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An Introduction to Historical Interpretations and Historiography



pring 2001


An Introduction to Historical Interpretations and Historiography

Advanced Higher


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  • Section 1 Historians differ

  • Section 2: Historians’ views must be studied

  • Section 3: Confusing choices

  • Section 4: Historians’ interpretations are shaped by their circumstances

  • Section 5: Historians may interpret the motives of people in the past differently

  • Section 6: The evidence available to historians changes over time

  • Section 7: Different views of the nature of history

  • Section 8: Is history fiction?

  • Section 9: Sensible strategies


This student guide emphasises the importance of differing historical interpretations in Advanced Higher History.

The requirements of this course make it clear that studying and commenting on historians’ views are essential activities.
The general requirements for the whole course indicate that students should,
... address complex historical issues including consideration of alternative interpretations’.
The assessment requirements reinforce this general statement about the need to study the viewpoints and interpretations of the past by historians.
It is hoped that this guide will assist students understand the demands of historiography whatever field of study that they specialise in. The section on the differing views of the nature of history provides background information for students that may help them assess a historian’s view.


At the end of the Second World War in 1945 a Labour Government took control of Britain after a general election. By the time Labour lost power in 1951 it had brought about a series of social reforms that created what is commonly called the welfare state. These reforms included setting up the National Health Service, bringing in old age pensions for all, regardless of income, and providing help for people who could not work because of illness or injury.

The reforms came at a time when the country was struggling to recover from an enormously costly and damaging conflict and was spending a great deal on its post-war defence and foreign policies. Were vast welfare reforms appropriate at such a time? The historian Martin Pugh, writing in 1994, had no doubt that the Labour Government acted properly. He wrote,

‘Some critics have claimed that the welfare state was a hugely expensive burden which damaged the British economy in the long term. Obviously large sums of money were involved. ... However, to see this simply as a cost would be simplistic, to say the least. The very fact that expenditure rose after 1945 indicated that a great deal of ill-health had gone untreated - with very damaging effects on the economy. Any genuine audit of welfare policies would have to include some assessment of the economic gain from a more fit and healthy labour force. Many of the welfare benefits, such as family allowances, were very cost-effective ways of relieving hardship. If the welfare state did not abolish poverty altogether, it represented the most effective single campaign against it.

Finally it is important that any suggestion that state welfare expenditure got out of control has no basis in fact.’

(Martin Pugh, ‘State & Society’ London Arnold1994 p242)

In 1995 another historian, Corelli Barnett, published his evaluation of Labour’s welfare policy, a policy he describes as an attempt to build ‘a New Jerusalem’. He wrote,

‘Within two months of victory in the general election the new Labour Cabinet had found out that ... the construction of New Jerusalem ... was far beyond the means of a war-ruined British economy. ... Should it now be accepted that Britain ought to live within her means? ... For the Labour Government this was psychologically and politically impossible. Instead further American handouts it must be.’

The author discusses a Labour minister’s comparison of Britain to a ship and comments,

How could two historians studying the same topic at the same time reach such different conclusions?
... instead of being rebuilt from the keel up she had instead undergone only a superficial refit. ... Money which should have gone into such vital re-equipment as new engine-rooms had been spent instead on a costly new sick-bay, spacious new cabins for the crew and passengers.’

(Corelli Barnett, ‘The Lost Victory’ London 1996 edition Pan pp132 & 397)


Different interpretations are inevitable.

In fact the differences between historians that are illustrated by the above example are not surprising for differing interpretations are a part of the nature of history itself. The historian John Arnold has put this point very clearly,

‘If the past came without gaps and problems there would be no task for the historian to complete. And if the evidence that existed always spoke plainly, truthfully and clearly to us, not only would historians have no work to do, we would have no opportunity to argue with each other. History is, above all else, an argument.’

(John H Arnold, ‘History. A Very Short Introduction.’ Oxford 2000 O.U.P. p13)
The history books to be studied for Higher and Advanced Higher are the result of historians’ efforts to convey a view of part of the past, based on careful critical study of sources of evidence. But in the end the historian must decide what to choose. To really come to grips with the discipline of history, then, students must study the works of historians critically and should, compare one historian’s view with another’s.
The historian E H Carr has emphasised the importance of this kind of study. He wrote,
The facts of history never come to us ‘pure’ since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concern should not be with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it’.

(E H Carr, ‘What is History?’ London Penguin1964 p22)

Can you think of any examples of differing historical interpretations from your work in History so far?

Advanced Higher requires the study of various historical interpretations

The requirements of this course make it clear that studying and commenting on historians’ views are essential activities. The general requirements for the whole course indicate that students should,

‘... address complex historical issues including consideration of alternative interpretations’.

The assessment requirements reinforce this general statement about needing to study the viewpoints and interpretations of the past by historians as follows:

  1. Essay writing forms an essential part of the course. A successful essay, the regulations state, is one that ‘makes use of appropriate historical evidence which takes account of historical interpretations’.

  2. Source evaluating forms a second essential part of the course. Sources must be evaluated to take account of their contents, provenance and context and dealt with so that ‘the evaluation, where appropriate, takes account of different historical interpretations’.

