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Inside Nonfiction Matters

We Are In the Great Days of Revisionism, and What a Thrill That Is

Some Books On My Shelf

Did you all catch the article in the Times about new views of the Battle of Agincourt? If you, or your school, teaches Henry V part one this is a great article to circ, because the whole "Band of Brothers" image of the vastly outnumbered plucky English against the arrogant, aristocratic, French has come under question. I’m no Early Modern or military history expert, and the article makes clear that there are competing views, some still see the battle as Shakespeare did. But what is wonderful about this piece is it shows how our views of the past are changing. In this case, because of detailed archival work — instead of building up a sense of the past only, or mainly, from written accounts (thus generally by men attached in some way to power — the church, the nobility, a king) we can now use layer on layer of social history documentation to at least broadly sketch out the character and experience of the poorer masses. That is not a news flash for anyone who took college history, but to see an application of that approach that may shift our entire view of a cannonical (and literary) moment like the Battle of Agincourt is a thrill we really need to share with colleagues.
      "Revisionism" — of which this is an example — has a negative tinge. The term is used by scholars, but in general parlance it carries some unhappy associations — a sense that things used to be OK and now some outside agitators are mucking around, removing foundations, changing things. There is a hint of lefty special pleading — the idea that an old solid narrative is being hijacked by people with special interests. I even hear a kind of Catholic anti-Protestantism in the term — the idea that these revisors are jettisoning centuries of authority and imposing themselves on ancient truth. I wish the term did not have all of these associations because we are actually in a glorious moment of revisionism — not just because of the wonderful way numbers-crunching digital tools enable us to extract social history from dusty records, but also because of the new way a global view of the past is changing everything we thought we knew about national histories. A great example of that is this review in the current New York Review of Books, The great American historian Bernard Bailyn writes about a new view of 1688, the Glorious Revolution, by Steve Pincus. 
    Folks you may not know or care much about 1688, but please read the review. You see history changing before your eyes. This is going on all over the academy, and, as Bailyn says, because of the global links everyone is making. So friends we need to be ambassadors — there is a whole lot of shaking going on in the academy, not secular, interest-driven, special pleading, but expansive new views that make textbooks look like sleeping pills, and — if young people knew about them — could give them the sense that this is the moment to study the past, because we are making it our own — finding it to have been as global as we are now. What an exciting moment to read, study, learn, and write history.


  1. Loree Griffin Burns says:

    “What an exciting moment to read, study, learn, and write history.”

    Indeed! Thanks for this post, and for the links.

  2. sure thing, if you run across books or articles that you want others to know about, please post them here.

  3. Peni Griffin says:

    Just so you know, when I see the word “revisionism” I read “Holocaust Denial.” Not the revisionism you’re after, I’m sure, but it is the term they’ve adopted.

  4. that is exactly the problem — the term carries that association of the abuse of history when, in fact, nothing is more true to the actual profession than the constant re-evaluation and revision of our understandings.

  5. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    How unfortunate that “revisionism” has that association. After reading the last comment, it seems as if the term (if there were such a term) “re-understandings” would work better. Until then, we have to be clear about what we are doing, why, and how exciting the study of history can be as a result of that.