Historiography

I. Definition

A. Introduction

History, in its broadest sense, is the totality of all past events, although a more realistic definition would limit it to the known past. Historiography is the written record of what is known of human lives and societies in the past and how historians have attempted to understand them. Of all the fields of serious study and literary effort, history may be the hardest to define precisely, because the attempt to uncover past events and formulate an intelligible account of them necessarily involves the use and influence of many auxiliary disciplines and literary forms. The concern of all serious historians has been to collect and record facts about the human past and often to discover new facts. They have known that the information they have is incomplete, partly incorrect, or biased and requires careful attention. All have tried to discover in the facts patterns of meaning addressed to the enduring questions of human life.

B. The Historian’s Craft

Except for the special circumstance in which historians record events they themselves have witnessed, historical facts can only be known through intermediary sources. These include testimony from living witnesses; narrative records, such as previous histories, memoirs, letters, and imaginative literature; the legal and financial records of courts, legislatures, religious institutions, or businesses; and the unwritten information derived from the physical remains of past civilizations, such as architecture, arts and crafts, burial grounds, and cultivated land. All these, and many more, sources of information provide the evidence from which the historian deciphers historical facts. The relation between evidence and fact, however, is rarely simple and direct. The evidence may be biased or mistaken, fragmentary, or nearly unintelligible after long periods of cultural or linguistic change. Historians, therefore, have to assess their evidence with a critical eye.

C. Interpretation and Form

Moreover, the purpose of history as a serious endeavor to understand human life is never fulfilled by the mere sifting of evidence for facts. Fact-finding is only the foundation for the selection, arrangement, and explanation that constitute historical interpretation. The process of interpretation informs all aspects of historical inquiry, beginning with the selection of a subject for investigation, because the very choice of a particular event or society or institution is itself an act of judgment that asserts the importance of the subject. Once chosen, the subject itself suggests a provisional model or hypothesis that guides research and helps the historian to assess and classify the available evidence and to present a detailed and coherent account of the subject. The historian must respect the facts, avoid ignorance and error as far as possible, and create a convincing, intellectually satisfying interpretation.

Until modern times, history was regarded primarily as a special kind of literature that shared many techniques and effects with fictional narrative. Historians were committed to factual materials and personal truthfulness, but like writers of fiction they wrote detailed narratives of events and vivid character sketches with great attention to language and style. The complex relations between literary art and historiography have been and continue to be a subject of serious debate.

D. Historical Writing in the West

Western historiography originated with the ancient Greeks, and the standards and interests of the Greek historians dominated historical study and writing for centuries.

1.   Greek Historiography

In the 5th century bc Herodotus, who has been called the father of history, wrote his famous account of the Persian Wars. Shortly afterward, Thucydides wrote his classic study of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. These men recorded contemporary or near-contemporary events in prose narratives of striking style, depending as much as possible on eyewitness or other reliable testimony for evidence. They concentrated on war, constitutional history, and the character of political leaders to create pictures of human societies in times of crisis or change. The recognition by contemporaries of the extraordinary accomplishment of both historians gave their works an authority that influenced succeeding historians. They too would prefer recent events, consider visual and oral evidence superior to written (used only in ancillary ways), and assume that the most significant human expression was the state and political life. Antiquarian research into religion, customs, names, and art, based on documentary sources, was also part of Greek and Roman culture but was allied chiefly to philosophy, biography, and areas of specialized learning and was excluded from the main traditions of political history. No specialized training was considered necessary for historiography. The historian’s education was that of any cultivated man: careful reading of general literature, followed by the study of rhetoric, the art of fluent and persuasive use of language that dominated ancient higher education. The ideal historian would combine rigorous truthfulness and freedom from bias with the gift of developed expression.

In the 4th century bc Xenophon, Theopompus of Chios (born about 378bc), and Ephorus continued the main traditions of Greek historiography in the Hellenistic period and extended its scope. Polybius, in the 2nd century bc, explained Roman history, political life, and military successes to his fellow Greeks, a subject also taken up by Strabo the geographer and Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the following century. The history of the Jews was placed in its Hellenistic and Roman context by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish aristocrat of Greek culture, who also defended and explained Jewish religion and customs. In the same period Plutarch wrote his biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, emphasizing dramatic, anecdotal materials in his depiction of exemplary character—individual lives regarded as illustrations of moral choices—and its effect on public life.

