Why I’m not a(n) Historian

26 Jan

I’ve recently been involved in an off-blog e-mail exchange with someone who initially contacted me thinking I’m a historian. This is not the first time this has happened but this morning, while being snowed in for about the 5th time this winter, seems like a good time to explain why I am not in more detail. I have always tried very hard not to give this perception and have commented frequently that I am not, never have been, and likely never will be a historian. I’m going to try to rank my reasons in order of importance. 1

1. I cannot read source material in its original language. This is the elephant in the room. All I can read is translations. Not only that but any time you read a translation, you’re reading the translator’s interpretation of the source. I comment on sources a lot. I enjoy reading them and have reached the point where, rather than read multiple secondary sources and THEN read the primary/contemporary sources, I’d rather read the sources first, then find out what modern historians think about them. This is, I think, an important evolution in my knowledge of history, that I’m comfortable enough in my own assessments to do this. It is likely the one area which causes the most misconceptions that I may be a historian. I’m not. Unless I can read, assess, and interpret the earliest extant version of source material for myself, not through the eyes of others, I am not a historian. This is more than a rule for me; it’s a law. 2

2. I haven’t been trained. I think I’ve learned a fair amount on my own (not to say that others haven’t been kind enough to help me) but there’s a lot to be said for formal education. You are required to submit work to an authority who will return this to you after providing a critical assessment. You will need to hone your craft through a fairly rigorous review process. This is also a reason why advanced degrees matter. This isn’t as much of a go/no go criterion as number 1. I do think someone without a degree can become a historian. You can submit publications for review, work with historians on projects and observe and learn from their methods, etc. You certainly can learn a new language(or a very old one). It’s not a “you’re dead on the spot if you can’t do this” type of qualification like the inability to read sources but for me it’s pretty strong. I can read books on historical methodology and I’ll learn a lot. But without another party evaluating what I’ve done a big part of the process is missing.

3. I’m not paid for it. I think labels and titles have some importance (if I believed otherwise this post wouldn’t exist). Before I got myself a real job I used to be a horse trainer. I used to tell amateurs all the time that if they knew horses very well they could probably train their horse as well as I could, it just would take longer. I was riding 10 or more horses a day, doing this 12-14 hours/day six days a week. The sheer number of experiences I had with horses, each with his/her own little idiosyncrasies, meant I could figure out what was going on and what to do more quickly. What I could get done in 90 or 120 days would probably take them 6-8 months. If these amateurs chose to do this that didn’t make them horse trainers but people who trained a horse or two. There’s a difference between someone who derives his or her income from something and someone who does not. In this case one is a historian, the other (even if he/she can read sources and has been trained) is someone who does history. I will not get 100% agreement on this one, but I think the fact that someone believes that what you do has economic value means something. For me, if I’m not getting paid for it, I’m not a member of a profession.

When I started this post I thought I’d have a much longer list but once I began thinking on it I decided that just about everything I had fit under one of these categories. For example, part of being a historian is being a member of the profession which means you’re submitting material for publication, review, and critique. This actually fits under #2 (receiving assessments and critiques), at a different point in one’s career.

Also, I haven’t listed things which might make you a good vs a bad historian. The best example of this I can think of is professional development. I would say that a good historian tries to stay current. He or she will attend professional conferences, remain current on developments in his or her area(s) of expertise, etc. Someone who fails to do this does not necessarily cease to be a historian, he or she just likely isn’t a very good one.

I have reached the point where I think I can assess the validity of a historian’s argument and his/her methodology. I take some pride in this and it’s taken me a long time to reach this point. It’s a nice skill though I still have a lot to learn about it. But it doesn’t make me a historian.

1 By history I mean assessing the past using written source material (including inscriptions and art). Archaeologists are involved with studies all the time which they evaluate and interpret, frequently without a single textual piece of evidence. For me, while there’s a ton of overlap and members of each profession should at least be conversant with the others’ methods, this does not make an archaeologist a historian (though some people are both).

2 I don’t want to imply that a historian, in writing, must have personally read every single source on a topic to construct an argument, just that he or she must be able to go back to a source to assess it if they find another historian’s interpretation questionable.


Posted by on January 26, 2014 in Amateur Tips


Tags: ,

15 responses to “Why I’m not a(n) Historian

  1. Michelle Ziegler

    January 26, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Agreed, I do history (in very small, narrow niches) but I’m not a historian nor will I ever be. The reliance on translations is a big deal. I’ve ran into this stumbling block more times than I can count. I’m sure my historian friends get tired of me asking what they think of a translation (entire work or a particular passage).

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 26, 2014 at 10:20 am

      Thank you Michelle. I debated adding something about how non-historians can contribute to historical knowledge and you were one of the people I was thinking of. But that would have gotten me into talking about cross-disciplinary work which would have made things overly complex for the message I was trying to articulate.

  2. Tomislav Bali

    January 26, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Hi, I read your blog regularly. I have MA in medieval studies and I think you are as good as some professional historians, actually even better than some of them. Keep up the good work.

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 26, 2014 at 1:52 pm

      Thank you Tomislav. I try, and I’m glad you enjoy the blog.

