Historians as Individuals: Tackling a History of Violence

Author: Freya Reynolds

Subeditor: Alice Wallis

Image Credit: History Extra, So, You Want To Study History?, 2018, https://www.historyextra.com/period/history-degree-study-university-tips-advice/.

Content Warning: discussion of historical violence

The history of violence offers insight into the potentially emotive nature of historical research. This dissuades us from positioning historians as unattached interpreters of the past, bringing instead their own emotional and personal readings of sources. The ability to explore these histories, as with other research, is impacted by historians’ access to sources, particularly when examining the lives of those who have been disenfranchised and thus less able to add to archival spaces. Historians who have taken more creative approaches to overcoming this issue therefore offer insight into the ways the boundaries of historical study can be challenged in attempting to centre previously unseen perspectives. Analysing historiography in this field consequently allows us to reflect on both the limits and opportunities of this area of scholarship. 

A key challenge in writing histories of violence is that historians are often working within archives constructed by the very societies they are critiquing. Freshwater challenges the perceived ‘validity’ of archival spaces, pointing to the active process of selection and exclusion involved in the construction of archives, with certain voices and sources favoured  over others. The ultimate issue with interpreting these violent acts is that they cannot be seen, and we largely rely on the voices of those enacting abuse to understand them. Fuentes’ work directly deals with this, addressing the challenges historians face in trying to understand enslaved women’s lives. Archival encounters with enslaved women often stem from the words of white male observers, placing the historian in the uncomfortable position of potentially reproducing their gaze. However, the dearth of these women’s own voices in the archive makes these accounts some of our only insights into these women’s experiences. To this end, Fuentes criticises the narrativisation of these women’s screams, read by some historians as signs of defiance. She argues this dehumanises them, transforming human acts into ones imbued with resistance, which could in turn be linked to cultural notions of Black women as particularly resistant to pain. This points to many historians’ desires to access voices which simply don’t exist, the screams of these women given greater meaning due to a scholarly resistance to this ‘tragic permanency of historical silence’ within the archive. 

Roper similarly indicates how our reliance on Early Modern interrogators’ accounts of witches’ confessions makes it difficult to access these women’s own voices. Interrogators’ accounts of drawn out confessions recount extensive torture practices, but seldom make reference to other bodily violence that preceded these women’s interrogations, with accused women subject to shaving and sexual ridicule and abuse by guards. The use of torture also makes these confessions less indicative of actual events, but rather what people believed witches did, Roper suggesting they can therefore be used to understand cultural views of witchcraft as well as the dynamics of torture. As with the screams of enslaved women, resistance to confession can be read as agency, but overemphasis on this can simplify these women’s experiences, with historians positioning them in potentially invented roles. Therefore ‘archival violence’ can be continued in scholarship, both through an overemphasis on bodily violence but also through a continued exclusion of certain voices from archives, communities robbed of the right to commemorate and catalogue their own histories of violence. Dorney refers to the ‘allure’ of the archives, as spaces which act as sites of restriction, with curators controlling researchers’ access to sources and archival workers policing the ways in which they physically engage with their contents. Therefore, the boundaries set for researchers within these spaces can have the effect of enhancing the perceived importance of sources, as viewing becomes a conscious, policed performance. Emphasis on the written word in this context also has the effect of enhancing the perceived ‘validity’ of certain sources, with contrasting ways of remembering, for instance through oral histories and physical performance, largely absent. In this way, those who were historically given a voice and influence over state records retain disproportionate influence over historians’ understandings of the past. As a consequence, in approaching historical study of subjugated and violated peoples, historians need to remain aware of the fact that the archival space is not apolitical, but rather a direct construction of the state, with the power to exclude some voices and uplift others. 

Historians need to be considered as emotional individuals, as well as members of collective groups, with their personal experiences and identities potentially influencing their interpretations of the past. This is particularly evident when studying violence, as historians are dealing with particularly evocative sources. Fuentes reflects on the affective nature of sources detailing slavery, specifically the emotional impact on Black historians who continually confront sources showing ‘only terror and violence’ enacted against their ancestors. Sharpe points to the influence of academics from Black communities on the direction of historical study, their work aiming to increasingly centre enslaved people’s voices. However, their self-conscious reflections on their scholarship, informed by their racial backgrounds, appears relatively unique. The lack of frequent reflection from white scholars on their own attachments to colonial legacies contrastingly renders their whiteness invisible, positioning race as something only experienced by non-white people, with white historians remaining raceless in their scholarship. Both race and nationality can affect interpretations of the past, as when looking to pre-archival scholarship – which Maxwell-Brown suggests often relied on ‘fakelore’ – there is the potential for colonial and nationalist myths to be reproduced. Townsend points to the ongoing myth of ‘white Gods’ in scholarship on the Mexican conquest, with Mexicans’ apparent initial view of conquistadors as deities used to explain their loss against the Spanish. She ties this to the lack of contemporary sources from Mexican people themselves, as well as the limits of translation, for instance teotl in scholarship taken to mean dios despite its earlier interpretation as ‘deity impersonator.’ Cledinnen points to scholars’ significant reliance on Spanish accounts, often written retrospectively or speculatively, leading to a one-sided presentation of conquest. The continued presence of this narrative in academia indicates the pervasive quality of early colonial histories, with historians inadvertently reproducing inaccurate tropes through their reliance on European sources and scholarship. Historians like Fuentes’ reflections and subsequent analysis on how their racial experiences affect their responses to sources indicates how histories of violence can encourage a more self-conscious and self-reflective approach than in traditional scholarship. This bears similarities to rape scholars such as MacKinnon and Brownmiller, whose interpretations of sexual violence specifically draw on their own experiences. If rooted in more specific historical contexts, this approach has the potential to create more nuanced and introspective scholarship, positioning colonialism, sexual violence and legacies of slavery as ongoing processes, in which scholars retain a stake. 

