How history is written and why its authorship matters

by Shirley Williams
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In historiography, authors write about history rather than of it. It provides an in-depth analysis of who wrote of history and why they were the ones who wrote it. There is certainly some truth to the idea that history is written by the victors, but it goes beyond that. Wealth, privilege, and biological sex all factor into who wrote of history. Understanding why certain writers wrote of history and others did not is important for understanding history itself.

Who wrote history in the past?

Things have changed a lot in the last few hundred years. It used to be that educated men penned history. The ‘Father of History’, Herodotus, wrote “The Histories” in the 5th Century B.C., in Greece.

Sima Qian is known as the “Chinese Herodotus” and first undertook the task of writing the history of China. Ban Zhao, one of the rare instances of a female historian in the ancient world, took over writing the history of the Han dynasty when both her father and brother died mid-project.

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By the end of the 20th century, however, historians were no longer predominantly men of privilege. Kwame Anthony Appiah – an author of over 35 books – is considered a leading mind on African history and cultural identity. Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb has made numerous television appearances in which her authority on the history of witchcraft in early modern Britain has been discussed.

Looking through another lens

History as it was written leaves out certain perspectives. Women, lower-class folks, people with disabilities, and those of minority races and ethnicities were not always given access to the education necessary for recording written history. But their perspectives were – and still are – of great importance.

Think about the history of Victorian England. It was revised because next-generation scholars began to search for new source material and focused on more diverse groups of people. They wanted to understand the roles of those who had classically been underprivileged and how that factored into life after the rise of the Industrial Revolution.

There are two ways that historians write history. The first is to begin with a theory and build from that foundation by conducting research. For example, they might decide to research the formation of the American colonies. They might also look into different cultures and languages and find historical evidence there.

For some historians, though, there is the urge to study a more particular person from history. Take, for example, Lucy Worsley, a modern-day historian who has dedicated her research to understanding British author Jane Austen. Also consider Walter Lord, who took great care to gather first-hand evidence from survivors and document the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. Without his efforts, the Titanic might have been much harder for divers to locate and for filmmakers like James Cameron to accurately depict.

Why history matters

As Lord Byron once wrote, “The best prophet of the future is the past.” In the 21st Century, education is not exclusive, and more people than ever before have access to history. If you have an Internet connection, you immediately have history right at the tip of your fingers. It is there for you to learn about – and from.

History is something we can go back to with our own unique reading glasses on and reexamine. We can select our specialties or go for a broader approach. There are many aspects of history left to be uncovered, and it is up to us 21st Century scholars to record, analyze, and preserve it. And what good is history if we do not learn anything from it?

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