Monday, March 2, 2015

Where Does History Come From?

by Derek Birks

Now at first sight, this might seem an odd question because surely history is history - it doesn’t come from anywhere, it’s just there, isn’t it? Well, that rather depends on what you mean by history.

History for most people is not written in a book. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people read history books - but most people don’t. For them, history is drawn with broad brushstrokes or displayed in neon lights - and it comes with big pictures which tell a story and excite the imagination. They get it from all sorts of places: the internet, newspapers, radio, films and TV or friends down the pub. I don’t need to read a book to know that gerbils caused the Black Death because I heard it on the radio.

The origin of the word history is the Greek word historia which appears to mean either inquiry, or narrative or story. I’m happy with any of those because nowhere in there does it mention facts. History is not about facts. It is not about what happened it’s about what is perceived to have happened - in other words history is what we think happened.

The period I write about is the fifteenth century which I have studied over decades and in some depth. I have spent many hours visiting the primary sources for the period and I have read many of the secondary works written about the period. Why is it then that when I watch television
programmes and read what people have to say about aspects of this period I am frequently surprised?

I begin to ask myself: where does this ‘history’ come from - or as Blackadder might have put it: ‘how did the war start’?

The origin of all history must surely be the surviving primary sources for the period. Now, the key word here is ‘surviving’. I remember a lecture given by the eminent Tudor historian, Christopher Haigh, where he presented two versions of a particular event, describing one as the ‘Daily Mail’ version and the other as the ‘Guardian’ version. Needless to say, the two accounts differed not only in emphasis and tone but also in what was described as fact. Both versions omitted some elements and included others. My rather laboured point is that to interpret the primary sources we have to know whether we are examining a fragment of the ‘Mail’ or the ‘Guardian’.

Primary sources cannot be taken at face value. In the fifteenth century, as now, people lied, people were biased and people wrote propaganda. They wrote from their perspective, they wrote with certain core beliefs, they wrote in distress, anger, disgust or joy, they wrote in ignorance, they wrote in fear and they wrote to persuade others. In short, people writing in the fifteenth century were not always reliable and almost never well-informed by our standards - and, don’t forget, we have only the surviving fragments of what they wrote.

None of what I have said should be at all surprising to the student of history - I hesitate to use the word ‘historian’ because it implies an authority that can sometimes be a little misleading. It will come as no surprise to the student of history that evidence, vital though it is, sucks. So, what some folk read in ‘history’ books comes from the filtered down, rinsed out, partially shredded primary sources.

Still, the good news is that it doesn’t matter anyway because most people don’t read history books. That’s not where their ‘history’ comes from. There are other much more persuasive influences on our views than history books. In a recent post I highlighted the fact that writers of historical fiction must fill in the gaps where the evidence is thin or non-existent. Not surprisingly, they tend to fill in the gaps with something interesting which readers will like.

No, really?

Yep! Want an example? OK, Richard III...

Shakespeare wrote a ‘tragical history play’ about Richard III and Hollywood made films of it too. It has had more impact on the general public’s impression of what Richard III was like and what he did than any other work since. It was not a work of history, it did not claim for itself any kind of truth but its impact has been vast. By the way, will people please stop “blaming” Shakespeare for blackening Richard’s name. He was writing a play! It was no more the truth than Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen is. It is not Shakespeare’s fault that we all remember it but a testament to his craft in creating a character that fascinates us. Indeed without Shakespeare I dare say that fewer folk in this century would have heard of Richard III at all. And hold on to that thought: the character, not the history, fascinates us.

Want another example? The Wars of the Roses... The term the Wars of the Roses is a universal term to describe the conflict between rival branches of the royal family in the fifteenth century.

Roses were sometimes used as badges in this period but they were less important than many other emblems used by the two houses of York and Lancaster : the falcon and fetterlock, the white hart, the boar, the swan, the sun, etc. So, how did the roses idea take root... as it were? Shakespeare again: Henry VI Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4 where rivals pluck red and white roses in Temple Garden in London. The nineteenth century novelist Sir Walter Scott also used the phrase in a novel and from then on it became commonplace to use it as a convenient handle to describe this long and complex conflict. An unfortunate by product of its use was to imply that the wars had something to do with roses which of course they did not! Someone once told me that they knew the roses idea was a “load of rubbish” but the wars were still between Yorkshire and Lancashire, weren’t they?

Broad brush strokes...

The image of the roses has also been depicted by artists many times which has helped to keep the image alive and it is still used on book covers today [including Conn Iggulden’s and my own!] Recent attempts by some, such as Philippa Gregory, to suggest an alternative handle for the wars:

the Cousins’ War, are flawed since the damage is already done and in fact the alternative term is no more helpful since many wars in this period were between relatives and the term ‘cousin’ had a more general meaning than it does today. The new term also fails because it does not excite our imagination - she should have gone for something like ‘The Pollaxe Evisceration Wars’...

