Hereditas Historiae

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


John Vincent - An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History (1995)

History and Evidence

‘History is about evidence. It is also about other things: hunches, imagination, interpretation, guesswork. First and foremost, though, comes evidence: no evidence, no history.

It is about surviving evidence. Evidence that does not survive is no use, however plentiful it may once have been. It is also about intrinsically fallible evidence. In this it resembles medicine and the detection of crime. And it is about fallible evidence as interpreted by fallible people; hence no question of finality can ever arise.

Historical study requires verbal evidence, with marginal exceptions. And this verbal evidence, with all respect to the fascination of oral history, is nearly all written evidence. (…)

Studying the past is not possible: it is no longer there. All that can be studied are particular pieces of evidence, created in the first place usually for entirely non-historical reasons, which happen to survive into the present. Their survival, again, usually reflects accident, whether accident at the time of creation, or accident in the process of preservation and survival or both.

Nobody, or hardly anyone, created evidence for the convenience of future historians. Had they done so, it would he highly suspect. What ulterior purpose led them to try to influence the future?’

‘History is not, in practice, or in any simple sense, the study of mankind. It is the study, using some but not all methods, of some men in some societies at some times. It is the study, especially, of societies which preserve records and maintain continuity through long-lived institutions. Stone buildings help enormously; not all societies have stone buildings where paper can be kept safely down the centuries. History, or historical evidence, turns in the end on some very simple physical questions. The Great Fire of London did not, as it happened, destroy the immense records of the English medieval monarchy; but had it done so, or had the records been housed a mile nearer the flames, the study of medieval history as it has developed in the last century would be unrecognizably different.’

‘There are some things which history certainly is not. It is not a study of the non-human past. Such subjects as glaciology, dendrochronology, astronomy, geology, palaeontology, subjects which can deal with a past far more distant than any known to historians, are not history. (…) History is not about pre-literate societies. It has little to say about hunting, nomadic, pastoral, or gathering people, except in so far as they were observed from outside.’

‘History is not archaeology, for the very good reason that properly speaking the latter is a method not a body of knowledge. Unlike history, it is focused on material objects not thoughts. In theory, and often in practice, it is applicable to any society or period. It is only colloquially that archaeology has come to apply specifically to pre-literate societies or to prehistory. Archaeology, being a method, can be, and is, used to study literate medieval societies, or even advanced societies, as in the case of industrial archaeology with its loving resurrection of rusty steam engines and Victorian factories. (…) The gap between prehistory and history is a gap in our methods of study, not a gap in what went on in the past.’

‘History is not just about evidence, or even about surviving evidence. To take another way of looking at it, it is either about too much evidence, or too little. (…) There is, about modern times, just too much evidence; and contrarily about ancient times there is just too little evidence. To have the right amount of evidence, no more, no less, is by far the least likely possibility. The past did not arrange matters to suit present needs - why should it have? And even if the evidence were just right, just what we were looking for, that in itself should make one smell a rat, for nothing can be more suspect than evidence that is just right. The question of overabundance and its reverse is, to put it mildly, something of a difficulty.’

‘Consider two other extreme cases where the historian does not have what he wants, but what he gets. First, the ancient world. The Roman Empire was a large affair, a huge, literate, rationally administered, urbanized fact, extending over at least six centuries. From it there survive ten million words in Latin, and 100 million in Greek. Of these, 90% in each case are post-Christian. Had it been pagans who decided what survived from antiquity, the proportion of Christian and non-Christian material might have looked very different. Of the ten million words in Latin, two million concern Roman law, because lawyers found them worth preserving. Only one million are pre-Christian. Of the ten million words of pre-Christian Greek, two million are by the medical writer “Galen”. To survive the Dark Ages, it was advisable to stick to writing legal or medical works, and to be a Christian. The remote past has already censored the remoter past.’

