In praise of flashy history

This is in some ways a follow-up to my previous post on The History Boys, but at a slightly more theoretical level. What I want to discuss is the style of writing and talking about history that Irwin is trying to encourage in his class. It’s best summarised as teaching them to do flashy history.

Flashy history isn’t a matter of period or topic, but of technique. It is about showing off: showing off firstly that you know more than previous historians, in that you have a new and exciting angle on a old problem (or even a whole field), and secondly that you can write more entertainingly than other historians. Flashy history is punchy, exciting and provocative to read: its key tools are the aphorism and the paradox. It has the lightness and speed of an ice-skater: it makes its point and then moves on rapidly to the display of the next trick. It is not the same as pretentious history; it isn’t about heaping up obscure references. Instead it uses references or quotations to create a fleeting bond with the discerning reader, a momentary feeling of fellowship and admiration, and then hurries on. And nor is flashy history primarily about demolishing other historians. If you read an article or book where every second footnote is telling you that some other historian got it wrong, that’s just suggests petty-mindedness. Good quality flashy history doesn’t need that remorseless putting down of others; it’s motivated by pride, not envy. A few quick verbal rapier slashes on your opponents, showing how you can dance around them, like a bullfighter with a bull, that’s all that’s really needed.

What counts as flashy history is of course debatable (although no-one who’s heard David Starkey can surely deny the existence of the phenomenon). There’s also the fact that most historians who sometimes do flashy history use a less flashy style on occasions. Flashiness, on the whole, only works well in small doses; even in a short book it can start to become tedious. As a few nominations of medievalists who are good at flashy history (although they don’t invariably choose to practice it), I’d suggest Peter Brown, John Gillingham, Chris Wickham and Conrad Leyser. (Although the technique tends to be thought of as specific to Oxbridge males, in fact it’s not: Patricia Crone co-wrote the extraordinarily flashy history of early Islam Hagarism and although Michel Foucault wasn’t really a historian, some of his works have a lot of techniques of flashy history.)

Flashy history is, of course, prone to glibness, sometimes immensely irritating and to emphasise effect at the expense of accuracy. But it still has a useful role to play in historical study. In particular, it’s an important way of teaching history (which is why flashy history is so common in TV history and popular history). Firstly, because it makes history seems interesting to those who might otherwise find it uninspiring. Secondly, because it encourages the ability to play with ideas, which a historian needs to gain. Any would-be historian must gain the courage at some point to disagree with those who are more learned, or they’ll never do anything original. Reading flashy history or writing some yourself, can be a tool to break free from excessive reverence. Someone once told me that he’d read Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages (a classic bit of flashy history) just after starting as a postgraduate and it had been a wonderful way of getting himself started.

But I think flashy history, if written by someone who is actually knowledgeable, is also valuable for professional historians as well, even if they don’t write it themselves. In small doses, it’s a tonic to read, even when it’s wrong-headed; it peps you up and makes you examine and justify your own arguments properly, rather than simply taking them for granted. As John Howe commented in a review of Peter Brown’s work: Revisting the Holy Man (Catholic Historical Review, Volume 86, Number 4, October 2000, pp. 640-644: “To launch a thousand ships in academia you need a creative synthetic insight that is only about half-right.” However much the more staid of us may deplore them at times, every now and then it’s only right to celebrate both flashy history and the historians who create and sustain it.

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4 thoughts on “In praise of flashy history

  1. I believe, that like flashy science, flashy history should have its place. The problem is normally that it often replaces real history, or real science.

    I can talk more about science, as I am more familiar with it, but I believe it should be relevant to history just as well.

    Flashy science often hides the hard work, the search for facts, putting the puzzle together, and often not knowing more than knowing. It tends to hide the difference between facts, speculation and guesses. So although it brings science to the masses, it often brings the complete wrong impression of science. Hence all the pseudo-science or the new age science, that have very little to do with real science.

    As a person interested in science I love a well written flashy science. But I am still not sure if in general it’s better to have no knowledge and know that they don’t know. Or have distorted knowledge and think that they know.

