Is History Written by the Winners?
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.
10/3/2016 11:07:19 am
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Sadly, it will be very difficult to recreat history from the loser's standpoint.
10/3/2016 12:08:00 pm
Interesting view, Sarah! Sometimes, though, even the victors come clean on what was really going on historically - albeit, perhaps, unintentionally. With Columbus Day being celebrated next week, it's fitting to remember a quote from his personal log when the friendly Arawak tribe came to greet his ship. "With fifty men we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want." (Quote from p.1 of Zinn's A People's History of the U.S.).
Thanks for the quote from Columbus's log, which I hadn't heard before. Interesting. Perhaps he didn't even think about it as coming clean. I wonder if he thought the idea of subjugating the Arawak was morally entirely acceptable and not something that needed to be hidden or excused.
10/5/2016 10:54:12 pm
Thanks for the prod to consider different perspectives, Sarah. I can imagine some elderly Vandal who had participated in the Sack of Rome as a youth telling his grandson about how the Romans didn't know that water ought to be kept in flasks, but had it instead running through rocky pathways (aqueducts) and in big pools (baths) -- or something like that!
I love this picture of how the great Roman water achievements (in our view) might look to a Vandal. Like so much else, my fascination with perspective shifts probably started in part with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her views on many issues (women's suffrage, "God is America's king") were so different from what I'd grown up with but had an internal logic, if I could see it from her angle. And Winnie-the-Pooh was full of how different things might seem to a very small Piglet, or a bear of very little brain.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.