Broader societal themes and expectations point to the role of discomfort in stifling certain analyses in scholarship. Townsend argues that the reproduction of the myth of Europeans as Gods can be read as being informed by discomfort from descendants of colonists with the pain and rage of Native Americans. The contrasting focus on Mexicans ‘adulation’ of the Spanish, acting as an explanation for conquest, perhaps offered a less personally confronting  interpretation for early pre-archival scholars from American and European backgrounds. Equally, in studying rape during the Holocaust, Banwell suggests the lack of reference to sexual violence in both the Nuremburg trials and early scholarship resulted from survivors’ shame and ongoing taboos. The issue is complicated as sexual and gender-based violence are ongoing features of modern society, with historians’ reluctance to reflect on these kinds of violence perhaps due to an unwillingness to dwell on its contemporary manifestations. Rassenschande laws in Nazi Germany forbade sexual and romantic relationships between Jewish and German people, informed by a desire to maintain perceived racial purity. This suggests the rape of Jewish women directly undermined the Nazi project, making it difficult for historians to position these acts of violence amongst broader accounts of genocide. Discomfort also appears to emerge when victims of violence act in ways which diverge from societal expectations. Fogelman suggests the lack of reference to rape in early Holocaust studies could also stem from academics’ discomfort with the fact that many women utilised sex as a way to survive and gain access to necessities. Equally, women accused of witchcraft could form almost father-like views of their interrogators, and experience sexual violence but also receive advice and comfort from prison guards. In the context of both early modern prisons and concentration camps, sexual violence resists a singular interpretation. In each case, women’s actions undermine historian’s assumptions of victimhood, indicating instead how violence can have varied and surprising impacts on its recipients. Writing a full history of violence therefore requires a resistance to existing taboos and earlier scholars’ discomfort with more nuanced responses to violence.  

Telling a more complete story of historically oppressed peoples often involves resistance to historiographical norms. African-American scholars Hartman and Sharpe draw on fictionalised narratives to construct an idea of enslaved women’s lives. Sharpe indicates these ‘neo-slave narratives’ have potentially restorative effects, offering academics a ‘way of laying the past to rest.’ Moving away from the distorted figures that emerge from the archive therefore involves a broadening of what is considered historical, with partial fictionalisation offering historians an alternative to continually reproducing violence. Multidisciplinary approaches can also bolster understandings of the past. Townsend indicates the potential for the Mexican conquest to be understood through an ecological lens, drawing on the work of geographer Jared Diamond. He points to Central America’s ecology and comparatively youthful farming culture influencing Spanish success, which Townsend draws on to justify her resistance to myths of ‘white Gods.’ Similarly, Roper pushes for a multi-disciplinary approach to understand the cultural figure of the witch in Early Modern Europe, drawing on the work of modernists and art historians. Through this she analyses the witch as an ‘imaginative figure,’ with artistic representations indicating violence against witches was often informed by Early Modern anxieties around fertility and female sexuality. In each case, an engagement with other disciplines creates a more nuanced understanding of both the experiences of violence and the reasoning behind it. 

Many of the historians discussed here have taken approaches that diverge from traditional scholarship. In doing so they reveal the ways in which historiography can exclude and manipulate certain voices, and be used to naturalise existing societal views, namely imperialism, racism and sexism. Therefore, the history of violence, as a relatively young field, offers a lens through which to critique and thus challenge the limitations of earlier scholarship. The influence of historians’ own experiences on their interpretations of sources indicates a need to consider historians not as impartial observers, but as individuals whose lived experiences have the potential to influence their presentations of the past. Historical scholarship is a politically charged field, not resistant to cultural views and trends but often directly resulting from them. The study of violence, as a way to understand human power, control and abuse, can be particularly emotionally driven. Changing approaches to scholarship and efforts to re-center certain voices indicate both the constraints of archival spaces and the often personal and political ways in which scholars approach research. Therefore, there is a need for a more self-conscious reflection from historians on how and why they approach the past, and what personal motivations and biases they bring to this endeavour.


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