History is the art of making things up. Why pretend otherwise?

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

In a recent interview, the celebrity historian and Tudor expert David Starkey described Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’. The novel, he said, is ‘a magnificent, wonderful fiction’.

But if Oxford has taught me one thing, it’s that all the best history is. Starkey is a Cambridge man, and maybe they do things differently there. But any perceptive Oxford undergraduate will soon realise that a little bit of fiction is the surest way to a First. What the admissions material opaquely describes as ‘historical imagination’ turns out to be an irregular verb: I imagine, you pervert the facts.

Any success I’ve had in my first year and a half at Magdalen College, I owe to the fact that I have no qualms about taking this approach. My highest-marked essays include ones which argue that Martin Luther was a fraud, that Second Wave American feminists were profoundly sexist and that King Alfred the Great was a historical irrelevance.

In another essay, I said that the Counter-Reformation was a success because the Catholics were so flexible, tolerant and easy-going — I didn’t mention the Inquisition once. Saying it was ‘completely wrong, but a delight to read’, my tutor gave it a First.

The same tutor recommended Fernand Braudel’s seminal 1949 tome, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, as the greatest history book of all time — while adding, as a cheery side-note, that he was sure Braudel had made all the facts up.

The list of historians who’ve been led by their imaginations as much as their sources is distinguished. In the 1960s, John Prebble’s reconstructions of the great disasters of Scottish history were blood-soaked bestsellers. His vivid narratives brought to life first the rainy, desolate moor that staged the Battle of Culloden, then the betrayal, disease and starvation of the Highland Clearances. Prebble was described by the current chair of history at Glasgow University as the man who ‘had interested more people than anyone this century in Scottish history’. But he’s still dismissed by most academics as a glorified historical novelist.

The young Niall Ferguson was the inspiration for Irwin, the provocative history teacher in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. He taught his pupils to make tutors sit up and take notice by arguing (to use one of Ferguson’s real-life examples) that Britain should have sat out the first world war and left the Germans to battle it out.

At the end of Bennett’s play, one of Irwin’s less able students recounts the arguments that got him through his Oxford interview: that ‘Stalin was a sweetie and Wilfred Owen was a wuss’. Lines like that would still get you into Oxford today.

And if bestselling history books are about one parts fact to two parts fiction, it’s because that’s the ratio that most historians have to work with. Starkey may consider himself to be ‘someone who actually knows what happened’ in Henry VIII’s court, but the truth is he doesn’t — no one does. If Wolf Hall had been written based on facts alone, it would be a tenth as long and even less interesting. A scrupulously honest historian has to leave gaps, or add caveats until his reader died of boredom.

Damian Lewis as King Henry VIII in Wolf Hall Photo: BBC

There are, of course, grave historical sins. To speculate is one thing, but to deliberately lie is quite another. David Irving deserves no admiration for his manipulation of the evidence surrounding second world war: losing his libel case, he was found to have ‘for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence’. Creatively joining the few dots of knowledge we have about the past is the historian’s craft, and it takes skill. Writing something you know to be untrue because it fits your story takes no skill, and is the point where history becomes fiction.

To return to Alan Bennett, ‘History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.’ For future history students, I have just one piece of advice: put down E.H. Carr’s What is History — all you need is The History Boys.

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  • Damaris Tighe

    I think you get good marks for your flights of historical imagination for the same reason that Damien Hurst is worshipped for pickled fish in the so-called art world: the cult of novelty.

    • davidofkent

      Damien Hirst, isn’t it?

      • Damian Hurts


  • RavenRandom

    That’s nice, twist history to suit the story you have. Making history in fact fiction. Very helpful.
    On another note I’ve always been a little concerned about how Mr Bennett got away with The History Boys. If it happened for real people would be going to gaol.

    • GraveDave

      Not if they’re gay.

  • Oliver Slaughter

    University isn’t about being right, it’s about showing good skills. Which is why you can make a preposterous argument but still get good marks providing you show good research and reasoning skills (with good writing and referencing of course). What students say doesn’t actually matter, so this is a perfectly fine practice.

    When it comes to published works, I start to have a problem with it.

    • ohforheavensake

      Nope. A preposterous argument is a preposterous argument, & gets marked down.

      • Kennie

        Not for Oxford PPE students.

        • global city

          or critical race theory…or many other of the social/political ‘science’ studies subjects.

    • Tom M

      I would agree if you were intending to be a barrister but not if you had any thoughts on writing about history.

      • ardenjm

        Or being a good husband, father, friend, urm, human being…

    • John

      Nip back in time and let Homer know so he can record things a bit more accurately.

    • colchar

      As someone who has taught history at the university level I have to say that his is completely wrong. If someone makes a preposterous argument in an essay they are not getting a good grade regardless of how well they may write.

