2 Answers

  1. ## [Lyrical introduction ]

    Dear Natalia, do not take the following paragraph personally, but I have long wanted to gather my colleagues and work together to create a project to refute the common misconceptions of the public about history as a field of knowledge. Approximately, as V. Surdin did about astronomy. Two of the most common and, frankly, well-worn ones: history does not tolerate the subjunctive mood and history is written by the winners.

    ## [Lyrical introduction ended]

    ## Who “writes history” and how?

    In order to answer your question, it is worth first asking: how is history written in general? In turn, this question needs two terminological additions:

    • What is history?
    • How to understand: “history is being written”?

    Simple Googling shows that the word “history” has two main meanings:

    1. Reality in its development and movement.
    2. The science of the development of society and nature [or historiography].

    Accordingly, in the first sense, history is the objective reality of the past, which is not written by anyone, but simply exists (or rather, was). It is described in the second definition, i.e. by representatives of this science, that is, historians. In other words, when we say, “History is being written,” we are talking about creating a narrative that describes the events of the past.

    UPD. Mikhail Markovich Krom, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor of Historical Comparative Studies at the European University in St. Petersburg, recently gave a separate very high-quality lecture, telling about the creation of this narrative, I highly recommend it.


    When creating this narrative, professional historians apply a variety of methods to historical sources that are also previously criticized. In fact, such a source can be any evidence of human activity: archaeological finds, written texts, rock paintings, oral stories, art objects, audio and video recordings, etc. Not all sources have the same value and weight. If we are talking about the most remote epochs, then the most important/widespread sources are archaeological sites and texts. Archaeological sources can be called the least biased, but they can not answer very many questions. Most often, they can tell up to a certain level how, but less often� – why. These questions are best answered by texts, so the expression of M. Y. Lotman:

    “The historian is doomed to deal with texts,”

    – still relevant.

    At the current level of development of historiography, we are already well aware that texts cannot be blindly believed 100%. For this purpose, a method of source criticism was developed (see above), which can be both external (for example, the conditions in which the source, material, font, etc. was preserved) and internal (i.e., content, language, etc.). As illustrative examples, we can cite two high-profile cases: “The Book of Veles” and “The Word about Igor's Regiment”.


    Both sources were preserved in extremely dubious circumstances, the originals have not reached us. Mirolyubov” – the “discoverer” of the “Book of Veles” – only reproduced the original tablets allegedly lost in the Civil War. A single instance of the ” Word…”was published at the beginning of the XIX century. and died in a fire in 1812. But even despite these already suspicious conditions of preservation, internal criticism conducted by A. Zaliznyak shows that the “Veles Book” is a gross fake, and the “Word…” is 99.99% original.

    But even after we have established the authenticity or forgery of the monument, it is necessary to put it in context. If in the 19th century our founding fathers often reproduced the texts of sources uncritically (from our point of view), in fact, simply offering a translation, today source studies are much better developed.

    In particular, the author analyzes the conditions of writing texts, the goals of the authors, their hidden motives, personal worldview features, the environment in which the texts were written, and much,much more. You can write a separate big post about source studies, which I'll be careful of. I can, for example, recommend two works on a monument that is relevant for Russia, “Tales of Bygone Years” (both, as far as I remember, are available online):

    1. Danilevsky I. N. Povest vremennykh let: hermenevticheskie osnovy istochnikovedeniya letopisnykh tekstov [The Tale of Bygone Years: hermeneutical foundations of source studies of Chronicle texts]. Moscow: Aspekt-Press, 2004.�–�370 p.
    2. Mikheev S. M. Who wrote “The Tale of Bygone Years”? Moscow: “Indrik”, 2011.�–�280 p.

    But written monuments are also heterogeneous within themselves. Since I deal with the Middle Ages, I will say for this period. There are:

    • annalistic monuments – weather records of events (the selection and type of records are studied by source studies), usually short and arranged according to the chronological principle;

    • chronographic monuments – unlike annals, chronicles are usually more detailed and contain some concepts aimed at understanding these events. If the annals were most often kept “in real time” (sometimes, for example, in the margins of other books), then the chronicles were often written after the fact.;

    • epistolary monuments-various letters and epistles (in Russia there was even a unique type of epistle, birch bark letters);
    • legislative monuments-statutes, acts, decrees, collections, and so on.;
    • documentary monuments – documents, records of court decisions, estate inventories, contracts, and so on.;
    • monuments of art – epics, fairy tales, folklore works, sagas, chansons de gestes, etc.

    For a more detailed review, I refer you to the old, but still relevant edition:�Lyublinskaya A.D. Istochnikovedenie istorii Srednevykh Vek [Source Studies of the History of the Middle Ages], Leningrad: Leningrad University Press, 1955, 372 p.

    This is not a complete list, of course, but it already shows that the texts we use to recreate the events of the past were written by different people in different circumstances with different goals. Here, for example, are the Anglo-Saxon letters dear to my heart. In modern terms,� is a title deed for land ownership. However, if today we look at such a “genre” as purely technical texts, then the Anglo-Saxons saw much more in them. Attention was paid to everything from the titles of kings and the language to the font and design. Just a few months ago, I read a very original study of letters as a literary monument: Snook B. The Anglo-Saxon Chancery. The History, Language and Production of Anglo-Saxon Charters from Alfred to Edgar. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015. – �234 p. (partly available here).

