Lisa Jardine: History is more than a consolation for lost certainties

From a talk to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature by the Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary College, University of London
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The Independent Online

History has never been more popular in Britain. Which suggests that as a nation we are more than ever concerned with our roots in past time, where we came from, how we came to be as we are today, the way events and individuals in past time have shaped - and can give meaning to - the age in which we live. History offers almost limitless possibilities for helping us to understand ourselves.

History has never been more popular in Britain. Which suggests that as a nation we are more than ever concerned with our roots in past time, where we came from, how we came to be as we are today, the way events and individuals in past time have shaped - and can give meaning to - the age in which we live. History offers almost limitless possibilities for helping us to understand ourselves.

The trouble is, the version of history which which becomes a bestseller or wins the ratings battle turns out to be one which offers consolation for a world we have lost, rather than inspiration for Britain's future. Re-enactments - in print or on TV - of military victories and imperial triumphs hark back to a time when words like "patriotism" and "national pride" seemed simple and unproblematic.

Docudrama recreations offer an animated window on a British past whose inhabitants are reassuringly organised into social classes, and of a single ethnicity. An avalanche of biographies offers meticulously detailed life stories in which gifted individuals and towering intellects influence the world in which they live, whether on a grand or more modest scale.

Yet in the world we inhabit today, great discoveries and key decisions concerning the nation's future are more likely to be taken by groups of diverse interests working in collaboration.

Is this enthusiastic facing towards the past a way to avoid coming to terms with our future? Are we seriously misleading ourselves when we look to these kinds of historical narratives for lessons? Contrary to narrative history's comfortingly linear account, there are rarely simple, reassuringly causal connections between act and consequence in past events. History does not turn out according to plan.

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