Asking the Wrong Questions

Who matters?

Recently, I came across this tweet from the historian Greg Jenner.

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.

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8 thoughts on “Asking the Wrong Questions

  1. Some good points here. Most interesting historical figure for me (this week) is a minor poet, miner and soldier from a tiny village in north Derbyshire. Linking Sgt Will Streets to the stories of other “nobodies”, other soldiers who served in the same conflict, plus the lives of the people who loved them, tells me more about World War I than a thousand biographies of Haig and Kitchener ever could. I don’t want to hear about Generals and Wing Commanders; I want to hear about Will, Charlie, Bob, Harriet, Lois and Gertrude.

    The debate around diversity at ‘that festival’ is an interesting one. Can we go further and argue that to be a historian you need be neither an academic nor a biographer? We all make history; are we not all historians?

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    1. In the debate on the definition of historian between ‘restrictionists’ (must have PhD, or must practice academic research) and ‘expansionists’ (like history? Cool!), I try to place myself firmly with the expansionists!

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  2. Great post. I agree entirely that microhistories are a potentially valuable way of showing how non-elites can nonetheless be ‘interesting people’ in the rather impoverished sense of the phrase used in the survey.

    On your point about ‘the historical equivalent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’, I suppose I one suggest Germaine Greer’s *Shakespeare’s Wife*, but it would be interesting to know about others. That seems like an interesting (in the academic sense now) method for exploring issues of historical canonisation and research methodology.

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  3. Susan Reynolds TRHS 1991: the miller as one aspect of a wider scepticism – so an example of the hidden rather than the different.
    Prosopography: a bit of a bore for me – just J. H. Round updated in most cases (esp. by medievalists) – look back too at Namier’s ‘structural analysis’ – I’m sceptical – but then I remember Nechtmann’s Nabobs.
    Self-fashioning – well, o.k., but overplayed and again usually elite. Isn’t it just Erving Goffman’s presentation of the self?
    Where the individual comes into focus, as in biographical micro-studies, is in terms of hybridity (Homi Bhabha) or brokerage – but then I’m just repeating myself ( a constant reiteration of not-so-humble opinions – disgruntled old age).

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    1. Well… ‘collective biography’ is not prosopography. There’s a great piece in Gunn and Faire (eds.) Research Methods for History on this point. I’d stand by the point I was trying to make here that there are lots of different ways to be interested in peoples, even individuality, that aren’t ‘rank how interesting any given individual is’.

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  4. I demur about ‘collective biography’ and prosopography, despite Gunn and Faire. Many others would regard collective biography as within the umbrella of prosopography, not least the journal Medieval Prosopography..
    My point is that most has been directed to elites – for two reasons: (i) predilection of the research groups and (ii) because sources for non-elites are incomplete. Actually, in this context, I rather admire Nechtmann’s study because it addresses Bhabha’s issue of hybridity rather than ‘othering’ (Said) which opens up a new vista. There’s much to admire in Namier’s ‘structural analysis’ as a sort of precursor of Social Network Analysis, if not his attempt to railroad Oxford History.
    Simply by selection of an individual, you are making some statement that they are extraordinary, in that they have left a greater footprint than others – for a variety of reasons.
    That’s all grist to the mill, however. There are many ‘houses of history’. Personally, I rather carry on reading Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, or Anthony Cohen, Self-Consciousness. If I want to uncover fashioning, I’ll read Middleton or Jonson on how they perceive people as fashioned.

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