History of England: An Introduction
Types of History
There are several ideas to discuss before getting into the history of a particular place, because all subjects in the study of history have several things in common. One is an understanding of the different types of history. If you have studied history in earlier grades, you are probably most familiar with political history. Political history is the earliest form of history; it focuses on political events, rulers, government, etc. History classes which focus on political leaders, and spend little time discussing ordinary people or other topics, practice this type of history. Until I got to college, it was the only type of history I'd been exposed to.
During the 1940s, economic history became popular in the West (Europe and the U.S.). Economic history "follows the money", focusing on markets, labor, finance, and trade. Technological history is related, especially when it deals with technologies that create goods and services. This became my focus in college during the late 1980s, where I ultimately wrote my master's thesis on the English textile industry during the Middle Ages.
By the 1960s, social history had come into its own. The study of the history of society, including the lower class and others who had been left out of political history, was much more interesting because it dealt with "real people". This field also gave rise to women's history and family history, an up and coming area. It also made possible diversions into areas like biological history (where the influence of disease becomes a primary historical factor), gay history (dealing with the impact of gay people on society, and societal reaction toward them), fashion history (how clothing reflects social ideals and standards), and many more.
Always popular, and related at first to political history, has been military history. Just a brief web search will provide all sorts of sites of societies and military buffs dedicated to examining wars and conflict.
There is also intellectual history, which many of my colleagues were engaged in during grad school, studying the medieval church. Intellectual history is based on concepts or ideas (such as God, freedom, rationality) which are seen to cause historical events. Although I find intellectual history fascinating, and use many philosophical documents to support the study of history, I have always had a problem with believing that ideas cause things to happen. Rather I find, with my training in economic history, that financial gain is a primary motivator and philosophy often justifies the results in terms of higher goals. That is my interpretation, and we'll discuss interpretation later!
Other forms and trends abound, including historical geography (which became crucial to my explaining the dissemination of mills in the English countryside), history of race, history of science (now offered as a graduate field in several universities), art history and cultural history (both indispensible to enjoying the expressions of a culture during various periods) and many more.
Historians have several tools we use to analyze the past, and archaeological and written sources are the most important. A primary source is written or created at the time you are studying (what I call "documents" are just written primary sources). For example, if you are studying the 16th century, and you are examining a letter, diary, legal document, artwork, building, clay pot or anything that was actually written or created during the 16th century, then it's a primary source. We will be working with and analyzing many primary source documents, because to do so is really "doing history". Interpreting primary sources is the main task of any historian.
The sources with which you may be most familiar, however, are called "secondary" sources. These include your textbook and most popular books and websites about history. A secondary source is written, often as a narrative or story, by people who have examined primary sources and created a story based on that evidence. Secondary sources occasionally cite their primary sources, but this is rare in a textbook or popular history book (it's usual only in publications intended for professional historians, or term papers for history classes).
The reason that history is not a "dead" subject, and the reason that history books are perpetually in need of revision, is that any discovery of new primary sources (like a diary found in an attic, for example) or any reinterpretation of the old sources, can completely change the accepted story of what happened in the past. If one declares a certain archaeological dig to be "the oldest inhabited site in Britain", this will change if an older site is discovered. If for years it was believed that a certain queen had a military motivation for a decision, then a letter was found where this queen indicated an economic motive instead, the story will change. Re-analysis and re-evalution is what history is all about. Today's "truth" is tomorrow's misinformation.
So what are these on-line "lectures", then? The truth according to Lisa? Yes, in a great sense. My interpretations of both primary and secondary sources will be shared with you through these written lectures. Often these analyses will differ from those in your textbook or the websites you will visit. Your interpretations will differ from mine. As you continue your homework and assignments, you will begin to share your interpretations, and they should become more sophisticated throughout the course. Your ability to analyze history will become the foundation of your grade, not just your ability to memorize the events of English history.
Within the lectures, I've tried to provide connections to your reading and web materials. Bold blue text references your documents. Links to Internet materials are underlined; when you click on them a new window will open so you can peruse the site, then return to my lecture by just closing the window.
The importance of knowing your geography cannot be overemphasized in a history course. There are two important resources available to you in addition to the occasional map in your book or a lecture: the MapEasy Map you may purchase from a bookstore, and this map of the counties of England. The MapEasy Map is a tourist map, but it has a great map of England on one side, and an outstanding map of London on the other. Geographic knowledge is essential for the quizzes.
Please also note the distinctions among names of the country. England refers only to that area, and does not include Wales or Scotland, much less Ireland. Great Britain (or Britain) is England, Wales, and Scotland on the island of Britain (the eastern island). The United Kingdom is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the entire contemporary nation. The British Isles is often used to refer to Britain and all of Ireland together.
Bias and Historiography
All history is biased. A secondary source, such as your textbook or my lecture, is obviously biased because the author(s) choose to focus on only certain factors and evidence. Primary sources are often biased within themselves because they were written by a single person witnessing an event, or they are biased in their use as one source is chosen over another. These sources provide the basis for an educated analysis of any period or historical event. But every historian tries to be unbiased, to present the truth as s/he understands it. No good historian deliberately sets aside evidence which contradicts his/her thesis, but it happens anyway. All good historians acknowledge evidence which is counter to their ideas, and uses logic, other sources, or common sense to explain the contradictions.
If you study the interpretions of the historians themselves, you come across the idea of "historiography". This is, if you like, the "history of history". Looking at what historians thought before, and how they analyzed evidence, it is possible to develop a long-term perspective of how a particular subject has been analyzed. Let me give an example related to my "Types of History" above. Let's say a political historian looked at a battle during the Middle Ages. The castle of Leoch was under siege, the siege was going well, then all of a sudden the Campbells, who were besieging the castle, gave up and went away. Using letters written from the combatants to each other, the political historian concluded that the commanders of Leoch were superior in leadership, which accounted for their "victory". Ten years later, an economic historian, using the list of supplies at Leoch compared to the supplies of the Campbells, concluded that that the victory resulted from the castle's better supplies and resource management. Ten years later, a biological historian examining the diaries of the commanders on each side, concluded that the result was due to a disease that spread through the water supply outside the castle but did not affect Leoch itself, which had a deeper well. Three different historians, three different eras, three different interpretations.
What does this mean to you as a student of history? Does it mean you just become cynical, saying "well, it's all relative, none of it is true, so why bother"? No. It just means that it becomes important to utilize your intellect in that college-level way, sorting through the sources and interpretations to determine the plausible version of the truth. This is the only way historians have of determining "what really happened" and why. My interpretation of this siege? The successful defense of Leoch probably resulted from a combination of better leadership, better supplies, and the water-borne disease outside the castle.
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