Is There Still Value in ‘Great Man’ History? 3 historians discussHistorians in the News
tags: historians, womens history, men in history
Jane Ridley, Professor of Modern History at the University of Buckingham and the biographer of Edwin Lutyens, Edward VII and Queen Victoria
Sean Lang, Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University
Lucasta Miller, Author of The Lost Life and Scadalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated ‘Female Byron’ (Jonathan Cape, 2019)
The ‘Great Man’ idea of history incorporates at least three concepts: that history is made by individuals; that those individuals are mostly men; and that they are to be regarded as great – not just important but, apart from a few villains, admirable as well. The second and third concepts have rightly taken a knocking for some years now; the first retains its importance.
Historians are much more aware than they used to be of the role played by women, not just in society generally, but within areas of history, including politics, religion, science and even military history, from which it had long been assumed that they were excluded. More tenacious is the insistence that figures in the past should be revered as heroes or derided as villains. This has arisen recently in relation to the ‘statues war’ over controversial figures such as Cecil Rhodes or ‘Bomber’ Harris; it is also evident in the ongoing arguments for and against Winston Churchill. These rows underline the importance of individuals in history: campaigners against imperial or military statues tend to support the erection of monuments to other, more ‘acceptable’ individuals. This insistence on regarding people as heroes or villains is simplistic, even childish. It makes more sense to regard certain actions or moments, such as Churchill’s decision to fight on in 1940, as heroic (or villainous), without getting into sweeping statements about an individual’s whole life and career.
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