How useful is the narrative approach to history?
Kieran Hughes M.A. 2020

Are historians storytellers? Is it possible to tell true stories about the past? These are two questions posed by Geoffrey Roberts, in History and the Narrative Reader. [1]  Should historians tell a story, in order, with a cause and effect structure? The traditional type of narrative centres on the chronology, what happened, where and to whom. A more modern form of narrative history may deviate from the story to comment on social factors or trends.  The word narrative derives from the Latin verb narrare, which means ‘to recount’. Often the narrator addresses the reader in the omniscient third person. Dismissed by most academics, narrative history remains the foundation of studying and enjoying the subject. Narrative history is as old as the writings of Ancient Greek and Roman scholars, with their links to literature and poetry, and also, the writings in the Old Testament. In 55 BC Cicero wrote about speaking the historical truth, without bias and in a flowing chronology.  However, it seemed that to elaborate the story was acceptable and Greek and Roman historians often made up some of the speeches of the great characters in their narratives. Elizabeth Rawson complained that Cicero was ‘not very accurate.’ [2]  Soldier-historian Velleius Paterculis’ narrative Roman History tells the story of Rome’s destruction of Carthage and about Emperor Tiberius who died in 146BC.                                                                                                                 

From time to time the narrative has not just been telling an objective story without judgment. Voltaire tried to modify or transform readers’ sense of national self-awareness, according to Karen O’Brien.[3]  His method was to use his poetry, essays, novels and various historical works to challenge the Church’s link with the State and social reform. He surreptitiously declared his influential views, despite France’s strict censorship laws.  One of the most well-known narrative historians was Leopold von Ranke who liked to ‘write history as he found it, rather than to prove any dogma’. Ranke’s work was well-researched from archives, manuscripts and diaries often becoming a dramatic and imaginative long flow of events and action, where he would consider who caused what. He relied heavily on primary sources, experiences and narrative. His argument was that theories and ideas could not stand the test of time, and change, according to the century in which the reader is living. From his first book in 1824, Leopolde Von Ranke was the founder of objective history, declaring that he would not be sitting in judgement of events from the past, but that his job was to just show what had occurred. [4] Pieter Geyl asked if Ranke banished his own feelings from his accounts, does that mean other historians have served up the ‘truth’ but ‘mixed with a personal ingredient?' [5]  Ranke wanted to approach history as a science, to seek out sources, to examine them critically, mould them into a narrative, but without being subjective, and without moralising, using verified research techniques.[6] But G.M. Trevelyan disagreed with this analysis more than half a century later, championing the use of narrative, focusing on it and relying on it, especially when it was connected to his Whig ideology, according to Mitchell MacNaylor.[6]

Elsewhere, Stuart Hughes states that the main business of history is to tell a story, to recapture events, but to question the reliability of historical judgement without scientific proof.[8] Without the proof, he says the methods narrative historians use is the same as those used in novels and dramas, where the leading character often offers his view point.[9] Hughes’s approach was to treat history like economics and sociology, just as Carr had likened it to social science. This was a complete opposite to the traditional narrative approach and its methodological link to literature. From a science approach Hughes questions the method of judging events. He argues that historians like Ranke could never really ‘copy’ the past into a story ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ (as it really was) [10] and  E.H. Carr opposed Ranke's ideas of empiricism. He denied that the historian’s job is to just report what happens, as they might choose which events they want to include. There are flaws with narrative history, such as: whose narrative is it? Do they have an agenda, is it disguised nationalism or patriotism, is something left out and whose do you choose? If we treat history as a simplistic chronology of events, does it not give a false impression of progress, are we not just overrun with dates.

By the 1960s Pieter Geyl was still championing Ranke’s narrative ideas and W.B. Gallie declared that readers must understand the historical story before understanding any explanatory content.[11]  Morton White and Arthur Danto also became known for promoting a good story. Gallie’s theory would assist younger history students in schools today, often asked to analyse before comprehending the basic chronology and simple facts.  Awareness, reconstruction and knowledge must precede evaluation, differentiation and analysis. By 1979, Lawrence Stone argued that historians were going back to the narrative even though a fashionable social science approach had emerged in the 1960s and while many other historians were speaking out against the narrative Stone argued that it was often free of jargon and appealed to a wider audience.[12]  By the 1990s David Burrell suggested that perhaps a Hegelian and teleological perspective on history, with insignificant chance or change, and on a pre-determined course, indeed calls for a narrative approach. After all, the philosopher of history relies on facts and should avoid bias, but in contradiction, thrives on individual interpretation and reflection.[13]

