I encourage anyone who wants to write SFF to read history, and to go beyond popular history to good scholarly history. Historical scholarship has its challenges for non-specialists, though, first among them: historiography.
It’s a rather intimidating word. The bane of history majors everywhere and a source of confusion to ordinary folks who pick up an academic history book trying to learn a little more about people and places in the past. It doesn’t have to be so intimidating, though. Historiography just means the ways in which we explain history.
There are many different theories of history with bewildering and unhelpful names: Marxism (which is not the same as Marxist economic theory), the Annales school, Whig history (which has nothing to do with wigs), and many more. Each of these theories encompasses a different set of questions that historians ask about the past, a different way of organizing evidence, and a different approach to interpreting cause and effect. At the most basic level, though, they are all just different ways of explaining change.
The study of change is, fundamentally, what the study of history is about. The past was not the same as the present. People lived in different ways, they held different beliefs about the world and made different decisions. When you take all of the individual choices that individual people made while going about the business of their daily lives and add them all together, the result is large-scale changes over time.
Different historical theories see that change differently. While every school of historical thought has its own specific approaches, some of the basic differences can be summed as the difference between seeing history as a pendulum, a circle, or a line.
Pendulum theories are based on the idea that most societies most of the time are basically static. People get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, and not much changes from one day, year, or generation to the next. Occasionally something will happen that upsets that equilibrium, like an outbreak of deadly disease or the introduction of a new crop, and it takes time for people to adjust to the new circumstances. Eventually, though, things settle down and people get back to the business of getting up, going to work, coming home, and going to bed. The population recovers as survivors acquire immunity to the disease or markets catch up as farmers start growing the new crop instead of some old ones.
From this point of view, the thing that’s important to study is the resting state of the pendulum, the condition that everything will tend back towards when its not being knocked about. We study history in order to understand basic things about human nature and society. The things that bump the pendulum are less important than where it will eventually come back to.
Circle theories believe that rather than one natural state to which societies return, there is a cycle that societies repeatedly go through. Each generation is shaped by the circumstances it grew up in and makes different choices than the generation that came before, but eventually things come back around again. A generation of spendthrifts, for instance, leaves its children in debt. When those children grow up, they tend to pinch their pennies. Their children grow up free from the fear of privation and more willing to take risks. Some of them get rich and raise children who grow up spoiled and irresponsible with money, which starts the cycle again.
To historians of this persuasion, the study of history is not about identifying a basic state we will return to but recognizing where we are in the cycle so we can better prepare for what comes next.
Line theories believe that history is going somewhere and it won’t turn back. Small changes accumulate over time. Every choice that people make creates a new set of circumstances that future people have to respond to, and things will never go back to the way they were before. From this point of view, changes in society whether small, like a new drink becoming popular, or big, like industrial production taking over from individual crafting, has consequences that roll forward and are impossible to ever entirely undo. The demand for tea in England, for instance, created new incentives for trade, which led to new imperialist policies in Asia, which destroyed some local governments and elevated others, and so on. Even if Brits someday stop drinking tea, none of these effects will be undone.
Some line historians see the line pointing towards progress and an ultimate good for all humanity; others see it pointing towards degeneration and the collapse of the human race. Others simply see it as a process of ongoing and inevitable change. The point of studying history for all of them, though, is that we can make better choices for the future by understanding how we got to the present. The past is never going to come around again, but if we can tell which way the wind is blowing, we know which way to spit.
If this still seems a bit too theoretical, here’s an example in practice. How would historians of these different persuasions approach a particular historical event? Let’s take, say, the American Revolution.
To a pendulum historian, not much really changed because of the revolution. After several years of fighting that killed many people and interfered with daily life, Anglo-American men replaced one distant aristocracy with a slightly closer one who only inherited land and wealth, not land, wealth, and titles. For many colonial denizens, the revolution simply changed who they paid their taxes to and which politicians they grumbled about over their beer after coming in from the fields or workshops at the end of the day. For women, poor folks, enslaved Africans, indigenous peoples, and anyone else outside the landowning elite, hardly anything was different in the years after the war compared with the years before it.
To a circle historian, the revolution was an example of an ongoing pattern in which the inability to reconcile political differences leads to violence. Stresses had been building up over time as the British government had different needs and priorities than the American colonists. Eventually these stresses reached a breaking point where negotiation and accommodation failed. The only way forward was turn to violent revolt. This pattern had played out before in English history going back at least as far as the Magna Carta and would continue to play out in American history, leading to the Civil War and to unrest in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The same cycle of stress, failed attempts at reconciliation, and violent upheaval has occurred all across the world in societies large and small
To a line historian, the revolution was a turning point which changed everything that came after. There are many different ways of understanding that change. One historian might call it the beginning of American exceptionalism while another might see it as a step in the disintegration of European empires in the western hemisphere. Another historian might see it as cutting off American law from the progress Britain was making toward ending slavery, or changing the focus of American trade towards the Pacific Ocean rather than the Atlantic. Whatever the focus, the war created a new set of circumstances that led people to behave in new ways.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Not all histories fall neatly into one of these categories, but these basic ideas are at the core of many. Understanding what kind of history you’re reading can help you get what you want out of it, and knowing what kind of histories are out there can help you find the one you’re looking for. Happy history reading!
Comics by Erik Jensen
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.