Revisionism Revisited: Ian Mortimer Takes Issue with Those Who Put Limits on Historians' Questionings of the Past

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ON JUNE 16TH, 2003, George Bush gave a speech in which he defended his decision to take military action against Iraq. The description he gave of those who had suggested that there had never been a real threat from Saddam Hussein's regime was startling: 'Now there are some who would like to rewrite history--revisionist historians is what I like to call them ...'. While the phrase suggests that Mr Bush is not particularly familiar with the nature or methods of revisionist history, his statement places in a very negative context anyone who might query whether assumptions about the past--including those assumptions made in the past--were actually correct.

This raises some important questions, not the least of which are: what is 'revisionist history' and why has it come to have such negative connotations? Neither of these questions has a straightforward answer. Almost all original historical research is 'revisionist' to some degree, in that it revises something we previously thought. However, an article which seeks to 'revise' our understanding of the origins of the Enlightenment would probably not be labelled 'revisionist' as it deals with social history, largely the preserve of the professional. An article, however, which revises our understanding of the supposed murder of Edward V and Prince Richard in 1483 would definitely be considered 'revisionist'. Therefore, when Bush talks about 'revisionist historians', he is mainly talking about those who challenge widely-accepted and well-established historical narratives. So how come these people have succeeded in attracting such distrust that George Bush feels justified in placing his most implacable political enemies in their midst?

At this point, and before discussing why revisionists may have found themselves unpopular, I must confess to a personal interest in the debate. This is on account of the claim in my biography of Roger Mortimer (1287-1330), 1st Earl of March, that we can be sure that the traditional narrative of the death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle is based on false information, and that he was still alive in 1330, and possibly even in 1338-39. It could be said that this gives me an axe to grind; in fact, I could hardly claim otherwise. Yet it seems to me that this puts me in a better position than most to make some observations on the effects of this disparaging of revisionist history and the implications for broader historical enquiry.

There seem to be three fundamental reasons why revisionists have a low reputation. The first is simply that by no means all revisionist research and analysis is of the highest standard. We have all heard of remarkable theories--stone rows, circles and pyramids leap to mind--based on evidence which, at best, might be described as 'flimsy'. Knowledge that such works are published, and sometimes sell in huge numbers, does nothing to confirm our faith in the intellectual quality control of commissioning editors. Furthermore, over the last 150 years the popular press has permitted (and, in some quarters, actively encouraged) new interpretations of events which may collectively be described as 'conspiracy theories'. When is a revisionist theory not a conspiracy theory? Historians may present several differences--including an author's credentials, knowledge, methods, judgement, and objectives--but it is not always easy for the public to be sure of the differences. Indeed, the perennial question of who shot President Kennedy (and why) has encouraged a welter of books, not all of which can be dismissed as ill-informed or simply sensationalist, although many are. It should thus not be considered surprising if public confidence in revisionist historical publications has been undermined by a culture which publishes theories of dubious merit far more often than works of revisionist scholarship.

This point only partly explains anti-revisionism. While it would explain why some works on, say, the identity of Jack the Ripper receive short shrift, it does not explain why a considerable number of hooks written by the well-informed and well-qualified are either overtly dismissed as 'revisionist' or avoided by those whom one would expect to take an immediate interest. …