    NB: The sources provided for evaluation will consist of primary sources and extracts from the works of historians.

  1. The historical research that students have to plan and research will be developed into a dissertation that should include, ‘consideration of alternative interpretations’. This piece of research requires that students study several historical works, analysing these works in terms of data relevant to the students chosen issue, making sure that, ‘the analysis takes account of historical interpretations’.

Throughout the course, then, students should consider the books and articles used for the course not only as a source of information but also as a focus for identifying and reflecting on the point of view held by each historian, the kind of interpretation of the past provided and the possible reasons for that interpretation. The activity of creating and writing a particular work of history and of thinking about the interpretation it offers is known as HISTORIOGRAPHY. Historiography forms a major part of the Advanced Higher History course.

At Higher Level …

It is well worthwhile considering the factors that shape historical interpretations and the reasons why, sometimes, these interpretations differ. Sources for assessment may well be drawn from historians’ works; historians’ views need to be considered when reading and note-making for the course and especially when dealing with the extended essay.
The rest of this booklet deals with some of the main factors that shape historians’ views bringing about the existence of a wide variety of historical works. The final section notes that there are people who argue that since works of history are all created by historians, all historical writing is a kind of fiction: (Needless to say, historians do not agree with this view!)

Further Reading

There are many books about history, its nature, what historians do and how historiography has developed and changed. The following are just a few of them.

Arnold, John H, ‘History. A Very Short Introduction’ Oxford 2000 OUP

Burke, Peter (ed), ‘New Perspectives on Historical Writing’ Oxford 1991 Blackwell

Carr E H, ‘What is History’ London 1964 Penguin

Evans, Richard J, ‘In Defence of History’ London 1997 Granta

Jenkins, Keith, ‘Re-thinking History’ London 1991 Routledge

Stanford, Michael, ‘A Companion to the Study of History’ Oxford 1994 Blackwell

Tosh, John (ed), ‘Historians on History’ Harlow 2000 Pearson

Tosh, John, ‘The Pursuit of History’ Harlow 1984 Pearson

Warren, John, ‘History and the Historians’ London 1999 Hodder & Stoughton


Imagine being asked to write a book to be called ‘A Short History of the Year 2000’. The publishers believe that the distinctive date will ensure a ready sale for this publication. What needs to be done?

Collecting evidence

    You have your own memories of the year but far more evidence will be needed to construct a general history. But there is so much of it. There are mountains of books, papers, newspapers, reports, statistics, etc. There are people whose importance in events suggests they should be interviewed. There are films, videos, still photographs, recordings, etc. Selecting from a mass of material is a problem.

Searching for the truth

Can you trust political leaders’ accounts of their actions? Are newspaper reports full and accurate? Do people’s memories play them false? Have statistics been carefully selected to create a particular impression? Sources of evidence have to be critically examined and carefully interpreted. Will every historian interpret data in the same way? Evaluating sources of evidence is a problem.

What about the gaps?

Matters that are important may be missing for the historian who wants to write a history that explains causes and results and looks critically at what happened. The reasons that those involved offer may not seem convincing. Data on sensitive matters may not be available. Filling in the ‘gaps’ is a problem.

Selecting and arranging

With so many events to describe and explain, so many developments to analyse and discuss, how should the historian decide what to include, what to rate as really important, what to treat briefly, what to leave out? All sorts of reasons might explain why one person’s final work of history differs from another’s e.g.

  • Any historian lives at a particular time and in a particular place. Would you expect histories of the year 2,000 written by a Chinese, a Brazilian and a British historian to all be identical?

  • Historians are individuals with their own personal beliefs. Would works of history by a Conservative and a Communist be identical?

Historiographical study involves careful thought about the personality, views and circumstances of any historian whose works are being studied. Some aspects of these factors are considered in the following pages.
What might be distinctive about ‘A History of the Year 2000’ written by an author who lives in Scotland?


‘However hard we struggle to avoid the prejudices associated with colour, creed, class or gender, we cannot avoid looking at the past from a particular point of view.’

(Peter Burke, ‘New Perspectives on Historical Writing’ 1991 p6)
A century ago there were historians who thought it was possible to write completely impartial history; today that ambition has been abandoned. Historians realise that the works that they create are inevitably shaped by:

  • the times when they live

  • the place where they live

  • their personal background, circumstances, opportunities, and feelings about their place in society.

The following two examples illustrate this point.

Women’s history

During the 1960s there emerged in many countries, but especially in the USA, a movement seeking full equal rights in all aspects of life for women, a movement often called ‘feminism’. This movement has affected historical research and publications and has encouraged different ways of looking at the past. The historian Katrina Honeyman’s book ‘Women, Gender and Industrialisation in England’ provides just one of many examples of this development. ‘The shape of the book’, she writes, ‘is informed by the preoccupations of modern feminism. It should be recognised that the struggles of women in today’s labour market are connected to equivalent struggles of 200 years ago. ... Until quite recently women were shamefully ignored in historical investigations.’ (pp vii & i)
In her fascinating study she argues that the effects of the industrial revolution were to confine women to certain sorts of work, and to reward them for their work very badly indeed. She also maintains that the very identity in society of what it meant to be female was reshaped. Trade unions, for example, ‘reinforced the gendering of identities through the family wage, the marriage bar and protective legislation’ (p137) so unions sought to become respectable elements of society, so women were pushed into an increasingly subordinate role.

