Voices of recent past stifle other speakers

Historians on History
September 13, 2002

This book, which is designed for undergraduates, is one of many titles published to provide texts for the courses on historiography and historical method that have proliferated in recent years. John Tosh sensibly offers a large number of short extracts rather than a small number of long pieces, thus providing a useful range. But, as in any work of this type, there are problems with selection. Tosh confines this largely to the English-speaking world, although he helpfully defines this to include Ghana and India as well as the UK and the US.

The coverage of the Continent is poor. Tosh's explanation - "A small number of French and German historians are included, whose work in translation has become a familiar and influential part of historical debate in the English-speaking world" - is troubling. First, it suggests that the book would be better titled: "Some Historians on History as Considered in the English-Speaking World". Second, the understanding of what has influenced this world is somewhat limited. In the introduction, Tosh mentions Leopold von Ranke, discusses Karl Marx and quotes Pieter Geyl, but none of these is sufficiently important to feature among the texts. Nor are any of the influential Italian thinkers and historians. Third, the range of history discussed is not as wide as it could be. Allowing for problems of space and selection, it is clear that a grand and varied tradition is being considered, but insufficient weight is being devoted to important strands: local history, historical geography and cultural history get too little attention.

Given these limitations, it is still useful to have the texts selected made readily available, and Tosh offers brief section introductions, which, in conjunction with the text, should encourage students to reflect. In one he writes: "Catherine Hall demonstrates some of the broader implications of the history of ethnicity for a country like Britain where historians have long ignored this dimension. Post-colonial scholarship means not only recovering the past of colonised peoples, but recognising that neither metropole nor periphery has meaning apart from the other."

The book's discussion of gender and race is a welcome sign of engagement with current debates, but such engagment is inconsistent. The book cites the "recent dead", possibly reflecting historiographical debates of the editor's youth rather than a consideration of current - or of more distant - controversies. The collection includes little from the 19th century, but it does have texts from J. K. Galbraith, Geoffrey Elton, Richard Cobb, E. H. Carr, Marc Bloch, Raphael Samuel, Herbert Butterfield, Fernand Braudel and Lawrence Stone - all important scholars, but their offerings are no more pertinent than those by more recent or earlier historians.

Tosh does, however, include "two eloquent reminders that the debates of historians concern not only the profession but the wider society of which they are members". In this section, we have Hugh Trevor-Roper and Gerda Lerner, both good choices. In a future anthology, Tosh might also like to consider historical fiction, as well as debates about the content and role of film and television history. As Lerner writes: "the beneficial aspects of education by televisionI all feed the public's hunger for a meaningful understanding of the past".

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

Historians on History

Editor - John Tosh
ISBN - 0 582 357 950
Publisher - Longman
Price - £16.99
Pages - 360

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