Statistical Stories

On Wednesday OUHS hosted a talk on Telling Stories in History by Robert Tombs from the Other Place. He gave a very engaging presentation, which I assume to have been a distilled version of his book The English and their History, which I haven’t read and might well crack the wind-eggs I’m about to lay. His framing device was the observation that ethnographers categorise folk tales by type. He suggested that national narratives could be similarly characterised and therefore that they were stories ripe for debunking.

He first took the idea that life in England in the Later Middle Ages was particularly unpleasant. Tombs blamed the idea on Hume and disproved it by claiming that England’s GDP in the 1470s was equivalent to that of modern Cameroon and three times greater than that of the whole continent of Africa in 1500. To ward off the counterargument that wealth might have been unequally distributed he presented a graph of the Englishman’s average wage over time, demonstrating that the 1470s was the best time to be employed in England until the eighteenth century.

Tombs’ second myth was that the Industrial Revolution in England was particularly unpleasant. This myth was blamed on Dickens, Engels and Toynbee and contrasted with the positive attitude that we (apparently) take to comparable examples of industrialisation like China and India. In fact, Tombs argued, the Liverpool slums immortalised by Engels were the pre-industrial slums of Irish refugees from the potato famine, not the housing of industrious workers, the Poor law was the most effective method of wealth redistribution ever, and declining infant mortality statistics show that quality of life improved.

Finally, Tombs attacked the idea that Britain has been in decline since the end of the Empire. He argued that the British Empire wasn’t very important since it employed very few soldiers and far far fewer bureaucrats than modern Britain’s foreign office’s press department (Some might consider this an advantage of the lost Empire…). Further, the world power ranking today (as determined by annual military spending) is roughly the same as it was in 1700.

Historians, he concluded, must be aware that these sorts of narratives about the past are narratives and should stand apart from them. With the last, he sketched out an alternative narrative of post-war Britain (sudden centralisation) which can be obscured if the decline narrative dominates. And who could object to that?

Well… me.

I don’t like the debunking approach and especially the use of statistics to do it. It’s not that I think the statistical data is necessarily wrong – although I do wonder at the Medieval GDPs and average wages. Rather, it’s that, in setting up a comparison between stories and statistics, Tombs presents one of these things as capable of presenting the truth about the past (the unimpeachably authoritative graph) and the other as an obstacle blocking that truth.

Narratives of the Middle Ages invented by Enlightenment scholars projecting their own concerns onto their past probably are obstacles to understanding the Middle Ages. But Tombs seemed to collapse two sorts of story into one, because his other two narratives were not invented by later people projecting onto the past but by contemporaries projecting their concerns onto their present.

Yes, nineteenth century infant mortality statistics indicate something about how the Industrial Revolution “really was.” But the works that created the myths Tombs discussed, like Dickens and Engels, tell us how it “really felt.” And that latter is important; in the process of critiquing the narrative of British decline, Tombs emphasised how very influential it had been with the voting public, with intellectuals like Martin Wiener, and with politicians like Maggie Thatcher. So the narrative played an important role in shaping the way people acted and, therefore, how things were. Replacing narratives based on contemporary fascinations with statistics does not expose the real past, it introduces a new narrative – inspired by our own generation’s fascination with data.

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