How useful is the narrative approach to history?

Andy K Hughes M.A. (April 2015)

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. 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.  His laws for historians called for no favouritism or prejudice. [1] 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 the career of Emperor Tiberius who died in 146BC.

Sometimes 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’. [4] 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’d consider who caused what. [5]  He relied heavily on primary sources, experience 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. 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?'  [6] 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.[7] But G.M. Trevelyan disagreed with this analysis more than half a century later, championing the use of narrative as the ‘art’ of history, not like a science. The key word here is ‘proof’. Can you approach history from a scientific point? H. Stuart Hughes says 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 method 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]  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 over run with dates.

By the time of the twentieth-century, the debate over narrative continued, with historians G. R. Elton and J.H. Hexter championing the idea that narrative techniques were the best way to tell us what happened.  By the 1950s Pieter Geyl was arguing against Ranke’s critics and insisted the author could indeed be found in some of his fifty volumes of work.[11]  In the 1960s, W. B. Gallie said readers must understand the historical story before understanding any explanatory content.[12]  In the 1960s Morton White and Arthur Danto said how and why we would follow a good story naturally. Gallie’s theory would assist younger history students 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 that emerged in the 1960s was demanding deeper analysis. Many other historians were speaking out against the narrative. But he says it is not ‘jargon-ridden’ and so appeals to the non-experts.[13]  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.  [14]

This part of the article will look at narrative in practise and 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 homeogenic 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 groundbreaking 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] 

Popular historian Alison Weir writes in a highly detailed descriptive narrative too. In Henry VIII: King and Court there is a detailed chronological account of his reign, and stories resembling a diary reporting on others from a bird’s eye view. There is no judgement, but detailed accounts for the reader to make up his own mind. For example, when Lord Mountjoy told Katherine of Aragon that she had to relinquish her title of Queen as Henry had married Anne Boleyn, we see Katherine’s view that Anne had manipulated Henry, not Weir’s view. But we also hear of the Papal pressure on Henry to leave Anne. The reader is embroiled almost within the dilemma, in a position to take sides. [18] Weir makes reference to a huge ‘supporting cast’ in the book. This is useful because where a book like Monarchy & Matrimony is making aspersions, judgements, an analysis on a particular angle, big casts in books by Weir, Whitelock and Starkey give a much bigger overall view; or to put it another way, the bird’s eye view is higher. Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII is a detailed narrative, one day after another in a flowing story that still educates us about what happened. The book has a detailed day by day chronological chart (the size of a chapter) at the start of the book.

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. Matusiak’s article starts in May 1553, when Edward VI was sixteen, dies young, and then he looks back. Matusiak’s method is to question G.R. Elton’s, D.E. Hoak’s and J. Loach’s views about Edward VI being irrelevant, a puppet and too young. Matusiak then highlights a more recent approach from D. MacCulloch and S. Alford where Edward is seen as ‘a highly influential advocate of evangelicalcauses.’ [19] One of Matusiak’s other angles is to ask ‘what if’ Edward had lived longer. The method used to further this counterfactual approach to history is by detailing Edward’s high standard of education, his religious views of his tutors, and what it might have meant in regards to even more religious reforms. [20] However, even Matusiak shows an element of narrative approach by adding a long timeline of Edward VI’s life (with some analysis of a second prayer book). But how useful is this lengthy article and work out how old Edward was at the time of certain events, such as the introduction of a new prayer book, or Edward’s objection to saints being mentioned in Bishop Hooper’s investiture.

Looking at Andrew Hughes’ Royal Scandals, he takes a narrative approach, but twists it around slightly. It starts of setting the scene of the Golden Age, with dates and how Elizabeth came to the throne under the Third Succession Act, and a general overview. However, some issues are dealt with separately, such as Elizabeth’s childhood with Katherine Parr after Henry VIII’s death, and the Dudley issue; were they or weren’t they. This story telling narrative is sufficient, giving a time ordered background. The reader gets extra attention to certain parts and analysis into why Elizabeth did not get married, the writer even giving his opinion that  Elizabeth had’ little regard for the continuation of the Tudor dynasty.’ [21]  An historian like Retha Warnicke approaches her Tudor history from a political and gender  perspective, where not writing in the narrative proves just as useful. This is evident in her article ‘Elizabeth I: Gender, Religion and Politics – Did it Matter that the Fifth Tudor Monarch was a Woman Rather than a Man?’  Structured in subheadings, it presupposes a fairly advanced knowledge of Elizabeth, Mary Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots. Warnicke compares and analyses the popularity of the husbands of the latter two and the consequences, a sixteenth-century view of a female monarch per se, and how Elizabeth handled problems and controlled the Church and her councillors, as a woman.[22]

If Susan Doran had been writing in narrative form, instead of her academic form, about Elizabeth I’s religion, we may have had a list of events, a story about the barbaric burnings of Marian Protestants and a chronological list of church laws, such as the 1559 Act of Supremacy. 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.[23] Doran explains Elizabeth I put her royal arms in churches, but then goes on to say why, how (getting rid of religious idols) and the psychological effect. Doran compares scholars’ approaches, from Pollard to Neale and Haigh to Haugaard, questioning Elizabeth’s plans, the settlement she was after, who her influences were and where her pressures were coming from.[24] In addition, Doran discusses the numerous theories why Elizabeth I did not marry, from sexual disease to emotional blocks, and childhood experiences to infertility. Doran asks whether Elizabeth I ‘chose’ to remain unmarried and questions the theories that try to explain the story [25] and later goes on to judge and analyse the influence of evangelical courtiers during protestant reforms, without giving a detailed background. Where narrative historians can miss out on having a different approach or enquiring analysis, they can often make up with other features. In Simon Adams’ book, 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. [26]

G.R. Elton’s well-known narrative approach answers critics who claim narrative 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, 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. [27]  He makes a further judgement and analysis by comparing the lack if achievements of Edward VI and Mary I, as opposed to Henry VII and Henry VIII. [28] Elton, at the end of his Marian narrative, calls her reign ‘a disastrous failure’, giving material for further historical debate and research. [29] Elton’s approach is, of course, narrative, but his method is interesting, in that he runs through the chronology and tells the story, but in his set up and in conclusion especially, he adds further  ‘analysis, background and context, as well as judgement.

In conclusion, we tell stories by our very nature, for example, nursery rhymes. 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] Encyclopediabritannica online

[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, 3.49.

[5] Ibid., 350.

[6] Geyl P., Debates with Historians, 9.

[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] OpCit, Geyl, 11.

[12] Roberts G. History and the Narrative Reader, 3.

[13] Stone L., The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History, in Past and Present, Past and Present, No. 85, 15.

[14] www.histooricalinsights.com, David Burrell.

[15]Whitelock A, Mary Tudor, 186.

[16]Ibid., back cover.

[17]Ibid., 186 & 191.

[18]Weir A., Henry VIII: King and Court, 346.

[19]Matusiak J., A Lamb in Lion’s Garb, Evolving Perspectives on Edward VI, in History Review, no.48,.4.

[20] Ibid., 5.

[21] Hughes A. The Pocket Guide to Royal Scandals, 48.

[22] Warnicke R., Elizabeth I: Gender, Religion and Politics – Did it Matter that the Fifth Tudor Monarch was a Woman Rather than a Man? In History Review No.58, 30-35.

[23] Doran S., Elizabeth I and Religion, 14.

[24]  Ibid, 70.

[25] Doran S., Monarchy & Matrimony, 4.

[26] Adams S., Elizabeth I, 11.

[27] Elton G.R., England Under the Tudors, 214.

[28]  Ibid., 222.

[29]  Ibid., 223.