The American Revolution, as I learned it in high school, was all about the rebellious colonists and the redcoats they fought against. We studied next to nothing about the many colonists who stayed loyal to Britain. I read a Soviet-era history of Hungary that didn’t even mention the failed Hungarian revolt of 1956. Although academic history today takes a wider perspective and popular history reflects more sympathy for the underdog, it’s still common that history is written by the winners.
But history is also written by the losers—the Jews after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, the Jacobites upon failure to restore the Stuart dynasty, the Confederates in the American Civil War. And think of all the winners whose history we read only as it impacted others: the Germanic conquerors of Rome, the Vikings, and a whole succession of peoples from Central Asia. My high school classes didn’t discuss the largest land empire in history, established by Mongol leader Genghis Khan.
I’d like to propose a different generalization: History is written by the literate. Of course the literate often won, but not always. High historical levels of literacy among Jews, Scots, and Southern whites did much to ensure that their stories would be told and retold. The lack of literacy among Goths, Vandals, Huns, Vikings, Mongols, and Tartars reduced those peoples to stereotypes shaped by the bias of their enemies.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.