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How the Past was Used: Historical Cultures, c. 750-2000.

Lambert, Peter, and Bjorn Weiler, eds, How the Past was Used: Historical Cultures, c. 750-2000, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017; hardback; pp. 330; 11 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. [pounds sterling]90.00; ISBN 9780197266120.

The pessimistic view of the manipulation of history might well be called the 1984 approach--that the story is re-written on a daily basis to create the image necessary for the moment. Editors Pater Lambert and Bjorn Weiler do not see changes as being as rapid as in this approach, but their introduction (p. 28) describes history as fragile, fraught, and fragmented. And this valuable volume, the result of many years of discussion and conferences, brings together for comparison some of the distinctive approaches of various cultures to the formation and maintenance of their past. In many places, the concept of historical truth--as several of the contributors stress--was constructed in a way that was quite dissimilar to present-day academic belief. Dimitri Kastritsis, in analysing Ottoman narratives of the late fifteenth century, concludes that 'historical memory was intimately intertwined with legends and apocalyptic expectations' (p. 139). It was also, as Peter Lambert shows in his study of the way the Third Reich was used in the interwar period, a place where current debates that could not be directly treated, could be maintained as a form of historical fiction.

Two chapters that consider alternative forms of establishing history in the minds of the people are critical to the collection. Matthew Phillips underlines the way in which 'traditional' practices--in this case Thailand's royal barge processions that had been central from at least the sixteenth century--were revived and regenerated in the Cold War period to fulfil a present-day purpose of endorsing the legitimacy of the existing government of the state and Thai identity. This overturned the Thai past created in the interwar period. Richard Rathbone's skilful unravelling of the significance of the yam festival in the ancient state of Ashante (now in Ghana) makes clear the historic manner in which it embodies 'particular and partisan' (p. 287) aspects of the former empire of Ghana, its culture and its institutions. It shows a re-statement of the past quite different from the usual employment of a literary record.

Also different were many approaches in India, internally diverse with its many languages and religions. Allison Busch's account of the neglected Hindi vernacular poetry of the early modern period--a genre that cannot be usefully classified in modern divisions as either literature or history but as the work of poet-historians--shows us the construction of a past that established normative emotions and the rules of honour, creating a community standard with real-life consequences. History was essential to that present.

These distinctive pivots of memory which come from less familiar places give the chapters that re-examine forms of written presentation better known to Westerners a new viewpoint. The familiar trope that audience participation, which is central to an active performance, is absent from a narrative written and perhaps read aloud to groups of people, is examined afresh by Haki Antonsson in his chapter on the Norse sagas. Bjorn Weiler presents, through a careful examination of Matthew Paris's Lives of the Two Offas, a new approach to the major type of narrative sources of medieval European history, the monastic chronicle. Not only is their purpose moral and ethical, it is also concerned with contemporary relevance to the institution promoting them.

How history was legally defined and used in Spain in the beginning of the seventeenth century is revealed in a lawsuit examined by Richard Kagan. The position of the royal chronicler, Herrera, under attack for defaming the ancestor of a prominent aristocrat, uncovers exactly what was at issue, which was truth, the public good, and a guide to action.

Western historians have found the approach of Chinese professional historians and scholars writing since late antiquity problematic: their work was employed to shape particular ideas of cycles amongst parts at least of the population, so that the bad history could be jettisoned or absorbed into an undisputed cyclical framework. Professor Barrett's approach to this constructed continuity shows how the changes of Marxism have nevertheless left the idea of correct succession alive.

The authors, in their conclusion, look to future developments in the reexamination of the use of the past in a search for understanding of areas previously whitewashed or ignored, such as the role of women and the ways in which culture was transferred from one place to another. We can only hope that such promising research is undertaken and that it sheds light on the structure of society in different parts of the world's divided past.

SYBIL M. JACK, The University of Sydney
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Author:Jack, Sybil M.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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