History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is History? •

What is History?

Book cover: In Defence of History

Author's response to his critics (8)


In Defence of History

Richard J. Evans
Granta, 1997 307 pp., £15.99 (hardback)

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University
Criticism 8: The book is unfair to those postmodernists whom it criticises.

As well as misunderstanding or misrepresenting postmodernist theory, some critics of In Defence of History have attacked the book for what they see as its unfairness to other individuals whose work it criticises. For example, a number of reviewers, such as John Charmley and Ronald Hutton, not necessarily defenders of postmodernism, have suggested that Keith Jenkins's hostility to conventional history as practised in the universities is ascribed by In Defence of History to the fact that he has never had a job in a university himself. But this is not so. What the book actually says, after summarising Jenkins's argument that professional historians believe in an 'objective' and on the whole liberal-conservative interpretation of the past because they teach in 'multi-million pound' universities engaged in the 'ideological control' of society, is as follows:

That Keith Jenkins sees university history departments in this jaundiced way may, if one wishes for a moment to borrow his own mode of argument, have something to do with the fact that he is only a lecturer in an institute of higher education, as so feels excluded from the multi-million pound institutions he is criticising so aggressively. Doubtless this would be an unfair charge, but no more unfair than the charges he is levelling at the university historical profession as a whole.

In other words, the book was not saying that Jenkins takes the views he does because he is not teaching in a university, only that if he applied his own arguments to himself, that is the kind of argument he would end up with.

Indeed this is actually put forward as an example of how unfair, how reductionist, postmodernist arguments can be. As Hutton observes, one of the main techniques of In Defence of History is to apply the postmodernists' theories to their own writings, and no more should be read into this passage than precisely that. Elsewhere, indeed, the book points out that a number of postmodernists have major posts at senior universities, so the argument as applied to Jenkins (ultimately by Jenkins) falls down on this count too, since I explicitly argue that, contrary to what some postmodernists appear to believe, we are not dealing here with conservative empiricist orthodoxies entrenched in major citadels of academe and confronting progressive thinkers who have been deliberately excluded from the centres of academic power.

This argument, like some of the others dealt with in the previous section of this 'Reply to Critics', comes down again to the relationship between knowledge and power. I confess that when I wrote the book, I did not realise quite how dangerous the cruder attempts to link the two could be. If you think knowledge attains the status of truth solely through the exercise of power, then power is what you will try to get, and there might indeed be some justification in the Marxist writer Chris Harman's claim in his review of In Defence of History that 'popular postmodernist arguments have been used to terrorise students in innumerable university departments into submission to their lecturers' dogmas'. If this were true, it would be a betrayal of all the values of rationality and the free exchange of ideas which the concept of a university is supposed to be about. In this sense, it is not just history that needs defending, but the spirit of rational argument and the unfettered discussion of differing views, indeed, the whole spirit in which academic and intellectual life is lived.

That this spirit has been violated by my book is the complaint of Diane Purkiss, who writes to defend her own book The Witch in History against the brief remarks made about it in In Defence of History. Purkiss accuses me of misquoting from her book and claims I have discussed it without having read it, or alternatively that I have read it but have not read it accurately (that these two accusations are mutually contradictory does not seem to occur to her - or is this mere rhetorical hyperbole not intended to be taken seriously?). A merely inaccurate reading as distinct from no reading at all would seem to be a relatively venial sin, for Purkiss takes my allegedly inaccurate reading as evidence for her view that 'reading all the words that are there, just those words and no others, not adding, not taking away, just reading' is a 'nearly impossible task' which 'none of us do...most of the time.' Purkiss's 'Response' would certainly provide startling evidence of this point, supposing one was inclined to agree with it.

Let us start with a rather trivial example. On page 4 of In Defence of History, she charges, I attribute to her opinions which have been put forward not by her but by unnamed 'conservative defenders of history'. When we look up page 69 of The Witch in History, however, which is where the passage in question occurs, what do we find? At the end of a paragraph attacking male historians for their lack of interest in feminist and gender theory, Purkiss concludes that they evade the truth-claims of such theory by dismissing it as of no use to them in their work. There follows the sentence: 'The fact that poststructuralism threatens to throw historians out of work does not make it untrue.' This opinion is not attributed to anyone else and is neither set in quotation marks nor supplied with a footnote referring the reader to someone other than Purkiss herself as its author.

