Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times


John Vincent - A Year On (1996)   

Behind every book there lies a tale. This one is no exception. It began, long ago, when as a newcomer to Bristol I was asked to devise a freshman course on history. Devise I duly did, with assistance from a folder containing the efforts of other universities in this direction. No history department had found the study of history altogether easy going; the Sixties, then just passed, might tug one way, towards more conceptual approaches to history but historians themselves, young and old, were never ones for concepts, let alone for rigour. The wind of “reform”, as academic restlessness is called, blew this way and that down ensuing decades. Sometimes the Study of History was on the Bristol menu, sometimes it was off. Each time my folders grew a little larger. At any rate, nobody took much notice of what was said: a most satisfactory state of affairs. I began even to imagine that I represented some kind of consensus about the nature and history of history.

Foolish thoughts, no doubt. Yet behind them lay a reason of sorts – the curious pre-eminence in this particular field of one single text, E.H. Carr’s Penguin on What is History?, a text which by combining chattiness, Leftishness, lack of rigour, and thorough scepticism, seemed everywhere to lend academic legitimacy to Study of History courses. (….) Carr, surely his insights, derived largely from diplomatic history, would not be seen as the full story forever? Such thoughts crossed my mind but not until I received an invitation from Oxford University Press to write on the subject did the ambition to write take active form.

Since OUP and I eventually fell out, all too publicly, over this book, it is important to make clear that it was not always so. True, there was no contract, only an invitation. I took OUP on trust, which, as the press later pointed out, was a great mistake on my part. However, I had reason. My draft was read once by Oxford, and praised; a second time, to their broad satisfaction. Since the second reader was Sir Keith Thomas, President of the British Academy, whose word counts for much with the Press, matters seemed promising. Throughout a summer the publisher urged me to make haste; set a date for publication; entered on the question of the appearance of the cover. If it was not marriage, at least the date of the nuptials was settled, and we had moved to discuss the colour of the gowns.

Then enthusiasm as suddenly gave way to lack of enthusiasm. A third reader, chosen by Sir Keith Thomas, appeared on the scene. His or her report – the identity was never rumbled, though the commitments were clear – was leaden: the third reader was as present-centred as my text was past-centred. He, or she, thought the current generation of historians were the people who mattered; and I did not. A difference of opinion, perhaps, but OUP frowned on such differences of opinion, even if done at its invitation and with its previously expressed approval. Moreover, other matters surfaced, though they came to be given an undue importance in press reports. Thus the Oxford reader decried the absence of politically correct language (though OUP claims not to insist on this) and the absence of any tribute to Sir Keith Thomas’s great book. That absence I gladly remedy now.

Anyway, it was an open-and-shut rejection from that point on, with no chance given to modify the book in the light of the reader’s comments, and the matter indeed never got as far as the Delegates, or governing body, of the Press. (What do the Delegates do, if not decide on publication in the light of readers’ reports?) The door having been banged shut, by the very editor who had spent the previous summer urging haste, that was that, and I did not expect this book ever to be published.

Improbably, and fully four months after rejection, the higher journalism got wind of the episode. The Thames, much to my surprise, caught fire; parts of the OUP reader’s report, such as its suggestion that politically correct feminist language be used, did indeed give hostages to fortune. The Telegraph railed; The Times fumed. My case was even discussed, in absentia of course, on the Melvyn Bragg show. The university authorities in their wisdom set out to prevent me from communicating with the media or broadcasting on a BBC history magazine programme of unsurpassed inoffensiveness and innocence. Such is fame, or the illusion of it, and it is exceedingly momentary. At the end of it all, however, this book was as far from being rescued from oblivion as ever.

Then came the happy ending; I found my white knight in Duckworth, or rather they found me, and I take this opportunity to thank them. Born of Bloomsbury, Duckworth has been innovative, liberal-minded, not tied to conventional opinion as a huge university press like OUP, tied to the American market, perhaps has to be; and if Duckworth does not enforce the modern academic narrowness, it could be because it’s unusually well ahead of it. It was only later that I learned that OUP had been the subject of a judicial rebuke for their commercial ethics in the matter of contracts. Rejected authors should be quite clear that the law will sometimes uphold their case, whether contract has been signed or not – a point of no little interest, and as little known.

Enough about the book’s history.

More to the point in this postscript to the new edition, was the reaction of the critics. They spoke with two voices. The second voice, however, was almost mute compared with the first. Almost the sole point selected for public discussion was social history. To the media, from Australia to America, this was the book that had expressed doubt about social history. No matter that I had also expressed vicious doubts about causality, taken a swipe at values, or taken a tough line on bias: nobody wanted to know about such things. Not a squeak came back to me, in fact, on the philosophy of history side. The history of history side was almost equally silent – social history alone excepted (on which there were few enough pages, in all truth). The economic historians, of whom I paint a hardly glowing or cheerful picture, have not come back to me to say “No, it’s not really like that, not as bad as you paint it”. (Perhaps then it is as bad as I paint it.)

