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Few academic subjects have lent themselves so readily to pithy quotation as the discipline of history.1 Some historians, the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee once suggested, ‘hold that history is just one damn thing after another’. History is, after all, the study of the past – ‘a foreign country’ according to the novelist L.P. Hartley – and the things that happened there. It sounds simple enough, but it's possible that the writing of history has never been a more contentious matter than it is today. The question of what constitutes history has become increasingly difficult to answer and it is now linked to a second question – whether history, in the sense that that word has commonly been understood, is possible at all.

Fifty years ago ...

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