It is, to be sure, followed by another sentence, which reads as follows: 'Though some historinas (sic) do offer other refutations, these are usually based on fairly comprehensive misreadings of what they refute, again suggesting a certain interpretive carelessness.' The footnote to this sentence, like the previous footnote in Purkiss's text, refers to Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob's Telling the Truth About History (a book by three historians, or perhaps we should now call them 'historinas', who can hardly be accused of a conservative approach to the past, or of a lack of interest in feminist and gender theory, or indeed of being male). But the view that poststructuralism threatens to throw historians out of work is not put forward in their book either, nor as far as I know in any other book except The Witch in History, apart from Keith Windschuttle's exaggeratedly alarmist The Killing of History, which is not cited anywhere in The Witch in History and which, presumably therefore, Purkiss had not read at the time when she wrote her book. Purkiss does not say in her book that conservative defenders of history often sound as if they believe that poststructuralism will make them unemployed. The sentence in question is unambiguously her own. Indeed, Purkiss's claim that it would be 'hilarious' if she had actually said that poststructuralism threatened to do historians out of a job does not prevent her from repeating this view in her 'Response', where she remarks: 'Any resemblance between my work and claims made about it by Evans is purely coincidental, but of course one simply must have grist for the conservative argufying machine, otherwise, I suppose, redundancy would truly beckon.'

This leads on to a broader assumption in Purkiss's 'Response', reflecting a more general prejudice in her book, which is that In Defence of History is part of a 'conservative argufying machine', and, by implication, that I am part of a wider group of 'conservative defenders of history'. Since Purkiss never actually explains what she means by 'conservative', this is a charge that it is difficult to refute. However, if she rereads the book, she will find that it defends, as noted earlier in this 'Reply', a broad approach to history, including social history, cultural history, feminist history, and all the other recent innovations condemned by the true conservative defenders of history like Gertrude Himmelfarb, Geoffrey Elton, John Kenyon, and indeed all the historians to whom the young-fogey critics of my book think I have been so unfair. The book argues that socialist, feminist, black and other radical histories need a concept of truth and objectivity just as much as any other histories do, but it says nothing against them in principle, quite the contrary. It also points out that once you open the relativist door, not only conservatives but also fascists and neo-Nazis can come in through it too. The U.S. edition of the book provides fresh evidence of the conservative tendencies of at least some postmodernist writers on history (in particular, David Harlan, who calls for a more positive, patriotic approach to the American past and its rescue from over-critical modernists in his book The Degradation of American History). It is a travesty to assume that postmodernism or poststructuralism are radical, and anyone who criticises them is conservative - a view put forward in a particularly unthinking way by Keith Jenkins in his Why History?, which has a whole Chapter praising Harlan's work.

Purkiss also assumes, to read out the implications of her rhetoric, that I regard feminist and postmodernist historians as a 'rabble'. Where have I ever said such a thing? This is pure invention. Perhaps Purkiss would care to read the books, articles and reviews I wrote on feminist history in the 1970s and early 1980s, or to note the close and repeated attention paid to gender as a social construct in my recent books Rituals of Retribution and Tales from the German Underworld. Or, indeed, the criticisms advanced in In Defence of History of a historian like John Vincent who has declared recently that history is about the rich and powerful, 'history is deeply male'.

What I object to is not feminist history - the more of it there is, the better - but crude and blatant sexism of the sort Purkiss displays in her book and her 'Response'. In the latter, she is insistent on referring to me as a 'man', goes out of her way to describe historians of witchcraft as 'gentlemen', says that I think historians should argue in a 'manly fashion', accuses 'academic historians' of 'duffing up a woman historian (i.e. Margaret Murray) for being somehow too close to the figure of the witch', and argues that 'male historians tend to ground rationality in a repudiation of the feminine as problematically inchoate'. She goes on to allege that Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane unconsciously try 'to use the figure of the witch to define history in masculine terms'.

To realise how sexist such remarks are, one only has to reverse the gender designations. If Purkiss thinks it is legitimate to write about male historians in such terms, then what objection could she possibly have to a male historian who insisted on pointing out that someone he disagreed with was a woman and as such part of a school of 'ladies', who accused her of wanting to argue in a 'womanly' fashion, whatever that might be, who objected to her 'duffing up a man historian for being somehow too distant from the figure of the witch', and who raised similar objections about female historians trying to use the figure of the witch to define history in feminine terms? She would rightly find such views offensive.

