History

History is about the past, and the past is anyone and everyone and anything and everything that has happened since you've read this.

History is a generic term that relates to past events as well as the discovery, collection, organisation and presentation of information about those events. The term includes everything in the Universe and beyond, but is often implied to mean human history: people and places.

The past may be divided into four main categories:

  1. Palaeontology - the scientific study of prehistoric life, including the study of fossils. Palaeontology is between biology and geology, and uses techniques from a wide range of sciences.
  2. Prehistoric - prehistoric society (from the Palaeolithic period until the advent of literacy), represents over 99% of total human history. Archaeology is the scientific study of human activity in the past, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, including artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes. Archaeology is constituted by a range of methodologies and approaches which are independent from history and does not fill the gaps within textual sources.
  3. Protohistory - a period between prehistory and history, during which a culture or civilisation has not yet developed writing, but other cultures have already noted its existence in their own writings. For example, in Europe, the Celts and the Germanic tribes may be considered to have been protohistoric when they began appearing in Greek and Roman texts. Protohistoric may also refer to the transition period between the advent of literacy in a society and the writings of the first historians. The preservation of oral traditions may complicate matters as these can provide a secondary historical source for even earlier events.
  4. History - The modern discipline of history is the institutional production of a true discourse of past through the production of narrative and analysis of past events relating to the human race. All events that are remembered and preserved in some authentic form constitute the historical record. The task of historical discourse is to identify the sources that can most usefully contribute to the production of accurate accounts of past.

Herodotus, a Greek historian, (c.484-425BC) is considered to be the "father of history" and together with his contemporary, Thucydides (c460-395BC), considered to be the father of "scientific history", helped form the foundations for the modern study of human history. Herodotus was the first historian to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy, and arrange them in a well-constructed narrative. His "The Histories" was the product of his "inquiry". The Greek for 'inquiry' is 'historia' - a word that passed into Latin, thence to acquire the meaning 'history'. Thucydides, unlike Herodotus, regarded history as being the product of the choices and actions of human beings, and looked at cause and effect, rather than as the result of divine intervention. In his historical method, Thucydides emphasised chronology, a neutral point of view, and that the human world was the result of the actions of human beings.

The word 'history' entered the English language in 1390 with the meaning of "relation of incidents, story". In Middle English, it meant "story" in general. By the late 15th century the meaning of history was restricted to the "record of past events". Historian in the sense of a "researcher of history" is attested from 1531.

History is a vast subject so study often focuses on events and developments that occur at particular periods of times. The periods of time are named to allow "organising ideas and classificatory generalisations" to be used by historians. The names given to a period can vary with geographical location, so too can the dates of the start and end of a particular period. Centuries and decades are commonly used periods and the time they represent depends on the dating system used. Most periods are constructed retrospectively and so reflect value judgments made about the past. The way periods are constructed and the names given to them can affect the way they are viewed and studied.

Traditionally, historians have recorded events of the past, either in writing or by passing on an oral tradition, and have attempted to answer historical questions through the study of written documents and oral accounts. For the beginning, historians have also used such sources as monuments, inscriptions, and pictures. In general, the sources of historical knowledge can be separated into three categories: what is written, what is said, and what is physically preserved, and historians often consult all three. But writing is what separates history from what comes before.

The Historical Method

The historical method comprises the techniques and guidelines by which historians use primary sources and other evidence to research and then to write history.

Amongst the procedures for the historical method is that if the sources all agree about an event then historians can consider the event proved. But sources could have formed the wrong conclusion. People are curious, when something doesn't make sense, education and learning challenges. Each discovery and scientific advancement is a stepping-stone for progress. New evidence comes to light. Established thinking can turn out to be wrong after all. For example, the "Myth of the Flat Earth", the misconception that educated Europeans at the time of Columbus (1451-1506) believed in a flat Earth was in 1945 listed by the Historical Association of Britain as the second of twenty in a pamphlet on common errors in history.

