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. Its best summarised as teaching them to do flashy history.
Flashy history isnt 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 isnt 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, thats just suggests petty-mindedness. Good quality flashy history doesnt need that remorseless putting down of others; its 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, thats all thats really needed.
What counts as flashy history is of course debatable (although no-one whos heard David Starkey can surely deny the existence of the phenomenon). Theres 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 dont invariably choose to practice it), Id 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 its not: Patricia Crone co-wrote the extraordinarily flashy history of early Islam Hagarism and although Michel Foucault wasnt 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, its 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 theyll 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 hed read Norman Cantors 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 dont write it themselves. In small doses, its a tonic to read, even when its 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 its only right to celebrate both flashy history and the historians who create and sustain it.