ERIE, Pa. — History is one of the few things we can be certain about in the world. What happened is what happened, right?
“Well, no,” said Glenn Kumhera, associate professor of history at Penn State Behrend. “History is, and always has been, a human account of what happened. If you ask 50 people about an event that occurred last week and write a historical account based on their comments, you will have 50 different narratives. You’ll have to make some choices based on what evidence is accessible.”
Historians have been doing that since the dawn of cave drawings. Their work is a series of decisions about what to record and whom to believe.
“There’s more creativity involved in history than people care to admit,” Kumhera said.
While cave drawings may have been set in stone, history is not, said Kumhera. New discoveries and evidence, changing attitudes, correlations and biases revealed can — and frequently do — lead to a rewriting of history.
The same applies to historians’ work, including Kumhera’s own book, “The Benefits of Peace: Private Peacemaking in Late Medieval Italy."
“The book will be out of date eventually,” Kumhera said. “But it will help to build a bigger picture. It’s another piece in the puzzle.”
New pieces are always being fitted into place, he added.
“A hundred years ago, historians would not have considered asking a woman, or an African-American, or a recent immigrant how they felt about anything,” Kumhera said. “Their perspectives are completely missing from the history books. Much of what we have been taught are nationalistic histories.”
New perspectives are added as artifacts are uncovered, or as old narratives are given a fresh look. Case in point: The Vikings, said Kumhera.
“They went from terrorists to tourists,” he explained. “Initially, we only had the victims’ voices — the literate monks whose monasteries were pillaged. But over time, historians looked at it from the Viking perspective, and our view of the Vikings changed from bandits to explorers, and then to a mix of the two.”
Is it discomforting to historians to stand on such shaky ground?
“I think history attracts those who enjoy the uncertainty,” Kumhera said. “It’s what I love most about studying history. It’s an ongoing quest for information, an attempt to figure things out with maybe 30% of the pieces of the puzzle, if we are lucky.”
There will always be holes, said Kumhera. Historians use the information they have to fill those gaps and then test their hypotheses by making their interpretations and evidence available to other historians to critique and revise.
“People don’t think of progress in history,” Kumhera said. “They relate it to science and technology, but history is continually evolving and changing. New discoveries or revelations are made every day that change the way we see our past.”