VSI History

Posted on Fri 25 June 2021 in books

This is a very fun overview of history as a discipline. It gives a few deep examples of historical stories and uses them to illustrate certain important themes in historical study. These stories are very interesting, which makes the book's lessons stick in your head.

Good VSIs tend to have a lot of examples, a lot of small examples. This book has those too, but the bigger examples are so well done that it's brought to another level. Very enjoyable.

The book lays out some important ideas in history. Is history a quest for truth? What are sources? Are past peoples different from us or the same as us? The author often comes back to the idea that history is "true story": a variable combination of hard evidence and softer interpretation.

The big examples

The book is enjoyable because of the interesting historical stories that are used as examples. The author describes these stories well, but it's the historical commentary that is engrossing. It works very well.

The first story is Guilhem de Rodes the Cathar heretic versus the Inquisitor from Rome. It's one full of interesting peculiarities, from the details of the Cathar heresy to the culture of Southern France. Not to mention that it revolves around the murder of a mystic by heretics and the subsequent investigation by an inquisitor. The inquisitor sounds like a police detective questioning witnesses, writing about the interviews in his book (which survives today).

The second story is about a man called Burdett from England. The author only has a few sources about him, but he shows what can and cannot be concluded from these. Notably there are things the sources suggest, but these suggestions are for the historian to weigh. Burdett is mentioned in one record to have left his wife in England, in the next he is accused of being a salacious pastor in America, and in the final source he's recorded as having fought on the king's side in the English civil war. Burdett flees England to America for more religious freedom but returns to England to fight for the king. The author was able to find these things in archives, sometimes thanks to tips from friends.

Finally, the last story is about Sojourner Truth, but it is relatively shorter than the first two. Truth gave a speech on womens' rights at a church, and her speech was written down by two people differently. Which is the right one? One is written in "proper" English, and the other one is more a phonetic recreation of how Black Americans spoke at the time. It's not easy to choose either one as the "right" one. One is more recent, one might seem more "what it was like", and so on. The author does this to show that there is not "one true" history, even when we feel that we have all material in our hands.

(If someone were writing a history about you, would you want them to use the shorthand/slang/memes in your e-mails, or would you want historians to rewrite your messages in something readers are familiar with?)


The author uses this word to describe how people thought in the past. It's the mentalité that usually makes past people different from us. When past people are observed we can see that they are different from us.

The author's main example has to do with people mistreating cats. For a variety of reasons, cats were not well-liked in Europe. The way that people thought about cats, however, is quite strange to us today. The author shares an account of apprentice printers torturing their mistress's cat in strange ways and finding it all very funny. The point is that it's hard to relate to this thinking even if you don't like cats. The medieval mentalité included thoughts about social class, animals, and superstitions that we don't have today. Today we wouldn't torture animals to "stick it to the man".

The point here is that we have to be wary of how we think that we're different and the same as past people. There may be more differences than first meets the eye, and differences we may never know. What we think is the same may not truly be that.

Past people were not uniform either. The English thought the French revolutionaries were bloodthirsty while the revolutionaries thought they were upholding liberty. The Declaration of Independence may seem today to be egalitarian, but it was written with the mentalité of slave-owning white men. In my opinion, we're predisposed to make assumptions of how people were the same or different, but to get closer to the truth we have to do some research and tread carefully.

Types of historians

Two chapters talk about how different historians saw history. I think the important developments are: historians looking for truth, historians using scientific methods, and historians studying more than just great men, wars and politics.

My impression is that the classic idea of the historian is from Thucydides. He wrote about recent events and focused on politics and wars. At some point he says that history is just for politics and wars, and nothing else.

The author uses a historian Ranke as the "father" of fact-based history. Ranke did not like the idea of history being "fake", of things not being acurate just to make a better story. He's quoted as saying: "only to say, how it really was."

The next interesting point was with historians using scientific (or rather technical) methods to find out the truth of the past. The author brings up the example of the historian Lorenzo Valla proving with philology that the "Donation of Constantine" was a forgery. The Donation was a historical document that the Church used to justify its authority. The philology was also an example of history of language, a kind of history unlike Thucidydes' "pure" political history.

Finally, history has been broadened by Marx. The author says that he was responsible for the widespread idea today that people in the past were shaped by their social and economic environment. For example, when talking about the American Civil War, historians will also talk about the society in which it started and the economic situations of the different groups. Personally, I've found this broader historical analysis lacking in the ancient histories: these older historians didn't seem that interested in really understanding people.


This was an interesting book. I think part of it was that I've read a lot of history books without having been educated on it. Reading this VSI provoked some new thoughts in my head.

I think back on War and Peace. The author of that novel spends a lot of time criticizing history and the idea that "great men" decide history. He instead argues that both chance and larger forces are the real deciders of history. This VSI helps situate that kind of thinking, which is nice.