      • Gwangi

        Really? Well, many academics seem to spend their entire gravy-train careers making preposterous arguments – and get promoted and praised for it. Just look at all the silly leftie educationalists who ruined our school system…

    • Rifleman1853

      Well, Oliver, when (if) you get a job in the real world, you try convincing your boss that he should accept your “preposterous argument”, just because it is well written and properly referenced, and see how impressed he is by your “good skills”.

      I bet you – and your tutors – have no idea why so many graduates find it so difficult to make the change from university to work.

    • Lorenzo

      “University isn’t about being right, it’s about showing good skills.”
      At many universities in your former North American colony those skills consist of accurately and enthusiastically parroting the politically correct fears, nostrums and superstitions of your instructors — in the liberal arts, anyway.

  • tolpuddle1

    1. Wolf Hall isn’t history. In fact, its portrayals of the two Thomases – Cromwell and More – are contrary to history.
    2. Works by historians are works with imagination, not works of imagination.

    • AndrewMelville

      More was truly one of most foul creatures of all British history.

      • tolpuddle1

        No, there are many testimonies to his personal good nature.

        He was sometimes fanatical, because we are all fanatical regarding people or things we care about.

        If More is to be blamed for delivering Protestants to the flames, what about Churchill for delivering Nazi Germans to equal or worse torments ?

        And More regarded Protestantism with even greater horror than Churchill and the British people regarded Nazism.

        Modern Catholics are more relaxed about Protestantism – because hindsight is a wonderful thing; More had to grapple with the immediate crisis.

        And also because we’re much less sincere and self-denying than More.

        • AndrewMelville

          He was a sadistic bigot. Saint? not by any normal definition – top of the class though for the Roman Catholic Church. A truly vile figure.

          Comparing Churchill to More – that’s like comparing the crown jewels to my dog’s vomit.

          • tolpuddle1

            Your post merely tells me this – that you agree with Churchill, but disagree with More.

            I trust you’re not taking the portrayal of More in Wolf Hall as in any way historical ?

          • AndrewMelville

            It was amusing but it is fiction.

            No I base my assessment of More on the historical record. He was a sadist bigot. No saint.

          • magister

            Anyway, you want context
            for Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell? More presided over the execution of six
            heretics and was personally involved in proceedings against a number of others.
            But as the Tudor historian Richard Rex points out, castigating More started in
            1535 and continued thereafter. Damning him as a heretic hunter has been old hat
            for historians for generations.

            As for Cromwell, his
            period as chief minister coincided with hundreds of executions. Along with
            More, Fisher and Anne Boleyn, there were 10 Carthusians he starved in Newgate
            Gaol; there were the rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace; there was John Lambert,
            burned for denying the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, upon whom
            Cromwell personally pronounced the death sentence; there was John Forest burned
            for Catholicism, with Cromwell watching; there were 14 unfortunate Anabaptists.
            Not quite the reluctant executioner, then.

            None of this needs
            matter to the Man Booker judges. But it would be genuinely sad if our view of
            Thomas More, one of the really great men of English history, were to be
            distorted by the caricature in Wolf Hall.’

            Evening Standard, 2009.

          • AndrewMelville

            So two sadistic bigots. I’ve never thought otherwise.

    • John

      Mantel no doubt wishes for the levels of interest produced by internet dweeb, tolpuddle1, the most fascinating of all the tolpuddles.

    • well played tolpuddle. Carola Binney doesn’t really seem to know what she thinks: she starts off, ‘provocatively’ arguing that history is fiction, but admits in the end that lying is wrong and that the skill is “filling in the gaps” between facts. So long as you make it clear what are the facts, with sources, and what is the speculation (everything else), then I actually agree, but the judgement that we apply to that historical work most definitely includes facts that are left out of the analysis (such as the Inquisition in the example). Your work isn’t going to last very long if you leave out well known and relevant facts, even if it amuses the odd Oxbridge tutor.

  • MaSek12

    History is the lies agreed upon.

  • Lala

    Wrong wrong wrong. The discipline of history teaches you to develop ideas through the historical sources – not merely to pose a deliberately provocative argument for the sake of making an impact.

    • Gwangi

      Oh, and there’s me thinking all history books are just opinion masquerading as fact…
      That’s the way it works, see. Leftie historian starts with a conclusion (the working class are noble; the toffs are evil) and works back from that. carefully selecting only the ‘facts’ that support the author’s opinion.
      History is a junk bond of an academic subject.

