John Reeks, ‘Creative History Needs a Better Name’

I’m not lying: no, this is a creative history.

I went to this conference believing that ‘creative history’ is a contradiction in terms: I remain firmly convinced of that view, writes John Reeks.

By definition, creativity requires outside-of-the-box thinking and a willingness to tear up the rulebook. History, meanwhile, is a rules-based discipline. Historians are bound by a shared code of honour which governs the way we interrogate the evidence and represent the past. While a certain amount of imagination is required in the production of history, historians do not simply ‘create’ a history because we are not free to say whatever we like.

If the facts do not fit the story, then we re-evaluate the story to account for the facts. Histories are produced by careful examination of the evidence, in the form of our primary sources, and by application of appropriate methods for evaluating those sources. There is a clear distinction between fiction and non-fiction. While a history cannot ever recreate past realities on the page, the historian is compelled by duty to try, for when an inconvenient truth surfaces from the archive they are honour-bound to account for it – never to deny or ignore it for convenience. The constraints placed upon the historian’s freedom for manoeuver make them distinct from, say, the author of literature, who is constrained only by the limits of their own imagination.

But postmodernism and stuff?

The danger with ‘creative history’ is that it becomes the natural output of the historian too meek to defend themselves against the barrage of theory which, like a heat-seeking missile tearing after the jet engine, presents a real and present threat to the existence of the craft. If there is ‘nothing outside the text’ and the sources can be ‘deconstructed’ until they say whatever we want them to, then bleak landscapes of conjecture and opinion, or lies, frankly, are all that await us.

If ‘creative histories’ are seen as the antidote, or natural conclusion, of this fatalism, then we shall deserve nothing less. We can play around with tropes, twiddle with the narratives, and dabble with escapism and flights of fancy all we like, but there is nothing so liberating as a cold, hard fact – and the freedom that comes with knowing that no brainiac can take it away from you.

So, I am unwilling to concede that history can be ‘creative’. That way danger lies, a place where we have ceded all power to the most convincing story-teller and whatever bucket of hogwash they want to drench us with that week.

Back to the 1960s, then?

Not quite.

One event at the conference was enough to give me quite a startling jolt: the performance of ‘WITCH’ by Circle of Spears. A fantastic production, it is well worth seeing simply for the sheer enjoyment of it. More than that, though, it presents the perfect riposte to much of what I have said above. The play centres around the pre-trial examination of an accused witch, ‘Mistress Scrope’, in Elizabethan England. The sheriff (and local lord) collects testimony from the accused and her accuser, weighing up whether to send the case upwards for trial. There are many themes in ‘WITCH’ that the historian of early modern England will recognise: the lord has enclosed parts of the local forest, an act that has hit Mistress Scrope especially hard, and suspicion of Scope by her neighbours appears to stem from her status as a widow, a person in receipt of poor relief, and someone with a knack for herbal cures and remedies. The play is a fiction – the case in question never happened – and yet there is also nothing about the story presented which I feel is particularly untrue or deceitful. ‘WITCH’ is intellectually honest.

Towards ‘Creative History’?

So, I’ve doubled down on my belief that History cannot be creative, yet am convinced that a fictional account of the sixteenth-century English witch trials is in some sense truthful: where does that leave me?

Needing to rationalise my way out of the hole that I have dug for myself, that’s where!

Creative History (notice that I have now capitalised it for now – an old trick – think of it as a compound noun) is not history, but nor is it fiction. I think that what we are left with is something new altogether. Perhaps it borrows the best of both: the rules-based rigour of history combined with the imaginative capacity of the playwright. It is a sincere attempt to engage with the real past. Rather than adulterating the account with modern prejudices and sensibilities, it is sensitive to the facts. Meanwhile, it attempts to represent that past in an accessible, enjoyable, engaging fashion. It will likely take a form that allows for a wider range of expression than long prose plated with the full academic apparatus.

My take-home is that ‘Creative Historians’ need to have a shared code of honour much like the historian has. History is History, fiction is fiction, and Creative History is something else entirely.

More than anything else, it just needs a better name.

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