Or, to refer again to Purkiss's book, if it is wrong for male historians to 'ground' male identity in a historical myth of women's powerlessness in the past, then why is it not also wrong for female historians to 'ground' female identity in a historical myth of women's articulacy in the past? The point once more is that such arguments cut both ways. If an antifeminist wants to attack Purkiss's work with sexist political arguments of this sort, if the persuasiveness of historical scholarship depends not on the extent to which its arguments fit the evidence but on the political and moral assumptions behind it, then she has no means of defending herself against her critics. If for example Purkiss objects to the fact that Keith Thomas has used the figure of the witch as the ground for his own academic identity, then what reason has she for objecting to the view that she herself has used the figure of the witch as the ground for her own academic identity?

Purkiss alludes to my description of her as a postmodernist as 'hysterical'. How would she feel if I described her arguments as 'hysterical', or imagined her, as she does Thomas and Macfarlane, writing 'tearfully' and 'with a maniacal cackle'? Purkiss complains about the 'discourtesy' and 'disrespect' with which she alleges I have approached her work. These epithets would seem to be more properly applied to the way she deals with people (men) with whom she disagrees in her own book and in her 'Response'. Leaving this aside: once again, I am not using the label 'postmodernist' as a term of condemnation, simply as a useful description, and one to some of whose various manifestations I attribute positive and fruitful intellectual developments; I would be equally happy to call Purkiss a poststructuralist, a designation she appears to accept, if that made things easier. My footnote on the term 'postmodernist' tries to justify its usefulness while conceding its problematic nature.

In terms of Purkiss's own work this means that I place it in the context of an approach which makes no distinction between fact and fiction, or to put it another way, different forms of representation. Here we come once more to 'the witches themselves', a phrase which has obviously provided something of a hostage to fortune, and here again I have to explain that what I meant was the real people in the past - men as well as women - who were accused of witchcraft and who appear in trial and other historical records. I continue to think that there is an important distinction to be made between these people, who really lived, and the figures who appear in literature, poetry and other fictional representations, who did not. I do not say, however, and never have said, that it is wrong to study the latter or even to study both real people and fictional people side by side (indeed I do this in my own book Tales from the German Underworld).

This brings us to Keith Thomas and Religion and the Decline of Magic. It may be true, as Purkiss remarks on page 44 of her book, that 'Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane, the dominant voices in English witchcraft studies for over a decade, are rarely read by modern witches, and none of those I met had even heard of them.' However, Purkiss has more serious criticisms to make than this. She denies that she simply dislikes their work because they are men, or because they are creating myths of male dominance rather than serious historical scholarship. She says they base their work on a 'misreading of historical materials' and that they 'get it wrong'. Thomas uses only printed sources and 'neglects to read these sources scrupulously or carefully' and 'often uses literary sources without distinguishing them carefully from trial materials'.

I do not accept Thomas's interpretation of early modern English witchcraft in my book, nor do I say anywhere that Religion and the Decline of Magic is the 'last word' on the topic (in fact there is now a superb example of an explicitly postmodernist approach to the subject in Stuart Clark's Thinking with Demons, a book which does not manage to avoid the inherent contradictions of poststructuralist theory, but nevertheless provides a stunning illustration of how they can be used to breathe new life into an old subject). Thomas's book uses manuscript sources in a variety of archives as well as pamphlet and printed literature. But yes, of course I haven't read this literature myself - I'm not an expert on seventeenth - century English witchcraft. To demand that a critic or commentator on a book has to examine all the evidence on which it rests before being capable of saying anything about it would disqualify anyone from saying anything about any historical work apart from their own.

One might indeed legitimately turn the tables and ask how much of the evidence used by Thomas has also been studied by Purkiss. This is not easy to discover since she has not troubled to provide her book with a bibliography. However, a check through Chapter 3 ('The witch in the hands of the historians - a tale of prejudice and fear') reveals references to primary printed sources in seven notes out of eighty, with a total of seven works listed. There are a handful, and no more than a tiny handful, of manuscript sources cited in the footnotes to other Chapters, but Purkiss's book itself is based overwhelmingly on printed material. It does not cite more than a tiny fraction of the source material cited by Thomas. Purkiss says in her book that she has read more than she cites. Be that as it may, her book's criticism of Thomas in Chapter 3 is not based on a comprehensive comparison of what he says with the materials on which it draws, so that her attack on me for not doing this in my discussion of Religion and the Decline of Magic must appear disingenuous, to say the least.