This book may well provoke criticisms from other historians but it has opened a window on the industrial revolution that cannot now be closed. It is difficult to imagine such a book being written fifty or more years ago.

Ethnic identity

Over a four hundred year period Western European nations built up huge overseas empires, empires that have now almost entirely vanished. This period of conquest involved Europeans trading in slaves, destroying the power of traditional rulers, creating political boundaries between their colonies that eventually became the frontiers of new states. British people, like other colonising peoples, felt pride in this achievement and tended to be dismissive of the cultures of the peoples they conquered - especially on the African continent. Histories tended to reflect these feelings.
Post-colonial times have seen major changes e.g. in terms of the growing recognition of the cultures of native peoples and the development of historical studies of former colonial areas. For people who moved (voluntarily or through compulsion) from their homelands to settle in the lands of the colonisers, the study of their origins has become important. Modern histories reflect this shift. The historian Paul Kennedy’s comments show that feelings about European imperialism have moved a long way from celebrating it. He writes (of the collapse of Europe’s empires).

The very arrogance and ambitiousness of western imperialism brought with it the seeds of its own destruction. The exaggerated nationalism of Cecil Rhodes ... provoked reactions among Boers ... ideas of national self-determination ... seeped relentlessly ... to Egypt, to India, to Indochina.’

(Paul Kennedy, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers 1989, pp 505)
In the USA the history of slavery and the slave trade of the African lands from which people were taken has become highly important as indicated in this comment by the black leader Malcolm X, ‘If we don’t go into the past and find out how we got this way, we will think that we were always this way. And if you think that you were in the condition that you’re in right now it’s impossible for you to have too much confidence in yourself.’

(Malcolm X, ‘On Afro-American History’ 1990 p12)

Eastern Europe

The two examples above illustrate a general point. Historians are part of particular societies at particular times; what they study and how they see the past are shaped by their times. For historians working in countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia, circumstances have changed dramatically. Where once Russian Communist control required that their account of their countries’ recent pasts paid tribute to this circumstance, they are now free to portray the past differently. The old Soviet Union has collapsed and countries in eastern Europe that it once dominated have now emerged as independent states in charge of their own fortunes, free of Russian Communist control. Historians in the east European countries are now released from the need to write positively about Communist rule in Russia and in their own country.
Can you suggest any further example where changing circumstances are likely to have affected the kind of history that is written?


The case of the Japanese Empire

In 1941 Japanese aircraft attacked the US fleet in Pearl harbour. Japanese forces conquered considerable areas of Asia before, eventually, being driven back and defeated. These events mark the peak of Japanese empire-building, an enterprise that had been going on for some time. Over a period of fifty years in the second half of the nineteenth century, Japan moved from being too militarily weak to resist the demands made on it by Western powers, to being able to begin to acquire an empire as a result of successful wars against China and Russia. Was this empire acquired as a result of a long-term plan? Was becoming an imperial power the clear aim of Japan’s leaders in the late 19th century? The historian Ann Harrington does not think so. She writes,

A combination of opportunity and capability spun ... the web we know as Meiji imperialism. Whatever design we might see in hindsight was either not available to the spinners of the web or else they succeeded well in hiding their pattern.’

(A M Harrington, ‘Meiji Imperialism not based on pre-ordained design’

in Wray H and Conroy H, ‘Japan Examined’ 1983)

However another historian, Bonnie B Oh believes differently and argues,

It has become increasingly fashionable to deny any long-sustained plans behind Japanese empire - building. ... In this author’s opinion the issue has been confused. ... It is inconceivable that Japan became an empire and a world power in forty four years without long-range goals and plan. The Meiji leaders ... had goals and plans for national strength and international equality, but carried them out with characteristic flexibility and realism as each situation demanded.’

(Bonnie B Oh ‘Meiji Imperialism: Phenomenally Rapid

in Wray H & Conroy H ‘Japan Examined’ 1983)

This difference illustrates the problems that historians face in seeking to interpret sources to weave together not only an account of what happened in the past but also an explanation of the motives of the people involved. We can do our best to try to enter the minds of people of the past, but can never completely do so. Interpreting people’s motives illustrates one of the ‘gaps’ in our real knowledge about the past, gaps that historians fill in the way that the sources of evidence suggest to them seems most probable.

How should we view Munich, 1938?

Differing interpretations of past events can take other forms. How should we judge events in 1938 when Neville Chamberlain led the way in getting an agreement with Hitler at Munich that handed over to Germany a sizeable slice of Czechoslovakia? To the historian Angus Calder, Chamberlain’s journey to meet Hitler was,

‘A rendezvous with infamy at Munich. The Czechs were briskly sold out ... only one member of the Government, Duff Cooper, saw fit to resign in protest at the Munich betrayal.’

