Ranting on histories

March 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

I got carried away writing over on The True Somethings early this evening, so I thought I’d repeat it here. So, dear Parliamentarians, knowing what you now know about the lead-up to and early part of the first civil war, I’m curious to know to what extent you feel comfortable supplying possible answers to the big questions. What were the causes of the first civil war? What were the impassioned sorts of Parliamentarians, a la Pym, fighting for? The royalist party? To what extent *did* the royalist party have a platform? Did the platforms of both parties shift over time? To what extent can religion and politics be separated as motivations? The conventional wisdom is that they can’t, but what do you think? Would love to read your thinking about these questions…

Here’s the ranting part. Maybe I’m cranky because I’ve read too many general histories of the 1640s lately, but part of me winces at my suggestion that there are any satisfactory answers out there to be had. First because, as we know by now, even the most distinguished present-day historians of the civil wars are hesitant to make firm or tidy claims about what either side was fighting for or to what extent (and how) geography played a part in allegiances. The tidy part of me is dismayed that the historians who’ve written all those books I’ve been reading lately have reached no consensus about which developments were of real significance and which weren’t. Only fairly recently have the Prayer Book-throwing Scots assumed primacy, for instance. The significance of the wild new productivity of the public press, though, seems incontrovertible, though.

Second, because the ordinary study of history is so utterly mediated by historians whose views are, above all, really responses to other historians’ views. (I’m talking about historians whose work rests very little on the independent investigation of primary sources.) I get that feeling from the Worden book particularly. Do you? He’s so very careful not to put a step wrong. It’s not that I believe that knowledge is ever pure or unmediated. Or that Worden’s book isn’t as trustworthy as it can be.

I guess what really scares me about conventional history writing is the impossibility of its not being fiction. I don’t feel that way about the (mostly uninteresting, to me, anyway) local histories that draw on primary sources like parish records. Oddly, I find Purkiss’s more old-fashioned story-telling approach more honest and real–because more upfront about its constructedness–than the more conventional academic histories I’ve been reading. I guess her method argues that the only historical claims we can be relatively certain of are what individual people say and do. She says somewhere that there was no single civil war–that there were as many civil wars as people who lived through them. I like that.

I wonder if the events of the 1640s resist explanation more stubbornly than, say, the American civil wars? You can’t walk around VA without tripping over a civil war marker, but from what I gather, there are very few civil war markers in England, no civil war battlegrounds preserved as hallowed ground. (There are plenty of English civil war reenactors, though…) I can think of a handful of reasons you don’t signs that point out the locations of battles, but to what extent might the erasure of the English civil wars from the physical landscape be a result of there being no easy way to summarize, neatly, in 10 lines or less, what happened and why? Can you do that with the Battle of Edgehill? Extra cookie tomorrow night to anyone who can…

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