2.   Roman Historiography

The prestige of Greek as a language of art and learning was so great that the first Roman historiography, even by Romans, was written in Greek. Cato the Elder was the first to write Roman history in Latin, and his example inspired others. Sallust, impressed by the work of Thucydides, developed a brilliant Latin style that combined ethical reflections with acute psychological insight. His political analysis, based on human motivation, was to have a long and pervasive influence on historical writing. At the same time, Cicero, although not himself a historian, defined the prevailing ideals of historiography in terms of stylistic elegance and traditional moral standards applied to the events of public life. Latin historical writing continued in this mode with Livy, Tacitus, and Suetonius.

3.   The Early Christians

The writers mentioned thus far (with the exception of Josephus) were all pagan, and their works were entirely secular in subject and point of view. Educated pagans considered speculation on human destiny and moral questions beyond those directly applicable to political life the proper work of philosophers, not historians. During the 4th century, however, with the conversion of Emperor Constantine the Great, Christianity attained legal status and increasing influence in the Roman Empire and introduced new subjects and approaches to history. Eusebius of Caesarea wrote an ecclesiastical history (circa 324), tracing the growth of the church from its origins, through generations of persecution and martyrdom, to the triumphs of his own day. This radically new kind of history ignored the traditional classical restrictions of subject and style. Eusebius described religious life, books, and ideas, and people of no political importance; he included a great deal of documentary evidence and considered the major questions of human existence. Such mingling of secular and religious history with moral interpretation on the largest scale had its only precedent in the Old Testament, where the relation between God and humankind was seen in historical terms as a covenant between Yahweh and Israel worked out over centuries of national history of the Jews. Built on this foundation, Christianity too was a religion with significant implications for the interpretation of human history. In the 5th century, Paulus Orosius reinterpreted Roman history from a polemical Christian point of view, and St. Augustine, in his City of God (413-26), conceived of far more complex and subtle relations between Christian and secular history.

4.   The Middle Ages

With the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century ad, the traditions of classical education and literary culture, of which historiography was part, were disrupted and attenuated. Literacy became one of the professional skills of the clergy, which carried on the task of preserving and expanding a learned, religious culture. Many monasteries kept chronicles or annals, often the anonymous work of generations of monks, which simply recorded whatever the author knew of events, year by year, without any attempt at artistic or intellectual elaboration. The achievements of past historians, however, preserved in monastic libraries, kept alive the idea of a more ambitious standard, and early medieval writers, such as Gregory of Tours, struggled to meet it. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) by Bede the Venerable, an English monk, achieved the integration of secular and ecclesiastical history, natural and supernatural events, in a forceful and intelligent narrative.

The revived vigor of intellectual and literary life in the High Middle Ages is reflected in the historical works of the English monk William of Malmesbury, the German Otto of Freising, and the Norman Orderic Vitalis. Although most of the later medieval historians were clerics and wrote in Latin, the traditions of secular historiography were also revived by chroniclers who wrote in the vernacular languages. Jean de Joinville recorded the deeds of his king, Louis IX of France, on Crusade; Jean Froissart wrote of the exploits of French and English chivalry during the Hundred Years’ War.

5.   The Renaissance

The intensified study of Greek and Roman literature and the renewal of rhetorical education that characterized intellectual life in 15th-century Italy had an effect on historical study; it encouraged a secular and realistic approach to political history, both ancient and modern. Leonardo Bruni, a student of the newly recovered works of Tacitus, reconsidered the history of Republican and imperial Rome and of his native Florence in the light of Roman experience. In the 16th century Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini wrote works that again set political history in a world bounded by human laws and human ambitions. This separation of ecclesiastical from secular materials of history is evident wherever Renaissance learning had influence in Europe.

6.   The Antiquarians and Enlightenment History

The classical traditions of history writing had emphasized literary skill and the reinterpretation of history at the expense of basic research. From the 16th century onward, many scholars throughout Europe devoted their lives to the laborious, systematic collection of the sources for their national and religious histories. The French Benedictines, notably Jean Mabillon and Bernard de Montfaucon, began the exhaustive examination and publication of the sources of ecclesiastical history. Ludovico Muratori collected the sources for Italian history. Gottfried W. Leibniz compiled the annals of medieval Germany, and the Austrian Joseph Eckhel established the field of numismatics. Sir William Dugdale, Bishop Thomas Tanner, and Thomas Hearne collected documents and inscriptions in England and edited medieval annals. These examples represent only a few of the many antiquarians, or érudits, whose scrupulous work preserved the sources of historical knowledge and created and defined the major fields of critical research such as diplomatics, numismatics, and archaeology.