(A Calder, ‘The People’s War. Britain 1939-45’. London 1971 p29)
However the historian A J P Taylor offers quite a different interpretation of Munich and of Chamberlain’s motives and achievement,

The settlement at Munich was a triumph for British policy, which had worked precisely to this end; not a triumph for Hitler, who had started with no such clear intention. Nor was it merely a triumph for selfish or cynical British statesmen, indifferent to the fate of far-off peoples or calculating that Hitler might be launched into war against Soviet Russia. It was a triumph for those who had preached equal justice between peoples; a triumph for those who had courageously denounced the harshness and short-sightedness of Versailles.’

(A J P Taylor, ‘The Origins of the Second World War’ London 1961 p234)
We know now what happened following Munich; A J P Taylor is trying to see Chamberlain’s behaviour as it would seem to people at the time. Interpreting and evaluating the past leaves considerable scope for historians to disagree.

The Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707

A third example of differing interpretation is provided by the following views on the union of 1707. Paul Scott is intensely critical of the Scots who helped to bring this about. He writes,

The importance of considerations of trade in bringing about the Union has been greatly exaggerated. On the other hand, few accounts have admitted the extent to which the Scottish Government, and the negotiators of the Treaty, were puppets of the English Court. Many historians have denied the clear evidence of bribery, and it seems that no one has previously suggested that bribery is also the most probable explanation for Hamilton’s sabotage of the opposition. Little emphasis has been placed on military intimidation or the fear of civil war, although most contemporary accounts suggest that these considerations were the strongest argument for the Union.’

(Paul Scott, ‘The Union of Scotland and England’ 1979 Edinburgh)
Professor C A Whatley offers a different interpretation of the motives and actions of the Scots who negotiated the union.

They fashioned a settlement which would be to Scotland’s advantage, or at least less to its disadvantage than might otherwise have been the case. Indeed some historians, particularly those with a nationalist bias, have failed to acknowledge the achievements of the stubborn and far from pliant Scots Parliamentarians who ensured the future of the Scottish system and privileges of the Royal Burghs. ..

. The incorporating Union of 1707 was neither inevitable, nor a monument to wise and forward-looking statesmanship. Neither was it a diktat. Nonetheless there was a certain logic to it. It was ... a practical agreement between unequal partners, born and made of political, economic and strategic necessity, which served the needs of the politicians of both countries at the time.’

(Christopher Whatley ‘Bought and Sold for English Gold?’ 2001,

East Linton, Tuckwell Press p47)
What might explain why historians can see the same aspect of the past differently?

  • Historians, like most of us, have their own political sympathies. Would a supporter of a strongly nationalist party perhaps be likely to interpret the past differently from someone who was not sympathetic to a nationalist party?

  • Historians, too, may well have religious beliefs. Might a devout Catholic and a devout Calvinist see the Reformation differently?

  • Every historian is a unique individual. The past leaves scope for varying views on the motives of people in the past and on evaluating the importance of the causes of past events.

However, historians do not always disagree. Differences between them should not be

Has any historical topic that you have already studied shown that it is possible for there to be disagreement about the reasons why something happened? Have you disagreed with other students, perhaps?


In 1969 Professor T C Smout published ‘A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830’, a work that rapidly became highly successful. In it he described the condition of the Scottish economy in the late seventeenth century in the following words,

In 1690, and for half a century after that, Scotland showed in a peculiarly acute form all the evils of a traditional underdeveloped economy. Indeed she was under-developed not only in the sense that all nations were before the industrial revolution ... but also in the sense that she was poorer and more backward even in her pre-industrial economy than the states to which she most frequently compared herself. ... The harvest failed badly and universally in 1696, bringing death to many; recovery from this was very incomplete when the crops failed again in 1698 and again ... in 1699. ... It was a terrible instance of the vulnerability of a primitive economy to bad weather.’

(T C Smout, ‘A History of the Scottish People’ London Collins1972 edition, pp224-5)

In 1999 Professor T M Devine painted a rather different picture of the Scottish economy of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. He wrote,

In the pre industrial age, the old system broadly met the needs of Scottish society. Judged over the period c 1652-1740, agriculture was remarkably effective in feeding the populations and also in producing increasing surpluses for export, especially of cattle, sheep and grain. ... The epic crisis of the ‘Lean Years’ in the 1690s was not confined to Scotland but also devastated several other countries in Western Europe because of a period of unusually poor weather throughout the continent.’

(T M Devine, ‘The Scottish Nation 1700-2000’ London Penguin1999 p132)
The different view expressed here is the result of the continuing labours of historians in studying the past rather than being a matter of differing interpretations.

  1. The gloomy view of the pre-industrial economy depended heavily on historical sources from the very people who carried out major changes to the economy in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Professor Devine argues,

    ... the works of the improving writers require careful handling. They were essentially propagandists ... shock troops of improvement, their mission was not to understand traditional society in its own terms but rather to provide the analytical justification for its removal ... they were overtly prejudiced against the old ways.’ (Ibid pp 124-5)

  1. A great deal of new historical research has been taking place using a very wide range of resources and seeking to understand the Scottish economy of ‘pre improvement’ times in its own terms. Professor C A Whatley observes of the results of this recent research,

The newer view rests largely on two main propositions: first, that Scotland’s economy and society was much more dynamic and conducive to economic growth than had been assumed previously. Second, that ... in several important respects (Scotland) was similar both to England and other more advanced parts of northern Europe ... the Scottish countryside, was far from static in the seventeenth century. Rather, the sector was becoming commercialised and responding to market opportunities.’

