Concerning Altered Pasts: Reflections of an Early Modern Historian

This essay provides an extended commentary on Richard Evans’ book <i>Altered Pasts</i> from the perspective of a historian of a much earlier period, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The essay considers much of the literature discussed by Evans, explores the “scope” and “range” of counterfactual arguments, and offers suggestions as to how and when legitimate counterfactual historical thinking itself came into being. The essay also argues that the problems inherent in counterfactual history lie less in the logic of their arguments than in the use that is made of them: specifically that a device useful, heuristically, in evaluating the impact of certain factors (or their absence) on events has been stretched by some historians beyond the weight it will bear. In the final section, the relation between fictional and nonfictional counterfactuals is explored.