The same uncompromising attention to detail and method that was the highest accomplishment of erudition, however, separated the antiquarians, in method and sympathy, from the newest developments of 18th-century historiography—the philosophic history inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment. Voltaire recharged the literary traditions of historiography with the excitement of his provocative rationalism. He ignored the classical focus on politics and included all facets of civilization in a historiography of sweeping intellectual scope but displayed rather cavalier impatience with learned detail. Enlightenment historians, such as Montesquieu, David Hume, William Robertson, and the marquis de Condorcet continued the bolder philosophic conception of history and the philosophers’ careless evaluation of evidence. Edward Gibbon combined a deep respect for antiquarian research with Enlightenment élan and great literary gifts to produce The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), which set a standard for historical writing.

7.   The 19th Century

With the work and influence of Leopold von Ranke, history achieved its identity as an independent academic discipline with its own critical method and approach, requiring rigorous preparation. Ranke insisted on dispassionate objectivity as the historian’s proper point of view and made consultation of contemporary sources a law of historical construction. He substantially advanced the criticism of sources beyond the achievements of the antiquarians by making consideration of the historical circumstances of the writer the key to the evaluation of documents. This combination of the neutral, nonpartisan approach (at least as an ideal) with the acute realization that all observers are the products of their specific time and place and are thus necessarily subjective recorders promised to break history’s ancient connection to the intuitive literary arts and align it with modern scientific research. Many modern historians trace the intellectual foundations of their discipline to this development of the 19th-century German universities, which influenced historical scholarship throughout Europe and America.

French interest in the history of civilization was sustained by François Guizot, and the new scientific methods were applied to medieval history by Fustel de Coulanges. In England, Thomas Macaulay’s brilliant style continued the Enlightenment mode of a personal, essaylike history, but more exacting methods were applied in the universities. With colleagues and students at the University of Oxford, William Stubbs established English history on foundations of a thorough examination of sources, a movement carried forward by Samuel R. Gardiner and Frederick W. Maitland. George Bancroft was the first notable writer of U.S. history, and American universities in his time increasingly accepted the influence of German methods. By the 20th century, history was firmly established in European and American universities as a professional field, resting on exact methods and making productive use of archival collections and new sources of evidence.

8.   Current Trends

The divisive effects of two world wars, which undermined the ideal of a common international enterprise informed by an internationally acceptable point of view, and the increasing specialization and variety within the historical discipline itself have left history in much the same state of complex and divided purpose that marks all contemporary intellectual life. The earlier optimism that promised imminent recovery of the truth of the past has been replaced by the belief that no accumulation of facts constitutes history as an intelligible structure, and no historian, however free from crude bias, can be a totally neutral, impersonal recorder of an objective reality. Furthermore, the scope of history has expanded immeasurably, in time, as archaeology and anthropology have provided knowledge of earlier ages, and in breadth, as fields of inquiry entirely unknown in the past (such as economic history, psychohistory, history of ideas, of family structures, and of peasant societies) have emerged and refined their methods and goals. To many scholars, national history has come to seem an outmoded, culture-bound approach, although history written on thoroughly international assumptions is extremely difficult to achieve.

Historians have looked more and more to the social sciences—sociology, psychology, anthropology, and economics—for new methods and forms of explanation; the sophisticated use of quantitative data has become the accepted approach to economic and demographic studies. The influence of Marxist theories of economic and social development remains vital and contentious, as does the application of psychoanalytic theory to history. At the same time, many scholars have turned with sharpened interest to the theoretical foundations of historical knowledge and are reconsidering the relation between imaginative literature and history, with the possibility emerging that history may after all be the literary art that works upon scholarly material.

Contributed by: Nancy F. Partner, M.A., Ph.D. Associate Professor of History, McGill University. Author of Serious Entertainments: The Writing of History in Twelfth-Century England. “History and Historiography,” Microsoft(r) Encarta(r) Online Encyclopedia 2002. http://encarta.msn.com (c) 1997-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

II. Schools of Thought

When doing history, it helps to keep in mind that there are many different ways of determining how history happens. One of the key things to remember is that historians disagree very much over why almost any event happened. In the search for how things happen, we get ideas about how to understand our present world’s events and what to do about them, if anything. The following list of selected historians can give you some ideas of how the great historians “did” history. Keep in mind that this list is in no way complete or exclusive of other historians.