(C A Whatley ‘Scottish Society 1707-1830’ Manchester 2000 p19)

The above example could be added to with further examples from many fields of historical research and is a normal feature of historical scholarship. As the historian Fiona Watson states in her discussion of medieval Scotland’s problems with Edward I of England, for example,

‘It is only recently, indeed, that historians have realised the extent to which our understanding of the Anglo-Scottish wars is a product of the comprehensive propaganda campaign conducted by King Robert Bruce against not only his predecessor, John Balliol, but also his arch-enemies, the Comyns.’

(Fiona Watson, ‘Under the Hammer’ East Linton, Tuckwell Press 1998 p4)
What historical works are you planning to use? When were they published? Does a glance at the introductory chapter of the most recent work show the author refers to earlier studies? Is it possible to compare the conclusions reached by the authors of the oldest and the most recent works?

Historical research is an on-going activity

  • The mass of source materials means that any one historian can only explore a part of it.

  • New ways of thinking about, analysing and evaluating material become available. (This is especially true of archaeology; modern scientific equipment has helped to transform this area of research).

  • New sources of evidence become available. The collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, has begun to open up archives in Russia that were once not available to western scholars. In Britain new officially-controlled sources become available every year as they reach an age which the government sees as sufficiently long ago to allow them to be studied.

  • As historians put forward new views, as a result of their researches, other historians subject these views to careful and critical study and may seek to revise them in the light of further evidence.

Professor Whatley’s work illustrates the latter point. He surveys evidence that indicates that there may be a danger of painting too optimistic a picture of Scotland in pre-improvement years.

Scotland was still an economy of considerable but unrealised potential’, he writes. (Ibid p41) as he concludes an account of the limitations of Scottish farming, trade, and industry, noting of the many that left Scotland ‘most emigrants were fleeing from a country which could not support hem adequately’. (Ibid p30)
It is important to look at the date when an historical work was published and, if at all possible, to compare works written at different times. Historical research is a never-ending process as historians search for the truth about their area of study and do so knowing they can never reach a final and absolute truth.


Historians do not all hold the same basic views on how we should see the past.

  • Some historians stress the activities of individuals in the past and concentrate on creating an account of the past that is a narrative, a strong story line dominated by individual activities. Such historians may well point up how often chance, misfortune, accident and immediate circumstances shape the past.

  • Some historians search for deep long-term trends; they consider the geography, climate, resources of an area in considerable depth and prefer to concentrate on longer sweeps of time than are represented by individual lives.

  • Some historians are inclined to see human societies as the creation of people exercising choices; others incline to the view that it is underlying economic factors that determine what a society is like.

In this section, three different approaches are outlined; each shapes the kind of history that historians produce. The first two approaches both stress the importance of long term developments and the shaping of events by deeper underlying conditions.


Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx’s ideas have had an enormous impact on the twentieth century world. His biographer declares,

Within one hundred years of his death half the world’s population was ruled by governments that professed Marxism to be their guiding faith. His ideas have transformed the study of economics, history, geography, sociology and literature.’

(Francis Wheen, ‘Karl Marx’ London 1999 p1)
Marx was born in Trier in the Rhineland region of Germany. His education culminated in a higher degree from the University of Berlin. He worked as a journalist, moved to Paris and met Fredrick Engels, the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer (with mills in Manchester as well as Germany). The two men worked together for the rest of Marx’s life.
Marx and Engels joined a movement called the Communist League and began producing an extensive range of publications - the most famous of which was the ‘Communist Manifesto’ of 1848. In 1848 revolutions that they supported swept across Europe but, when these revolutions began to fail, Marx fled to London in 1849.
Marx spent the rest of his life in Britain, supporting himself and his family with considerable difficulty by writing, by the good fortune of an inheritance received by his wife Jenny and through the generous support of Engels. His most famous work, ‘Capital’ was published in three volumes. The first volume was completed in 1867; the last volume was not published until eleven years after his death and was the result of the devoted labours of Engels.

Marx’s ideas

Marx’s ideas developed over his lifetime. They are complex and are concerned with far more aspects of life than history - indeed his thinking has been taken by some twentieth century politicians as an accurate account of modern society and of how it will develop in the future. The following short extracts from several of his writings (often produced with Engels’ help) give some insights into his thinking:
People cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity.’
It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’
Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production, in changing their way of earning their living they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.’
Every class, as soon as it takes up the struggle against the class above it, is involved in a struggle with the class beneath it. Thus princes struggle against kings, bureaucrats against aristocrats and the bourgeoisie against all of these, while the proletariat is already beginning to struggle against the bourgeoisie.’

