What History Is

The conclusion of Peter Ackroyd’s The History of England Volume I: Foundation* includes a sentence I can’t stop thinking about: “The writing of history is often another way of defining chaos.” He goes on to say how convenience, circumstance, misjudgments, and errors play a large part “in what we are pleased to call the ‘development’ of institutions.”

None of this should come as any surprise. History is the story of people and who among us has not had a life of turmoil and coincidence (and if you have, I don’t want to hear from you)? Opinions change, even the most hardened beliefs transform or are discredited, everything is in a constant state of transition even if it sometimes seems just the opposite. It really is chaos with the historian struggling to piece together and interprete a whole mess of personalities into some kind of narrative that makes sense and gives us a sense of continuity and identity and belonging.

Ackroyd’s use of the word ‘pleased’ particularly pleases me because history can all seem so fated, so predetermined in hindsight as though people in the past were any different than people today. It’s easy to forget that, though. I think it’s why many people don’t (or think they don’t) like history (You do! Trust me!). Life was just as confusing and frustrating and overwhelming and wonderful 1000 years ago as today. History is the stories of people just like you and me.

I’m in the midst of deciding what “chaos” I want to take on as my next book project. It all feels so big and daunting right now with so many voices shouting for attention and roads of unknown possibilities. But it’s also exciting, like the throws of a new relationship. I’ll let you know what I find.


* This was a last minute “I have pounds to spare” purchase at the Heathrow airport before a flight home that turned out to be a remarkable page turner. I’ve had great luck with my hasty book buying (another great airport purchase was Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World that kept me from fully enjoying all of the entertainment options on offer in our business class “pods” because I couldn’t stop reading it), which I’d like to attribute to my good taste but is really the acumen of the store’s book buyer.

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