‘In our own time, the technical basis of history has changed beyond recognition. For four centuries, the nature of evidence had remained remarkably stable: letters, letters, letters. (The monastic chronicle vanished with the dissolution of the monasteries.) Then the mirror shivers and cracks. Letters became telephone calls; conversation there had always been, but putting conversation on paper was no longer necessary. Evidence, of a new kind, was increased by the use of the tape recorder in oral history, a technique first adopted in the U.S.A. in 1948. The power to create non-contemporaneous evidence increased, as the power to check it against contemporary evidence diminished. (The difficulty with oral history is not that old men forget, but that they remember with startling clarity what they wrote, misleadingly, long ago.)

The twentieth-century state generates paper as never before. It then destroys it as never before. The United Kingdom produces about 100 miles of government records each year, of which only one mile is kept. We destroy, not to hide the truth, but because we lack room. Again, the crudely physical element predominates.

Hiding the truth nevertheless has come to matter more. In the 1960s, responding to the cry of “More Openness”, Harold Wilson's government changed the Fifty-Year Rule governing access to official papers, to a thirty-year rule. Now a difference of twenty years may not seem much, but to those in high places it meant that all they wrote would probably come before public scrutiny during their lifetime, and very possibly during their active career. In those circumstances, what is called  “writing for the dossier” is bound to occur on a large scale. The disparity between evidence and reality, always there even when it was not expected that letters would be seen by others, has become an abyss. To those who like to think that they know what went on, the Thirty-Year Rule was a great step forward; to those who want to know what really went on, it was a disaster. Records, like compost, are best well rotted.

Men write letters because they are apart. So long as the holders of power lived in country houses, or on great estates, they had of necessity to write to their own kind. When in the capital, as for the London political and social season, there was less reason to write, for they met daily anyway. For considered correspondence, one may well find that the long period of rusticity between mid-August and late January, when parliament did not sit and hardly a dog barked, evoked more political evidence than the busy months of spring and summer. In a world of country houses, the volume, frequency, and depth of letters may be in inverse ratio to the seriousness of events.

That is a world we have lost. We can no longer write “normal” history, because we no longer have that kind of society. (…) A study based on the written word cannot survive the marginalization of paper. We may be on the verge of a new prehistory, with the era of serious, intricate, intimate knowledge of the past merely a fortunate interlude. Electronic communication means no history. The fashion for open access means no history. The mass production of evidence, and its mass destruction on an equally industrialized scale, means no history. Unrecorded history means no history, or at least, as in prehistory, a history of material matters at the expense of thought.

History is about primary sources. All secondary sources were primary sources once, even if the originals no longer survive. Indeed, a primary source is a secondary source which has not yet been interpreted. All primary sources are suspect; their destiny is to add to misunderstanding. When the great archives of Venice were opened in the early nineteenth century, the classic opening of a Pandora’s box which offered to tell all, it took time and reflection to discern that ambassadors’ reports tell us as much about the ambassador, as about the country discussed, and that the most wily Venetian, precisely because he was a wily Venetian, would see so alien an institution as the Elizabethan parliament with perplexed and unseeing eyes.

Primary sources are never innocent, never above temptation, never undeserving of a sceptical eye. No eye-witness ever stands up to comparison with another eye-witness of the same event. (The essential quality of a reliable eye-witness account is that there should be no other eye-witnesses.) Yet, when compared to memoirs - admittedly not a demanding comparison - those primary sources written in the belief that nobody except the recipient will ever see them, do perhaps enjoy a certain extra credibility. In this category fall most of the diplomatic correspondence and political letters on which so much post-Renaissance history depends. Even these, however private and secret, cannot be viewed as plain statements of fact. They represent attempts to influence, to persuade, to impress, to convince, to manipulate. They are not neutral. And diaries? They may have been written for nobody but the writer. This one rarely knows; and such chastity of motive is not supported by the fact of their preservation. Still, a writer, whether of diaries or letters, who believes that he will never he caught out, has all the greater temptation to deceive, not by plain lying, but by putting a good face on his part in things.’

