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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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