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If you want a silly answer . . .

28 November 2014

William Whyte finds a book hampered by its question mal posée


MinistÈre de la culture/mÉdiathÈque

The Upper Rhine, 1917: an autochrome photo of a French soldier by Paul Castelnau. Ian Mortimer considers the impact of photography on the authority of the artist

The Upper Rhine, 1917: an autochrome photo of a French soldier by Paul Castelnau. Ian Mortimer considers the impact of photography on the authority ...

Centuries of Change: Which century saw the most change and why it matters to us
Ian Mortimer
The Bodley Head £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT292 )

IN 1929, the French historian Lucian Febvre published an article that has proved to be as important for its title as for its contents. A lengthy and angry attack on church historians for their failure to explain the Reformation, "Une question mal posée" argued that previous scholars had not only offered the wrong answers, but had been asking the wrong questions all along.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Febvre's argument, "Une question mal posée" took on a life of its own in the decades that followed. Search for it online, and you turn up essays on gay marriage; "Une question mal posée?" on the failure of the Reformation in Ireland: "Une question mal posée?" on superstition and St Gregory of Tours - but you get the point.

Since Febvre wrote, historians have indeed embraced his argument. They, too, have claimed that, in historical research, framing the question determines the answer, and "une question mal posée" can only ever produce an answer that is both wrong-headed and misleading.

In almost every possible way, Ian Mortimer's new book, asking which of the past ten centuries brought forth the most change, rests upon a question not so much mal posée as simply silly. Why should one assess such a complex issue in this way? A century, after all, is an arbitrary and even meaningless chronological division. Things do not change just because the century does.

The difficulties of this approach run throughout the book. Dr Mortimer, a fluent, successful, and intelligent popular historian, none the less struggles to reconcile his research with his central question. The biggest change witnessed by the 12th century, we are told, was a growth in population. Yet the most important figure in that period was apparently the theologian Peter Abelard. The biggest change in the 13th century, we are assured, was the expansion of trade. None the less, the "principal agent of change" was Pope Innocent III. That Abelard and Innocent are the identified as change-makers, but had nothing to do with the great change of their own times, illuminates the key weakness of this book.

Does this mean, then, that Febvre is right? Not quite; for everyone is likely to learn something new from this eclectic book. More importantly, Mortimer is not so much seeking an answer to his question as hoping to promote further debate. In that way, posing the wrong question may prove to be the better way of making people think.

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