Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 23 September 2010


Historical narrative tends to get a bad press. In their comments on student essays, tutors often imply that too much narrative is a bad thing – we don’t like to see copious detail about ‘what happened’, who did what, where, when, with whom, but prefer to get to the heart of the matter, the lively analysis and argument. In monographs and articles, too much narrative is also seen as old-fashioned, dull, a bit self-indulgent. Assembling the minute bits and pieces of ‘what happened’ is what antiquarians did before we knew any better.

And narrative has also, of course, become one of the most contested concepts in the humanities in recent decades. I’ve been reading Beverley Southgate’s new book History Meets Fiction, which sums up the post-modern attacks on historians and their attempts to write narrative accounts of ‘what happened’ in the past. A prose account of a historical event, Southgate says, is doing nothing more than taking lots of questionable contemporary narratives, and threading them into one bigger, questionable modern narrative which isn’t necessarily any ‘truer’ than the original sources – chronicles, letters, decrees etc. - which the poor historian poured over. The implication: that writing history is a glorious and misguided waste of time.

I’ve been thinking about all these different assaults on historical narratives in recent weeks, as I try to draft a chapter of my new book. The book is about the early Polish Reformation, and the chapter is on how King Zygmunt I’s regime reacted to a Lutheran uprising in Danzig in 1525.  If I were writing a book about the Reformation in England, say, I wouldn’t have to construct the basic chronological story (the who, what, when?) from scratch. But writing on Poland as I do, there are great uncharted expanses of early modern history of which no narrative has yet been written. So I have been sitting at my computer with lots of paper - a giant folder of Polish royal documents, notes on various interesting but bitty articles on the Danzig Reformation, and my own typed out chronologies and plans - simply trying to work out what happened in the tempestuous years of 1525-6. And it’s extraordinarily difficult. Important pieces of the jigsaw –  furious royal letters to Danzig – have no date, so you put them to one side, unsure where they slot in. Sixteenth-century chronicles and modern historians contradict one another again and again – the court case in which the mayor of Danzig sued the council which had expelled him ended in summer 1523, or was it summer 1526? Then there are problematic silences – who an earth were the radical ‘four men’ from Danzig who came to Cracow to convert Zygmunt I to Lutheranism, armed with beautiful humanist Latin orations?

So, historical narrative is very easy to attack – stylistically, conceptually, philosophically – but it is also very indeed difficult to write, particularly if the story you are telling is new. The most basic thing we do as historians – piecing together stories – remains one of the hardest. I’m developing a new respect for the immense skill of nineteenth-century historians who wrote a lot of the basic narratives that we, as teachers and students of history, have inherited and rely upon. Narrative is worthwhile because we all need a basic sense of what happened, roughly in what order, before we can analyse any event. My narrative of royal reactions to the Danzig Reformation of 1525 obviously won’t, as Southgate says, capture every dimension and moment of human experience during those events. It will indeed stitch together unsatisfactory fragments of contemporary documents. But, like casting out a fishing net into deep waters, it will capture something, however slim and slippery, of what happened. And capturing something of the human past is, I think, (morally, intellectually) better than capturing nothing.