How Fast Does History Date?

That history may become dated sounds like an oxymoron. How could history, something that has already happened, something that is by definition not current, become out-of-date? But if history is past, the telling of history is both past and present. For a concrete example, consider the various accounts on Henry II, some of which are reproduced below.

Is Henry II (1962) hopelessly out of date by 2001?

From a cursory search in World Cat (the World’s Largest Library Catalog), the earliest account we have on Henry II, King of England, 1133-1189 was published in 1588*. The latest are from this year. In between, there have been 550 publications on Henry, for an average of one new work a year being brought out**. While the figures are somewhat exaggerated — for instance, different editions of essentially the same work constitute different records — this is still a lot to say about the same man!

To make the same point by a more visual means, below I graph the distribution of publications on Henry***.

Publication history on Henry II

One wonders how each of the author manages to differentiate, justify, and presumably convinces himself and his audience that he has produced a better account of Henry than all the previous attempts. Even allowing for the fact that some authors gained access to sources that were not available to his predecessors, one would think that the majority of the works were not brought out only when new sources surfaced. Rather, they represent a new analysis done by a different writer having a different perspective on what may be learned from Henry’s life. Presumably then, the works aim to breath fresh air into an old subject. And if a new thing can be fresh, doesn’t that mean that the old things are, by inference, not as fresh? That the previously published accounts are old? Stale? Outdated?

So, does history date? How fast does it date? How many more books on Henry II, King of England, 1133-1189 will we get in the coming year? Decade? Century? Millennium? How many new things to bring the king’s story up-to-date? Does history get old & need a makeover? Or is it the audience who needs to be refreshed? After all, some books are explicitly said to “bring an old subject to a new audience” — the old audience presumably having died off or become less relevant in other ways. Maybe books shouldn’t be categorized just by their subjects then, but also by their intended audience: Henry II, King of England, for readers between 1933-1989.

*: Strange, I would’ve thought people would’ve written about this daddy-not-so-dearest of Richard the Lionheart much earlier. Perhaps WorldCat metadata are not to be trusted.

**: Discounting the fictional works would’ve reduced this number by only 71.

***: I’m on a first-name basis with the king.


This is the post I had in mind for the second round of the Guessing Game.

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