History, everything that has ever happened and everyone gone before, stretches from the beginning of time, if not before, to the present day, so historians break the subject into bite-sized chunks. The compartmentalisation and categorisation of information appeals to a sense of order, to tame the wild. Tackling history in an orderly fashion, rather than chaotic, can make it easier to understand. It can also make it easy to skim, skip, and jump to conclusions.

The snag with any method of organising ideas or what I call 'compartmentalisation' is where best to start. In the field of shops the valuation aspects of which often require considerable evidence, I could limit my record-system to keeping evidence relating to a particular year or decade, such as 2012 or 2001-2010, but that could lead to difficulty in providing evidence in 1982 for capital gains tax valuation. With a topic or thematic specialisation, for example, the workhouse, whose origins can be tracked back to the Poor Law Act 1388 until formally abolished in 1930 with residue until 1948, evidence may be confined more easily. With family history, genealogy, and the tracing of ancestors, it all starts with a man and a woman and what happened after they met.

Unlike topic or thematic history, where the organisation of ideas and evidence would lead to some speciality and quite possibly a narrow view, a holistic method requires a catholic (all-embracing) conclusion. However, since the object of compartmentalisation is to sift the evidence and possibly sort out the wheat from the chaff, whether it is humanly possible to be all-embracing is doubtful. It is also doubtful whether possible to be indifferent to the cause and effect. There are some that think the human being a catalyst, that comment can be neutral and completely objective, with no subjective bias. But a human being cannot be a catalyst because a catalyst is inert. An alternative is an overview, but an overview of history is presented by the historical method; in other words, back to square one.

History does not claim to be a science; even so adherence to the historical method upholds the standards expected of a historian but sometimes at the expense of sense. Sense is a feeling that something is the case. Scientifically, the cause of a feeling may be explained but the limitation of science is that we do not know. Furthermore, there is a considerable amount we still do not know. Which is why so many people are content to rely on feeling and whatever makes sense, either to each individual or 'common sense' generally. In the context of the long view of history. As Chairman Mao, the late chairman of China's Communist Party, is reputed to have said, when asked about the meaning of an impact of the French Revolution
"it's too early to tell".

The institutionalising of history can make us 'ordinary members of the public', (as the media describes us) feel as though our opinions don't count for anything. To an extent, that may be valid, it is not unusual for opinions to be prejudiced. It might be that we simply do not know enough about a subject for our comments to be taken seriously. But the snag with protocol is not that it sets out to discount the public opinion - on the contrary the objective is to further understanding and learning amongst a wider audience - but it can attract the sort of person that places the scholarly on a pedestal and woe betide anyone that dares criticise.

Historians, in my experience, are by and large friendly people, keen to help and impart, so are probably unaware of the sort of person that on one hand worships the ground they (the historians) walk on while on the other applies the heroic following as a means of seeking to destroy confidence in others. Years ago, I remember questioning something I'd read about Sigmund Freud, the
neurologist who became known as the founding father of psychoanalysis, only to be told off by one of his supporters. Whether Mr Freud would have agreed with me one cannot say, I'd like to think he would at least have considered the possibility, unlike the follower. The playing of power-games and trying to impose a 'know one's place' by those that thrive on kudos is I consider a remnant of intolerance.

To quote philosopher Julian Baggini, writing in the Financial Times magazine 8/9 December 2012, "in philosophy as in science "mere assertion" is the lower than lowest form of argument, being not more than baseless pontification. Yet in much of everyday life, assertion is king. Much of what passes for discussion of serious issues, for example, is actually little more than people taking it in turns to state their opinions and dismiss those of others. Instead of trying to understand each other, they merely stay quiet and listen for as short a time as is decent before simply resuming their own monologue. Psychologists have known for decades that the people who are most likely to be believed are not those with the most cogent arguments or decisive evidence, but those who assert what they think with the greatest confidence."

Sense is not excluded from the historical method. The method permits opinion and speculation, but subject to the parameters of the method. Hence, it is said historians have a tendency to avoid questions that are difficult if not impossible to answer!

