What is the subject of history

Tolstoy begins his discourse on the nature of historical fiction with the famous sentence: “The subject of history is the life of peoples and humanity.” And perhaps we might say , in a Tolstoyean spirit, that the subject of historical novels is the life of individuals living in a past age, patterned into a story of their interactions with others, with events, customs, habits of mind, and the objects and forces of their world.

Another great writer, Voltaire, famously said ‘L’histoire est une fable convenue’ – ‘History is an agreed fable’.

We are used to thinking of history as something comprised of facts and verifiable sources, supplemented by archaeological findings and material evidence. But this comparatively recent way of thinking was not shared by historians in other ages. For example, the historians of the Anglo-Norman centuries saw history in primarily moral and religious terms, which are deeply connected to the stuff of the imagination: hopes and fears, longings and desires, fantasy and invention. As Christian historians, they were shaped by the myths and legends of their faith and governed by the historical understanding that God played the dominating role in all events, past and present. The purpose of history was to teach moral lessons and so they understood and wrote history in those terms.

Modern academic history does not always register the intensity of historical occurrences which can only be accessed in approximate ways through works of the imagination.  These thoughts led me to write the novel “Aefled and Eleanor, A Poet’s Tale”, which brings together historical fact, poetry and storytelling in order to find new ways of thinking and talking about historical fiction – both the theoretical and practical aspects of engaging with the past in an attempt to make it speak and live.

In the spirit of evoking the immediacy of historical events, we can rewrite the past in contemporary terms. Reporting verifiable sources in a familiar journalistic style helps to recover the intensity of lived experience through the unfolding headline dramas of past ages.

‘History is an agreed fable’. What a marvellous phrase that is. It begins with history and ends in fable. Perhaps all pasts do. Pasts are only ever partially glimpsed – even our own.