"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

History's People

Personalities and the Past
Margaret MacMillan
Profile Books
History's People


From the Introduction

History, i sometimes think, is like a rambling, messy and eccentric house. It has been built, added to and renovated repeatedly over the centuries. Its foundations are buried in that conveniently vague place "the mists of time" but some of the spade work was surely done in the Near East by the anonymous author or authors of the Epic of Gilgamesh, in Europe's classical world by Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus and Livy, or in China by Sima Qian, the great historian of the Han dynasty, while Homer, Virgil, or the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta have added their decorative flourishes. Monkish scribes, Chinese scholars, Arab chroniclers, all painstak­ingly have placed their bricks and stones. The Renaissance produced some elaborate rooms devoted to understand­ing princes and popes while the Reformation and Counter-Reformation created some sober undecorated spaces with strongly moral tales. In the nineteenth century the inhab­itants added orderly libraries and well-organized files while the twentieth century brought tiled laboratories where the past could be dissected and analysed. There is one wing, the post modernist one, where there appears to be no order at all and no clear style; every room, say those who live there, is as valuable or as meaningful as any other.

It is impossible to discern a single use or a dominant style in history's house. Nor can anyone tell where it begins or ends for it is eternally under construction, and there is always a new corridor to discover or neglected rooms which might be worth cleaning up and letting in the light. Strange noises come from the basement or the attics. Some rooms are like those in Blue Beard's Castle striking dread into anyone who draws near the door much less opens it. Other rooms still open to gardens where it looks like a new spring is coming.

Historians, if I can continue the metaphor just a little bit more, are the house's caretakers. Some of us, like the mediaeval chroniclers, believe in visiting one room after another in the order in which they were built while others prefer to settle on a particular part of the house and get to know it in the round. One group of caretakers thinks it is important to focus on what they deem to be the house's most powerful and influential inhabitants. Yet another insists that we cannot understand the house without gathering as much information as we can on the millions whose toil ensured its construction and upkeep as well as the food and clothing for its inhabitants. Each age brings its own preoccupations which produce an ever-shifting perspective on the past and so we ask different questions when we interrogate the past. Not surprisingly, environmental history or the history of economic booms and busts are increasingly popular subjects today.

Differences among historians sometimes spill over into civil wars which can make us forget that we are all engaged in the same endeavour to unearth and analyse the past. Yet history needs us all, from the material to the intellectual historians. The products of agriculture or of manufacturing can tell as much about past societies as the ideas which animated them. Cultural and social historians help us to understand the values, assumptions and social organization of long gone peoples while political or economic historians bring out the forces that shape societies or have brought change. We also need to compare, to study other histories than the ones we know best. And we should use the insights of other disciplines. Archaeology comes to mind at once but anthropology, sociology, biology, all can and have enriched history.

So does biography although the relationship between historians and biographers is often an uneasy one, marked by mutual suspicions. Historians complain that biographers do not properly understand or short change the context while biographers feel that historians miss out the individuals who help to make history. That tension in turn feeds into the long-standing debate in history over whether events are moved by individuals or the great objective forces such as economic and social changes or technological and scientific advances.

My own view is that there is no right or wrong answer. Individuals are enmeshed in their times. We are all products of our own histories but those in turn are themselves shaped by class, place, ideas, values, institutions and the wider history unfolding around us. Yet, having said that, we have to face the possibility that sometimes a single individual can alter the course of events. If Napoleon had never existed, was there anyone else in France at the time with his combination of talents, intelligence and ruthlessness who could have seized power and taken France to the dominance of Europe? Without Karl Marx to sum up socialist thinking and create of it a powerful and persuasive theory would so much of the twentieth century have been shaped by that particular ideology? Marx himself was aware of the need to find a balance between individuals and their times. As he wrote in 1852: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."

For all of us, and not just historians, there is something exhilarating in becoming aware of other human beings from very different worlds to our own. They will never know us but we can think about them and an individual life can be a way into another time. From villains to saints, with all the great variety humanity is capable of in-between, we can wonder why the figures of the past behaved as they did and what that meant. "The poetry of history", the great British historian G. M. Trevelyan wrote, 'lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow.'