Like many people, I have been watching a lot of the Olympics and what has struck me most is how one sport, or what I perceive to be one sport, is able to be broken down into so many varying disciplines which at the highest level are shown to be completely different. Gymnastics has to be the greatest example, seems simple enough (not to do, but to understand) it must be the same skill sets of strength, flexibility, speed, agility, control and grace. Yet when you watch the men on the rings compared to the women on the beam you can see just how varying the discipline really is – how the very best on one apparatus wouldn’t stand a chance on another.
History as a discipline is similarly multi-faceted, something perhaps too easily forgotten. So, using myself as an example, I am an historian am I not? Well, no because I was trained in Ancient History by a Classics department; therefore I am an historian trained as a classicist. I then went to do my masters at a university where the ancient history dept. is in with the archaeology department which I did not get on well with so moved to Medieval History. Medieval History is a completely different kettle of fish to Ancient History, no question.
As an ancient history student I overheard said; “Medieval History? Oh, so current affairs then”. Within Ancient History your sources are very minimal and so it is not very easy to dismiss them, even though they are blatantly lying to you they may be the largest source available on your topic. Medieval History has the luxury of more sources, and as you get chronologically nearer to modern day this facet increases. Due to this luxury, Medieval Historians, and beyond, have a greater degree of source choice, thus enabling them to make a more accurate picture of their era than an Ancient Historian can of theirs.
On the other hand, because Medieval History has more sources, it has less need for abstract deduction and theory. Ancient History needs a strong theoretical basis for the minimal evidence to sit in, or else the historians are quickly seen to be doing exactly what it is they are doing – making it all up. Medieval Historians can hide behind their sources which they can carefully choose to present the perfect picture that conforms to their view and so creates the illusion of accuracy which is born, not from omnipotence, but from the presumed ignorance of the audience.
But then again, because Medieval History has more sources it is a breeding ground for different methodologies such as micro history (which is really the study of history zoomed in, like a study of a single village through 100 years of history for example). Due to a lack of evidence Ancient History will never produce this sort of method.
Why does this matter? Well, it is because historians, especially outside of academia, move from interest to interest (not unlike myself). So you could be reading an article on the medieval Battle of Bryn Glas and it be written by an Ancient Historian, which is a hugely influential factor on how it is written, what it looks at and the undercurrent themes that are not overt in the work. [I may have an article out on Bryn Glas right now in the new edition of Medieval Warfare Magazine . . . is it noticeable?].
This does not mean that you should not read the work of an historian outside of his training, but that if you understand the historian’s own craft a little you can more critically read the work and even take more from it. The cross pollination of disciplines is important but on the same token it is an experiment, and if you are reading a book or article which is an experiment then I think you should be aware of that. Because it is written by an historian you can be assured that the sources are researched, what you are being told will be accurate on the bare bones – it is the fleshy bit that is always the issue, but that is true of all aspects of history. Read the book, enjoy the book, don’t trust the book, write a better book – or else have a good chat with a friend about it.
*Note, this is not an attack on Medieval History which I absolutely love. This was chosen as it is one of the two disciplines I am trained in. The same arguments could be made using Medieval History as opposed to Early Modern History, or even to some extent Early Modern History and Modern History*