  • davidofkent

    We know that many historical records are written to burnish the reputation of the writers’ patrons. Thus there is always a degree of ‘polishing the truth’ r even inventing it. However, we do know quite a lot about figures such as Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More and don’t need them re-invented. Unfortunately, I still think of that lovely man portrayed in ‘A Man For All Seasons’. I wonder who he was!

  • ardenjm

    Isn’t it just GREAT to know that our finest and brightest (in the Humanities) have blithely jettisoned any commitment to TRUTH on the premiss that, in our deconstructed, Nietzschean perspectivist, morally relativistic, agenda-driven world the very notion is forfeit and any appeal to it is suspect – a desire for power rather than a desire for honesty.

    Or, if the benefit of the doubt is given to the motives for looking for the truth, then the head is sadly shaken in despair of the vanity of the exercise: truth eludes us and historical truth escapes us.

    There are just competing narratives that deploy the same sophistry predicated on the essentially consumerist seduction techniques in order to convince adherents.

    (Try denying the equal validity of homosexual marriage, or Islamic immigration at this point and you’ll see that not all ‘relative truths’ are equally relative, however.)

    No wonder modern science continues attracting the finest minds. At least experimentation, hypothesis testing and empirical verification allows the human intelligence to attain to something other than mere opinion and propaganda.

    The Humanities are in a parlous state. Largely through having brought about their own ruin. Carola Binney exemplifies the kindergarden immaturity of Arts faculties up and down the land. But it is a little distressing to find it celebrated at Magdalen College Oxford.

    • pearlsandoysters

      Quite a penetrating analysis of the state of affairs.

    • Kennybhoy

      “Or, if the benefit of the doubt is given to the motives for looking for the truth, … historical truth escapes us.”


      “There is something to be said for every error; but, whatever may be said for it, the most important thing to be said about it is that it is erroneous.”

      – G K Chesterton

    • colchar

      While in graduate school studying history I got trapped into arguments with people who claimed there were no such things as facts (apparently because everyone has their own personal understanding of what is happening facts aren’t real or universal…or some such intellectual masturbation). When I claimed that it was a fact that we were sitting in that room having the discussion they claimed that no, that was not a fact. Such intellectual masturbation drove me batty.

    • Gwangi

      Yes, but sadly 80% of postgrad students in science in the UK are overseas students.
      Our own telly-reared little rugrats grow up (and I use the word ‘relatively’…) to get media studies degrees and do research on TV soap operas and celebrity culture…

      I agree with you 100% re relativism, which in my mind is very dangerous, maybe even evil, and is used by historians -all of whom are achingly ‘politically correct’ and sanctimonious + pompous with it – to excuse the worst barbarism of Islam, yet to condemn what they see as the awful British Empire which actually stopped slavery and brought civilisation to the darkest corners of the world.

      It’s all ethnic and women’s history now – all the history of the ‘little people’ who cleaned the hearth, never anyone not working class – all pc nonsense, in other words – where the accepted truth is “there’s no such thing as fact only interpretations” – though as you rightly say, if you as a student even mention that Islam may well not be a lovely cuddly bunny rabbit of a religion of peace, or that Islamic immigration was and is a threat to Western civilisation (the latter being a word banned in pc history departments because of relativism of course) then you’ll soon find out just how intolerant these pc muppet academics are.

  • Doctor Crackles

    Alan Bennett the paedo-promoter.

  • polistra24

    Just for fun, let’s go meta.

    Binney has given us a precise and literally true history of what historians have done. Historians have always written fiction and/or propaganda with a veneer of facts.

    The commenters who claim that history should be precisely and literally true are giving us a fictional and/or propagandistic history of what historians have done.

    Which is better? I dunno.

    • ardenjm

      This idea of moral equivalence is just BONKERS and is further evidence of how, when you slip the moorings of rationality as the Humanities have done – beginning at the Enlightenment (irony of ironies) but accelerating at break-neck speed in the 20th century then you end up saying what polistra24 claims:
      There is no such thing as truth, just degrees of deception.

      That laying claim to the truth and seeking to control and possess it is always a reductive coercive exercise, I do not deny. A healthy scepticism is required when faced by those who claim to be in possession of the (whole) truth. But we neither save it nor ourselves by deciding that truth evades us entirely and that any attempt to strive for it is either misguided or vested or an exercise in propaganda, come what may. To abdicate our capacity to judge correctly that, for example, the Communist airbrushing of those fallen out of favour is merely a more extreme variant of what painstaking historical research requires isn’t just ridiculous, it’s mendacious.

      That the Age of Reason should have provoked the biggest crisis in our belief in reason’s capacities to attain to truths is quite possibly the most significant cultural difficulty of the last 200 years.

      • Kennybhoy

        Spot on.

  • rtj1211

    The only lesson you need to learn about history is that it is written by the winners.

