Imagining the Past

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What role does imagination play for the historian?

At first glance this seems like an absurd question. After all, isn’t it the job of a historian to simply tell us what actually happened? What room for imagination can there possibly be in that?

Well, for better or worse, it’s not quite so simple. Historians, as they are quick to point out, are hardly detached automatons reconstructing an objective historical record from an established set of criteria, but are instead just as human and fixed in their time as the people they study. Which means that being truly imaginative is nothing less than an essential trait of the good historian.

In the first place, the rules of the game are hardly set in stone. While under ideal circumstances we would like to have a wealth of corroborating documentation of past events to sift through, contrasting and comparing viewpoints until some sense of objective order emerges, most of the time that simply doesn’t exist, and we are instead compelled to examine key historical records that are clearly written from only one perspective, forced to rely on our sense of imagination to appreciate what the “other side” might have been thinking and doing.

But that’s only the tip of the imaginative iceberg. The truly perceptive historian might well consider a whole class of events altogether: those that never happened at all.

sherlock holmesSir John Elliott, the eminent Spanish historian, describes how he sometimes takes a page from Sherlock Holmes’ famous approach of focusing on the dog who doesn’t bark in the night.

“I worked on the revolt of the Catalans, where the society blew up. But the next-door neighbour, Valencia, didn’t revolt. And I suggested to one of my graduate students in Cambridge, ‘Why don’t you take the dog that doesn’t bark in the night, Valencia, and see if you can find reasons why there wasn’t a revolt in 1640- 41 by the Valencians?’

“That proved to be a very promising theme. In spite of the difficulty of studying non-revolutions, he began to find things about how the society was connected internally, how it was connected with the government in Madrid. And he started to work out answers as to why the Valencians remained pacific when their next-door neighbours blew up in revolt.”

Of course, studying what didn’t happen, is hardly for the faint of heart.

“The trouble with non-events”, John wryly admits, “is that they’re less well documented on the whole.”

But to the truly dedicated historian, that is hardly a reason for not investigating them – merely an incentive to roll up one’s imaginative sleeves and dive in.

And then there’s the personal factor.

Historians are naturally right to be concerned that their personal biases – cultural, intellectual, geographical, temporal – might interfere with their development of an accurate and objective account of past events. Historians must be ever vigilant in their efforts to comprehend the actions of historical figures in terms of their own motivations, rather than how we would look at the situation from our very different vantage point in both time and space.

But personal experiences, twinned with the deliberate harnessing of our powers of imagination, can sometimes be precisely what is needed to enrich our understanding and give us unique insights into an entirely different world.

“I remember once losing the way in Barcelona and asking a traffic policeman for directions,” John reflected. “I asked in Catalan without thinking, and he immediately said, ‘Speak the language of the Empire’ in Castillian. It so happens that I had been reading a pamphlet of the 1630s the week before, which said, ‘These people don’t speak the language of the Empire!

“At that moment, I felt that more than three centuries had just not happened at all, absolutely telescoped. And that brought home to me the interaction of past and present, which, I think, is a constant. Every historian should be aware of this. The supreme quality that a historian needs is curiosity: you’ve got to be curious about people and other societies if you’re really to make sense of a very incoherent past – and all the past is incoherent. Historians are simply trying to impose some sort of order, which inevitably is their own order, on a random series of events.”

To a historian, then, imagination is something like rocket fuel to an astronaut. It’s not the sort of thing that should be used for every daily task you’re faced with. But it’s awfully hard to get where you want to go without it.

Howard Burton,


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