  3. esmeraldamac

    January 27, 2014 at 11:07 am

    I’m not sure I wholly agree with your analysis, but I do think that part of being a useful historian is the ability to see one’s own strengths and weaknesses, which you are certainly doing – probably too harshly!

    Ref. languages, this is of course the arguments that linguists use, but knowledge of an old language does not in itself make people historians, as some etymologists show. Also, in some languages, so few people read them that if it was left to them, there would never be a good analysis as there simply wouldn’t be enough divergence of opinion/skill set above and beyond language. I would hazard a guess that an awful lot of professional academic historians cannot read everything they wish to in the original – biblical texts, for example – and yet are still worth their job title.

    Training does help, because a lot of people don’t have an instinct to keep comparing stuff, even when it contradicts their predispositions. But some people are born with that attitude. Perhaps you are.

    Whilst – I suspect, like you – I often cringe when some people call themselves historians with seemingly very small grounds – I do wonder if it’s also a matter of confidence. You can train yourself into competence – the long, hard way, true – but we can. In anything.

  4. Curt Emanuel

    January 27, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    Hey Esmeralda,

    Of course most of this is related to why I don’t call myself a historian. I try not to tell other people what to call themselves; I’m not that smart.

    I do think that if someone’s involved in source analysis, they should have the ability to read the source material rather than being completely reliant on what others have done. Otherwise, if someone previously has misread/mistranslated something you’re left with the same misconceptions.

    • esmeraldamac

      February 12, 2014 at 9:52 am

      Perhaps it depends what language you have in mind – I’m sure it’s different if we’re talking Latin, Greek or Arabic in the high medieval period. I’m thinking truly ancient languages, like proto Celtic, and that’s a job most accurately handled by linguistic specialists. No historian would ever know as much as the specialist, because it’s a different skill set, but we can make their work effective by comparing and contextualising. I guess I’d say: I’m not a plumber or a joiner, but I’ve renovated a house… it needs someone with an overall vision to make the whole picture work, and that is the job of an historian. We herd information into the correct location.

  5. E. C. Ambrose

    January 28, 2014 at 6:17 am

    I feel your pain about not being able to read in the original languages. It’s a source of great frustration that I’ve not yet decided to put the time into remedying.

    I appreciate your perspective on many subjects, tho.

    Nice post!

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 28, 2014 at 6:35 am

      I used to know Latin, somewhat. Not well enough to really analyze complex text and not medieval Latin either but if I wanted to badly enough, I could learn it. Obviously I haven’t felt this to be a need. Re-learning French and Spanish are probably more profitable uses of my time.

  6. Joan Vilaseca

    February 1, 2014 at 5:47 am

    My opinion is that somehow it all boils down to a simple question: Do you think that you have something new to say about our past? If the answer is affirmative and you’ve done your best to be right, then somehow, you are an historian, maybe not professional, maybe occasional or even incidental, but nevertheless an historian.

    • Curt Emanuel

      February 2, 2014 at 10:15 am

      Thanks Joan. I always appreciate your perspective. For the reasons I’ve given I prefer to think of myself along the lines of “A student of history.” It’s possible – and I’d be gratified if this ever happened – that something I write may get a professional historian thinking about a new line of investigation. However since I’m not capable of pursuing that investigation myself to the level and depth needed to be considered actual evidence, I can’t call myself a historian. Others can use different criteria and there are plenty of amateurs on the web who are able to examine sources in ways which I can not. When it comes to issues like this I try not to apply judgements to other people but keep them aimed at myself.

    • esmeraldamac

      February 12, 2014 at 9:44 am

      Great definition, that, Joan. I like it and I concur :)

  7. Jon

    September 27, 2014 at 12:43 am

    I see a lot of myself in the author of this blog, even if I’ve never had the motivation to blog about it. But I enjoyed it in college. If I could have made more money being a historian, I would have majored in it. But I could never have been one of those ‘rock star’ historians, working with Hollywood as a consultant or being a talking head on tv.

    I don’t see anything terribly wrong with being unable to read the source language. Most historians that I’ve met have such a terrible grasp on Latin and Greek that they’re better off reading translations. The only exception to this was a much older professor who was the last generation of classically trained scholars that had to write a thesis in Greek or Latin. A time when there were still professors who had been born in the 19th century and still teaching in the 1950s.

    And this professor of mine, who had a beautiful grasp of both languages and could speak them fluently off the cuff (and a few other languages besides) was not a historian. He was an ethicist.

    Anyways. I have much more respect for Mr. Emanuel than the average history grad these days which goes into television. There was an atrocious blog from a graduate who went to work for Ancient Aliens that spoke about how her job was basically reading wikipedia and coming up with ridiculous assertions.

    I also hate everyone associated with Ancient Impossible. For one, there is a criminal misuse of the word ‘impossible’ and second, one of their ‘historians’ compared the Byzantine/Late Roman cataphract to a medieval knight, and I quote ‘just like in Game of Thrones’.

    So I get the feeling that Mr. Emanuel puts professional historians (i.e, people getting paid for history related stuff) on a pedestal. Some of them are great. A good third of them should be pushed into a ditch and kicked, and the rest are history teachers.

    Some of the best ‘historical’ work I’ve read lately, have come from cross-disciplinary studies, such as geology or sociology.


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