What’s the point of narrative history?

A bunch of early medievalists have been discussing textbooks over at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe and several laments have come up over the lack of narrative histories for the period. This got me thinking more generally about the purposes of narrative history and why it’s often so hard to find (or write) good ones.

In a sense the purpose of a narrative history is there in the term: it’s to tell a story. And speaking as someone who was a (failed) novelist before becoming a historian, it’s not easy to write a story. In particular, what stories really need are a coherent theme (the narrative arc) and also memorable characters.

Narrative history, therefore, means selecting and describing historical events so that they no longer look just like one damn thing after another. There are some aspects of history that are relatively easy to treat in this way (though it still takes skill on the part of the author). There are lots of good narrative histories of wars (as three random examples I’d take Stephen Runciman on the Crusades, Veronica Wedgewood on the Thirty Years War and Shelby Foote on the American Civil War). Historical biographies can be very good reads and dynastic histories also often work well, because there’s a ready-made narrative of rise and fall.

Narrative histories of nations have become harder to do now that historians are suspicious about teleological narratives: you can’t easily do a Whig history of Britain now. And, in fact, very long-term narratives (more than about a century) are hard anyway, because there is so much turnover of characters. I can never really get into the dynastic novels where you have to get to grips with a completely new set of characters every 100 pages or so: it becomes increasingly hard to remember which one is which and to care about any of them. The rare narrative histories that can sustain interest over such a length of time are usually those where a country/city can be seen as a ‘character’ in its own right (I’m thinking here particularly of John Julius Norwich’s histories of Venice and Byzantium, but the same is true of many histories of ‘Rome’).

One of the two big problems with trying to write a narrative history of early medieval Europe is therefore: what is the story? To the extent that there is an overarching one, it’s initially the fate of the post-Roman world. You can just about maintain a vaguely coherent narrative that contrasts the fate of Britons, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Merovingian Franks and Byzantines. (I know this ignores the Burgundians, but frankly, who cares about them?) The problem is, you can maybe keep this narrative up till about the seventh century. After that, what do you do? There is no coherent narrative that can tie the different kingdoms together (unlike with the early modern period and even, to some extent, the later medieval period, where there are some pan-European events to tie things together (the Crusades, Battle of Bouvines, Black Death). You can’t make a story out of ‘well this was going on here, and that was going on there’; the most you can do is make a series of short stories. And it’s hard to make such short stories of interest: the Lombards rise and fall, but so what?

So if you are trying to write a narrative history of the early Middle Ages, you either have to produce a series of chapters that don’t connect together or you have to cheat by restarting the story (this is normally done by ending the contrasting fates of sub-Roman kingdoms with Merovingian Francia and Clovis and then jumping to the Carolingians, at which point you have a coherent vaguely pan-European story again). Similarly I don’t think anyone has yet tried to do a narrative history version of the theory that everything before the year 1000 is really late antiquity (as Richard Sullivan and others have claimed) because you’d then have to have the fall and rise and fall of the Roman Empire and it really doesn’t work coherently as a narrative.

The second big problem for writing early medieval history is memorability: how do you get people to remember your story afterwards? For a novelist, this isn’t necessarily a problem: there are some novels where the pace of events is enough to carry you through the book and if you forget all about it afterwards you can just read the novelist’s near identical next-book. But if you can’t remember anything about the period after reading a history book, it hasn’t been of much historical use, even if it was entertaining. I have this problem myself with a lot of books on unfamiliar historical periods; even with a good narrative history I tend to forget a lot of what I’ve read soon afterwards. So every year or so I feel I ought to know more about Chinese history and read something on it and it all goes in one ear and out the other. The combination of unfamiliar names, geography and events is particularly difficult for the memory.

Early medieval Europe is appalling for this, with large numbers of unfamiliar and similar names (how many King Theudeberts are there and are any significant?) and severe problems for those of us who can still never remember with certainty where the Meuse is (and that it’s also the Maas). The most effective way of getting round a lack of memorability is obvious (for novelists as well as historians): a well-used anecdote (or a nickname, which is a kind of condensed anecdote). I can still remember that Antigonus One-Eyed was a successor to Alexander the Great long after forgetting almost all the rest of Peter Green’s wonderful book ”Alexander to Actium”. And almost the only bit of Chris Wickham’s discussion of post-Carolingian Italian politics in Early Medieval Italy that I can remember is his statement that Berengar of Friuli ‘in forty years of campaigning is not recorded as ever having won a battle’.

With that single statement, Berengar suddenly becomes memorable, steps out of the pack of other would be rulers of Italy. But for the rest, Chris’ overview of Italian events in the book, while perfectly readable, is deeply unmemorable. Chris’ writing style is perfectly clear, but that’s not enough for good historical narrative. For example:

In 900, the magnates of the north-west, now led by the Anscarids, marquises of Ivrea, a Burgundian family installed by Guy [of Spoleto], revolted and elected Louis of Provence as king. Louis went to Rome and was crowned emperor, but his support fell away and he left in 902. When he returned in 905, Berengar captured and blinded him. Berengar then ruled unopposed until 922.

