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Friday, 23 January 2009

History on History: Essential for all Historians

"In Our Time" is an excellent regular radio programme and podcast that deals with big ideas in history. On 23/01/2009 the programme centred on a topic I think should be of interest to any historian: the history of history. Historians are often our sources. Their approach and methods can shape the way we study history or look at the past. Interestingly the origins of the word history are closely linked to the word "inquiry".

Conspiracy theorists and pseudohistorians often like to cite the adage "history is written by the winners" when they have difficulty shifting the overwhelming evidence set against their extraordinary claims. Actually the excellent sceptical resource website Snopes has a forum discussion on the origins of this exact phrase:;f=101;t=000374;p=0 However, this is not good enough. History is about researching and establishing facts. The discussion looks at how the writing of history has evolved and, looking at the broader picture, how we can establish certain historical facts. Anecdotal evidence is given its place. For example Herodotus and Pliny were quick to point out when they didn't know whether a certain historical story was real, but also understood that it was important to include nevertheless to understand the thinking of the people who did believe it. This is different from some historians who followed them, sometimes competitively and contemptuously, who completley disregarded such stories and, worse still, those who reported such stories as facts (see the conspiracy theorists, pseudohistorians and pulp non-fiction writers).

When I wrote "The Legend of Salt and Sauce" I was very aware of the amount of myth surrounding these two famous historical circus elephants, hence the title. For me, it was important to not only include inaccurate reports of certain events and apocryphal stories in order to debunk them, but to show how imagines were fired up and folklore was created. We need to understand biases of certain historians - for example, "In Our Time" discusses the huge influence of post-Constantine Christian historians - in order to see what shaped the mentality of those who read their work. I found that my subject, Salt and Sauce the elephants, had been so surrounded by infamy thanks in part to the stories about their stampedes being reported on the radio decades after they had happened that the keepers at Dudley Zoo became very concerned about handling them. Subsequently they weren't worked for a year before Ivor Rosaire took them on for "Long" Tom Fossett on his circus. In his interview Ivor told me that there was a lot of fearful apprehension surrounding his training them at the time when Fossett bought them off Dudley Zoo.

Here is the link for "In Our Time" Don't forget to check their useful research page.

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penandspindle said...

Brilliant, Jamie!

Wade G. Burck said...

Absolutly brilliant. I have found in the writing of the majority of "circus themed history", particulily in modern times, there is a great amount of friendship, personal agenda that goes into the the writing. Which leads to great inaccuracies. There is a fellow respected for his writing in regards to cage act history from Germany. Incredible one of a kind photos, yet he has written "fact" without even speaking to living people's he has written about, which is most troubling if it is to be accepted as history. A true historian can not let his/her "personal" opinion/likes/dislikes cloud their writing.
Wade Burck

Jamie Clubb said...

Thanks Heather and Wade for your kind words, and I hope you both enjoyed the link.


I completely agree and it is a subject that has cropped up a few times recently. I have recently conducted an interview with Heather discussing objectivity in historical research, which I will be publishing on here shortly.

Meanwhile, on our home ground of circus my cousin and I have been discussing the issue of testing "stories" on a Circus Space discussion. Being naturally inclined towards entertaining, circus history is rich with folklore and legends. That's great when it comes to just dealing with pure entertainment, but when history is being recorded we have to do our best to not only be impartial, but assume the position of Devil's advocate when no credible evidence is available to prove some of our best loved stories.

Wade G. Burck said...