Or perhaps it is not that the questions cannot be answered but that the right questions are not being asked. Amongst my favourite quotations is one by the late Lord Denning: "guidelines are not barriers, you may step over them at any time."

Neolithic

The Neolithic period, around 4000 to 2000 BC, was the period of domestication of plants and animals. Whether the introduction of farming and a sedentary lifestyle was brought about by resident peoples adopting new practices, or introduced by continental invaders bringing their culture with them and, to some degree, replacing the indigenous populations is debatable.

Pollen analysis shows that woodland was decreasing and grassland increasing.

The Neolithic Revolution, as it is called, introduced a more settled way of life, with societies becoming divided into differing groups of farmers, artisans and leaders. Forests were cleared to provide room for cereal cultivation and animal herds. Native cattle and pigs were reared whilst sheep and goats were introduced from the continent, as were the wheats and barleys grown in Britain. Cave occupation was common at this time, only a few settlement sites are known in Britain.

The earliest earthwork sites in Britain began during the early Neolithic (c. 4400 BC – 3300 BC) as long barrows used for burial and the first causewayed enclosures. The stone-built houses on Orkney, for example at Skara Brae, indicate some nucleated settlement in Britain.

Mesolithic

During the Mesolithic period, circa 10,000 to 5,500 years ago, temperatures rose, probably to similar levels as nowadays, and forests expanded.

By 9,500 years ago, rising sea levels had cut off Britain from Ireland, and by around 6500-6000 BC Doggerland was submerged and continental Europe cut off again.

Out of the warmer climate grew pine, birch and alder trees, a forestry landscape that was less conducive to the herds of reindeer and wild horse. To cater for people's diet, in came pig, elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and wild cattle. Tools changed to reflect different hunting methods. The dog was domesticated for its benefit during hunting. The wetland environment created by the warmer weather would've provided a rich source of fish and game.

Social changes accompanied environmental changes. Humans reached the north of Scotland. Excavations in Northumberland uncovered evidence of a large circular building, interpreted as a dwelling, dating to about 7600BC.

The Briton previously regarded as Nomadic was replaced with a more complex picture of seasonal and maybe permanent occupation.

The rising population eventually led to local exhaustion of many natural resources. Farming of crops and domestic animals was adopted circa 4500BC, partly a need for reliable food sources. Hunter-gathering as a way of life gave way to distinct territories occupied by different tribes.

The climate continued to warm and the earlier pine forests were placed by woodland.

(December 2012) An archaeological find at Lunt Meadows in Sefton, Merseyside, has unearthed evidence that Mesolithic man may have built settlements. If proven, it could change the way historians think about how humans lived in the middle Stone Age period. It was always thought that Mesolithic man was nomadic, yet this site presents the possibility that several families may have lived together in one place. The discoveries have been dated back to the middle Stone Age (5,800BC) and reveal a floor, timber stakes which would have been part of a wall, as well as flints and other utensils.

Upper Palaeolithic

The Upper Palaeolithic period (circa 45,000 to 10,000 years ago) is often divided into three sub-periods:

  1. Early Upper (before the main glacial period),
  2. Middle Upper (main glacial period); and
  3. Later Upper Palaeolithic (after the main glacial period)

The most famous example from this period was the discovery in 1823 in Wales of the first human fossil ever discovered anywhere in the world, and re-dated in 2009 to 33,000 years old.

With so much of the Earth's water trapped in ice, the sea level was considerably lower than nowadays. Britain and ireland were joined by an exposed 'land bridge' and an area of dry land (exposed sea bed) joined Britain to continental Europe.

Another Ice Age covered Britain between 70,000 and 10,000 years ago, with an extreme cold period between 22,000 and 13,000 years ago.

The cold may have driven humans out of Britain altogether. Evidence from archeological sites in Swansea, Nottinghamshire and Somerset suggest that Homo sapiens returned around 12,000-13,000 years ago as the climate became more hospitable.