No, history is not “what happened in the past”

What it really is, and why that matters

History is a funny thing.

If you ask most people what history was, they’d reply something along the lines of, “What happened in the past.”

Which is, well — not quite right.

I mean, it’s almost right, but this is one of those cases where almost isn’t enough. Like, you know, if you almost caught your flight. Or almost got the contract.

So no, history isn’t just what happened in the past. History is the RECORD of what happened in the past.

No record, no history.

And this represents a major challenge faced by any people without a written history.

Historical records can be archived in a variety of ways—including that most evocative of them all, music—but nothing beats a written record for archival fidelity.

Think about it. What is recorded in song, or other forms of oral tradition, is easily changed. And although images and sculpture last longer, they are easy to misinterpret.

Writing, however, is itself. It might have shades of meaning and even innuendo, but for now, writing remains about the next best thing to a time machine. Yes, it can be forgotten, altered, crossed out, misread, mistranslated, even lost. But as long as the writing itself is preserved, even its misinterpretation can always be corrected.

As an ancient Roman government official was recorded (in writing, of course) to have said, after he authorised the killing of the man who gave him his claim to fame…

What’s written (at least generally) stays written.†

And, in time, becomes history.

That’s why the proverb, made popular by Chinua Achebe, is so apt:

“Until the lions have their own historians, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

A history, it turns out, is a form of power wielded by whoever gets to tell it.

And although the lack of a written history has often disadvantaged people without one, it’s exciting to see that changing, as more and more, the past is investigated and recorded and transmitted.

Especially transmitted.

Because although I said earlier that history is what is recorded, it only becomes OUR history when it is transferred to us.

But that, my friends, is a subject for another day.


As recorded in John 19:22 (NET): “Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’”

If you made it here, chances are you read the whole thing. And I sincerely thank you. If you liked my story, please click the little heart below. It might help others find and enjoy this, too.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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