The past doesn’t change, right? So once we know what happened, what else is there to do? What do historians do, anyway?
The history profession has many critics, but even many of its fans cannot figure out what historians do, other than teach. I recently visited family and encountered these questions more explicitly than I had in the past. As a historian starting an assistant professorship, these are questions I expect to hear from my students, and to which I hope to provide them with an adequate answer.
We might grant that the past doesn’t change, but to do so we need some large caveats. While what happened does not happen differently (unless time travel is in fact possible, according to Back to the Future), our access to what happened is indirect. New sources are being discovered which reveal additional aspects about parts of the past which were unfamiliar. Discovery of new data is one of the important functions of historians. And if you wish to learn anything outside of the past 500 years or outside of that portion of the world dominated by English speakers, you will need trained experts to interpret the evidence and translate it into a language you can understand.
But discovery of new data is only a small portion of what historians do, although it is always exciting when it happens. A larger portion of the historian’s job is to interpret the data which is already known. Okay, so we know that in 1258 the Mongol general Hulegu (grandson of Chinggis Khan) conquered Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph. So what? Why is that an important event? Who cares? The historian’s job is to answer these questions. This conquest put a final whimpering end to the myth of unity in the Islamic world. For three centuries already the caliph in Baghdad had been a puppet in Baghdad with little real power, yet Sunni thugs who wanted to appear as legitimate rulers would send letters to Baghdad claiming to ask for recognition from the caliph, which the caliph rarely if ever refused. And thus, at least for the region west of Libya, there was a notion that all Islam was united under one caliph. After the Mongol pagan Hulegu killed the last Abbasid caliph, a new Abbasid caliphate was quickly established in Egypt (whose successors continued, after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, in Istanbul until 1923), which achieved recognition within lands ruled from the Nile valley. But to the north in Anatolia and to the east of the Euphrates, areas now ruled by Mongols, Muslims religious thinkers learned how to get along without a caliph in their political theories. The events of 1258 forced some rapid rethinking of the relationship between religion and politics in the Islamic world.
That’s the significance question, but historians also care about the causality question: why did the events of 1258 happen as they did? Why did the Central Asian steppe nomads conquer most of Asia and part of Europe, but not India, Palestine, Egypt, or Western Europe? It’s easy to say that they ran out of gas, but why then? Why there? Western European sources from the 1240s to the 1260s show clear concern that the Mongol juggernaut would roll over them next. And why did the events of 1258 have the particular effects they did, rather than some other effects? Why didn’t all Muslims in Iraq rise up in revolt at the death of the caliph and attempt to establish a new caliphate, as some are doing today in northern Iraq? Causal questions are difficult, because the phenomena involved are many-faceted, and there are many variables that we don’t have access to in the evidence that survives (and historians are bound to the surviving evidence; that is what distinguishes them from authors of historical fiction). Because questions of causality are difficult, they occasion much debate, as questions of significance also do, and historians debate these questions.
One might naively suspect that the causality and significance questions could be settled once and for all, and then historians would move to more recent topics. But this has not happened, and will not happen, for a few reasons. One reason is that we interpret the evidence of the past through our present understanding of the world. As we understand better, or perhaps just differently, “how the world works,” so our understanding of the evidence for the past changes as well. Historians are necessary to help sift out narratives about the past which depend on theories about the world which have been disproven. For example, a theory about the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th C which remains popular today is the environmental theory put forward by René Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes, according to which all Central Asian nomads grew up in a climate which forced them to be natural warriors with a desire to conquer the sedentary lands around them, and whenever the military of those sedentary lands degraded in quality, conquest from the steppe lands was inevitable. This is to say that the Mongol conquests did not depend at all upon what happened where the nomads lived, but was exclusively a function of what happened in the “civilized lands.” This is clearly wrong, and yet it remains popular, because it was written in a seductively clear narrative which was mass-marketed. Historians need to challenge this notion.
Another reason these arguments will never cease is that we investigate history to learn more about the present. As the present changes, so too does our view of the past; things that previously seemed very significant suddenly seem less so, or vice versa. When a descendent of Hulegu, Ghazan Khan, adopted Islam, this is seen as a significant event. (Personally, I doubt it was very significant). When Ghazan’s brother Oljeitu rejected Sunni Islam for Shi’ism, this is seen by some as a significant event, precisely those people who look at Middle East conflicts today and see them as sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia, while others think the switch was largely cosmetic on Oljeitu’s part (how much did he know about Islam anyway?). Cultural forces which previous generations assumed were universal motivators, such as religion, have been considered in some recent historical scholarship to be just a front for “the real motives,” usually economic or sociological. Historical causality and significance are difficult and elusive topics, and hence historians are always attempting to come to a better understanding of them.
But I think the most important job of the historian is not these, precisely, although these questions play a role in it. The most important job of the historian is to help society come to terms with the quantity of the past.
There is a lot more information about the past than any single person can hope to understand, no matter how thoroughly she or he devotes a lifetime to the pursuit (and some people need to earn a living, and see friends and family). The abundance of information about the past creates the problem that no one can fully understand it. It’s also true that no one can know all the things that are going on in the world right now, so scientists create models of the physical world to enable us to understand why things happen a certain way, and to allow us to interact with the world around us. Much more has happened than is happening (because whatever is happening is past just as quickly), and so historians create models and frameworks to organize our understanding of the past. These mental models and frameworks are necessary to make sense of the past, to reduce the overwhelming details into stories which tell us about our world and what makes it the way it is.
People create mental models to understand their world somewhat reflexively; it’s one of the amazing things about being human. But these models are not necessarily correct, no more than any other explanation after the fact is necessary correct. So just as amazing, to my mind, is the propensity for people to create erroneous models of the past. And historians argue about these models, to see which is better. To come back to Hulegu’s conquest of Baghdad in 1258, we know it had an effect. But was that effect significant enough to merit distinguishing all that went before it in the Middle East from all that went after it? Or did the year 1200 have more in common with 1300 in most of the Middle East than either did with 900? Historians debate this. (I have debated this.) This is the debate about periodization: where should we put the pauses in our accounts of the past in order to make the most sense? And while historians rightly think that too much effort has been put into “getting the periodization right,” since different phenomena will inevitably have different natural stopping points, periodization is just one aspect of the question of which mental model makes the most sense about the past.
Many people continue to believe history is just a series of names and dates, and no doubt this is how history is commonly taught. Meanwhile, historians see history as a series of debates, where the dispute is not (usually) about what happened or didn’t, but about larger questions, such as why it happened, why it matters, and what is the best framework for understanding this event in the larger trajectories of human experience. Such questions transform history from a deadening litany of the dead into a living and changing collective attempt to understand better the world in which we live today.