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  2. I was trying to make a distinction in my post (though it wasn’t explicit) between what I would call ‘good’ flashy history, which has a valid historical argument but is ‘sexed-up’ and flashy history which aims to be provocative and nothing more (along the ‘Hitler was a sweetie really’ line). There is obviously a problem with something that bears the outward form of history/science, but doesn’t use evidence in any critical way. I would agree that Templar pseudo-history or creation ‘science’ are pernicious. The question is whether there is a role for ‘popular’/’dumbed-down’ science and history and I would argue there is.

    This is because I would say people normally don’t have ‘no knowledge’ of a scientific or historical subject, unless it is very obscure. What they often have is what I’ve seen called ‘folk science’: expectations about how the world is that they’ve absorbed from the culture around them. (I think there have been studies done showing that most people don’t understand Newtonian laws of motion, but are consistent in how they wrongly think bodies will move in certain situations). And in the same way I think they often have a ‘folk history’ in the sense of a set of images of how a period was (often with no chronological sense or connection between the images). For example, the Middle Ages is King Arthur, Gothic cathedrals, crusades, Black Death and burning witches.

    What popular/flashy history and science then give to these people is a connecting story to these isolated fragments and the sense that this is something interesting enough to be worth finding out about. And the chance that this *may* sometimes lead to people exploring more and realising the joys of more serious history/science. In other words, if some people get inspired by Simon Schama to study history, I am willing to put up with his prominence on the TV, however irritating I may find him.

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  3. Ave,

    Excellent blog. Am keen to know your opinion on other flashy history writerstitles. Let me explain – I’ve always been a bookworm -turned- writer and find that they provide an easy way to history, if backed up by real, tanglible research. Am thinking Leonie Frieda’s ‘Catherine de Medici’, the Italian black series where each title represented a period/character, Chomsky, Baigent (think you are frowning already). I remember a very good history teacher who got me into reading history by enticing us with comments about such books (got to know your enemy in order to fight them). How would you rank these (often proven to be) bestsellers on your scale? I realise the answer might be a reiteration of what you said before but indulge me, please.
    Vale.

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    • I haven’t read all of the authors you’ve mentioned, but I’ll try and give some general comments. Baigent’s stuff isn’t history because it’s based on sources known to be faked (by Pierre Plantard) and other completely unreliable sources. Chomsky (and people like him such as John Pilger) I see as writing advocacy more than history: they are making a political argument using historical evidence. Other than getting people interested in a particular topic, I don’t think it teaches you much about doing history, because such work tends simply to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit a predetermined line (whether it’s ‘USA bad’ or ‘USA good’). As soon as you have an argument that you will stick to *whether or not the evidence supports it*, you’re no longer doing history well. (I know some historians do this too, but it’s still bad practice).

      I’ve not read Leonie Frieda, but I’m quite happy about any reasonably researched popular works of history, whether done by ‘professional’ historians or not (and I’d include historical novels in that. I once heard a scholar of late medieval England admitting how much she’d been influenced by reading Jean Plaidy on Edward IV at an impressionable age). By reasonably researched I mean somebody who’s taken the trouble to read some of the recent scholarly literature and doesn’t just rely on Victorian historians or Edward Gibbon. I think such works can be very useful at getting people interested in a period and possibly even wanting to find out more. A lot of people probably won’t take it further, but some might (popular history as gateway drug).

      I suppose I would say the main difference between purely popular historians and ‘professionals’ is that the ‘professionals’ are doing their own original research, rather than synthesising the results of others (though there are some ‘popular’ writers who do end up doing original research, like Dorothy Dunnett or Michael Wood). (I put ‘professionals’ in brackets here, because there are serious researchers who can’t necessarily earn a living from their research). I think it’s really only such professionals who can write decent flashy history for anything more than a very restricted audience, because they know enough to make a vaguely convincing argument. If you’ve read all the sources and argue that Hitler has been misunderstood you may just possibly have a point: if you haven’t read more than a few books and say that, you’re more likely to come across as a ignornat idiot.

      I don’t know if that answers your question (or some parts of it), but I hope it’s at least explained my views a little more.

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