Daily Archives: October 1, 2008

Over 5.5k visits to Sentire Cum Ecclesia in September!

Okay, so allow me a little joy – afterall, dear Reader, you were a part of making it happen.

In the month of September, the Sentire Cum Ecclesia blogsite was accessed by readers 5569 times. That’s a record for this site.

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History as Storytelling

In a combox below we fell to talking about the role of history as “storytelling”.

I felt happily vindicated on Monday morning when I read this story in The Australian: Historians neglecting storyteller role.

HISTORY has been “dulled down” by focusing exclusively on analysing evidence and argument, with historians neglecting their role as storytellers. Award-winning historian Peter Cochrane is urging his colleagues to look to the narrative techniques of literature to recreate the past in a vivid and lively way.

Cochrane, an inaugural winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History, said historians should be able to cross freely into the territory of novelists and poets to use their techniques of plot, character, and imagination.

“We spend a great deal of our time on the intricacies of analysis, evidence evaluation and argument while we tend to neglect the literary side of history writing,” he says in a speech prepared for this week’s Australian History Teachers Association annual conference in Brisbane. “This, I think, is an old, ingrained prejudice. Historians tend to see themselves as social scientists, as scholars whose job it is to ‘write up’ or report on their findings, rather than as writers whose job it is to create or imagine the past, to captivate anaudience. We should be crossing boundaries and borrowing what we can from fiction, or at least from fiction writers … in terms of structuring and vivifying a story.”

…Narrative skills were needed to bring history alive: devising a plot, composing a paragraph, choosing a metaphor and evoking the character of the protagonist are all fundamental to the skills of history, all require historical imagination. “The history profession, with some exceptions, has been wary of biographical or character-driven narrative mode because it might be the ‘first step into the Hades of commercialisation and dumbing down,” he says. “Narrative movement, along with character and human drama, is essential to the historian’s duty to ensure the story’s not a bore. I don’t think there’s any sense in which this is falsification, something fiction writers are allowed to do and historians aren’t.

Can I make an admission here? I have learnt a lot of history from reading fiction and from watching historical docu-dramas. In fact, often such fictional narratives have been the inducement to investigate the “true” story more deeply.

A couple of examples. I am currently on a run with Roman history. Fraser lent me his copy of “Rubicon” by Tom Holland. It is described by a reviewer on the front cover as “narrative history at its best”, and it really is. The same reviewer goes on to say: “It really held me, in fact, obsessed me.” All history-telling should be like that.

As for fiction, I first came to the history of the late republic through the novels of Colleen McCullough’s series of six Roman novels. These are fiction, but extremely well researched fiction, and a good way of getting into the subject.

And at the moment, I am reading a series of short stories by Steven Saylor in his Roma Sub Rosa series with Gordianus the Finder. Not just another historical who-dunnit, Saylor bases most of his novels on real cases – such as Cicero’s first case in the trial of Sextus Roscius against the charge of parricide.

To be sure, there is a difference between history and fiction – one of which is that the former should not be polluted with the latter while the latter often benefits from a good dose of the former. Nevertheless, both are forms of narrative. In terms of communication, the effectiveness of both literary forms depends upon the skills of the author as a storyteller.


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Been in Tassie!

Don’t shoot me, Louise – I didn’t have your address and we wouldn’t have had time to catch up even if I did – but I did think of you while in Hobart on the weekend.

The uncharacteristic silence on the blog was due to a five day holiday in what they Tassies like to call “The South Island” of Australia (the rest of us being on “The North Island”). We had $20 tickets on Tiger Airways, and travelled from Launceston to Oatlands (staying in a B&B called “Oatlands Lodge” built in 1837 – a year before my ancestors arrived in Australia), then to Hobart (where we stayed with Cathy’s cousin and her family), then to Port Arthur and winding our way up the East Coast back to Launceston. An exhausting trip – it takes a couple of hours to travel 100ks on Tasmanian roads – but exhilerating for us and educational for the kids.

While in Hobart, we went to Mass at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Sandy Bay. It is Fr Michael Tate’s parish – but unfortunately he was away for the weekend. It seems that this ex-Senator and Hawke Government minister is doing good things there – there appears to be a lot of WYD follow up and even a Latin Mass once a month.

Of course, Cathy and I pigged out on the historical churches. Unfortunately, I have to say that St David’s Anglican Cathedral wins hands down over St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral. In Oatlands we got to see one of only two Pugin designed churches (the other is also in Tassie), but unfortunately it was locked. And in Hobart, we met and chatted with the Rector of St George’s Anglican Church, a beautifully preserved Georgian building, complete with box pews.

Unfortunately, we didn’t escape the football madness. How were we to know that the Premier team were special favourites of the inhabitants of the South Island?


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