Bringing History to Life with Storytelling
This blog is the third of a series of five on the topic of storytelling and history. While I am not a historian, I have had a life-long love of history and have been privileged to work as a storytelling consultant to national museums. Writing this blog provides me with a way of working out and articulating my method when telling historical stories.
This series of blogs is structured as follows:
Part 1 - Storytelling
Why Stories Stick: Narration and the Organisation of Ideas
Part 2 - Character-Focused Storying (using the example of the story of the Suffragettes)
Part 3 - Event-Focused Storying (using the example of the Battle of Hastings)
Part 4 - Artefact-Focused Storying (using the example of a wooden Spindle) Memorising and Telling
Part 5 - History and The Tales That We Tell Summary
If you are interested in more of my thinking on using storytelling to teach history, I have an article, 'Storytelling the Past' in the Historical Association's magazine Primary History (Issue 86, Autumn 2020) CLICK HERE - please note that this article is behind a 'pay wall'.
When anyone tells a story from history, or writes a historic account, they have to make choices about which events to include and which ones to exclude; inevitably, the ones that are the most interesting, relevant or influential will be incorporated into the narrative, while everyday happenings and irrelevant detail will be omitted. This quality of narrative (and not just historical narrative), the aspect that makes us want to listen to a story, is sometimes referred to as tellability or reportability and, according to to theorist William Labov, a reportable event is one which ‘is least likely to have occurred and has the greatest effect on the lives and life chances of the participants’ (2013: 23). When we are addressing historical themes, the events that we narrate (such as battles, struggles for social justice and significant advances in technology), are tellable because of the number of lives they affect - not only the famous and powerful, but the ordinary folk who . However, where records exist of the lives of ordinary people, these too can provide the focus of narratives. Indeed, television documentaries such as David Olusoga’s BBC series ‘A House Through Time’ are constructed in this way, and there is increasing interest in seeing events through the eyes of those who don't normally make it into the history books.
For the purposes of this blog, I am going to use one of the foundational events of English history, the Battle of Hastings in 1066, to exemplify an event-focused approach - if for no other reason than it is recognisable, even if the details of the event are only familiar to those brought up in England.
Figure 1: Event-Focused Storying
The event-focussed storying sequence (Figure 1) supports the decision-making process about identifying the function that an event has within a coherent narrative (and for whom it is significant within the story). These functions directly relate to the simple story structure explored in Part 1 Bringing History to Life with Storytelling and, based on this structural approach, I suggest that the function that the event serves within a narrative can be:
Contextual - if the battle provides the introduction to the story, it sets the context for what is to follow, whether that is limited to the coronation of King William or the broader conquest and domination of England. Clearly the protagonist of this story cannot be King Harold, but a narrative that starts with the battle could tell the story, for example, of King William I (specific individual), an English aristocrat (representative individual) or the ordinary people of England (representative group).
Initiating or problematic – if the battle is the initial problem in the story, the events that follow are more focussed than if it provides the introduction. A story could be created where the battle provides a problem for the Normans (representative group) who, having won a victory on the south coast, have to march north and secure the land. The following sections of the story could include reference to the uprisings that followed the Battle of Hastings and, perhaps, ‘The Harrying of the North’ (1069-1070) as the climax. The resolution could be that the victory won at Hastings is completed with this final domination of England.
Climactic - if the battle itself is the climax of the story, the introduction and problem would need to establish either the desire of the Normans (or an individual representing them) to secure a foothold in England, or that of the English (or an individual representing them) to defend their land. The resolution of the story would be the establishment of the Normans on English soil.
Resolving - in this position, the battle could be related to the succession to the English crown, with the introduction and problem establishing the conflicting claims of Harold and William. The climax of such a narrative would be, for instance, the coronation of Harold II, that made conflict inevitable.
Concluding - if the Battle of Hastings is placed at the end of the story as a sequential event, rather than the resolution of the problem, then its narrative function is simply to conclude the tale. It is a neatening up of the narrative rather than something that drives the narrative. For instance, telling the story of a Saxon thane's march north to defeat the Vikings might be resolved with the defeat of King Harald Hardrada by the Saxons under King Harold, but the ending reference to Hastings would foreshadow the tragedy to come.
As noted in the previous entry on character-focused storying, the process of structuring historical narratives has an inevitable element of subjectivity, and the tension between storying the past and factual historical accounts will be explored in more detail in the final part 'History and The Tales That We Tell'. In the next part, I will explore artefact-focused storying, exploring the creation of a coherent narrative around a very ordinary spindle.
 ‘function’ is used here to refer to the relationship between an element of the story (such as an event or artefact) and the role they play in the story. Hence the Battle of Hastings can function as the climax of the story, or plate armour could be seen as functioning as a problem to an attacker.
Labov, W. (2013) The Language of Life and Death: The Transformation of Experience on Oral Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,