This is the story of looking back. In the 6th century CE Saint Gregory of Tours wrote the following: ‘A great many number of things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad.’ This article is about how the process of distinguishing those differences has changed throughout time, from its foundation to the present day. It is a story that is on the whole set in Europe, and almost completely dominated by men. Finding common ground between historians is very difficult. We study a wide range of topics and by no means are we united by our views: we are a fearfully argumentative lot. One notable example, for those studying in the Lower Sixth studying the Tudors, is of G.R Elton and the Daily Mail’s ‘rudest man in Britain’, David Starkey. Elton was Starkey’s PhD supervisor and following Elton’s knighthood in 1983 Starkey slated one of his essays, calling it ‘dreary’. Elton responded by calling a collection of essays edited by Starkey ‘absolutely shocking’. Words of packed with venom I’m sure you’ll agree, yet despite all of our wrangling what unites us historians is our story. This is a very long story. This is a very difficult story.
Herodotus was born in the Ancient Greek town of Halicarnassus, now in modern-day Turkey, in around 484 BCE. He was by no means the first person to look back and write about what had happened in the past. There is evidence of this stretching way back to the time of Ancient Egypt, but these stories were often influenced by divinity. The new thinking around the time of Herodotus was to explain things in natural causes rather than in divine causes and he applied this new way of thinking to the field of human affairs. He devoted his life to writing a single work, which he called the Greek word meaning ‘inquiry, research or investigation’- ἱστορία (Historia) and Herodotus clearly set out the aim of this magnum opus in the preface.
‘(To Ensure) That human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and that everything great and astounding, and all the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians alike to such effect, be kept alive – and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason they went to war.’
Herodotus, Translated by Tom Holland
The war the Grecian is referring to is the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century, and he is going to tell you, the reader, how it came about. Then Herodotus opens with a story of a man who wants his bodyguard to watch his wife naked. He goes on to talk about the Egyptians, the Indians and even the Babylonian marriage market, shown below, before eventually getting to the war itself.
For the historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood the work of Herodotus fulfils three of his four criteria of history. The first was that it was self-revelatory i.e. ‘It exists in order to tell what man is by telling him what man has done.’ Secondly, it was humanistic: it focuses on man, not divinity although the God’s do play a role in this work. The final principle is that it was scientific, in the modern sense of the word, in that Herodotus is concerned to convey his evidence. He wants to show how he has come by his information. Now this is so fundamental to the historical method, we often don’t even think of it. At the time this was revolutionary. It resulted in Cicero referring to Herodotus as ‘the father of history,’ which is now commonly accepted by historians.
Thucydides, the other key figure of Greco-Roman historiography, took the methods set out by Herodotus and applied them to his History of the Peloponnesian War, where he reduced the role of the Gods further. Rather than divinity he focused on rationality (a tendency towards reason) and this has arguably been influential ever since. In the Hellenistic period, which covers the period following the death of Alexander the Great to the emergence of the Roman Empire, history as a subject did not develop very much. Grecian methods became more widely adopted and, historians began to expand their time frame. Polybius’ history of the rise of the Roman Empire covered five generations, where as the work of Thucydides covered only one. With the rise of the Roman Empire, history now began to be written in Latin, rather than in Greek. As with the Greeks, two figures dominated the Roman Empire’s contribution to historical thought.
The first was Livy, who R.G. Collingwood advocates as Rome’s only original contributor to historical thought. The contribution of Livy to history was twofold. Firstly, his historical approach was to understand the course of the past through character, looking at morality in great detail. In his History of Rome, Livy highlighted the need for Rome to deal with its moral decline. Secondly, Livy speculated what would have happened if Alexander the Great had attacked Rome, and this is the first known example of counterfactual history.
The second was Tacitus. Opinion still remains split of this figure. Some regard him as the single greatest Roman historian, where as R.G. Collingwood argues that Tacitus illustrated the decline of Roman historiography. Tacitus had a mastery of the Latin language due to his skilled nature as an orator, yet his works are seen as highly opinionated and often factually inaccurate. He agreed in part with his Grecian predecessors in viewing character as something that did not develop. Innate character only truly developed in a time of crisis, shown by his history of Emperor Nero. Overall, it is important to note that where as Rome progressed historical thought it was by no means a revolution. Subtle changes were made to the way history was written, but no major contributions were made to practise.
