When does a novel cease to be historical, and become contemporary? The Historical Novel Society defines historical fiction as novels 'written at least fifty years after the events described, or written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events.'
In 1930, Sellar and Yeatman said that history ended in 1918 when America became Top Nation and history came to a.
More recently, Francis Fukuyama suggested that history ended with the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989.
My personal definition is that history is events that are not within the memory of the person who is reading or writing about them, or studying them. But as a lecturer in adult education, I sometimes find myself teaching subjects that are history to me, but that some of my students lived through.
Conversely, the Cold War is part of the history curriculum in English schools. No-one now of school age was alive at the time of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. But for many who teach the subject, the Cold War was central to their view of world affairs in their childhood and early adulthood. Few, if any, of the post-war generation expected the Wall to come down in their lifetimes.
Yet the Berlin Wall existed for just 28 years. It is barely a blip in the whole history of Europe. It will probably hardly rate a mention in the history books of the future.
There’s an important point here for historians, and especially for writers of historical fiction. We lump together several centuries and call them ‘the Anglo Saxon period’ or ‘the Middle Ages.’ But these are not homogeneous periods, any more than the twentieth century was. Change was slower in the past, but it happened. A seventy year old, in any century, will not have the same life experiences, or the same perceptions of his or her world, as a twenty year old. And events which may have had a major impact on the lives of people in the past may barely be mentioned in the history books.