    I give an example of certificates not only because I do a lot of them myself, but also because they refute the thesis “history is written by winners”. Almost a third of the Anglo-Saxon royal charters are grants by kings of land to people from their environment and in their service, the so-called tenam(thegn), which eventually became the aristocracy and secular elite of the Anglo-Saxons. In 1066, England was conquered by the Norman Duke William. After the conquest, the new ruler made a radical redistribution of land, and all the Anglo-Saxon nobility lost their estates overnight. If not preserved Anglo-Saxon letters (how complex the sound, I wrote here), we'd know about these land holdings only from the “Domesday Book” (which, in turn, I told here), which, although is a documentary monument is clearly written by the winners. But, thank the invisible friend, we have an independent source.

    Thus, I tried to show that not all historical sources used by professionals in creating a historical narrative are biased. Yes, of course, no source transmits,

    wie es eigentlich gewesen war

    (“As it really was,” are the famous words of L. von Ranke), but we have learned to verify information and establish and interpret facts based on scientific criticism of sources.

    ## Winners, propaganda and history

    What you are asking, namely, the history written by the winners, applies almost more to the field of sociology at the junction with political science and propaganda than to historiography. And in this sense, it is more correct to speak not about winners in history, but about propagandists, even if this is propaganda under the guise of science. For example, a sad case – an absolutely insane dispute between “Normans” and “anti-Normans”. For those unfamiliar with this problem, I can recommend a good review on Echo of Moscow back in 2011. The host summed it up very briefly and wonderfully:

    “This is not a dispute about the ninth century, this is a dispute about the eighteenth.”

    Of course, “propaganda” in historiography is usually associated with state policy. If anyone thinks that only the USSR suffered from it, I advise you to read this book: Фер Ferro M. How to tell a story to children in different countries of the world. Moscow: Book Club 36.6, 2010. – 480 p. (available on the Internet), while I strongly advise you to take the 2010 edition.

    However, it does not always come exclusively from the state. The same debate about “Normannism” in the nineteenth century was waged among the intellectual elite. Or the discussion around the so-called “gospel of the wife of Jesus” is largely related to feminist discourse (although it is more than likely that this is still a fake).

    To summarize, you should remove the phrase about the winners from your question (and especially :” as you know”). History as a narrative about the past is written by professional historians, relying on a variety of sources and trying to be as unbiased as possible. In parallel, this narrative can also be created by various stakeholders, and then it is not a story, but propaganda. In a concise form, the answer to the question of how to distinguish it from a professional narrative was given here. Therefore, it is more correct to ask how to distinguish propaganda that appeals to history from a scientific narrative. In addition to the advice given by A. Chekov at the link, treat the texts you read as historical monuments and apply the methodology of criticism of the source (see above), ask questions: Who wrote this? Why did he write this? Could he have had ulterior motives? Under what conditions did he write this? What sources and research does it refer to? What language does he use? etc. Yes, it is difficult, yes, it requires training and practice, but otherwise, alas, there is no way. Herehere, for example, is also a good analysis of how to distinguish high-quality historical work from propaganda crafts. And here – about critical thinking.

    Speaking of practice, I can add the following books to those already mentioned, which help you understand in more detail how history is written and how it should be read:

    • Assman Ya. Kul'turnaya pamyat: Pismo, pamyat o proshego i politicheskaya identichnost ' v vysokikh kul'turakh drevnosti [Cultural Memory: Writing, memory of the past and political identity in high cultures of antiquity].
    • Barg M. A. Epochs and ideas: The formation of historicism. Moscow: Mysl, 1987. – 348 p. [take into account the year of writing the work]
    • Weinberg I. P. Rozhdenie istorii [The Birth of History]. Historical Thought in the Middle East of the middle of the first millennium BC, Moscow, 1993, 352 p.
    • Gurevich A. Ya. Istoricheskiy sintez i shkola Annalov [Historical Synthesis and the School of Annals]. Moscow: Indrik, 1993, 328 p.
    • Kareev N. I. Istoriologiya [Historiology]. Teoriya istoricheskogo protsessa / 2nd ed. Moscow: Knizhny dom “LIBROKOM”, 2011. – �328 p. [keep in mind that this is a reprint of the pre-revolutionary work]
    • Collingwood R. J. The idea of History. Autobiography / Translated and edited by Yu. A. Aseeva, Moscow: Nauka Publ., 1980, 485 p.

    Good luck!


    P.S. In addition to the lecture by M. M. Krom, I. N. Danilevsky, already mentioned in the text, explains how professional historians work and the problems they face.


    And here is also a very interesting personal interview with S. A. Ivanov.


    Interview with A. B. Kamensky on the problems of historical knowledge.

    Alexander Borisovich Kamensky, chief researcher of IGITI, head of the School of Historical Sciences, spoke on the air of Public Television of Russia about the problems of historical knowledge today, about the book by I. M. Savelyeva and A.V. Poletaev “Do Americans know history” and tried to highlight general questions that arise when referring to historical science. See the recording of the program “Figure of Speech”.

    An interesting selection of opinions of various historians “on the problems of modern historical science, ideas about the past in new media and history as a resource”.

    On the problems of modern historical science, ideas about the past in new media and history as a resource

  2. But if you turn a little in the other direction. I agree with this statement: “History is not a science. This is a set of stories that I don't have to believe at all, I just use it as a chronology — that is, a certain order of stories. What is science? Science deals with the truth. The truth is something that can be verified. History is a very, very conditional concept, which, by virtue of a social contract, we recognize as a certain past. People want to have a clear, clear past, and they react very painfully when someone tries to deprive them of that past.”�

    Well, yes, in quotation marks, because the words are not mine, but in general, history is a myth that cannot be verified. Do you really think that the losers will write that here, they say, we are lasers like this? I do not believe. Over time, there will be a wild substitution, and in modern, such as history, losers will become, if not winners, then certainly not losers

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