Ian Mortimer, the author of The Time Travelers Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, has some good things to say about the way in which historians should bring the past to life in their teaching and writing.
People in all walks of life are fascinated by the fundamental question of what life was like for our ancestors. Whether one is talking about Ancient Egypt or the French Revolution, there is a near-universal interest in the past itself, including the events that took place. Such interest far exceeds the debates that scholars have about various aspects and interpretations of the past. Almost everyone, it seems, wants to know what it would have been like to live in a different century. And yet serious historians are reluctant to tell them, even though they are perhaps in the best position to do so.
I have made the argument on this blog, with the help of Sam Wineburg, that the encounter that students and readers have with the past has the potential to change them. By immersing ourselves deeply in the past we learn virtues such as empathy, hospitality, and humility that are essential to everyday life.
History does not just have to be an adjunct to an all-round education, centered on the evidence. It can be centered on the reader – while still maintaining an intellectual rigor – to the benefit of historians and their students as well as the readers. It raises new areas of debate that have meaning within, as well as outside, the profession. Ultimately it allows us to address the question of how Mankind has changed, or stayed the same, over the course of six or seven hundred years. This is surely the Philosopher’s Stone of historians, for history is not about the past per se but about understanding humanity over time. My own vision is that, through such literary methods, serious history can be melded with imaginative literary methods, and can rise above the tedious and repetitive aspects of education as surely and inspiringly as a violin soloist can rise above the hours of practice and theory in the academy.
The entire essay is worth a look.