Story teller versus history man

The Historical Imagination in Early Modern Britain
August 6, 1999

The debate about the fictionality of history that exercised historians in the early 1990s has run its course. Although many historians have now accepted that the events and structures of the past are, at the theoretical level, indistinguishable from the historical discourses that construct them, history has not dissolved into literature, and disciplinary frontiers, though unfortified, remain. One beneficial consequence of this debate is that historians and literary critics are now taking a renewed interest in the historical practice of previous eras, particularly in the kind that came before the dissociation, in the 19th-century age of scientific history, of the historical from the literary sensibility.

In this book, a distinguished group of scholars provides a broad range of perspectives on the question of the relationship of history to literature in a period when both were part of the same field of studia humanitatis . In a brief but underpowered introduction, the editors contend that modern historians have much to learn from the early modern sense of affinity between literature and history. Not that early modern historians were good postmodernists ahead of their time. Relations between their discipline and literature were strained, but in ways that differ from the present: modern theorists disagree about the ability of historical texts to mediate a given reality, early modern theorists about the status of the kinds of reality that history mediates.

For Sir Philip Sidney, a theorist who provides many of the contributors with their best quotations, history, being an act of memory, mediates only the "particular truth of things", not "the general reason of things", whereas poetry, being actuated by the faculty of imagination, is "more doctrinable". For other theorists, such as Degory Wheare, the first Camden professor of history at Oxford (discussed by J. H. M. Salmon in the opening essay), history was the more doctrinable discipline because it was a form of rhetorical persuasion based on true examples. But herein lay the central paradox of the art of history, because the truth of the examples and the exemplariness of the truth depended upon the persuasiveness of the rhetoric. The circularity of this concept of historical truth is explored by Patrick Collinson in a fine essay on John Foxe's Acts and Monuments , a work, simultaneously, of documentary integrity and immense story-telling power.

Changing attitudes towards truth criteria in early modern history are explored in several essays. Using the example of Holinshed's Chronicles , Annabel Patterson reappraises the anecdote as a form, that in its resistance to generalising, narrativised kinds of history, anticipates the cultural sampling of the modern-day new historicists. J. Paul Hunter discusses a pamphlet from the 1690s, recounting the mental torment of a dying religious apostate, in order to map the boundaries of history and fiction in the period immediately before novels: public uncertainty about the pamphlet's authenticity enhanced its sales, particularly among Puritans, the religious group most committed to the literal truth of the Bible.

Joseph M. Levine approaches similar questions from a different angle by examining the disengagement of history from philosophical truth in the contrasting realist and idealist halves of More's Utopia . This, in turn, may be contrasted with two innovative essays, by David Wootton and Fritz Levy, which undertake synthetic readings of Hobbes's historical writings and Leviathan as an analysis of conflict and conflict resolution. Other essays explore the wider transformations in historical culture taking place, including the infusion of new subject matter into history, such as the private and inward dimensions of life.

The increased social circulation of historical knowledge, from the early modern period, would, by the 19th century, necessitate the professional separation of history from story. At the end of this period, the conflict of history with literature was still a boundary dispute rather than a problem within the discipline itself, but as the editors of this valuable collection point out, once defeated, literature would inevitably return for its postmodern revenge.

Karen O'Brien is reader in English and American literature, University of Warwick.

The Historical Imagination in Early Modern Britain: History, Rhetoric, and Fiction, 1500-1800

Editor - David Harris Sacks and Donald R. Kelley
ISBN - 0 521 59069 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 374

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