Recently, I came across this tweet from the historian Greg Jenner.
— Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) June 30, 2017
What Greg goes on to point out is just how depressingly predictable the list is. It’s not quite dead white men, but that’s only because of the popularity of queens Victoria, Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn, and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
So: who matters?
When lumped together for the purpose of a vote like this, the multiple and diverse audiences for history are erased, leaving the lowest common denominators, and this is undoubtedly a problem for practicing historians. We all know history is not just about white, powerful men (and occasional women) who happen to come from nearby. Yet (as recent discussions of a festival-that-shall-not-be-named show) historians are constantly being told that diverse histories and diverse historians (which are not, of course, the same thing) don’t have wide appeal.
Of course, this is bullshit.
Because the problem with the list of ‘most interesting historical figures’ is not that the audiences who voted picked badly.
The problem is the question.
Let me get this bit out of the way: I am a people person, and a people historian. I bristle at historical accounts that leave real people out. I care about ‘experience’, in a suitably ironic, post-Joan Scott way, and about emotions, about selfhoods and self-fashioning. I’ve always put people at the centre of the things I write, and I’ve even advocated thinking about historical figures in terms of ‘characters’.
But people, do we need to get over people?
If you ask about individuals, you are going to get a list of the most individual people your audience can think of. None of them are going to vote for the faceless masses.
Brecht asks ‘Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?‘ The answer is obvious, but palaces are so goddamn fun, aren’t they? A thousand ruined hovels, important as they were to their inhabitants, have little to rival the possibilities of cultural interpretation of one palace, and we’d be foolish to pretend otherwise. The poor and faceless are also silent, and often boring. In many ways, they aren’t individuals.
Because the audience for this list were voting for an implied vision of history that assumes individuals are important, even if the question talks of ‘interest’ rather than ‘importance’. Not only are they unlike to vote for Alain Corbin’s Pinagot, or any other faceless ‘nobody’, they aren’t going to think in terms of the ‘Little Ice Age’, proletarianisation, or racism, which most academic historians consider more ‘interesting’ in terms of their historical importance than any of the monarchs on the list.
And they are voting based on what they know, as historians and biographers continue to feed an appetite for which they are at least partly responsible.
But we don’t have to be.
I’m not really saying we should ditch our people. We don’t all have to write about disease vectors, climactic shifts, or economic patterns, or make the protagonists of our work ‘salt’ or ‘cotton’ or ‘wolves’. But there are so many other ways to think around and about people, ways that decenter this focus on who the most interesting, the most important might be.
For instance, there is a well-established genre of’collective biographies’ of individuals whose lives are linked, or parallel. And there are the books I talk about here (and elsewhere) more than any others, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, and the counter-intuitive investigations of Alain Corbin into his ‘unknown’ clog maker, that I have already mentioned. The two books are chalk and cheese. So what makes Pinagot compelling to Corbin is his anonymity. He is no individual. But in Ginzburg’s book, the focus is the opposite. What makes Menocchio important is how different he is to everyone around him.
Or consider the questions about identity and historical individuals raised by NZ Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre.
Someone, somewhere must have written, or be writing, the historical equivalent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, tracking a ‘minor’ figure, who only appears as a walk-on part in some other Great Man’s story.
All this is simply to say that, yes, the lack of diversity in a list like this is a problem.
But it is a problem that comes directly from asking these kinds of questions.
What would the answers would be if you asked about the greatest discoveries in history? Spoiler: I am predicting some ‘discoveries’ that historians are more comfortable calling expropriations.
People aren’t the problem. Ranked lists that focus on normative concepts of individuals are.