(All the above quoted in F Wheen, op cit)

Marx argued that how a society was governed, what its laws and religion were like, society’s art and ideas, etc. were all expressions of where control over wealth lay. A society where wealth consisted of large privately owned areas of land would differ in every way from one where real wealth lay in trade and industry. He lived in Britain at a time of rapid change. There he saw the growing power of merchants and industrialists; he saw a parliamentary system in which only the well-to-do held office and the poor could not vote. Those with wealth and power dominated and controlled those who lacked it (and who had nothing to sell but their labour), squeezing out of their labour the profits to sustain their lifestyle. Out of this great gulf between rich and power revolution might well spring. Marx watched each crisis in Britain in the hope that it might bring revolution. It never did. In a letter written shortly before his death he expressed his despair about this with the cry ‘Drat the British’. (Wheen p207).
Since owning property produced divided societies, Marx looked eventually to the achievement of a communist society ie one where property was owned communally, not privately. Such a society was only likely to emerge after a series of conflicts between the warring classes of earlier societies. Marx, therefore, saw a basic underlying pattern in human affairs; he applied this pattern to make sense of the past.

His influence on historians

Marx’s ideas have had some sort of influence on most historians. Some historians openly declare their belief that the approaches his thinking point towards seem to them to make sense of the past and that they are happy to call themselves Marxists. In Britain such historians include Christopher Hill, Edward Thomson and Eric Hobsbawm. The latter has stated,

Marx’s approach is still the only one which enables us to explain the entire span of human history’.

(In ‘On History’ London 1997 p155)
Christopher Hill has maintained,

Only Marxism scientifically analyses the class struggle as the motive force in history and sees individuals in relation to this struggle’.

(From ‘Marxism and History’ ‘Modern Quarterly 3’ 1948 p63)
The Marxist analysis of the past is used by historians today. In his recent book ‘The Origins of Scottish Nationhood’ (London 2000) the historian Neil Davidson develops an analysis ‘in defence of a Marxist position’. His fascinating study maintains, ‘... a Scottish nation did not exist in 1320 nor in 1560 nor yet in 1707. ... The historical events that are supposed to prove the existence of Scottish nationhood before 1707 were in fact presented in this way only after that date.’ (pp3-5). The author thus openly declares his desire that his book be read recognising the Marxist base of his thinking.
Eric Hobsbawn is one of the most important of modern Marxist historians. His discussion of why the First World War came about, for example, is heavily concerned with long-term economic developments that had produced competing capitalist countries by the beginning of the twentieth century. He wrote,

The development of capitalism inevitably pushed the world in the direction of state rivalry, imperialist expansion, conflict and war … economic competition became inextricably woven into the political, even the military actions of states. … To the end of his days Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, could not believe that his tiny match put the world in flames … (but) by 1914 any confrontation between the blocs, in which one side or the other was expected to back down, brought them to the verge of war.’

(E J Hobsbawn, ‘The Age of Enterprise 1875-1914’ London 1987,

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp316-7 & 323-4) (This interpretation differs considerably from that offered by A J P Taylor below!)

Many historians are very critical of Marxist analyses and stress other factors that help shape society; no historians today can, however, engage in their work unaware of Marxist thinking. The historians who are described in the next section carry concern with underlying factors determining human behaviour to even greater lengths.


In 1929 two French historians established a journal called ‘Annales d’histoire Economique et sociale’. From this date there developed an increasingly important group of historians who were determined to challenge traditional narrative political history. The journal of 1929 provided the name used to label this group of historians - the ‘Annales’ school.

These historians argue that;

  • historical study should not be carried out on a narrow front but should draw upon and collaborate with other disciplines such as sociology, geography, literature and economics.

  • historians should search for deep-seated structures; they should not be obsessed with specific events. A leading ‘Annales’ school historian, Fernand Braudel, described events such as battles and treaties as

surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their backs.’
These historians have produced analyses of society rather than historical narratives. Braudel’s work was on a massive scale. His study ‘The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II’ was based on his view that historians had been too obsessed with the detail of events ‘not the grand movement of Mediterranean life, but the actions of a few princes and rich men, the trivia of the past, bearing little relationship to the slow and powerful march of history.’
Braudel looked at the relationships of people and their environment, raw material supplies and communications as factors shaping life and attitudes. He spoke of ‘total’ or ‘global’ history in which all aspects of human life - political, economic, social and cultural - were gathered together and not restricted by state boundaries or short time-spans. In a further massive work - ‘Civilisation and Capitalism, 15-19 centuries’ he dismissed small-scale events as ‘the dust of history’. Instead his first volume surveys ordinary life across the world in terms of the numbers of people, basic essential foods and drinks, homes and furniture, technology and money.
Other members of the Annales school have not managed to create such vast canvases but have focused on much smaller-scale studies within which to examine the structures of society. Although their work has been criticised in a number of ways it has emphasised dimensions of life that historians must consider: for example, political historians are now less likely to over-concentrate on the central institutions of the state or to see politics as separated from social and economic aspects of life. The ‘Annales’ school has stimulated thinking about all aspects of our existence so that now it is possible to talk about having histories of the body or of reading (see Peter Burke, ed., ‘New Perspectives on Historical Writing’) or even of the air we breathe and the soil we live on and exploit.