Of course Thomas and Macfarlane's work has been rightly criticized on a number of grounds, some of them mentioned by Purkiss. But this doesn't justify the crude and sweeping dismissal of it as 'wrong'. I have reread the relevant parts o f her book, moreover, and I still can't find any evidence presented by her that convinces me that they were out to empower men in the present and build their own careers in the process by repudiating the feminine, using the silent figure of the witch to disempower women, and so on. Women do appear in their work as prepared to use weapons like cursing in order to get their own way; they are not merely silent and submissive objects of elite persecution. Moreover, there is a whole genre of feminist historical writing which portrays women as victims in order to highlight the oppression and injustice under which they have had to suffer through the ages. In any case, the motives for which a historian writes, while they may be relevant to understanding the interpretations advanced, are altogether irrelevant to the validity or otherwise of the interpretations in question, a point that Purkiss does not seem to understand. Her own account of the historiography of witchcraft has depressingly few detailed or convincingly supported criticisms of the interpretations this historiography has advanced.

The real quarrel Purkiss has with my discussion of her work, however, does not relate to the historiography of witchcraft, but, once more, to postmodernism and 'Holocaust denial'. Purkiss points out quite rightly that Holocaust deniers claim they are telling the truth, and do not on the whole use the conceptual apparatus of poststructuralist relativism. The key passage at issue in her book is on page 70:

Historians are fond of pointing out that deconstruction's leading American exponent was a Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semite during the war, indicating the dire political consequences of deconstruction's challenge to conventional history. But in that case, traditional empirical history must also have dire implications, since most neo-Nazi historians adopt the most conservative possible protocols of discovery, revelation and truth-telling. It might be equally valid to argue that not ions of the indeterminacy of truth can be used against the self-proclaimed certitude of deniers. Deniers' assumption that the "truth" about the Holocaust lies around waiting to be "discovered" and encapsulated in a historical text form s the greatest possible contrast with the discourse of Holocaust survivors' testimonies, which affirm the impossibility of representing the ultimate "truth" of the event.

In her 'Response', Purkiss quotes selectively from this passage in her own book to make it look, once more, as if what she puts forward there as her own views are in fact her summary of other people's. She achieves this by omitting the second sentence in the passage above. Purkiss just didn't quote what she wrote with even the meanest level of care. Or rather, to put it less charitably, she took very good care to ensure that the incriminating sentence in her text mysteriously vanished when she quoted it in her 'Response'.

If readers want to look up the passage in my book which discusses this argument, they will find it, not on pages 140-1, where Purkiss directs them (they contain a discussion of postmodernist concepts of time), but on pages 241-2. She does, however, quote the sentence in question correctly, and I accept that I should have put 'dire implications' instead of 'dire consequences'. The meaning and effect are the same, however. The problem with this passage, as I pointed out in the book, is that it assumes that - at the very least - one cannot distinguish between the methods of real historians and the methods of Holocaust deniers because both present themselves as seekers after historical truth and both use the conventional apparatus of historical scholarship to achieve this effect. Either they both really are seeking after the truth, or they are both putting forward political arguments dressed up as such, but in both cases the effect is the same.

What this argument ignores is the fact that Holocaust deniers are not engaged in a search for truth, but manipulate and falsify the historical record for their own political purposes. Whether or not they really believe they are searching for truth is a question which cannot be answered without recourse to speculation about their own psychology, but the way they treat historical evidence strongly suggests that their falsifications are conscious and deliberate. What I argue in the book is that it is possible to draw a line between this fundamentally dishonest abuse of the historical record and the honest attempts of real historians to approach some kind of truth about the past. The book cites examples of people who have quarried the remains left by the past in order to support a present-day thesis, and contrasts this with the true historian's willingness to jettison dearly-held theories and interpretations if they are not supported by the evidence. But the falsifications of Holocaust deniers go a lot further than this, and anyone who has read their work (as I suspect Purkiss has not) will not find it difficult to tell the difference. It isn't that they are bad historians, they are not historians at all. Purkiss goes on to say on pages 70-71 of her book that 'careful reading of texts and especially stories is germane to Holocaust studies. Reading in detail and with due attention to textuality need not imply a fixed or cynical scepticism; such care in reading can signify proper respect for the unique and moving humanity of stories'.

Why not proper respect for their truth? Why does it matter that stories are uniquely and movingly humane, but whether or not they are true is a matter of such subordinate importance that it doesn't even warrant a mention? Why should car e in reading merely 'signify' respect instead of helping us determine the truth or otherwise of the representations the text contains? Coming after a plea for the validity of 'notions of the indeterminacy of truth' in writing about the Holocaust, these two sentences do indeed warrant the statement in my book (described as 'not even a reasonable inference' in Purkiss's 'Response') that Purkiss is saying that we should tell stories about the Holocaust and not worry too much about whether they are true or not.