‘Perhaps this is the point at which to consider the three degrees of historical subtlety in accessing primary sources. The first stage is plain credulous unsubtlety: believing the evidence. This means believing what people say about themselves, believing statements of principle, political speeches, what you read in the newspapers, and believing what the police or their historical predecessors say in court, on oath or elsewhere. This was often not so naive as it may sound. In a world of gentlemen, where a reputation for sharp practice was counter-productive, taking a gentlemen’s word as truth was natural, in its way fairly sensible, and in itself served to raise expectations for the better.

The second degree of subtlety went to the other extreme of disbelief: disbelieving the newspapers, the police, the politicians, disbelieving what people say about themselves (with the lingering exception of Mr Gladstone), disbelieving above all statements of principle. This view of things will always be associated with the great work of Sir Lewis Namier in the 1920s. In essence, he said, or was held to have said, that political men were creatures of ambition or habit, that principle was the figleaf of the political operator, and that slogans were consequences, not causes, of the animal pushing and shoving of politics.

The third degree of subtlety rejects this view as doctrinaire, narrow, above all unsubtle. To those on these giddy heights, all evidence is evidence; there is no such thing as evidence which is not admissible. All evidence tells us something, is a symptom of something, is not to be brushed aside. Every slogan is a fact. A political speech may be outright charlatanism from start to finish, but putting contents aside, its timing, its rhetoric, its choice of audience, may be crucial bits of the jigsaw; and since there are many versions of charlatanism, it is important that one version was chosen rather than another. Omissions, too, are evidence, as much as the most palpable fact: what a speech or a letter omits to say, may be the most important fact about it. Silence is evidence.’

‘History is incorrigibly male, though much less so than it was. That is not to say that it will remain so in the future, still less that it should. It is not to say that women mattered, or matter, less than men, whatever such a statement might mean. It does not deny that the body of evidence relating to women is large, depending on time and place. It does not deny the huge recent expansion in the amount of historical writing about women.

It means one thing only: that women have characteristically created less evidence, so obviously so that argument upon the point is idle. It may mean that women had better things to do than live their lives on paper. At any rate, the past is incorrigibly male, as it is incorrigibly aristocratic, incorrigibly religious, incorrigibly unfair. To those who object, there can be only one answer. Things are as they are, and not as we would have them be.

That women play men’s roles only adds to the difficulty of assessing the place of women in history. When a woman does heavy manual labour, or succeeds without obvious effort on her part through male rules to a crown or other high position, there is nothing specifically female about her role. The question of heiresses is important: throughout history, the great majority of prominent women were so not because they had the talents of a Virginia Woolf, the will of a Florence Nightingale, or the inspiration of a Joan of Arc, but for no better reason than that their father had died, leaving them without brothers. (…) Here complexity rules: Queen Victoria, wife, mother, widow, and untutored miss, not to say voluminous diarist, left evidence galore of deep femininity, probably more so than her fellow-ruler Elizabeth I. But as the latter name suggests, women do play male roles under male rules, do step into male shoes, and this complicates any assessment.’

‘History is about winners, not losers. In broad terms, this is because the winners write the history. In narrow terms, it is because those risking the gallows would have been foolish to damn themselves on paper. (…)  Another loser, of a very different kind, has been the Labour Party in modern British history, and it is especially Labour ministers of the first two or three generations whose papers are missing. Their houses were small, at least by Conservative standards, and their widows wanted the space. Even regarding recent records, the authors of British Cabinet Ministers 1900-1951, writing while the trail was still hot, reported that “We have tried to find the papers of 323 Cabinet Ministers. In 73 cases loss or destruction of the collections seem certain.”

Some losers remain forever in our mind: Joan of Arc, Cranmer. That is because they were losers who won. But the picture we hold is a picture created by hostile authorities. It is the person as seen by the authorities who endures, not the person as they really were. It is the authorities who create, handle, and preserve the evidence, above all in state trials or police records. (…)’

‘History is about evidence, but only about evidence we approve of. Evidence we disapprove of, might as well not exist. We decide, even before looking at it, what can be evidence and what not.’