The revolution did come however, in the form of the man shown above. The advent of Christianity and its subsequent adoption by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE led to the biggest revolution in historical thought since its foundation. The spread of Christian ideas had three effects on historical method. Firstly, with the Bible existing at the centre of Christianity, a far greater preference was brought about for literary sources, rather than oral sources, which classical historians had used quite heavily. Secondly, place was given a far greater importance. This came about from the fundamental Christian doctrine of creation. Just like when he created man, God created the world out of no pre-existing matter and he created this all for a purpose. Thus, a previously thought eternal city such as Rome was no longer looked at in the same way. It was there to complete a purpose and once that was completed it would diminish. The gain to history was immense. Places were no longer taken for granted, but viewed as part of a process. The third effect on historical method came from the universalism of the Christian attitude. In Galatians it is stated ‘there is neither Jew, nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.’ As everyone was part of Gods plan and there are no supporting actors. A Christian cannot be content with Roman or Jewish history or any other partial history for he or she demands a history of the world: a universal history illustrating the development of God’s purpose for humankind. Writing history was immensely popular throughout the European clergy and if you want no better example then look no further to Jarrow.
St. Paul’s monastery, well worth visiting if you can bear crossing the river, was home to the Venerable Bede. Bede is the founding father of British history and furthermore probably the first storyteller in English literature. He was a masterful propagandist and his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (he was one of the first people to refer to us as English) is our prime account for England’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. Bede is just one brilliant example of what many abbey’s across Europe were doing: they were writing their story. Probably Bede’s biggest contribution to history was the fact he popularised the BC/AD system of dates. This method of history rooted largely in Christianity remained the same for over 1,000 years. In the Renaissance, science and art developed immensely yet, human history on the other hand remained a playground between the forces of good and evil at a fundamental level, as it had been back in the years of Bede over half a millennia earlier. Perhaps the only major difference is that history began to written more about nations or states and this is because in the Renaissance borders as a concept began to more concrete.
So the status quo in terms of method broadly continued until we get to that great age of seventeenth and eighteenth rethinking the Enlightenment. Voltaire, a leading figure of the period said that ‘history is a pack of tricks that we play on the dead.’ Voltaire spent the majority of his life playing those tricks. He was the first Scholar to write a truly global history in the form of his Essay on Morals, which was not just a history from the perspective of the high culture, but also he tried to focus on every aspect of human life. This method became immensely popular in the 20th century.
Arguably, the most widely read historian of the (Voltaire was a philosopher) Enlightenment was Edward Gibbon and his magnum opus was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A mammoth piece of work of six volumes, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was a continuous narrative from the second century CE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. All very well and normal yet, what was particularly unusual is the cast of characters. It is not a cast of individuals, nor is it a cast of groups. Instead it is a collective of moral qualities that dominates Gibbon’s narrative. The ultimate lesson from the book is that is was a combination of fanaticism, superstition and religious belief that brought down one of the greatest empires in history. Gibbon makes it clear that this could happen again to the great empires of the 18th century. Some of you will be able to realise that these three qualities were absolutely detested by the 18th century way of thinking. It is so Enlightenment it hurts.
The Romantic era, for me, centres primarily around one thing: the exploration of new and terrifying emotions. Chopin and Mendelssohn were doing just that in music. The same thing happened to History. Well sort of. In 1814 the poet Walter Scott published Waverly– the first historical novel in Western Literature. This made the past engrossing, exciting and engaging and boy did the public lap it up.
Those amongst you who like their train travel will have heard of Waverly train station in Edinburgh and this is just one example to show just how successful the book was. The first edition of one thousand books sold out within two days of its publication. In a letter to her niece Anna, Jane Austen had the following to say about Walter Scott and his story about conflict in the Jacobite rebellion:
‘Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of the mouths of other people. I do not like him, and do not mean to like “Waverley” if I can help it, but fear I must.’
Jane Austen (1814)
Where as Austen reacted with a slight hint of bitterness, lets say, to Scott’s work, others reacted with a great dissatisfaction and this no one did more so than Ranke. Ranke is arguably the most significant figure in this story for a number of reasons. Firstly, his contribution to the historical cannon was enormous. The photograph below is Ranke in 1877 at the age eighty-two. The year after this photograph was taken Ranke started writing a history of the world, by the time of his death nine years later he had written seventeen volumes. Ranke was outraged by factual inaccuracy in the book Scott’s Quentin Durward, which converted him to the study of history from philology the studying of language in historical sources.
In the preface of his maiden work Ranke wrote the most famous phrase in Historiography ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen.’ According to Richard J. Evans this is widely misunderstood phrase. It does not mean ‘show what actually happened.’ Rather, it means ‘how it essentially was.’ This relates to the first of three major contributions to history that Ranker made. He made history independent from those philosophy and literature across the hallway, saying that the purpose of history was to urge the past for the benefit of the future. Secondly, Ranke went against the Enlightenment philosophy of judging the past from your perspective. He strongly advocated that God made no distinction between periods of history i.e. you had to see it in the light of the time. Finally, Ranke applied methods of analysis learnt from his original profession and hard to believe carelessness was an issue. Ranke said go back to the primary sources; Gibbon for example had used chronicles widely available in libraries across Europe in the research of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ranke said to go and root out the forgeries, and you may think that this is an issue, but this trips up historians time and time again. Arguably the most famous example was the Hitler dairies. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reputation was damaged following his authentication of these blatant forgeries. Many of the techniques Ranke imposed are a vital part of UK University education in history.
