The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

The practitioners of history

In Theatres of Memory Raphael Samuel notes that: ‘If history was thought of as an activity rather than a profession, then the number of its practitioners would be legion.’ For several reasons I’ve been thinking about Samuel’s demotic and inclusive vision of history a lot over the past few days. I’ve been reading Guy Beiner’s amazing Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory for the book group I’m part of. It’s a book that is genuinely hard to put down. Imaginative and creative, Beiner shows how the French invasion of the west of Ireland in 1798 was woven into the warp and weft of everyday life through the successive generations of storytellers and poets who fashioned vibrant vernacular histories. Drawing on folk traditions recorded in the 1930s (yet usually ignored or dismissed by ‘professional’ historians), Remember the Year of the French provides compelling reasons for taking the activities of diverse ‘history-tellers’ seriously. It should be required reading for anyone interested in how we understand the past, not least because it forces us to think very carefully about who and what counts as history.


I met someone who would probably count as one of Beiner’s ‘history-tellers’ a couple of weeks ago—another reason that I have been thinking about the activity of history. Wandering around Leicester Cathedral we approached one of the volunteers—I guess she was probably retired—for guidance. We’d only asked a question about how much of the building had been restored by the Victorians, but she launched into an energetic and engaging encounter of the cathedral’s history that moved easily and often unexpectedly between its medieval past, Victorian reconstruction, and the Duchess of Cambridge’s recent visit. Listening to her was bracing and humbling: she reminded me of why I remain fascinated by the study of the past, and of the activities of history-telling in which she, and I and countless others all engage on a daily basis. In five minutes I learned a hell of a lot from her.


We had talked at one point about the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III—still then unconfirmed—in the car park around the corner. I thought of our conversation a few days later, when the skeleton’s identity was confirmed and my Twitter feed was suddenly filled with comments from ‘professional’ historians carping about a TV programme that they presented as ‘bad’ history. That has also made me think about the activity of history. Although most days it doesn’t feel like it, I guess I am a ‘professional’ historian. I’m lucky enough to get paid to read and write and teach about the past—to do something that I have always loved. Yet I still think about what I do as part of far more expansive activities of history-telling that are diffuse, demotic and ordinary.


Although I understand the political and ethical imperatives behind the emphasis on ‘public engagement’ and ‘knowledge transfer’ that pervades contemporary higher education, this is one of the reasons that I’m uneasy about this shift. Rather than treating the development of our knowledge of the past as part of a common project, buzzwords like these suggest a distinction between ‘public’ and ‘expert’—the ‘uninformed’ and the ‘informed’. They give the ‘professional’ historian a privileged position from which to speak authoritatively about the past. Like many others, I use social media like Twitter and this blog to talk to the broadest possible range of people about the practice of history and about modern British society and culture. Yet I wonder what is happening when so many ‘professional’ academics insistently perform that status by adding ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ to their online identity. Tags like these mark you out as different—they claim a position of special expertise or authority that is often defined against those without specific qualifications. Is this really the kind of opposition that we want to set up? In this sense, tweeting or blogging as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ as ‘public engagement’ strikes me as deeply problematic. It’s exclusive rather than inclusive; it limits rather than enables; at the very least, it doesn’t fit with Samuel’s demotic vision of history as an activity, and its practitioners as legion.


2 comments on “The practitioners of history

  1. Pingback: Big histories, small minds | The Trickster Prince

  2. benjaminthomaswhite
    November 18, 2014

    Matt, I’ve just seen this post, which I like. This is an important thing to think about, and it’s been on my mind recently for (at least) three reasons. First, the research I’m doing on refugee camps at the moment makes me increasingly aware that I’ll need to seek out non-‘professional’ history-tellers if I’m to understand anything at all. Second, as part of a course I was doing a bit of guest teaching on earlier in the term I heard a retired teacher who volunteers at a church in Govan talking about the history of that part of Glasgow and, surprise surprise, was quite uncomfortable with the way she was telling it, for a mixture of good and bad reasons, I think. Third, just last week I went to a theatrical production of ‘The Kite Runner’, and I was very uncomfortable with it, mostly because of its the way it presents modern Afghan history—which is not my area of expertise at all, but I think that being a historian helped me notice problems that ‘passed’ a bit too comfortably with much of the audience. (I’ll be writing a blog post about that at some point if I can work out a diplomatic way of phrasing it.) There, I think some of the training of a professional historian—not the authority that’s asserted by the use of a ‘Dr’—can help contribute something to public understanding.

    All this is by the by, however. I actually came on here to offer an alternative explanation for people tweeting as DrTricksterPrince, ProfHoulbrook etc. I take your point, and it’s probably correct. But there’s a kinder interpretation, which comes down to the limited supply of twitter handles in the world. When academics get on Twitter and discover that some chap named Matt Houlbrook in Wisconsin is already tweeting as @MattHoulbrook, and one in Hobart is @Matt_Houlbrook (this can happen to anyone: see @johnlewisretail), adding the Dr or the Prof is an easy way to distinguish themselves. Not everyone has the imagination, or even just the presence of mind at the moment they happen to register, to think of the 1920s con-man they’re writing a book about at that moment. Or perhaps not everyone is obsessed enough by their research to call themselves @NetleyLucas. Anyway: you get the point. And I still agree that you’re right, it often IS problematic when people use their academic title.

    By the way, I’ve just checked, and there is in fact an @NetleyLucas. Creepy.

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