    Why would you ever expect a competitive arena such as history writing to pay absolute attention to the truth??

    It’s part of organised brainwashing.

    • colchar

      What an absolute load of tripe which could only have been written by someone who hasn’t a clue what they are talking about.

  • ohforheavensake

    If you’re half-way through your degree, you should have encountered Hayden White by now. If you haven’t, you need to.

    • pearlsandoysters

      In my humble opinion, Hayden White is a waste of time. History is very challenging till one gets a solid grasp of historiography. There’s an excellent book “Versions of history from Antiguity to Enlightment” which elucidates many themes in the field of historic interpretation.

      • colchar

        Historiography is only touched upon in undergraduate programs…the real historiography starts in graduate school and is the bane of all graduate students in History except for the odd weirdo who gets into it.

        • pearlsandoysters

          I really wonder why is it so? I don’t hold degree in history, yet after devouring some volumes, I came to conclusion that history only makes sense once one acquires a certain degree of familiarity with both historiography & philosophy of history (which I duly & diligently did). As for Hilary Mantel, I was really shattered after reading her speech on “royal bodies” once it goes against so many historical-legal concepts & seem to pander to modern sensibilities.

          • colchar

            Possibly because in an undergraduate degree the skills that one acquires while studying History (the ability to research, write, formulate and defend and argument, etc.) are considered more important than historiography and that understanding the historiography of a particular field is only minimally necessary? Once one progresses to advanced study at the graduate level historiography is necessary in order to fully understand ones field, primarily because the student is then specializing and needs to be able to both understand their field and to situate their own work within it. But that isn’t really necessary when studying at the superficial undergraduate level (well, superficial in comparison to advanced graduate study). But since I hated a lot of the study of historiography I never really bothered to look into why it isn’t taught much at the undergraduate level.

    • Kennybhoy

      Going by the nonsense above she already has! 🙁

  • commenteer

    Unless things at Oxford have changed very much in the last decade, I am puzzled as to how your tutor could have given you a first class mark for what was, presumably, a term time essay.
    A First is something you get if you achieve high enough marks in your final examinations. It is true that these have been very much dumbed down, even at Oxford, and a first class degree is no great shakes any more. But at least the marking is done anonymously, and doesn’t depend on the personal whim of your college tutor. It rather sounds as though you’ve been egged on into absurdity for his/her personal amusement.

    • John

      You’re showing your age, gramps.

      • Rifleman1853

        No, Commenteer is showing his logic and common sense, and you are showing your stupidity.

  • Kennybhoy

    “History is the art of making things up. Why pretend otherwise?”

    No it is not! You are a fracking dunce! 🙁

    Although this IS a pretty accurate description of journalism!

  • Sean L

    Yes but the highest form of truth *requires* fictional form. No catalogue of mere facts could rival Homer, The Bible, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, just to pick a few enduring works of imaginative fiction, for truth. No tortoise has ever outpaced a hare; no man has ever turned things to gold with his touch. Yet no factual account of mans’ follies could ever convey such truths as these simple fictions depict.

    If a few works of history endure, that’s because they’re able to engage the reader’s imagination, not because of their fidelity to fact, valuable as that may be. The stories of the so-called first historian Herodotus can’t of course be factually true, but are true in being a faithful relation of stories that people did tell, and illustrative of more general truths about people and their cultures. A positivist conception of truth is of very limited application. Thus, as a matter of historical fact, notwithstanding a handful of exceptions, the greatest truth tellers have been writers of fiction.

  • colchar

    So someone who is a year and a half into a History degree thinks they have the discipline figured out? Right….come talk to me when you have completed the degree and done advanced graduate work in the field, as I have done.

  • Rifleman1853

    It’s one thing to speculate on what might have been the case where gaps exist in our knowledge of history – and making clear the difference between that speculation and verifiable fact; it’s another thing altogether to deliberately fabricate a narrative, and present it as though it was fact.

    Regardless of what Carola Binney thinks, the first is history; the second is historical fantasy.

    If history lecturers at Oxford cannot tell the difference between the two, and actively encourage students to write fantasy, because the fantasy is “a delight to read – even though it’s completely wrong” – then current history degrees are worthless scraps of paper, and the institutes which issue them are frauds.

  • ScottAdler

    In Britain, all one must do to be successful in History is to blame Israel for whatever it was. Or the Americans.

    Israel caused the Black Death, and the Vikings were Jewish.

    And the Americans were certainly responsible for the War of Jenkin’s Ear.

    Essays of this sort seem certain to earn their authors a book contract. Certainly the Guardian would publish them.

  • magister

    ‘A scrupulously honest historian has to leave gaps, or add caveats until his reader died of boredom.’
    More fool the reader.