This part of the article examines narrative in practise and offers a detailed look at the approaches and styles of a number of Tudor historians. Anna Whitelock’s narrative approach to her biography of Mary I is a very detailed look at Mary as a person, as a character, and above all as a woman in a man’s world, with her controversial religious beliefs. Her method is to explore Mary’s relationships, achievements, values, faults mercy and virtues.[15] This in-depth analysis from an objective third person homogenic perspective, puts forward positive and negative aspects to her life, so the reader can make his or her own judgement. The book promotes itself by saying that Mary emerges from this ground-breaking biography, not the weak-willed failure of traditional narratives, but a complex figure of immense courage.[16] This cradle to crown account is a chronological narrative account, more precisely, from the unification of Spain in 1479 to the Marian officials’ royal funeral dinner in 1558. The sixty-six chapter span is not only storytelling, but put into a wider historical context too. The detail of this narrative is one of its methods, especially present in its description of re-catholicising churches, to the coronation and its preparations. [17]  It muddies the water further by cleverly juggling narrative with analysis and complex, sustained judgements.                                                                        

In 2004 historian John Matusiak pushed forward the debate over the mid-Tudor years. He argued that traditionalist and revisionists often over-simplified their arguments and he challenged some of their views on the crisis, strength, effectiveness and successes of monarchs as well as the economy. This judgemental approach is far from a narrative approach, but one of challenging what he sees as ‘simple’ trends from other historians. His methods to explain this are evident in his article ‘A Lamb in Lion’s Garb, Evolving Perspectives on Edward VI,’ History Review No.48, March 2004 p.4-7.[18]  Matusiak’s article starts in May 1553, when Edward VI was sixteen, dies young, and then he looks back. He considers what would have happened had Edward had lived longer in terms of religious reforms. This counterfactual approach still shows an element of narrative by adding a long timeline of Edward VI’s life with some analysis of a second prayer book.                                                                                    

If Susan Doran had been writing in narrative form instead of her analytical form about Elizabeth I’s religion, we may have had a list of events and church laws such as the 1559 Act of Supremacy within the Settlement. But an academic approach has given us this ‘story’, plus other angles. Doran looks at who supported which law, how Elizabeth established more power in churches.[19] Doran explains Elizabeth I put her royal arms in churches, but then goes on to say why; the psychological effect of iconoclasm. Doran compares scholars’ approaches, from Pollard to Neale and Haigh to Haugaard, questioning Elizabeth’s plans and the settlement she was after, completely losing the narrative. In contrast, In Simon Adams’ Elizabeth I, there is a plethora of images, maps, quotes, descriptions, dates, timelines, but no opinion, no analysis, no alternative approach, just a list of when, what, who and where; no how, why or to what extent.  However, this brilliant narrative, is also an example of why narrative is a bad idea, even for a new history student. Adams takes less than one paragraph to go through Henry VIII’s year of three queens. It goes from Anne Boleyn’s execution to Mary I’s accession in just nine lines. This over editing, over dumbing down and over simple narrative, gives students a false sense of how important 1538 really was. Although, one could argue it does serve a purpose in teaching the basics. [20]

G.R. Elton’s well-known narrative approach answers critics who claim that this appraoch is not analytical or judgmental. Elton offers some analysis and judgement within the story-telling chronological framework. On his Mary I chapter in England Under the Tudors, [21] he runs through the story from the start of the reign in 1553, the first Marian parliament in Oct 1553, the English-Spanish-French triangle of war and diplomacy, Mary’s marriage, her attempts to re-establish the Papacy in England and the associated problems (mainly over land and unrest) and finally her death in 1558. Elton calls himself a ‘dispassionate observer’, in the narrative itself, but then goes on to analyse and judge Mary’s strengths and successes or lack of them. He makes a further judgement and analysis by comparing the lack of achievements of Edward VI and Mary I.                                                 

In conclusion, we tell stories by our very nature, for example, nursery rhymes and fairy stories. Stories are often by-products of research and not an automatic lack of theoretical assumption. Narrative provides a platform for different styles and methods to blossom, from the story and chronology, to analysis, judgement and evaluation. It is the very foundation of history. Those academics who dismiss narrative as a second rate approach are doing more damage to the subject than they could possibly imagine.
[1] Roberts G. History and the Narrative Reader, 3.
[2] Rawson E., Journal of Roman Studies, Cicero the Historian and Antiquarian, 1.
[3] O’Brien K., Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon.1.
[4] Cannon J., (eds.) The Blackwell Dictionary of Historians, 349-350
[5] Geyl P., Debates with Historians, 9.
[6] M. MacNaylor G.M. Trevelyan,, page 3.
[7]Slee, P.R.H., Learning and a Liberal Education: The Learning of Modern History, 131.
[8] Hughes H. S., History as Art and as Science, 13.
[9] Ibid., 71.
[10]  Ibid., 8.
[11] Geyl P., Debates with Historians, 9.
[12] Stone L., The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History, in Past and Present, Past and Present, No. 85, 15.
[13], David Burrell.
[15] Whitelock A, Mary Tudor, 186.
[16] Ibid., back cover.
[17] Ibid., 186 & 191.
[18] Matusiak J., A Lamb in Lion’s Garb, Evolving Perspectives on Edward VI, in History Review, no.48,.4.
[19] Doran S., Elizabeth I and Religion, 14.
[20] Adams S., Elizabeth I, 11.
[21] Elton G.R., England Under the Tudors, 214.