The idea that it is the historian’s job to tell a story has, from time to time, been fiercely criticised. There have been counter claims that it is the historian’s task to analyse structures rather than describe events and that narrative history is too superficial. The modern historian, Simon Schama, rejects this view. In his book on the French Revolution (‘Citizens’ London, Viking Press 1989) he writes,

I have chosen to present these arguments in the form of a narrative. If, in fact, the Revolution was a much more haphazard and chaotic event and much more the product of human agency than structural conditioning, chronology seems indispensable in making its complicated twists and turns intelligible. So ‘Citizens’ returns, then, to the form of the nineteenth-century chronicles, allowing different issues and interests to shape the flow of the story as they arise, year after year, month after month. I have also, perhaps perversely, deliberately eschewed the conventional ‘survey’ format by which various aspects of the society of the old regime are canvassed before attempting political description. Placing those imposing chapters on ‘the economy’, ‘the peasantry’, ‘the nobility’ and the like at the front of books automatically, it seems to me, privileges their explanatory force. I have not, I hope, ignored any of these social groups, but have tried to introduce them at the points in the narrative where they affect the course of events. This, in turn, has dictated an unfashionable ‘top down’ rather than ‘bottom up’ approach.’ (pxv)
Simon Schama does not wish to deny underlying causes. AJP Taylor, however, an outstanding exponent of narrative history, was prepared to offer a slightly different defence. His account of why war broke out in 1914 differs considerably from Eric Hobsbawm’s and includes the following comment.
‘It is the fashion nowadays to seek profound causes for general events. But perhaps the war which broke out in 1914 had no profound causes. For thirty years past, international diplomacy, the balance of power, the alliances, and the accumulation of armed might produced peace. Suddenly the situation was turned round, and the very forces which had produced the long peace now produced a great war. In much the same way, a motorist who for thirty years has been doing the right thing to avoid accidents makes a mistake one day and has a crash. In July 1914 things went wrong. The only safe explanation is that things happen because they happen.’

(A J P Taylor, ‘War by Timetable: How the First World War Began’ London 1969 p45)

Historians like these have been sharply criticised for leaving out factors that get in the way of a strong story line and for focusing on the superficial surface of events. Simon Schama has however a belief that the French Revolution was ‘much more the product of human agency than structural conditioning’. Thus he, like A J P Taylor, is offering a particular interpretation of the past that shapes the kind of history that he writes. Narrative history carries the reader along as if involved in the events of the past. The problem for the historian is to justify his selection and arrangement of events and to combine this flow with the kind of critical analysis that is possible for someone who is looking back from a later date.
This problem of the selection and arrangement of past events has drawn the following comment from Rhys Davies, a historian who concentrates, especially, on Welsh history.

‘Hindsight is the besetting sin of the historian. Nowhere is it, perhaps, more pernicious in its impact than when discussing a war or revolt. Chaos is turned into order at the stroke of the historian’s pen; isolated and unrelated episodes are arranged into neat causal patterns; lines of development and crucial turning points are perceived with a clarity and confidence denied to contemporaries.’

(Rhys Davies, ‘Owain Glyn Dwr’ Oxford O.U.P. 1995 p265)
Thus historians acutely aware of this problem may attempt to create a view of the past that shows variety, local circumstance, accident, the shaping of events by chance circumstance rather than pre-determined by deep underlying factors. The relations between Scotland and England (for example) just prior to the age of William Wallace and Robert Bruce, were both close and friendly. The accidental deaths of Alexander III and his grand-daughter Margaret, opened up a situation in which different Scottish nobles competed and Edward I not only could interfere, but was invited to do so by Scots leaders. So, given such events, can we really see anything inevitable about the Anglo-Scottish Wars? Consider, too, other possible differences that might have resulted from a different version of events. What if Bruce had not killed Comyn? The historian Fiona Watson points up another possibility, ie:

‘If Edward I had lived longer it is highly unlikely that the country could have survived both an English attack and a bitter civil war … Supporting Robert Bruce was by no means the obvious ‘right’ choice for good Scotsmen and women.’

(F Watson, ‘The Enigmatic Lion’ in ‘Image & Identity’ ed D Brown, R J Finlay & M Lynch, Edinburgh, John Donald. 1998 pp31-2)
Such arguments suggest the past is shaped by confusing events that could easily shift one way or another.
From your previous studies can you recall examples of events that could easily have turned out differently had a particular event not happened?
Do you think these specific circumstances really matter? Might Karl Marx’s views not have much to be said for them?

However …

Whilst some historians clearly state that they hold a particular view of the nature of history and that it has shaped their work, many prefer not to so commit themselves and do not see themselves as holding a distinctive view.


In recent years the articles, books and lectures that historians produce have come under a sharp attack from people who argue

‘The past and history float free of each other, they are ages and miles apart. For the same object of enquiry can be read differently.’

(Keith Jenkins, ‘Re-Thinking History’ London 1991 p5)
The author of the above quote belongs to a group who call themselves ‘post modernists’. The modern age – the past three or four centuries – has been marked by a belief in man’s ability to progress, to use reason to understand and master the world in order to create a better existence. Post-modernists argue that this is a mistaken view. They criticise many aspects of human life, but in terms of history, they argue that works of history may tell us much about the historians who write them but they cannot establish any objective truth about the past for:

  • the past is over

  • sources of evidence from the past survive in a random way

  • these sources of evidence can be interpreted differently by different historians

  • most of these sources are written and are full of distortions

  • our ideas are shaped by the language we use

  • historians write in language reflecting their times

  • no one historian can cover the totality of the past, selections have to be made

  • history is therefore simply the personally – constructed account provided by the historian

  • the historian’s views on what to select and emphasise are shaped by his personality, is circumstances, the times he lives in, etc.

