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Curious Kids: How is history written and who writes it?

How is history written and who writes it? – Zoe, aged ten, Glasgow, Scotland

Thinking about who writes history is very important if we want to figure out how it is written. Lots of things influence how we see the world. This includes our education, where we come from, whether we are male or female, rich or poor. All these things affect how historians write the history of people, families, communities and societies in the past.

An illustration from an illuminated manuscript showing Bede as a saint writing.
Bede writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Universität Freiburg e-codices via Wikimedia Commons

For a long time, the people who wrote history were mostly educated men: from the “father of history”, the ancient Greek Herodotus who lived over 2000 years ago, to medieval monks such as the Englishman Bede, and 20th-century university professors like Eric Hobsbawm. Often, they wrote histories about great men, great wars, and empires that set out to conquer the world.

In the 20th century, this began to change. People from different backgrounds were writing history and making their voices heard. For instance, for a long time the history books about countries like India, which had been part of the British empire, were written by British people who focused on the story of the empire.

Now, people from those countries are writing their own history. Also, more women and people from poorer families go to university. Their experiences and outlooks were very different from those of the older historians, and it has changed how history is written.

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For example, books about Victorian Britain used to explain that men went to work and women stayed at home. This is because the historians writing these books focused on people like them: they read the letters and diaries of educated, middle-class people, and looked at the paintings or photographs that were taken of them. These letters and photographs told them that men went to work and women managed the home.

Taking a different look

For women historians and those from a working-class background, this did not look right. What about the maids and cooks working in those middle-class homes? What about the seamstresses who made the expensive dresses in the photographs? What about the women and girls working in the textile factories of northern England and the coal mines of south Wales?

The history of Victorian Britain was rewritten because the next generation of historians focused on different groups of people and searched for different source material.

Victorian illustration showing a maid arranging a lady's hair
An iIllustration from the book The Holiday Prize by E D Adams, showing a Victorian maid arranging a lady’s hair. Illustration by Kenneth Mathiason Skeaping (1857-1947) via Wikimedia Commons

So, how is history written? Every historian attempts to find evidence to build their story of the past, but there are two ways they tend to go about it. One way is to start with a theory. They might theorise that nations, such as Italy and Germany, are modern developments, and that they only really appeared in the last few centuries.

They will research how nation states, such as the UK or Germany, were formed in the 19th century. Or they might have a theory that nations go way back to the early middle ages. Their evidence may be the different cultures, clothes and languages of the English, the Scottish and the Welsh.

Other historians discover an interesting person, group of people, object or place, and want to find out more about them. I am writing about Thomas Stephens, a rebellious chemist from south Wales who wanted to make life in his community better for all, and who, like me, wrote history books.

When I opened the first archive box filled with his manuscripts, I could smell the Victorian cough medicines he prepared for the iron workers around him and almost imagine his world, so I just had to know more about him.

History is not only written, it is re-written by every generation. However brilliant an exploration of the past is, it will always be influenced by the historian’s background and identity. The next generation – perhaps you – may ask different questions, look for different sources, and write it differently.

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