Thematic Approach to Writing History

Alternative themes were introduced into modern history writing in an attempt to create a more complete picture of the past, as too often in previous histories, commonly only the story of the elite’s political intrigues or didactic, inflated biographies were recorded. Themes allow historians to concentrate on different aspects of the historical story, explaining layers of detail which are apparent to most contemporary people but have only up until contemporary times been neglected by professional historians. Rarely in classical historians do we, for example, read in-depth analyses of national economies, social structures, popular movements or working conditions. Thematic approaches to inquiry aid modern historians in attempting to chronicle the roll of events in a more accurate, interconnected and holistic fashion rather than simply noting the superficial political movements of the powerful, for no powerful man can exist unless on the backs of those who are not powerful, nor without the support of logistics, economy and civic involvement, whether against or in alliance with him.

Economic history is one discipline which arose out of the desire to explain the past in a more accurate fashion and would come to focus on the evolution of the means of people to acquire wealth, technical innovation, the distribution of property in a realm and commerce and its role in the functioning of a nation. Because documents detailing the economic dealings of nations are rarely occur before the 15th century, most modern historians of economic history focus on the Industrial Revolution and beyond, favoring analyses of modern economies. In the case of ancient economies we can conjecture the nature of trade and wealth through archaeological findings: the finding of the same style of wine cask in Alesia and Utica would point to a rich and expansive Mediterranean trade in which peoples as distant as Carthage in North Africa would be able to trade with the distant peoples of Gaul in modern day France. Finding large Phoenician merchant vessels loaded with precious cargo on the bottom of the seafloor off the island of Sicily would allude to the fact that the Phoenicians were far ranging naval traders, aside from the fact that the weather may not have been so kind to their flat-bottomed Levantine boats. Indeed, while most contemporary economic historians focus on the Industrial Revolution and its impact on the modern world, economic theories are at the heart of revolutionary new conceptions of ancient times: the hyperinflation model for the fall of the Roman Empire for instance. It is economic history which offers one of the most compelling alternatives to the tired “political elite” model, enriching our understanding of past epochs by fleshing out the actions of monarchs and senators with empirical, rather than simply rhetorical reasoning.

Another theme for modern historians is social history. Social history initially presented itself as the study of social ills such as poverty, ignorance, insanity and disease and eventually branched out to comment on the daily life of individuals within a society. Social history, for it to be proper and rigorous, must remain free of the national mythology which all too often infects histories of people; free of politics and without judgment of social change, recorded as working toward no “end.” Social history will often take the form of labor history, focusing on the common man’s daily life, pursuits, movements and effects on the greater national unit, centered on social deprivation, personal ambitions, struggles for better compensation and working conditions. Labor history analyzes how the workers influence the operating of the state and how the lowest social classes, inspired through economic desire, can inspire grand changes in the greater political climate. Historians can inspect this stratum of society and their associated behavior to better understand the true nature of popular movements such as the peasant revolts of 1381 England. Simply accepting the elite political version of history yields mention of a massive revolt against the Royal Person, but this begs critical inquiry: how were the peasants able to marshal such a force? How were the peasants able to make specific legal demands if they were apparently illiterate? What conditions in late-feudal society inspired the peasants to revolt? These questions must necessarily be answered to understand the period in question as the political elites provide only platitudes. Delving past the surface through a theme of social and labor history, we come to startling conclusions about surprisingly widespread peasant literacy, ambition and education, revelations which shock to the very core previous false conceptions of history.

Another group of people which has been even more neglected than workers in classical histories, with perhaps the exception of a few select biographies of the royal and especially virtuous, is that of women. While women constitute approximately half of the human population they are rarely mentioned in most writings, leaving a vast void of unknowing in perceptions of the past. This ignorance has inspired in contemporary time the theme of women’s history. Women’s historians focus on topics of fertility, family dynamics, the unofficial power of women and female influence on politics, bringing about a paradigm in which the private matters of family have been opened up to critical inquiry.

By opening up domains which had previously been considered irrelevant to history a more complete image of the past was then possible. History, as physics or chemistry, is not a narrative but is instead an ongoing quest for more compelling perceptions of reality, not set in stone and sealed, but forever evolving due to the efforts of historians in introducing new evidence and more cogent chains of reasoning. Alternative historical themes are crucial in developing the rigor we have come to take advantage of in modern history writing.