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 , say, I wouldn’t have to construct the basic chronological story (the who, what, when?) from scratch. But writing on England 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 Poland 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
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. Southgate