What in any case is the truth in such matters, asks Purkiss? 'We can never know the whole or absolute truth' about the Holocaust, she says, 'because it would be more than any of us could bear'. If we cannot know it, how do we know we could not bear it? In pursuing this argument, Purkiss not only gets herself tangled up in contradictions, but also attributes to me a whole series of propositions that I have never advanced. How my book, for example, 'conflates the Holocaust with the witch- trials, ignoring the historical specificity of each', as Purkiss charges, is beyond me; I cannot see any evidence for this absurd charge anywhere in my book.

More importantly, however, to come to the point that really seems to annoy Purkiss, I have never equated her or any postmodernist or poststructuralist either implicitly or explicitly with Holocaust deniers. What I said was - to repeat a point made by Deborah Lipstadt in her book Denying the Holocaust - that postmodernist hyperrelativism encourages tolerance of Holocaust denial because it rejects the idea that one can tell truth from fiction and interpretation from falsification. Purkiss's own arguments are themselves evidence of this. But of course they are not responsible for Holocaust denial themselves, just as postmodernism is not responsible for Holocaust denial. Nowhere have I said this; such a claim would be absurd. I am not 'upset' because Purkiss is threatening to merge me and my 'party' (I wasn't aware that I had one - perhaps Purkiss would care to supply me with a few names?) with the deniers. Rather, I am arguing that extreme historical relativism, the idea that the truth about history can never be discovered, makes it impossible to refute Holocaust deniers. Notions of the indeterminacy of historical truth encourage Holocaust deniers to gain a hearing because their point of view is thought to be as valid in principle a s anyone else's (Lipstadt cites a number of disturbing instances of this in her book). This does not mean that they would have any truck with such notions themselves, something I have never claimed anywhere. The notion of the indeterminacy of truth is no asset to Holocaust deniers in framing their pseudo-arguments, nor have I claimed that it could be. But it is an asset to them in getting their claims heard.

This does not mean that they are in league with 'sinister' postmodernists. In the first place, I have never described postmodernists as 'sinister'; this is pure invention on Purkiss's part. Secondly, in summarising Lipstadt's view that 'the increase in scope and intensity of the Holocaust deniers' activities since the mid-1970s has among other things reflected the postmodernist intellectual climate, above all in the USA', I did not mean to imply that Holocaust deniers were themselves affected by this climate, though I can see that it would be easy to misconstrue my statement in this way, and perhaps I should have phrased it more carefully. As the rest of the passage on pages 240-41 of my book makes clear, I agree with Lipstadt's view that the climate of total relativism in American intellectual life has encouraged Holocaust deniers to expand their activities on American campuses by lowering resistance to their falsifications and manipulations of the truth. But of course neither she nor I would claim for a moment that postmodernism was responsible for the rise of Holocaust denial or that postmodernists endorsed the Holocaust deniers' views.

I continue to think, however, that the 'notion of the indeterminacy of truth' espoused by Purkiss robs us of our ability to say to the Holocaust deniers that what they are claiming is not true but false. In this sense I do indeed think that her work demonstrates, as I say in my book (p. 241) that the threat posed by Holocaust denial to all who believe in the power of reason is a real one, and it seems to me that the utterly inadequate way in which Purkiss responds to the threat is an ex ample of how postmodernist views undermine the power of rational argument to refute it. I did not say, however, and do not think, that Purkiss herself is, as she claims I said, 'part of the threat of Holocaust denial', which is a different thing altogether.

In this context, it is deeply troubling that Purkiss should choose to end her 'Response' by criticising the reliability of the testimony of Holocaust survivors, something which of course is grist to the Holocaust deniers' mill, though s he may not realise it herself. It is not true, to begin with, that, as she maintains, 'the only testimony, with a few rare exceptions, is from survivors'. It depends of course on what the testimony refers to, but even as regards the actual operation of g as chambers, mass shootings and other forms of the deliberate mass murder of millions of Jews and others by the Nazis, there is a substantial quantity of perpetrator testimony as well, though of course Holocaust deniers have attempted to discredit this, a s they have attempted to discredit the testimony of surviving victims.

