Monday, 5 May 2014

What about the times when there's too much history?

So we know that we've been moaning a bit recently about two related problems of the historian's craft: what about the times when you don't have enough time and research cash to bring home the archival bacon (or at least enough of it for comfort)? What about those trips that don't turn up as much as you thought, or perhaps give you a load of questions far from your original brief? So far, so obvious, our answer being really: do your best. Apply your training. Tell the reader about the questions you have. Be realistic. And - no doubt - a hundred other platitudes as well.

But it's just as important to note that the opposite problem can often be just as bad. What about those topics that are just too rich for description? When the archival record is just too big? This historian once got asked to take on a historical project that amounted to two or three huge warehouses. Faced with such a challenge, you will be unsurprised to hear that I fled the scene, fearing for anyone's career and sanity if they had to try to climb that mountain of paper.

It's in this connection that a passage from James Boswell's 1773 journals on his Scottish travels with that famous man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson (above), struck us with particular force. We've been trying to chug through this in our spare time, which is a bit of a mixed blessing. But do have a read of just two edited paragraphs right next to each other on the page, if you've got a mind that's ready to be daunted by some tangled implications:
This was a good day. Dr Johnson told us at breakdfast, that he rode harder at a fox chase than any body. 'The English', said he, 'are the only nation who ride hard a-hunting. A Frenchman goes out upon a managed horse, and capers in the field, and no more thinks of leaping a hedge than of mounting a breach...Our money being nearly exhausted, [after breakfast] we sent a bill for thirty pounds, drawn on Sir Wiliam Forbes and Co. to Lochbraccadale, but our messenger found it very difficult to procure cash for it; at length, however, he got s value from the amster of a vessel which was to carry away from emigrants. Ther is a great scarcity of specie in Sky[e]. Mr M'Queen said he had the utmost difficulty to pay his servants' wages, or to pay for any little thing which he has to buy. The rents are paid in bills, which the drovers give... If there were encourgement given to fisheries and manufacturers, there might be a circulation of money introduced. I got one-and-twenty shillings in silver at Portree, which was thought a wonderful store.
One can only say: wow. Here's such a lot of stuff that Johnson himself might have spent days decoding it. Some racial prejudice, and some national pride; some history of horseriding and of blood sports; some good material on the lack of a coin-and-note economy in the West of Scotland, late in the eighteenth century; a sighting of an emigrant ship's captain, just as the great migration was getting underway; a good line of potential research on the different amounts you might get for your bills across the country; and, finally, an insight into the hard times the inhabitants were having; the way the economy actually worked, in a rough-and-ready bartering sort of way.

It's all reminiscent of that 'thick description' I was taught of as an undergraduate, a set of insights often illustrated by that old-but-good example, the Balinese cock fight (opens as PDF) that is supposed to tell us much about the society in which it took place. Whatever the pluses and minuses of that approach (and the latter are many), 'thick description' is exactly what we need here: what Clifford Geertz once called 'the symbolic dimensions of social action - art, religion, ideology, science, law, morality, common sense'. Boswell and Johnson's travels exhibit quite a few of those, all right.

So our problems are not only that we don't have enough time and money. That sometimes our archival visits take us down blind (or new) alleys. But historians are also assailed by a tide of material and meaning, equipped with tools that are often incompatible with other historians' understandings. Here the best approach seems to be to unpack the layers of evidence and meaning, one by one, like peeling an onion. Elsewhere numerical or sociological approaches might be better. Only one thing is for sure: time, money and practicalities are not our only enemies.

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