Mummy, Mummy 169: using our historical imagination

Teaching History feature

Published: 19th December 2017

Mummy, Hilary Mantel says we can talk with the dead. If that’s true surely it makes history far more accessible?

I’m not sure she goes that far. She’s saying that we can and should do more to try listening and looking for the dead – but that there is a difference between retrieving history and retrieving the past. In her first 2017 Reith Lecture for the BBC she argued that if we want to add value to the past, to access it from the inside, we need to use our imagination. This allows us not just to know about the actions of those in the past but to speculate about the motivations for those actions.

But Daddy says that is just making history up and that only history contains the truth.

Daddy has been listening to Niall Ferguson (BBC Start the Week, 12 October 2015) again, but he should know that the idea of truth is problematic. Daddy opted not to do the historiography module at university – he thought it was too continental! Mantel quotes the historian Thomas Macaulay (and he’s someone that both Daddy and Ferguson would both approve!): ‘History has to be burned into the imagination before it can be received by the reason.'...

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