According to today’s New York Times, there’s a perceived shortage of historians out there that look at history traditionally (i.e., via official records at court and via the memos from the ministry) being squeezed out by non-traditional scholars (that is, the ones that look at history as perceived by folks who didn’t keep such records). For those wanting to use the established standards the sides flocked to specifically mentioned in the article, it’s the folks doing diplomatic and economic history losing out to women’s history.
So of course, how could the strugle unfoldwithout a comment from this port?
As the proud owner of a Bachelors Degree in History received at a time when the mix was different, geared more towards traditional approaches, I have to say now what I did then: Can’t you guys get along better?
Sure, there may be stories that had been passed down in only one manner from then to now, but does that mean we can’t allow another perspective? And this applies to both sides; a social history may need to make room for official documented accounts to round out the narrative as well.
This of course is more than just a dry academic turf battle; those writing historic fiction also have a say in the fight. A writer who wants to be fully immersed in the setting in order to produce the best book possible (cf. Mary Doria Russell’s comments at io9.com) needs as many sources to draw on as possible, from as many perspectives as can be handled, in order to make the environment as accessable as possible to the reader. Staying only within one camp’s purview is going to leave that writer poorer in producing the work.
Close at hand example: I’m not sure I could have a book where we just state that the heroes are pirates, and that their enemies hate them. The enemies of pirates are figures of authority; in fact, most of them ARE the authorities. But what are they defending? When these folks assume their offices and take up their tasks, what are they doing it for? A social historian without a sense of the mechanism of state is going to have hell explaining these folks’ motivations.
Likewise, without knowing the social life of the folks in the setting, we don’t have a sense of what motivates them. Sure, we have a good idea of what motivates all people throughout time, but some options may be more readily obvious than others depending on the time. Trying to write about the Baroque Age without a sense of what was more likely to be on people’s minds makes it difficult to come up with people behaving in a realistic manner for the time.
I always feel that the broader the background, the better. Never limit yourself, especially if you’re going to have Clio the muse taking up shotgun on your work…