  • Plutarch–Great Men and their Character. His thesis is that the very character of men changes history. His study of Mark Antony suggests that his love for Cleopatra blinded him to his duties in Rome and was destroyed by Augustus; who, it turned out, was not a lightweight.
  • Historical Forces. This is the assertion that certain ideas, movements, etc., become irresistible forces that will have their way. An example is Christianity being such a force that would eventually not only survive persecution, but emerge victorious over the Roman Empire. Another is the dominance of Science in the West over Theology and Philosophy as the authority for determining Truth.
  • Toynbee–Challenge and response. Toynbee’s theory is that all civilizations are faced with a crisis which is either one of ideas, or one of technology. How they respond determines whether they will survive. An example is the Fall of Rome. Many blame Christianity for sapping the Pagan strength of Rome and causing her downfall. Toynbee points out that the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) used Christianity to revitalize and reform the Roman Empire for another thousand years.
  • Hegel–Dialectic. Hegel’s Theory of History says that for every old idea, there is a new one which conflicts with it. Out of the struggle a new idea is created (Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis). He felt that this was how God led us to perfection and revealed new truth. History is just the product of conflict
  • Darwin. Not a historian, but he took Hegel’s idea and applied them to science. His biological application led to the Origin of Species. Herbert Spencer and others then used his biological ideas to support their ideas that a struggle among races of people and differing nations led to the strongest and most able nations ruling the world. Victory in combat meant the superiority of a nation or people.
  • Marx–Material Dialectic. Marx used Hegel’s ideas and applied them to classes of people throughout history. Any ruling class controlled the “means of production” which gave them wealth and power to rule. Whenever a new method of production occurred, there was conflict between the older ruling class and a newer class using the newer and superior means of production. An example is how the Businessman and his money destroyed the power of the old Aristocracy based on land and hereditary ownership
  • Turner–Geography and the Frontier. Turner’s thesis said that geography determines the character of a people and, depending on the situation, gave them certain advantages and disadvantages. An example is that the English and Japanese, being Island Nations, would naturally have an advantage at sea combat. And, in an age of sea-trade they would, tend to be powerful. His thesis explicitly stated how the Frontier shaped the American mind to be open to new things and to strive for what was new. In our modern technological age, Americans are very open to new technologies.
  • Radicals–History is the story of who won. This thesis says that history is little more than mythmaking. “History is the history of winners.” Those who win, write the history books. Those who have lost are excluded or demonized. History is determined by who has the political power to write the books. But, for some, reading a restaurant menu is as important as reading “history.”
  • Boorstin–The unexpected. Daniel J. Boorstin’s books suggest a thesis that ideas and practices simply come together in various places and time and can hardly be predicted. What has mattered, is that the great Creators and Discoverers have been open to the challenge and took previously unrelated ideas and put them together in a way that was entirely new. They thus change the world. An example is how an anonymous optician in Belgium created the first telescope to be used in combat. It found its way to Italy where Galileo began to look at stars with it. His findings undermined the Ptolemaic system. However, the Church used his information to create the modern Gregorian Calendar we use today. But sixteen years later in the firestorm of the Reformation, Galileo was ordered to remain silent. Boorstin is hostile to the Hegelian-Marxist-Darwinian school as it can only tell what the future is like based on the past. The Hegelians could never have predicted the impact of the telescope. Boorstin makes considerable money showing that no one can predict; you can only remain open to change. Change cannot be managed.

Source: www.pvhs.chico.k12.ca.us/~bsilva/ib/histo.html

III. Examples of Historiographic Writing

Gary W. Gallagher, “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Authors March On: A Review of Some Recent Publications on the Military Side of the Civil War,” Military Affairs, Vol. 52, No. 2. (Apr., 1988), pp. 75-77.
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Authors March On: A Review of Some Recent Publications on the Military Side of the Civil War

Lynn Hunt, “Forgetting and Remembering: The French Revolution Then and Now,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 100, No. 4. (Oct., 1995), pp. 1119-1135.
Forgetting and Remembering: The French Revolution Then and Now

Roland N. Stromberg, “Re-evaluating the French Revolution,” The History Teacher, Vol. 20, No. 1. (Nov., 1986), pp. 87-107.
Re-evaluating the French Revolution

K. David Goss, The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008): 39-65.
Salem Witch Trials historiography

IV. Writing an Historiographic Essay

How to write an historiographic essay


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