History is An Accident

from Peter Ackroyd, at the end of his first volume on the history of England:

When we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion. I have already explained, in the course of this narrative, that the writing of history is often another way of defining chaos. There is in fact a case for saying that human history, as it is generally described and understood, is the sum total of accident and unintended consequences.

So the great movements of the period, as described in the present narrative, may seem to be without direction and without explanation except in terms of day-to-day expediency; in that sense they are without historical meaning. What seem to be, in retrospect, the greatest and most important changes tend to go unnoticed at the time. We may take the slow progress of the English parliament as an example. The government of king with parliament was not framed after a model; the various parts and powers of the national assembly emerged from occasional acts, the significance of which was not understood, or from decisions reached by practical considerations and private interests. The entry of knights and townsmen, later to become known as “the Commons,” provoked no interest or surprise. It was a matter of indifference.

      Everything grows out of a soil of contingent circumstance. Convenience, rather than the shibboleth of progress or evolution, is the agent of change. Error and misjudgment therefore play a large part in what we are pleased to call the “development” of institutions. A body of uses and misuses then takes on the carapace of custom and becomes part of a tradition. It should be noticed, in a similar spirit, that most of the battles fought in medieval England were governed by chance—a surprise charge, or a sudden storm, might decisively change the outcome. This should come as no surprise. Turmoil and accident and coincidence are the stuff of all human lives. They are also the abiding themes of fiction, of poetry and of drama.

      One result of historical enquiry is the recognition of transience; the most fervent beliefs will one day be discredited, and the most certain certainties will be abandoned. Opinions are as unstable and as evanescent as the wind. We may invoke, with George Meredith, “Change, the strongest son of Life.”

– Peter Ackroyd, The History of England, Volume 1: Foundation, 442-3


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