The New Nature of History
By Arthur Marwick
Review by David (History)
Students who want an introduction to the study of History at university are usually recommended either E. H. Carr’s What is History, or Richard J. Evans’s In Defence of History. Unfortunately, neither was the right introduction when I was in this position. Carr’s title promises much more than it delivers, annoyingly, because it never attempts to answer his question of what history actually might be, and all of his essays are clearly dated. Whilst Evans has written a book which is useful as a modern alternative to Carr, it is written in defence of an attack I didn’t (and still can’t) understand.
Both books are also problematic because, rather than being an introduction to history, they are accounts of what the authors think history ought to be like. I think this sort of philosophical approach is a less than ideal introduction – partly because it would have been more useful to me to have history defined, and partly also because these historiographical concerns just aren’t the focus of a history degree, at least in the first year.
Arthur Marwick’s The Nature of History, recently updated as The New Nature of History is a refreshing departure from these books, and I think also is a more helpful one. Marwick’s book is designed as an introduction to what the study of history is like currently, written for “student and general readers looking for a straightforward guide to the methods and purposes of historical study.” He caters for this audience well, assuming little prior knowledge about history and providing a helpful glossary of terms at the end of the book. Its structure is also very clear, which allowed me to skip to what I thought were the most interesting sections.
Unlike Carr or Evans, it explicitly considers what historians do, which provides a useful bridge between school and university history courses. As a synthesis it is able to provide an overview of trends in history, explaining, for instance, how historians have justified their field over the past millennium. Finally, it contains a useful introduction to some of the most important debates in contemporary history. All of this is written clearly but with compelling authority. Over the last year I dipped into it again several times; Carr and Evans, on the other hand, remained on my shelves.
The New Nature of History by Arthur Marwick