A ‘coign of vantage’: putting history in perspective.

I love this essay!


In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Banquo speaks of the castle at the centre of the play not possessing a ‘coign of vantage’, meaning, effectively, a room with a view. Later, in the late-nineteenth century, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) produced an enigmatic painting employing the same title, portraying three young Roman women looking down from a high cliff-face at the arrival of two ships. In the writing of history, possessing such a ‘coign of vantage’ represents, to me, the ultimate ideal of the discipline: the search for a perfect perspective from which to view the great vista of the past in its truest possible light. Often, history has been reduced to a set of convenient personalities or periods, which can occlude the far broader and usually irregular or untidy rhythms of the past. So, I believe that labouring to discover that perfect viewpoint from which to regard the surrounding historical landscape should represent the…

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