I am, as Charlie said yesterday in his introduction, a historian. More precisely, I'm a historian specialising in the history of the Celtic-speaking peoples - the Welsh, the Irish, the Scots, the Bretons, the Cornish - in the early middle ages (roughly speaking between around 400 C.E. and 1200 C.E., give or take a century or so at both ends, depending on the country). But I have sub-specialisms in Anglo-Saxon England, early medieval Scandinavia (vikings!) and, out of pure awkwardness, 17th century France. My particular expertise in all that is Wales, 500-1300. All very neat and academic, all very remote, or so it often looks.
There are, as a result of this, three questions that I get asked a lot. The first is, most obviously, 'What's the point of studying that?' The early middle ages are remote from us now, and I specialise in areas that have changed almost beyond recognition in the succeeding centuries, through conquest and annexation and foreign influence. There are a number of answers I give to that question. One, which to me is the most obvious is: well, it's interesting. I belong to that set of people who were born curious, who want to know, who love to learn and study and explore, and the more abstruse or challenging the subject, the more I enjoy it. It is, I suppose, the thrill of the chase. The answer I give to parents of students, to journalists and to critics, however, is this one: we need to know our past in order to understand the structures and forms of our present. And, in many cases, the origins of those structures and forms lie hundreds or even thousands of years back. Why am I writing this in English and not Welsh or French even some modern reflection of classical Latin? The answer to that has its roots in the migrations and invasions of both the British Isles and a great part of Western Europe in the 3rd through 6th centuries by peoples from the north and the east, in the form and shape of the Norman conquest of England in the last part of the eleventh century, in the effects of the feudal structures imposed by that latter and their expansionist nature. Had some part of this gone another way, taken another turn, met a different barrier or reverse, I might well be writing this in a language much closer to German (and you might be speaking that latter, too, and all without any influence from twentieth century events). Our history helps to explain us as we now are, and that is always useful
The second question is more of a comment. 'I didn't know they had any history.' This is usually in response to me saying, 'Well, I'm a historian of Wales, sort of.' This remark is meant most often as a joke - Wales deliberately misheard as whales - but it has a serious undertone. Wales is not a major player in the eyes of the world, or, indeed, in the eyes of most of the British. It most commonly crops up in the media as a BBC measurement cliché, ('an area the size of Wales!') or in reference to a singer or actor (Charlotte Church, Ioan Gruffudd). But it's a joke with a sting. The truism is that history is written by the victors and we often leave out the separate histories of those we have conquered or who we hold unimportant. Removing histories is a means of colonialism, of Empire, of dominance. Remembering and teaching those histories is a means of resistance and celebration. When people make that joke, what they are saying under the humour is that only some peoples, only some cultures are worthy of serious attention. They don't say because they're mean, by and large, or even because they really think that. They say it because their background and education makes it an easy shot. The history of Britain, as taught in schools here in the UK (and most people don't study history after school) is, by and large, the history of the English, of England, which is the culturally dominant group. The other cultures are silenced - not just the Celts, but the Indian diaspora, the African and African-Carribbean population, the Chinese, the Italians and Jews and Poles, and all the other peoples who make up the modern British. When we study outside our cultural mainstream, it's a little act of subversion, a small rebellion, an act of reclamation. I believe in those. We need to know ourselves fully, in all our variety, not just the single story of the dominant.
The third question is; but what is history anyway? That's a big one, and usually asked by those who are genuinely interested. And there are many, many answers to it. My answers to the first to questions are part of it, as are every single other question I've asked myself, of the sources and materials I study. History is us, it is, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, now and this blog, it's the world as it is as it wakes today, and as it was yesterday. It's that rat in the arras and the flag over Capitol Hill, the wars that still damage the world, and the struggle against them, the people whose names and deeds we memorialise - Qin Shi Huang Di, Napoleon, Minamoto no Yoritomo, Gandhi, Kenneth Kenyatta, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Samia Nkrumah, George Washington, Isabella of Angouleme, Trahaearn ap Caradog, Brian Boru, Harold Bluetooth, King Shaka kaSenzangakhona, Tecumseh, Catherine the Great, Lenin, Isaac Newton, Sappho.... I could go on and on. History is the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we came from, and the stories we rewrite to suit ourselves. It's the stories we try to forget and the stories we suppress. It's how we explain ourselves to ourselves, a source of comfort and a source of shame, a tool of war and a means of peace. History is us, history is why the modern world is at it is, and that is why it matters.