Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Shouting at Books

I read a lot of books. Always have at least one on the go. Of these, a lot are history books, usually to do with whatever wargaming project I'm working on.

I also read books to do with my role in the Northamptonshire Battlefields Society. I am painfully aware that my knowledge of medieval history is weak, as it was not my favourite part of the syllabus when I was at Uni. Sorry, Professor Luscombe, if you are still with us, I just did not enjoy it. Probably something to do with the Latin. One of the problems I have now is that because we have a couple of "Wars of the Roses"* battlefields in our county I end up reading a fair bit of history for that period. And I have to say, the period attracts a lot of fanatics with an axe to grind (and I know one when I see one, - I spent a lot of my degree on the English Civil War). Most notable are the Ricardians. Firstly, it is important to point out that the Richard III Society has been responsible for creating the environment leading to some of the best scholarship on the period. The Ricardian journal is a repository of top quality historical research. After that it has to be said that the Cult of the Crouchback has produced some very annoying books coupled with lopsided thinking and the worst aspects of a form of hero worship.

I'm not averse to a bit of revisionism in my history**. Just because everyone thinks something happened a certain way doesn't mean that it did, - revisiting a subject and re-researching it with fresh eyes is valuable, even if you come to the same conclusions. Of course, secretly, every historical writer wants to find something some else hasn't found before.

However, I would say that if you are intending to shift the goal posts, then you need to be thorough and you need to document your argument carefully. This can create problems in several areas. One of the big problems we have in the medieval period is that the voice of women is very rarely heard. They are key parts of a household, - and many Queens and noble women have wielded enormous power and influence (Margaret of Anjou and Margaret Beaufort are just two women called Margaret who spring to mind). Alas we have little documentation about what they did, said or thought. That makes them marvellous material for speculation. The same can be said of anyone who isn't a seriously important noble as well. Add on top of that you have a society which still relies heavily on the spoken word and memory and important things, especially things meant to be secret, aren't always written down.

All of this is background to explain a type of "history" which is essentially just a whole load of speculation piled on top of more speculation and seeing everything in a particular light, ignoring the obvious and imputing motives we can't possibly know. In what I'd describe as a proper history book the writer should make clear where his facts come from through footnotes and referencing so you can go and check them. I made this point back in July in my post about the work I did on Major General Boteler. By following the references I was able to track down an error in the story about him that changed the complexion of it all quite a bit. In speculation history it doesn't matter, - you just write stuff with no references*** and leave people trying to guess where you got your information from. I recently gave up on a book about the Princes in the Tower because the whole line of argument involved very selective use of facts, an attempt to stare down logic and had what I'd describe as "corkscrew thinking", all without proper references. You can't just say "so-and-so reports" an event. You need to give chapter and verse. On the other hand (and I'm looking at you, John Ashdown-Hill) it isn't acceptable to rely on your own works as references and wikipedia articles, which are subject to change on a whim.

All of which has led me to the equivalent of shouting at the TV when history programmes are on. I have, on occasion, been reduced to shouting at one of these books "You cannot be serious!!"

Is that better or worse than shouting at the telly?

I used to think this was only really a problem with military history and books for wargamers. Much as I love the WRG guides to ancient armies there is no way, almost of verifying what they are telling you. They sit uncomfortably between proper history, - they are doing things no one else has done before, - and unsupported speculation****. But that's not unusual in our hobby. There's loads of stuff that "every wargamer knows", but where it comes from no one can say. But I see now that we are no better or worse than some people who publish mainstream history books of the late medieval period*****.

So am I the only person who shouts at books?

Because if I'm not, is it safe to admit I shout at fiction books too, when they annoy me?