  • because we know what has happened since the past time we are studying, we can never really see the past in its own terms, instead we impose our own meanings on the past and construct narratives that are really little more than stories we have created.

Historians have reacted strongly against this attack and its claim that objective historical truth cannot be established. They argue

  • post-modernists are merely offering one theory; there are plenty of other theories

  • Post-modernists use the very system of rational argument that they criticise as an effective way of establishing truth

  • professional historians are well aware of the nature of historical sources and handle them appropriately; post-modernist critics are not historians

  • there are abundant examples of historical truths eg the Holocaust and our horrified reaction to it

  • out of open-minded debate, as historians critically evaluate one another’s work, comes a process of refining and deepening our understanding of the past.

The following extracts come from the works of historians defending their profession:

Richard Evans says of the past he studies:

‘It really happened, and we really can, if we are very scrupulous and careful and self-critical, find out how it happened and reach some tenable, though always less than final, conclusions about what it all means.’

(‘In Defence of History’ London 1997 p253)

John Tosh writes,

‘The nature of historical enquiry is such that, however rigorously professional the approach, there will always be a plurality of interpretation. This should be counted as a strength rather than a weakness. For advances in historical knowledge arise as much from the play of debate between rival interpretations as from the efforts of the individual scholar. … If history was uncontested it would fail to provide the materials for critical debate on the social issues of the day. … The past will never be placed beyond controversy, nor should it be.’

(‘The Pursuit of History’ Harlow 1984 p133)

How persuasive do you find the post-modernist’s arguments?


The issue of historiography runs through the Advanced Higher History Course. An understanding of historiography will be very helpful in the Higher course. It is therefore sensible to think about its implications from the start of your studies.

  • When reading any book or article by an historian:

  • note the historian’s name;

  • note the date of final publication;

  • look for information about the historian;

  • read the introduction about the historian;

  • read the introduction and conclusion of any book very carefully. It is here that you may find a convenient summary of the author’s views and, quite often, the author’s survey of the views of other historians who have already worked on this topic;

  • read chapters for similar points as well as for information about the historical period being covered.

When writing essays:

  • Consider if you can briefly refer to the differing views of historians in the text you are writing. E.g. in response to the question ‘Discuss the view that the Labour Government’s welfare policies 1945-50 were a wasteful use of scarce resources’.

  1. make specific reference to Corelli Barnett’s support for this

  2. add a summary of his reasons for this argument

  3. refer to one or more historians who do not agree with the view (eg Martin Pugh, Kenneth Morgan)

  4. if possible, suggest (perhaps in your conclusion) where the weight of historical opinion lies. (In this case it tends to be hostile to the view in the title).

  5. In your conclusion offer, if possible, a view on why historians might differ about this issue.

  • Refer to an historian(s) in an essay that may not be as obviously a focus for argument as the above example. (You do not have to assume that in every essay title, an argument between historians lies buried).

  • Consider if it might be possible to write a short section (or sections) on historians’ views that shows your appreciation of on-going research. Eg in response to the essay title ‘Do developments in eighteenth century farming in the Scottish Lowlands deserve to be regarded as a revolution?’

  • It would be possible to include a section in which there are appropriate references such as

    It was once common to see agricultural change in the Scottish lowlands as involving so many rapid and major developments in a short space of time as to deserve to be seen as revolutionary. This view can be seen in the work of - ,

    However research in recent years has greatly modified this view. – and – have challenged the extent and the speed of change. – has shown the existence of significant changes before the eighteenth century …’ etc.

When evaluating sources (i.e. those sources which are derived from historians’ works):

  • look carefully at the provenance of the source ie the author, the date, the title of the work

  • consider if you have knowledge of the historian who is being quoted, of his views, the reasons for them and how acceptable other historians find them

  • analyse the source carefully to see what is being argued, what view is implied or openly stated.

  • respond to questions, where it is appropriate, by clearly describing / evaluating / comparing the historian’s views in the light of the evidence in the source and in the light of your wider knowledge of the historian (if available) and the views of others.

When engaging in historical research:

  • Set out to study the works of several historians, carefully noting the names and details about each and the titles and dates of their publications.

  • Clearly note the particular views of each historian on the various sub-sections of your chosen issue and their reasons for holding these views.

  • Discuss these views at appropriate points in your planned dissertation / extended essay.

  • Draft your report (as evidence for Outcome 1 ‘Research a dissertation on a chosen issue’) commenting on the value of historians’ works in terms of;

  1. when their work was done;

  2. the depth and detail of evidence used;

  3. the clarity and persuasiveness of the argument offered;

  4. how an historian’s views compares with others’ views.

  • Draft your plan (for Outcome 2 ‘Plan and prepare a dissertation on an historical issue’) to indicate where you can make specific critical reference to historians’ views.

  • Develop a file of notes that will be helpful in your discussion with your lecturer / teacher; these notes should support your ability to show that you have studied the works of several historians, understand their views, can compare these views and the reasons for them and can make judgement about them.

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