Writing Popular History: Between History and Myth

Book being read – No books being read today, just an awful lot of academic papers on the Amazon myths.

In keeping with the new format of sporadic blogs that contain very little information about anything specific, I have been thinking about the difference between history and myth. But for any of this to make sense, we must start at the most logical point – the beginning.

I have just completed my first draft of an article commemorating the Battle of Bannockburn, [a battle fought between England and Scotland in 1314 AD (700th anniversary this year)] and I found it difficult to say the least. Actually, it is not an overstatement to say that “Bloody Bannockburn” (as it came to be known in my house) has been the bane of my working day for over two months now. The battle itself is fascinating, and the characters involved are brilliantly colourful; however I struggled with it and the reason is simple, it is too caught up in external factors.

To write an account on Bannockburn is not like writing about some ancient battle no-one has ever heard of, where the historical sources can be revealed to the masses for the first time, or within an original framework. Oh no, Bannockburn already has its own narrative that is held very dearly to medievalists as well as the Scottish people in general.

To really deviate from this narrative, by maybe using different sources, is to attract ridicule for being either a ‘revisionist’ (as if that is a bad thing? Damn those people trying to revise and improve things!), for being too English in your writing by suggesting that the Scottish sources may have inflated their battle figures – which they quite obviously did, for being too Scottish by implying the Scots won a great victory over a strong English force – which they also did, or for trying to undermine what has become a very important element of Scottish culture.

This is a big problem for the popular historian because the peer-review system of scholastic work does not happen behind closed doors in the dusty halls of the academic world like it would for an article to an academic journal, it happens in public by anyone who chooses to participate. People build their personal views, their cultural heritage, even parts of their identity on history and historical myths, and do not take kindly to it being re-written by some wanna-be historian.

When I met my book editor for the first time we discussed other areas of research thati s close to my own, we got onto a new book that he commissioned that explores the idea that Alexander the Great may have suffered with something similar to PTSD. My editor was excited by the book but admitted to not liking the idea for no other reason than because Alexander is a bit of a hero of his (he even named one of his kids after him), and he did not want to have to explain to his wife that he named one of his kids after a very damaged individual. So, does this mean the book shouldn’t be published, or the idea voiced – no, obviously. But it can often be too easy to ignore the impact of re-writing history and that the words do exist outside of scholarly debate.

My next article, now that Bloody Bannockburn is over with (outside of redrafting and editing), is about the historicity of the Amazons; a female-warrior society of Ancient Greek myth. Less daunting a task (politicians aren’t using it as a tool in a debate for national independence, for instance) but still striking at the core of the issue, where the lines between history and myth actually sit.

Well that’s enough procrastinating for now, back to work.

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