*Strictly speaking one isn't part of the Wars of the Roses, but more on that some other time.
** I'm currently working on a revisionist piece myself at the moment, so I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't.
*** Although I have to point out here that Sir Charles Oman didn't really use footnotes or references either, curse him.
**** And Ospreys, too.
***** I have just finished Hugh Bicheno's two volume history of the WotR, and I should have been shouting at it for all the reasons given above. However, when he speculates, it is clear that he is doing so, and he doesn't seem, to me, to give his theories the same weigh as facts. Or it could be because I agree with a lot of what he has written as it accords with the period as I understand it.

18 comments:

  1. No, it isn't just you, although I shout more at 'history' programs on the TV. I find Groucho Marx most useful:

    'From the moment I picked you book up to the moment I set it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend to read it.'

    'This is not a book to be set aside lightly. It should be thrown with some force.'

    I may, of course, be paraphrasing slightly...

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    1. I think you have hit the nail on the head, particularly with the second quote. If the most recent annoying book had made me laugh it would have been something. it just made me cross.

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  2. Perhaps it is because you have a history degree (I presume)? I have exactly the same syndrome, possibly for the same reason, although mine was half archaeology so I have a safety valve!

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    1. I do have a history degree. It is good training. It makes you ask constantly, "How do you know that"? Good protection against the fake news culture.

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  3. Thanks - an amusing post on a legitimate gripe. I enjoyed that, and have a similar reaction, though in my case it's mostly on books to do with the ancient period.

    I was writing a review for one and discovered that it took whole sections from wikipedia, changing verbs and nouns to throw people off the scent, but using the exact same eclectic range of evidence, the exact same references, the exact same referencing errors, and often the exact same structure.

    There was some shouting at that book, I can tell you!

    One of the problems with would-be popular works on the ancient world is that the evidence is so scant people have to clutch at some very flimsy straws indeed to come up with the tasty revisionism they seem to feel is required.

    Some do still seem to try though...

    Cheers,
    Aaron

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    1. Yes, - the evidence for the ancient period is scanty. I think that's one of the reasons everyone likes Romans, - Polybius has SO much detail on organisation and so on!

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  4. Thank God. I am not alone! You are spot on about the RIII Soc. I was a member many, many years ago but left when they expelled one academically minded chap for suggesting that they should also study the Lancastrian side of things!

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    1. I'm glad I wrote this post, as it has proved to me that I'm not lone either. The other irritating thing is that I've heard a couple of the culprits give evening lectures, and they are very good at that. It's just that you can't publish lecture notes and get away with it.

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  5. My wife has banned me from watching TV history programmes for the same reason. I'm also known to test the aerodynamic properties of history books from the 1st floor balcony if they really annoy, and (for some reason) medieval history seems to be the worst for sloppy research and lazy repetition.

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    1. I am vastly reassured by this comment. I had a fear it was just because I don't really get on with the period as a whole that I find some of the books irritating.

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  6. Did Oman write before the age of references and (extensive) footnotes in history books? I know he discusses his sources.

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    1. No. He is writing at the same time as Gardner, Ramsay & Firth, all of whom know their way around a footnote and reference. I know that thy have becone even more common in academic history books, but Oman must accept the blame for it being acceptable in military history not to cite your references properly.

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  7. Oman's ideas of medieval warfare were discredited even when I was an undergraduate (1980-83) and it's since been discovered that his theories on column v line in Napoleonic warfare (based on the battle of Maida) are equally bogus since both sides fought that action in line.

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    1. Oman is a positive menace. His book on Warwick the Kingmaker has got guesses posing as facts that have got into the accepted narrative. I also think, as I said above, that he set the trend for military historians not referencing properly.

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  8. Interesting to hear your thoughts on Bicheno. I picked up his first and enjoyed it, but im no expert on the period. Thought it was accessible but also good on the convoluted intertwined politics.
    Recently went looking for the second vokume and was put off by some negative reviews. I'm now more reassured and will go back to it.

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    1. It's a stimulating read with lots of interesting ideas. Not all of them hit the mark, but it is worth looking at, but read another more conventional history as well!

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  9. This seems a very good therapeutic post
    Well done!

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    1. You'd like to think so, but I'm still cross about it all.

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