I suggest the two greatest factors affecting "circus history" are, no accurate records, and the closeness of the researcher to the subject. Most of our history is "word of mouth" or jackpots. If we are going to look at interview type material we have to assume it is self serving. The greatest harm to impartiality is the fact that either they are friends, family, or friends and family of friends and family, etc. Our history is always written by someone with ties to it or a fan who is in love with it for what it is in their eyes and won't address anything less. I suggest there will be a great amount of bias in that scenario. If you are writing a history of Abraham Lincoln, you may be inclined to exclude overwhelming evidence that he owned slaves, if you are too "close" to the subject.
In watching something like our Super Bowl, and they have at their fingertips "trivia facts" ie the second youngest quarterback to throw 3 touchdowns in the second quarter, I am reminded again that our history has never been accuratly documented. I am reminded of the scene from Mad Max, where each evening they sit around the campfire and listen to the "tell", the history of the world before, told by the oldest member of the tribe. He has a young boy who listens to each "telling" so that when he is gone, somebody can carry on with the "tell". It is jackpots for all intents and purposes. Non verifiable and taken at face value and reverence for the "teller". Any circus historian has to be ever so careful not to be swayed by a closeness to the subject, and not to inject his emotional thoughts. I don't know how willing folks are to discuss history or evidence in a public forum such as a Circus Space. Again the "roots" or fear of reprisal may prevent a valid accuracy, and we are left to speculate on the facts as they have been presented.
Your father is, in my book, one of the greatest cage act historians living today. If he ever does the "Alfred Court History", I for one, will attempt to "read between the lines" before I agree that Mr. Court should be given Sainthood. LOL
I commend and respect your efforts in looking for the answers, which will bring you closer to accuracy then any have come before.
Wade Burck

Jamie Clubb said...

Thanks again, Wade. I think you have hit the proverbial nail on the head with your summation of the pitfalls objective circus historians face. The discussion on Circus Space featurs my cousin, Jim Stockley, who is doing his best to trace the Chipperfield side of my family through various records. There are a lot of claims on the forum regarding who has the oldest circus family and yet a lot of what is being provided appears to be anecdotal evidence. This is the curse of circus history as you pointed out with your Mad Max reference.

When we first set out to write "The Legend of Salt and Sauce" Dad and I just thought that we'd just be clearing up a few misquoted and misunderstood "facts". However, as we got deep into the research we realized how much just didn't fit. This is why we ended up consulting death certificates, inquest reports and newspaper reports. It became an education in history. Now I am very much the sceptic and I mean that is very positive way. Like scientists, I think historians should not accept absolutes and be careful what they list as facts. If you look through my book you will see I have footnoted as many statements as possible with its source clearly listed. This not only verifies certain points, but also helps the reader make up his own mind and do further research.

Wade G. Burck said...

I have been following said discussion about pedigree with interest. Like all "circus related" discussions it seems to boil down to "what to lose, what to gain." Is it a respected family many want to claim roots to, or is it an Adolf Hitler or a Vlad Dracula, where folks are looking the other way, or burying birth certificates at the bottom of the file cabinet? LOL
Your statement, "Now I am very much the sceptic and I mean that is very positive way," say's much about your willingness as a valid researcher to keep an open mind, with fact's speaking for themselves.
Let me speak for a moment from the eyes of someone with no roots or ties to the circus. but have devoted over half a life time to the industry.
I had never seen a cirucs until I was 18 years old. The only name I had any familiarity with was Clyde Beatty, and that was press. Many names were referenced to me initially as great, and other names were referenced to me as not so great. With no facts to go on, those references were accepted as fact. But then a time later someone else would reference those names I had been given in the exact opposite I began to wonder. I usually found out, because of no set "standard/ideal that the statements were often based on whether someone had taken someelse's parking spot, or whether they were related or had a good/poor relationship with the folks referenced.
In the field of Martial Art's of which you are very versed, there is a standard or an ideal. Videos/movies of Bruce Lee can be judged against that thousand year old standard in deciding his validity or claim to greatness, or whether the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique is "show biz" hype.
If what is greatness/achievement is left up to each individuals interpretation with no "standard" of what is great or what is achievement we may be faced with the dilemma of crowning Jesus the King or Elvis Presley the King. I should think that the fact that one dying crucified on a cross, if that is fact, should be as relevent as one dying, in a drug induced stupor face first in the loo, if that is indeed fact. After we have defined, "What is a King." Open minds will be the greatest ally of research.

Jamie Clubb said...

Hi Wade,

Thanks for the comments and continuing the discussion. On the positive side, with more information out there and established sceptical movements (both in science and history)there is at least a better chance today to get more objectivity or a genuine desire to establish facts.

Actually the world of martial arts is at least as bad as circus history for myth-making, self-serving ideals and appeals to antiquity, which is the reason why my third book is titled "Bullshitsu: The Fight to Make Martial Arts Work", but that's another story!