Depravity. It is the only surviving copy of its kind and dates from the time of 14th Century inquisition in southern France. The manuscript - effectively, guidelines for new inquisitors - was written by a Dominican monk called Bernard Gui. Gui, who also appears in the novel "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco, spent nearly a quarter of a century conducting investigations, and passed sentence on more than 900 people.

For John Arnold, not only does this manuscript provide a snapshot of ordinary medieval French life, it also reveals the roots of the functioning of modern European law.

But what about modern history? With the development of radio and televison, has the proliferation of sources of information over the past one hundred years changed the way history is researched and written? Dr Donald MacRaild , Head of the History Subject Division at the University of Northumbria, in Newcastle says that not only has the range of sources grown, so too has the range of questions asked. Now, consideration is given to questions that historians used to be less interested in, such as the lives of ordinary people. He says the release of transcripts of phone conversations, including from the White House, has shed new light on, for example, the study of the Vietnam war.

So with so many sources, is accuracy made more difficult? Dr MacRaild says historians try to work by basic rules and they try to be objective. But what is exciting is that new views will inevitably emerge - historical certainties are constantly being reassessed.

But history is not all based on recorded sources - the Australian Aborigines have kept their 40,000 year-old history alive through word of mouth. Aboriginal country music singer, Warren Williams, from Alice Springs, tells The Big Question how the legends of the Serpent Man or the Rain God have kept his people together - and that when those stories are sung they are not forgotten.

So what is history?

The American poet, Ralph Emerson wrote "There is properly no history - only biography". The eighteenth century French writer, Voltaire wrote, "All our ancient history is no more than accepted fiction." And the twentieth century Austrian-born philosopher, Karl Popper wrote, "There is no history of mankind, there are only many histories of all kinds of aspects of human life. And one of these is the history of political power. This is elevated into the history of the world."

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 12th June 2004

The BBC and the Open University are not responsible for the content of external websites







Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?