Bias in History

‘History is about evidence, and evidence flagrantly distorts. There is a bias in the creation of evidence, and a bias in the survival of evidence. There may be a bias in access to what survives, too. There is a bias towards the important (and self-important), a political bias to winners against losers, a bias towards the stable and against the unstable, and perhaps a deliberate censorship of the past by the past on top of that. Before we even get to modern historians, distortion is built into the very nature of history.

This suggests a simple rule. No evidence, no history; imperfect evidence, imperfect history. Against such stark considerations, purity of motive on the part of historians today faces an uphill task. The distortions in evidence that are already there, cannot he brushed away with a broom called objectivity.

But - our culture has a bias against bias. In a truth-centred culture, bias means departure from the scientific model. Indeed, it is seen as meaning departure from morality itself. To accuse someone of bias is to hit hard. (…)’ 

‘Historians today - and probably the great majority of historians who have ever lived, live today - exist in a definite sociological situation. Writers of history are, in Europe and elsewhere, state employees; in America, a workforce, albeit within large organizations like those fostered by public collectivism. They are not rentiers, landowning gentry, monkish scribes, churchmen, practitioners of public affairs, or intellectual hunter-gatherers. If they were, we should comment on it, and so we should on their being public employees.

The question, at its simplest, is not what difference it makes but whether it is so; and it is so, despite the presence in varying degrees of many trappings and vestiges of independence, the afterglow of gentlemanliness, and even the sensibility of the “free intellectual”, diminish though these do by the year. Yes, the production of historical truth has become ultimately a sub-department of the collectivist state. (…)

Historians today are not holders of power - power over men, over money, over opinion. They live among the foothills of society, where they engage anxiously in downward social mobility. They see very little of power in their own lives; they do not catch its reflections in the lives of others. From the life of action in its modern form - business - they are quite especially remote. Their disconnection from things, their want of rootedness, their poverty of commitment, are those of the minor official class the world over. History may have changed; but historians, as a class, have changed more.

Present historians experience less than past historians. This narrowing of life they call professionalism, as indeed in a technical sense it is. Professionalism is the positive name given to a negative fact (and social novelty): the single historical career from youth to age, lived within large academic institutions, based on a single academic subject, worthy indeed and commendable but ill matched with the task of understanding other existences.

But what has all this to do with bias? Well, living on a state salary, while looking forward to an index-linked pension, rather than by selling books, is unlikely to weaken one’s collectivist outlook. The payroll historian is likely to look with tender sympathy upon the general system which produces salaries for people like him to live on, just as in the days of gentry scholarship, few raised their voices to condemn rental income from land. In broad terms, historians rightly see their well-being as connected with the big state, the high tax economy, and the acceptance of definitions of progress linked to these. Historians of recent centuries visibly approve the growth of the hand which has fed them. (…) Whether it is bias, or just a subtle convergence of view between paymaster and paid, it works rather like bias.

There is another aspect to state-paid history. The outlook of the minor official leans to grumpiness, to the cultivation of an opposition mentality, to failure to sympathize with those in responsibility - for in a collectivist world all mistakes come from above. What supply and demand are in the world of market forces, so mandatory clamour and dissatisfaction are within a collectivist polity, each part of which must intone fervent anthems of “More!” The academic mind sees itself as ill-paid and under-rewarded, in the sense of not having enough for habits of life which it affects to scorn; and from this, some sense of critical sourness will long arise, some unwillingness to accept the normality of failure in others. Whether we call it bias or not, the relaxing experience of easy and natural success - that root of forgiveness - will have corrupted few historians’ hearts.

