How to write history

At first thought, writing history is a routine job done by anyone who has command of the language, any language, that is, depending on the prevailing regime; good observational skills that include extra keen five senses and some ESP (extra-sensory perception), if the event requires it; and a little patience.

Let’s take as an example from a current event, say, Iran doing test fires of its missiles. Any man who is endowed with a little understanding of world history will categorize this event as something historical. But to allow us to go in with the exposition, let’s first define what is history and later its adjectival form “historical”

The Ancient Greek word ἱστορία,historía, means “inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation”. It was in that sense that Aristotle used the word in his Περί Τά Ζωα Ιστορία, Peri Ta Zoa Istória or, in Latinized form, Historia Animalium. The term is derived from ἵστωρ, hístōr meaning wise man, witness, or judge. The form historeîn, “to inquire”, is an Ionic derivation, which spread first in Classical Greece and ultimately over all of Hellenistic civilization.

The word debuted in the English language in 1390 with the meaning of “relation of incidents, story”. In Middle English, the meaning was “story” in general. The restriction to the meaning “record of past events” arose in the late 15th century. In German, French, and most Germanic and Romance languages, the same word is still used to mean both “history” and “story”. The adjective historical is attested from 1561, and historic from 1669 (American Historical Association).

Historical in this sense means something that is worthy of being part of the history as in the statement “The death of JFK is historical.” May I point out, however, that unlike other adjectives such as beautiful and loud, the word historical, like the adjectives unique, perfect, and divine, does not lend itself to comparison. That means saying “Man’s ascent to space is more historical than the Battle of Salamis” is grammatically questionable as is the value judgment of the entire statement.

Now, since the difficulty of judging whether an event is historical or otherwise is already highlighted, it is time for anyone who dreams to do a narrative of man’s progress and fall to reflect on the the task laid out before him.

How to write history?

First, the historian must identify his market, the reader base. World history is, by definition, the easiest to write about since people from Bulgaria to Belize have their interpretations of an event, going back to our example Brazilians will see the test fires as a threat to their billion-dollar coffee industry while people from the Vatican will see it as an assault to Catholicism–interpretations are limitless–so the choice of what to include and to discard is already in the hand of the historian. Furthermore, wire services such as AFP, Reuters, etc. can also be a source of write ups that can be narrativized making the task easier. Contrastingly, the opposite is happening in the micro level. There, people are more keen to details like what kind of wine did Gen. Franco drink before he was able to deter the US attacks in the War of Pigs, or the sentence that a certain African villager chief said before the Belgian army totally conquered them: was it “Darn, I’m out” or “Damn, we’re out” or simply “What a f__k!.” making the task of the historian doubly difficult.

After identifying the reader-base, which usually favors the more general reader, the historian will also have to be more pragmatic. Since it is not all about history but also tenure in the university, payment of the remaining balance (if sponsored by a foundation), or an immanent paper reading in an international conference of historians on The History of People South of the Equator, North of the Circle of Capricorn, the historian must also make the language of the narrative as ambivalent if not ambiguous as possible with jargons that even experts would have a hard time deciphering. In that way, the tone will appear scientific, academic, and therefore less subject to scrutiny making the historian’s job a breeze.

Any good university student who intends to be a historian must also remember that the event is more important than the person. To paraphrase, it is not a job that will make him famous. All historians, by rule, are obscure people. They are not followed by paparazzi nor are they featured in the newspaper’s lifestyle page. The only place their children and grandchildren can see their historian father or grandfather’s names is in some obscure journal collecting dust in the serials section. That means, any historian can commit blunders, even great blunders, without being harshly reprimanded. Repercussions because of inadvertent mistakes are hardly heard of because another generations of historians will come to correct the mistake, or they themselves aggravating the mistakes until another generation comes to the rescue. But all in all, no historian has been subject to capital punishment just because they reported that the date of the U.S. independence is July 14, 1976 instead of July 4, 1776 or that Napoleon Bonaparte has a boy lover instead of Alexander the Great.

And, by the way, writing history also doesn’t pay well, unless of course it is about the history of Nokia, Exxon Valdez, or Donald Trump.

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2 thoughts on “How to write history”

  1. That’s one thing I hate about studying and writing history. Aside from it doesn’t pay well, it is so boring. You know, you need to memorize this and that until such time you reach already the stage of confusion of names and dates. But actually, it really helps.

  2. nosebleed!!! just kidding. for some reasons some events in our history were not disclosed. i never thought that there was this magdalo and magdiwang faction not until college. in my elementary years, i never thought that there were conflicts among our “heroes” at that time. all i was thinking that they were cooperating to achieve one goal. oh well the thing of the past is part of our lives. the future is uncertain. today is the most important and crucial part in our daily living. we should learn from the past by correcting our present in order for the future to be smooth and easy.

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