How much of that could you remember even by the time you turned the next page? This is basically a slightly expanded version of a chronology; useful for reference, but not a lot else. This isn’t to get at Chris: you get a similar effect reading Roger Collins or many other narrative histories. If you want to write memorable early medieval history you have to have room for more expansive writing. You are also likely to have to use the kind of dubiously sourced anecdote that Victorian writers of narrative loved and modern historians spit at. Alfred and the cakes and purple prose may not appeal to modern academic historians, but if you want a narrative history that’s more than a reference work, I don’t see any alternative to that.


4 thoughts on “What’s the point of narrative history?

  1. I do see your point here. There is a kind of remedy to be had from making the actual history yield anecdotes. I do this a lot with my charters as you’ve read, but not about people of this level of grandeur. One recent attempt to do this is Geoffrey Koziol’s “Is Robert I in Hell?” in EME which I think does fix both Charles the Simple and Robert of Neustria in one’s head as characters, although that tedious Saint-Denis character keeps turning up and droning about property. But that takes thirty pages even to get the premise clear, you couldn’t do a whole book like that.

    Nonetheless, for most of the major figures of the European Middle Ages, who are being included precisely because someone wrote about them by and large, there are stories that one can tell without resorting to the Burning of the Cakes. Alfred’s exile in the marshes of Athelney can be made memorable without cakes, but actually when teaching I’ve usually found the cakes story, with suitable warnings, a good point to stimulate discussion of how down on his luck Alfred might or might not have been.


  2. I wrote a short overview of Late Antiquity once (see URL) which was my answer to what a short summary of an unfamiliar period should look like. But it ended with the Arab invasions and could not claim to be a history of the early middle ages. Any history of any kind of MA must answer the question, where does the story end? It used to end or lead in some way to “modern times,” but what “modern times” is seems quite unclear now.


  3. A fabulous post. I’ve found that part of the problem of reading history “visualization”. Visualization is even more critical than satisfactory narrative. If I read in a book on Elizabethan England that the Queen cuffed an insolent Essex round the ear, prompting him to draw his sword on her, the image of it leaps into my mind. I’ve come to the subject with a stock of images. I know Elizabethan costume from countless pictures and films, Elizabethan speech from Shakespeare, and Elizabethan music from recordings. I might even see Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in my head.

    But if I read a book on the Blogbogduffland in the Fifteenth Dynasty, there are no pictures in my head that will form when I read that “The Mupwup of South Blogbog offered the Dipzipi a plopul fruit, which offended the Dipzipi, so he had him thrown into a the Pit of Pooh”, no picture forms in my head at all. I can’t guess what would be offensive about a plopul fruit, or frightening about a pit of pooh, not knowing the symbolism of the society. Even if there seems to be a satisfactory narrative, it remains a set of abstractions, words that can’t be connected to any concrete images.

    Science Fiction writers often face this problem. They have to give the reader a feeling of “being there” when they cannot rely on the reader visualizing things as automatically as a writer of westerns can depend on the reader to visualize horses and gunfights. The legere-de-main that good S.F. writers use to solve this problem is worth studying. Some may apply to writing history, especially narrative history.

    I find myself constantly trying to get a handle on the history of places and periods where I have no stock of images — Bhutan, or Abkhazia, or the ancient Bai Kingdom of Dali, or whatever. After lots of trial and error, I found that it helped a lot if I first studied the geography, perused picture books of the landscape, and absorbed as much as I could of the architecture, costume, art, and music from the area before I even touched the history. Once I had a set of pictures in my head, I could visualize a narrative history. I just read a history of Bhutan that would have been meaningless to me if I didn’t know what the “red hats” looked like and meant, the strangely Swiss-like look of a Bhutanese farmhouse, or the multiple uses of the picturesque dongzha (fortress-castle-monasteries perched on crags).

    But your point that the narrative itself must have satisfying elements, a “story arc”, drama, is well taken.


    • Phil,

      I’m very interested to hear about how you’ve got a handle on an unfamiliar period. That has got me thinking about different people’s approaches to visual/written material, as you will see in my latest post on the memorability of archaeology and history.

      The SF analogy is an interesting one (and there have been some scathing comments about bad examples of SF exposition). In one way writers of history have it easier. You can stop and have an explicit digression on what a miles really is, you don’t have to try and shoehorn it clumsily into some dialogue. But in another way writing as a historian is more like a SF author who’s on the fifth book of a fifteen book series. You can’t assume how much or how little your audience will know from previous reading, and if you put in enough detail to get the newbies up to speed you risk boring the people who have heard this all before. It’s OK saying you therefore need to know your audience, but if the book is published in the UK and the US and stays in use for 20 odd years, that’s easier said than done.


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