Further on “On Revisionism”

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 11:41 am, 7 April 2008]

More thoughts relating to my last post on Glenn Burgess on revisionism. I was making what might look like esoteric theoretical points there, and it might not always be immediately obvious how that applies to the existing historiography in practice. Anti-theory polemic often constructs a false dichotomy between all points of view being equally valid on the one hand and only one objective truth being valid on the other. I think things are more complicated than that. Although I reject objectivity I do think that there are many interpretations of history which are invalid for various reasons, including being internally inconsistent, not being very well supported by their own evidence, or even contradicting the laws of physics. But once we’ve dismissed all these interpretations as being impossible, we could potentially be left with many interpretations which are possible. This is where we get the theoretical issues that I wrote about before. It might not be possible, or even necessary, to choose between all these possible interpretations and choose a single correct one.

Applying this to English/British Civil War/Revolution historiography can illustrate the point, but it’s not necessarily obvious because other, more obvious, factors get in the way. For a start, many histories of this period (particularly, but not only, from Whigs and Marxists) have fallen at the first fence because they are internally inconsistent and/or not well supported by their own evidence (these are arguably the same thing, because poor evidence is an inconsistency for any empirical work but possibly irrelevant to non-empirical work). More have fallen at the second fence because other historians have produced evidence which contradicts them. Most, if not all, of the histories written from Gardiner onwards have shared certain basic empirical assumptions, so it’s perhaps surprising that these works have often not lived up to empirical standards of proof. Pointing that out should be alarming, but it might also be misleadingly comforting. Surely if everyone genuinely adhered to proper empirical standards we’d be able to find the one true story, wouldn’t we? I don’t think so. The fact that in practice so many historians have tried to argue for interpretations which are impossible doesn’t do anything to diminish the theoretical possibilities for an abundance of interpretations which can’t be dismissed as wrong but which can’t be chosen between. In practice we’re only just starting to see this.

Following Glenn Burgess’s example, I’ll take two different works and compare them: John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt and John Walter’s Understanding Popular Violence. Both books are meticulously researched to the highest standards (or at least higher than most other books I’ve seen). Their descriptions of what happened would be difficult to challenge on empirical grounds. Both relate to the causes and outbreak of the First Civil War but each has a very narrow focus rather than offering an overarching model which claims to explain everything. It is perhaps this focus that allows the authors to be so meticulous, and therefore avoid falling at the early empirical fences. This is not to say that they are less ambitious than Lawrence Stone or David Underdown (examples of historians who did attempt overarching explanatory models), just that their ambitions might be pointing in a different direction. Neither Adamson nor Walter explicitly claims to be telling the whole story. They have omitted many things and made arbitrary decisions about what to include, as any historian must when writing any history, but they have not attempted to close down other possibilities outside their chosen scope. This is not to say that they think anything goes. Within their chosen scope, both have demolished previous interpretations which now look impossible or at least highly improbable. The most important thing is that these books do not contradict each other much, if at all. It would be quite easy to see them as dealing with different parts of the same thing. Therefore we have two interpretations which differ because their focus and end points differ, but which are not mutually exclusive. However, I suspect that it would be difficult to synthesize both works into a single overarching thesis in the style of Lawrence Stone. They’re just different. Taken together they suggest that the civil war might be too big and complicated to ever be distilled into a single work. I think that this will become increasingly obvious in the future as we see more books like these.

  1. John Adamson, The Noble Revolt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007).
  2. Glenn Burgess, ‘On revisionism: an analysis of early Stuart historiography in the 1970s and 1980s’, Historical Journal, 33 (1990), pp. 609-27.
  3. John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1999).

Glenn Burgess On Revisionism

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:59 am, 4 April 2008]

‘On Revisionism’ is an important article from 1990 (you can download it free from Historical Journal) in which Glenn Burgess sets out a fair appraisal of what revisionism is (or was) and defends it from some unfair criticisms, then makes some more sophisticated criticisms. It’s possibly unfair to beat Burgess with a stick that hadn’t been published at the time he was writing and which was (and perhaps still is) considered extremely radical, but I’d like to compare this article with the work of Keith Jenkins, and some of the theorists who inform his work, because there are some surprising similarities. Ultimately Burgess and Jenkins draw different conclusions, but they are tackling some of the same problems and at times use similar arguments. For the purposes of this post I’m not going to question empirical epistemological foundations at all, but if we accept that the past really happened, and that we can know facts about what really happened, there are still many practical and theoretical problems concerning what to do with those facts.