The Chiffchaff Problem

Should historians accept the existence of chiffchaffs – a warbling bird common in Europe and Asia – for the period before 1789?


Obligatory chiffchaff.

These birds had not been distinguished by observers from similar species until Gilbert White recorded differences in their singing in Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne(1789).

But surely there are obvious reasons why historians should accept that they existed even before people noticed them? After all, naturalists can provide physical evidence for their presence, and maybe even information about their diet, migrations, population, and predators.


Imagine that you want to write a history of the chiffchaff in southern England before the French Revolution. You can, of course, make use of this natural historical evidence, evidence where chiffchaffs are real enough.

But what about in written documents from the time, or in paintings and drawings?

Knowing that the chiffchaff was not distinguished from other similar warblers, how could you confidently identify material in these sources that definitely deals with chiffchaffs? Perhaps the painting you have identified is actually a picture of a woodwarbler.


Chiffchaff, or something else? Psyyyych it’s the same picture!

This problem might appear a bit esoteric, or even irrelevant. If these birds are so similar as to be indistinguishable, who cares whether historians can find verifiable evidence for them in man-made sources?

The nub is that the chiffchaff has little historical existence without these sources, and this historical existence is hugely important, not just to historians, but in turn to their natural scientific collaborators.

Ecologists can, no doubt, infer and prove wonderful things from the variety of material evidence that survives. But they probably can’t prove what chiffchaffs sounded like to humans. Might their songs have changed? Before White distinguished these birds from other similar species by their singing, we cannot know with certainty much of what they meant to people, nor how they interacted. There is a reason why modern ecological research involves such a great degree of first-hand human observation. Without that evidence from witnesses, the chiffchaff has no meaningful (historical) existence, even if we accept on a commonsense level that chiffchaffs were already there.

You may still be thinking that this hardly seems of world-historical significance. Perhaps you are also wondering if there will be more photo challenges.

But let me make the case that naming the problem chiffchaffs represent helps us to understand a common issue in historical methods, and one which it turns out to be very hard to spell out, as I found on Twitter.

So let me try again here, having thought a bit more about it.

What is the epistemological status of ‘the chiffchaff’ as an object or phenomena identified by the historian in the period before 1789? The chiffchaff makes a nice example because a historian has good grounds to consider it an object that might be identified in sources whose purpose was not to describe chiffchaffs. Why? Because the historian knows from zoology that such a bird must have existed.

And yet the danger in applying this anachronistic academic category to the sources is that it misidentifies, confuses, or obscures. To talk of chiffchaffs before White makes no sense, because you could really be talking about woodwarblers.

The chiffchaff problem is the doubts historians should harbour about the categories they seek in spite of the intentions of historical sources. It identifies the uncertainty we should and often do feel about looking ‘through’ sources to find phenomena whose independent existence could be a product of our own imagination. And perhaps this post is just a reflection of my own naivety, but I could not tell you how many topics I have wanted to study as a historian, only to find out how impractical it would be to construct a viable object that could be systematically researched in the source documents.

Of course, historians often talk of ‘reading against the grain’, in the sense of using historical sources to reveal things that they were not intended for. The chiffchaff problem is just one of many issues that fall under this general methodology. We could also mention the problem of romanticising resistance or how impoverished our accounts are if we ignore the grain itself.

But it is nonetheless a recurring problem, whether the object is more or less visible to the historical sources.

Take the example of the women’s work identified by this project, which uses early modern English trial depositions to get an idea of what women did with their time. Contemporaries would probably be able to understand the concept that someone was trying to work out what kinds of work women did, even if some of the conceptual framework of social science developed in the nineteenth century and beyond would be beyond them and they might wonder why on earth this was happening. Of course, an important part of the point of the project is that they may not have recognised as work some activities that we would today.

In other cases, the phenomena would not have been conceptually available to the people who compiled the sources. The work environmental historians have done to identify climate change in sources from before the development of modern climate science would be an example.

Similarly, in The History of Sexuality Vol. 1, Michel Foucault suggests that in the nineteenth century, homosexuality became an identity (see p.43). Where before there had practices of sex between men, or between women, it was not until the nineteenth century that the homosexual became a ‘species’, a type, a category. Leaving aside the question of whether Foucault is right about this process, his argument has had important implications for the history of sexuality in the sense that many historians have followed his lead in holding that ‘homosexuals’ do not exist as an historical ‘object’ before this period. There are practices that we might subsequently label homosexual, but homosexuality cannot justifiably be imposed onto earlier sources by historians reading against the grain.

Both ends of this spectrum involve a kind of epistemological violence, in the sense that the categories are necessarily imposed by historians on to the source materials, whether those categories are more or less independently verifiable (chiffchaffs, climate change) or more or less visible to contemporaries (‘homosexuals’ or ‘women’s work’).  The commonsense reaction of many historians would probably be that climate change, just as much as women’s working patterns, really did exist, whether or not contemporaries were capable of recognizing it and naming it.

And I agree in many cases.

But the chiffchaff problem is about having the doubt, about recognising the issue. Perhaps it could also be succinctly summarised as the problem of anachronisms when reading against the grain.

Lots of people on the Twitter thread suggested words to describe the process of looking through sources for things that the sources were not made to reveal. My favourite is probably John Morgan’s concept of ‘gleaning’, but Rachel Hermann’s ‘salt in the sea’ and ‘needle in a haystack’, David Hitchcock’s ‘sieving’, and Daniel Todman’s ‘coring the historical sediment’ all point to useful ways to think about this way of working.

I am not offering anything as broad as a word for how historians construct and identify a historical object and search for it in a wider field of sources.

What I am suggesting is that we need a word for the problem that we cannot always – or perhaps ever – be sure to what extent the objects that we identify are useful fictions, post-hoc classifications that do not apply to a period when they had not yet been developed, and to what extent they might belong to a reality independently of the sources through which we sift.

That problem is the same kind of problem inherent to many archival and other methodologies, whether our objects are homosexuality, or small warbling birds.

Also, you will be shocked to hear, a chiffchaff.

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