Payroll history is here, has been here for some time, and will not go away. It bears no resemblance to the flourishing literary history of before 1900. It must have some inner bias of its own, even if it is still hard to define. It is a new phenomenon in the sociology of knowledge. (…) Of course there are colourful freebooters and subtle quietists who follow no rule. That does not mean that general tendencies cannot be observed. (…) Sociologically, the professional historian of today, with his pension, is deeply “inside”, deeply encased in something, some form of stability and predictability and also limitation, in a way that will both define his habits of thought and separate him from his predecessors. Something rather big has happened, and squeaks of pained non-recognition cannot regain for him a position of entire freedom in the sociology of knowledge, the position of freebooter or lone adventurer. So it is with bias. In the old days, bias was primarily individual, a product of personal commitment. As such, it might be a path to understanding. Under modern conditions, bias is more likely to be socially determined, and the face it wears will be that of the minor official.’

All Quotations are taken from: John Vincent, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History (1995).


Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

From the cover texts of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History: ‘John Vincent has often been accused of political incorrectness, but never in his writing of history. In this book his writing has been rightly praised for its "verve, excitement, wit and original thought". In this controversial and thought-provoking study of history, Professor Vincent goes to the very heart of the classic and complex issues raised by the subject. In 1928 Bernard Shaw wrote his Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. Nearly seventy years later, in what some may mistake for a merely polemical tract, Vincent makes no concessions to fashion or contemporary orthodoxy. An Intelligent Person's Guide to History provides a comprehensive examination of the philosophy and evolution of history. It explores the nature of historical evidence, historical meaning and historical imagination, together with morality, causality, bias and hindsight. This is a controversial work, packed with ideas, by a leading historian. Penetrating, incisive and always provocative. An Intelligent Person 's Guide to History will prove both a vital text for the scholar and a stimulating guide for the general reader.’

The introduction of the author by the publisher, Duckworth: ‘John Vincent has been Professor of History at the University of Bristol since 1970. Educated at Bedales and Christ's College, Cambridge, he was formerly Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Among his many acclaimed and influential publications are The Formation of the Liberal Party (1966), Gladstone and lreland (1979) and a masterly short biography of Disraeli (1990). Professor Vincent is also widely known as a journalist and controversialist.’

Originally John Vincent was requested, by Oxford University Press, to write another book, a very short introduction to history. The “Very Short Introductions” are small sized, mostly sharp but also often subtly written introductions. The essays are without reference notes (they even lack references to the sources of used quotations) and only give some suggestions for further reading. The authors, most often academic experts on only a small part of the themes they are dealing with, are given the opportunity to explore their field in an original manner and to share some personal opinions with their readers. The series started in 1995. By now, more than 300 titles exists. According to the publisher they have proven to be extremely popular with general readers, as well as students and their lecturers. ‘Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make often challenging topics highly readable.’ From the website hosted by Oxford University Press: ‘Oxford's Very Short Introductions series offers concise and original introductions to a wide range of subjects-from Islam to Sociology, Politics to Classics, Literary Theory to History, and Archaeology to the Bible. Not simply a textbook of definitions, each volume in this series provides trenchant and provocative - yet always balanced and complete - discussions of the central issues in a given discipline or field. Every Very Short Introduction gives a readable evolution of the subject in question, demonstrating how the subject has developed and how it has influenced society. Eventually, the series will encompass every major academic discipline, offering all students an accessible and abundant reference library. Whatever the area of study that one deems important or appealing, whatever the topic that fascinates the general reader, the Very Short Introductions series has a handy and affordable guide that will likely prove indispensable.’

However, the publisher refused the ordered manuscript written by John Vincent. Some articles from The Times, dated 30 January 1995, on the controversial refusal by Oxford University Press are to be found in this section of Hereditas Historiae. Also a postscript written by John Vincent himself is to found in the section "In pursuit of truthful history stories". John Vincent wrote it for a second, revised edition of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History (1996). In this postscript he looked back at the refusal by Oxford University Press and the critical reception of the first edition of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History. The first edition (1995), the source of the quotations published above, was published without a reference to the refusal by Oxford University Press. 

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.