If that catches on, you saw it here first!

History is bred up in the public psyche and is not the sole preserve of students of history. The two examples I have given are obvious, sweeping examples, but beneath these lie many, many other commonly accepted ideas, some based on questionable primary evidence, some based on a fragment of such evidence and others based on no actual evidence at all. Such fundamental ideas, however tenuously arrived at and such powerful images, are extremely difficult to shift from the public reservoir of what is ‘known’.

Historical fiction is a powerful means of disseminating such ideas and images because it tries to fill in the gaps in an entertaining way - as Shakespeare and Walter Scott did. Modern writers of historical fiction, however much we have read and however much we have studied, are writing stories. These days, historical fiction books become films and TV programmes and they have a global audience. For many people this is their main source of history. This is where their ‘history’ comes from.

We should not kid ourselves about this because, for all our vast access to information, we are very easily persuaded. We get swept up by ideas more so now than ever before and, if there is an image attached, then there is an even greater chance of it being tweeted, emailed, facebooked, pinned, etc, etc.

In the earlier days of television news, I recall asking an editor how he decided what was included in his TV news broadcast. He replied very simply: for us, if there are no pictures, there’s no news. Now an idea with an image can go viral and fly around the world in minutes, it can gather pace and power until it burns itself out in the ether and is replaced by another even more persuasive entity. At no point does it need to have any basis in fact for people to believe it. It just has to capture their imagination.

Imagination is the vehicle through which history is shaped, promoted and absorbed. We form impressions from all these influences and that is where our history comes from.

History is not what happened in the past, it is what people think happened in the past - which is why we argue about it so much!


Derek taught history for many years before embarking on a career as a writer of historical fiction. Two years ago he published Feud, the first of a four-book series called Rebels & Brothers which is set during the Wars of the Roses. Last year came book two, A Traitor’s Fate.

The third part of the series, Kingdom of Rebels is now available.

More information about Rebels & Brothers can be found on Derek’s website: or on his Facebook page.


  1. Good post, Derek, except that I would question your interpretation of Shakespeare's primary motivation for the content of his plays, the 'history' ones in particular. I'd suggest that they tell us a lot more about who they were written FOR than who they were written ABOUT (and I don't mean to entertain the general audience.) They were written for the victors and were a mix of political propaganda and expediency - he had to eat after all, and they would have been much less likely to be performed if he'd said the wrong thing. Royal patronage was vital to the survival of his theatre company - and if R III was 'good' then Henry VII was 'bad' - not the best message to present to his son. It's useful to look at them as examples of the political correctness of his day. (And one of these days I'd love to rehabilitate Lady Macbeth - courtesy of Shakespeare she has been maligned not just in Britain, but all over the developed world.)

  2. The old adage - 'history is written by the victors' is as true today as it was from the dawn of time. Nice post.

  3. Partly agree, Margaret, but he was not writing to inform, more to please. The character mjght have been drawn to please Elizabeth, but his Richard II hardly followed the Tudor line exactly. The impact of the character of Richard III over centuries is really the point I'm making.

  4. A really good thought-provoking post, Derek. You're absolutely right, of course, as we discover when our research takes us to conflicting views of the 'facts'. Nevertheless, historical fiction does teach history to those who read it (or view it if on the TV etc.) who would not otherwise know anything about the subject at all. It also brings history alive. History is relevant to who we are as a nation (any nation), explaining how we came to be where we are now. It is also about people, not about dry laws, or battles which seem to have no impact today, which, sadly, is what my history classes consisted of at school. And is that not why we write our fiction, so that people generally may experience what it was like in the past, and even learn something? Power to the pen of history writers!

    1. That's certainly my take on it, Evelyn. The more you talk to people, the more you understand that 'their' history begins with what fires their imagination.

  5. Great post and good comments, All! I'd like to add that too often historians (academics?) feel compelled to stick to the "facts and nothing but the facts" -- which means that in the absence of evidence they don't think at all! This can lead to ridiculous conclusions -- as Josephine Tey pointed out in the "Daughter of Time." (Paraphrased, conventional historians argued that although Elizabeth Woodville knew Richard III had murdered her sons, her desire to go dancing at court again convinced her to turn her daughters over to the care of her sons' murderer. Huh????) I have read some the most ridiculous nonsense that completely regards human nature in "history" books. Good historical novelists, those who really do their research and also use their understanding of human nature to try to explain history, can go where no historian dares to tread. A good historical novel that does not violate known facts but adds an understanding of human nature to provide explanations of those facts can be far more effective in our understanding of history than a book that shies away from using imagination in the service of explanation.


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