Now we move on into the twentieth century. The light is at the end of tunnel. Ranke’s message that historians needed to use intuition to establish connections between events had been justified upon religious and romantic principles, but in this period we begin to see further justifications for this outside of religion. G.M. Trevelyan, surely with the best facial hair out of any historian, justified this through aesthetic and literary terms. For Trevelyan history was a mixture of research, interpretation and presentation. It is only the former that can be advocated as a truly scientific element. The final two points are arguably artistic: to be a truly great historian you have to be able to write well.
The Romantic era led to a rise in nationalist thinking and this only grew at the beginning of the 20th century. Trevelyan argued that England was the mother of all Anglo-Saxon historians, where as the Prussian school argued that Germany was better than all the others in the field of historical research. As these ideas grew it became clearer that purely scientific history, one that is value free and neutral, was under some doubt. The inter-war years are seen as period of very little development in historical scholarship and this is primarily due to the economic climate surrounding the Great Depression. Only after the end of the Second World War and the explosive economic boom that followed did a new generation of historians enter the market. They looked to go back to the Rankean values and this generation’s mentor was Sir Lewis Namier. Namier completely avoided speculation. His scholarship was painstaking and exact. As you can probably deduce this approach took a long time to bear fruit, but nonetheless in 1929 Namier published his most famous work The Structure and Politics at the Accession of King George III. This book took head-on the Whig interpretation of the 1760’s. Namier looked beyond ideologies to the personal relationships between politicians during the early days of King George III and our loss of America. By investigating these relations Namier concluded that it was the ascendancy of George III, which caused the early political crisis and not the Whig view.
Now this book had far more wide-reaching implications than the title suggests. It took a while for it to be adopted due to the Second Word War but by the 1950’s and 1960’s it was being viewed by many academics as one of the greatest works by an English historian. Some even viewed that finally we have found the ultimate way doing history. Even E.H. Carr, writer of What is History? wrote that Namier was the greatest British historian to emerge since the war. However, Namier’s methods have since come under great criticism. As early as the 1950’s historians have described him as taking the mind out of history. Namier’s methods began to show flaws when he published in 1960 the huge History of Parliament. This ended up being nothing more a biographical dictionary of all of the MP’s through the 18th century. It flattered those in Westminster, hence why they were more than happy to subsidise it. Richard J. Evans called it the great white elephant of 20th century history.
Now we get to the 1960’s and this period is important in history for two reasons. Firstly, it was a great era of debate regarding the purpose of history primarily through E.H. Carr and Geoffrey Elton. Secondly, there was a major expansion in education in the UK and USA. Universities such as York, Warwick, Stirling and many more were founded in this period. This resulted in far more research being produced and ultimately far more historians. Topics for PhD’s were becoming far more specific and a greater emphasis was placed on cultural and social history. It can be argued that this new hotbed of education led to the rise of Postmodernist history. The issue with postmodernist history is it is incredibly difficult to define. Essentially it centres on the fact that we can never know anything certain about the past. All sources are just interpretations of the past. Postmodernism can further extend to the fact that we can’t write about other cultures we don’t understand. With the rise of postmodernist history many have leapt the defence of their subject, for example Richard J. Evans’ In Defence of History.
Alongside the rise of postmodernism, the growth of short-term thinking thanks to the World Wide Web, has caused great concern in the academic field of History. So in October this year Jo Guild and David Armitage, professors at Brown and Harvard University respectively, published The History Manifesto a self-described call to arms arguing that long-term history is a trend back on the rise, thus we should start thinking more in the long-term. The economist and the anthropologist who can dilute their information into tiny bite-seized chunks have replaced the historians at the top table in politics; politicians need to give more weight to the evidence of the historians.
Overall, from all of this we can clearly infer what history is. How we do this, why we do this and what we do it for however, remain ever-looming questions over history as an academic discipline. I’ll bring you back to that opening quote ‘a great many things keep happening, some good and some bad.’ The periods that we look in for those good and bad things eventually end, whether it be the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 for the end of the communist history of East Berlin or the Representation of the People Act of 1918 for the history of the suffrage movement. The history of history is one that is never finished. There will always be something new to change it. I wrote at the very start of this article that this is the story of looking back, well perhaps when we are looking back we must always keep an eye on what is coming round the corner.
What is History? by E.H. Carr
In Defence of History by Richard J. Evans
The Practise of History by G.R. Elton
The Histories by Herodotus
Waverly by Walter Scott
The Idea of History by R.G. Collingwood