Secondly, whatever Primo Levi said, the survivors are witnesses to the mass murders carried out by the Nazis, and are regarded as such in courts of law. Of course, as Purkiss says, 'the very process of shaping memory into story alters and reshapes memory'. But this does not mean, as Holocaust deniers maintain, that all survivor testimony is invention after the fact. The whole discipline of history from the very beginning has been geared to trying to sift out truth from falsehood in sources, and although memoirs and memories are rather more problematical that contemporaneous sources, they cannot simply be dismissed in this fashion; they have to be sifted for the truth just like any other source, and are just as capable of leading us towards it.

This brings us, finally, to the question of truth itself. Of course Purkiss is right in saying that 'we can never know the whole or absolute truth' about the Holocaust or indeed about anything else. I tried to express this belief in the much-misunderstood concluding sentence of my book. But just because we can never attain the whole or absolute truth, just because we make mistakes in our search for the truth about the past, just because there will always be something new to say about any historical subject, it does not follow that there is no such thing as the truth at all. In a similar way, as Susan Haack has pointed out (TLS, 9 July 1999), just because what is accepted as true isn't necessarily so, does not mean that the concept of the truth itself is merely ideological. Purkiss argues 'against "the truth"' and in favour of 'truths' that are 'local and specific', but it is impossible on the evidence of her 'Response' to see what the difference is. Truth, as Haack points out, is not relative to perspective, though what is accepted as true is; 'a statement is true if and only if things are as it represents them to be.' So there cannot be incompatible truths - and although some postmodernists argue that there can (despite the fact that, as Haack notes, 'incompatible' means 'cannot be jointly true'), I don't see Purkiss taking this position in her 'Response'. So if her 'local and specific truths' fit together with other truths, then they are true, they are aspects of the truth, and Purkiss believes in the truth.

Indeed, as Haack says, 'everyone who believes anything...implicitly acknowledges...that there is such a thing as truth', and it is encouraging to see Purkiss, along with other critics of my book, acknowledging this by attacking what they se e as errors and falsehoods in it, even though for the most part they miss their target. When Purkiss sweepingly condemns a variety of representations of witchcraft as 'wrong because all allow the play of fantasy to replace rigorous reading' she is indeed correct to say that this suggests she believes in truth, even though earlier in the same paragraph she argues 'against "the truth"'. The 'fantasies' she describes, therefore, are not 'local and specific' truths but falsehoods. 'Rigorous reading', one presumes, will deliver the truth rather than fantasies and falsehoods. So far, so good, then; we are in agreement.

And yet Purkiss also describes 'attempts to find out "what really happened" as 'doomed'. Questions such as why witchcraft persecution in England rose and fell are, she says on page 3 of her book 'unanswerable', and she goes on : 'I do not try to answer the empirical questions that preoccupy many of my contemporaries' (p. 4). The obvious question to ask is, if questions about why witchcraft persecutions rose and fell are unanswerable, then why aren't questions about the meaning of texts unanswerable? If attempts to find out what really happened are doomed, then why aren't attempts to find out what is really there in texts like Religion and the Decline of Magic doomed as well? Purkiss indeed concedes this argument in principle, as we have seen, but I doubt whether she would accept it in practice when applied to the questions asked - and answered - in her own book.

Purkiss argues against 'attempts to squeeze disparate materials into a large and general hypothesis', but her feminist approach itself is based on such a hypothesis about early modern women empowering themselves by fantasising that they were witches (an interesting idea, let me make clear, and one that deserves further debate and research), and more generally on an even larger and more general set of hypotheses about the power-driven nature of gender relations in past and present. All of this is accompanied by repeated attacks on historians and the historical profession for not reading sources rigorously, failing to note the rhetorical content of documents, and naively 'treating each text as a transparent window onto the mind of its writer or the mentalité of an entire society' (p. 71). I think these attacks are largely misplaced, but no-one could dispute the wisdom of the advice they imply. Once more, it comes down to urging historians to pay more attention to the style and content of the documents they use, the motives, if they can be discovered, of their authors, the audience to which they were addressed, and so on. Who could quarrel with that?

(Richard J. Evans, November 1999)

Author's response to his critics (introduction)

  1. The book is unnecessary because history doesn't need defending.
  2. The book is unfairly critical of conservative historians.
  3. The book fails to engage directly with the major postmodernist philosophers.
  4. The book defends an outmoded empiricist concept of objectivity.
  5. The book defends a conservative approach to history.
  6. The book's concept of a fact is untenable.
  7. The book misunderstands key arguments of the postmodernists.
  8. The book is unfair to those postmodernists whom it criticises.
  9. The book's arguments are contradictory.

Original review (by Prof. Antony Easthope)

A response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

A further response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

Back to reviews index

Back to top