What is history?
The connection between history and storytelling
As a trained historian who’s been dabbling in history writing here and on my new Substack Unseen St. Louis, I’ve been pondering for a while how history and storytelling go hand in hand. In this week’s edition of Story Cauldron, let’s consider the question: what is history?
As to the above image—there aren’t really any depictions of female historians in the Getty image library, so I settled for a 14th-century fresco by the Florentine artist Andrea di Cione di Arcangelo, better known as Orcagna. I’m imagining the woman who’s casually holding a parrot is recounting a scandalous story from the past.
What is history?
People think of history as someone putting together a string of past events, indisputable moments in time, into a pleasant narrative.
Coming out of a 19th-century desire to understand and classify everything, history was understood as a scientific accounting of “what happened.” Historical accounts needed to be based on factual, indisputable data, and needed to be ‘objective.’ There could only be a single impartial and true historical narrative, and any deviation from that narrative could only be possible with new information that could better explain what we already knew to be true.
But that’s not what history is, and it’s not really what it has ever been. Here’s part of what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say:
late 14c., "relation of incidents" (true or false), from Old French estoire, estorie "story; chronicle, history" (12c., Modern French histoire), from Latin historia "narrative of past events, account, tale, story," from Greek historia "a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one's inquiries; knowledge, account, historical account, record, narrative," from historein "be witness or expert; give testimony, recount; find out, search, inquire," and histōr "knowing, expert; witness," both ultimately from PIE *wid-tor-, from root *weid- "to see," hence "to know."
It is thus related to Greek idein "to see," and to eidenai "to know." Beekes writes of histōr that "The word itself, but especially the derivations ... that arose in Ionic, have spread over the Hellenic and Hellenistic world together with Ionic science and philosophy."
As this definition of history suggests, the concept of ‘history’ is not a scientific thing at all, but instead is a story of the past. And what story hasn’t been colored and shaded by the storyteller?
What this means is that, whenever you engage with history, you should ask, ‘why does this exist?’ Whether it’s a documentary, a history book, a website article, or a museum exhibit, it’s important to know who made it and why.
Why I like history
Like many people, I grew up with the notion that “history is written by the victors,” a quote inaccurately attributed to Winston Churchill. The idea is that it is those who win the wars, conquer the territory, and win elections that get to decide which stories get told. Most people can name at least a handful of presidents of the US—but how many can name their opponents?
In school, the history textbooks told the story of the growth of Europe, westward expansion, colonialism, and the wars that countries fought along the way, often against indigenous people. But I always found that boring. To me, history is not about memorizing a list of kings and wars, but understanding how people lived their daily lives and how societies have changed over time.
As a graduate student twice, I gravitated instead to cultural history. I wanted to know what people thought, what they believed, and what they told each other. Along the way, what I discovered was that history ultimately is about patterns: human beings have this insane way of doing the same things over and over again, largely because they don’t remember how things worked out in the past.
The role of story in history
I’m a storyteller fascinated in history. Every historical event is, at its heart, a story to be told.
There will always be the ‘official’ story, the one told by leaders with power and influence, as reported in the media. But those storytellers rarely tell the story of the ordinary people, and never fairly report stories of people opposing that power.
When I engage with historical materials, I like to tease out a different version of that story. It might have some of the same historical markers—dates, important people, major events. But there are other stories that can be told by focusing whenever possible on ordinary people and how they lived.
When historians look back on the past couple of years, do you think they will get a fair idea of what it was like to live through the pandemic if they only look at what the presidents and governors and major organizations had to say about events? Or will they need to look at the stories coming out of hospitals and nursing homes, and how we all lived for years in fear of public spaces and at each other’s throats over masking and immunizations?
My current historical work
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve started a second Substack called Unseen St. Louis in which I focus on lesser-known moments in St. Louis history. As I dig into the history—most of which was never taught to me in school—I see how modern St. Louis is the product of its former position as a leading industrial city. Thousands and thousands of people moved here in the 19th and early 20th century looking for jobs, creating unique challenges for the St. Louis area that it continues to struggle with to this day.
To this end, recently I wrote about the Kerry Patch, a very large settlement of Irish people fleeing the Great Hunger. I also examined a notorious housing project in St. Louis that was long cast as so dangerous place that the city had to shut it down—only to find out that it actually failed because the city (and the federal government) never allocated sufficient funds and resources into its upkeep and security. I also dug into a boundary between cities in St. Louis county that was constructed to keep a Black community separate from a white one.
So circling back—what’s my ‘why’ in this equation? Why do I choose to tell these stories?
I guess it’s important to me that people have some sense of history. Like I said before, it’s helpful to know what happened in the past so we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes. And where St. Louis is concerned, I believe that if we don’t examine what happened in the past, we’ll never be able to move forward.
If you’d like to check out my recent history articles, I’ve linked them below:
Part of the reason I created Story Cauldron in the first place was to highlight my fiction. While I don’t have a new story to share, I did want to note that I was interviewed for the Serial Fiction Show! In a two-part podcast (one for readers, and a second for writers), I talk about my Favor Faeries series, available here and on Kindle Vella and what it’s like to be a writer, why I write about faeries, and more. Be sure to check it out!
And as always, thanks for reading Story Cauldron. If you haven’t yet, please subscribe.