Anyway, by and large I failed hopelessly to stir controversy, whether over economic history or anything else. True, there were objections to my comments on bias; but an objection is not an argument. Worthy folk who spent their working lives teaching that other people had sociologically determined ideas, predictably stood up to testify that they and their friends were not governed by the general rules of sociological influence upon discourse.

But what was it about social history that ruffled so many feathers? There was, after all, no issue in the philosophy of history, or in the history of history, really involved. I say this with full awareness of the looming spectre of post-modernism – though for nearly all purposes, post-modernism and its implications are one thing, and social history and its implications another. Yet the reaction was quasi-religious; had I spoken ill of Proportional Representation, denigrated the Queen Mother, or worn a hat in church, I could not have found myself face to face with a more accusing consensus. I had blasphemed that which was meet to be revered. Underneath, there were questions of curriculum, but these were the least of it: nobody wanted to exhume those pedagogic questions of the ’80s. Whatever it was that made social history such a burning issue to so many, it was no longer old-hat anti-Thatcherism.

To an academic teacher, the pattern was familiar. Social history was perceived by students, no doubt wrongly, as an easy option. The lower down the hierarchies of the university system you went, the more they were attuned to social history. The phenomenon was international. Forlornly lost European or American students, victims of a mindless belief in exchange, would come to life at the possibility of studying social history. Why they accepted it, they knew as little as why they rejected the alternatives – but they were programmed, and from an early stage, to believe that here was a straw to be clutched at.

Dim people from dim schools who hoped only to pass unnoticed for three years arrived at university already knowing that their preferences, nay salvation, lay in social history: not economic, and not political. Whereas bright people from good schools, allowed in despite the quota, found no difficulty in a general history that might at times be mostly sharply political while at other times being, as it should be, strongly social. (There is a curious and quite unjustifiable exception made by those who speak in the name of true inclusiveness, or total history: they are apt to exclude, without discussion, the economic dimension, that is, economic history.)

But there is more to social history than being a soft option. Social history is seen as offering or embodying hope – hope of changing society, hope of understanding with finality how the social mechanism actually works, hope of imprinting late twentieth-century progressivism upon the world. Political history is not full of comparable hopes. Social history, too, has become dreadfully, interminably, sometimes comically, mixed up with the arrival of gender on the historical scene. On the gender issue above all it is hard to say where widened awareness stops, and the misuse of history for propaganda begins. Any publisher’s list, any learned journal, any conference proceedings, anywhere, now reflects the political agenda of the same global liberal consensus; as why should it not? some will say. And indeed, it may be hard to oppose the newest ways in which truth is made subservient to a political agenda, without falling into the same distortion oneself.

The new narrowness attaches little importance to the whole range of profound issues associated with the philosophy of history. Questions such as causality will not melt away in the face of glib taunts about “kings and battles”. Yet the part played in historical education today by philosophical topics is slight. Here, surely, there should be more controversy, not less.

Where the history of historical writing is concerned, one may also find grounds for not giving a predominant or exclusive role to social history. For the English historical achievement, over a period of centuries, has been to write the history, not of England alone, but also of antiquity and foreign countries, in ways which have to be explained in terms of English political history. In this view of things, it is English political history which engenders English historical writing: a form of the primacy of the political too complex to explore much in a work of this length.

There is only limited space for argument about what history and historical education can, should, and must consist of. The consensus is strong in favour of total history built around three main pillars which are unlikely to change much. One is political history or the history of power. Another is economic history provided its tendency to separatism can be kept within bounds. A third is the history of thought, including intellectual and cultural history and the history of belief and religion in a broad non-ecclesiastical sense. Those are the pillars. All involve elements of social history, but social history as it now stands is not of itself a pillar, and any claims on its part to an exclusive or predominant role would be quite unjustified. That said, the various contending specialisms which make up social history without doubt have their own place in the scheme of things, but not, for the conceivable future, anything much more.’  

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

This quotation is part of the “Postscript”, written by John Vincent for the second, revised edition of An Intelligent Person's Guide to History. The original book was published, without this postscript in 1995. It was (enlarged) republished in 1996. This quotation is taken from the 2004-edition. 

Further information: quotations from The Times (1995) and the first edition of Vincent's book are also to be found in this section ("In pursuit of truthful history stories") of Hereditas Historiae. 

Nowadays Oxford University Press is selling a very short introduction to “History”. It is written by John H. Arnold and was published in 2000. A chapter from this book, on telling the truth, is also published in this section of Hereditas Historiae. 

In Irène Diependaal’s personal experience: John Vincent is a friendly, helpful and correct colleague.