Historians In Conversation: Historiography (1/2)

Given that our project is based on educating and sparking curiosity about history we decided to address a gap that exists between the academic study of history and its study at either schools or colleges here in the UK. Our new series, Historians In Conversation, will have its own separate section on the website and will be dedicated to discussions about the way how to bridge this knowledge and skills gap between university and GCSE or even A-level.

As means of introduction

Everyone disagrees. Sometimes people disagree on various daily topics- what take out to order or what movie to watch during a family-bonding evening. Historians disagree on such topics as well. But they also disagree on the interpretation of past events- historiography. This post is dedicated to some of our thoughts on what historiography is and how to handle it.

What is Historiography?

Broadly speaking, Historiography is the way how historians chose to interpret the past events, based on the evidence they are able to find. Let’s take our own project as an example of Historiography. As you can see from the layout of our website, we’ve chosen to arrange our “histories” section in accordance with geographical areas and historical periods. We did this because we didn’t want to limit ourselves, or any potential future writers, to a specific interpretation of what history is. Indeed, we want to incorporate as many angles as possible. That’s why you can find our posts about US politics in 20th century in the same virtual space as the Mediaeval Islamic palaces, or even the Russian Romantics. Historiography, therefore, involves historians choosing an approach that they think will work best for their analysis of the past events.

Think like a Historian:

What approaches do you think historians use when trying to analyse a lot of sources and to derive sound conclusions from those?

Different Schools of Historiography

As mentioned above Historiography involves historians choosing a way or ways to interpret and to analyse the body of evidence which they’re writing about. Indeed, Historiography doesn’t have one singular approach. There are many ways, or schools, in Historiography that historians chose to use when analysing the evidence that they’d found. We’ve decided to give a brief overview of major Historiographical schools in the West and to provide reading lists for them. This post is dedicated to Historiography that emerged in the Classical Antiquity to the twentieth century. In our second post we’ll be discussing more modern approaches to Historiography.

A quick PSA, please be aware that the categories we’d chosen are very very broad and by no means reflect the nuances of the works we’d mentioned. As a result, we strongly recommend to read those.

Ancient Historiography

People from the very beginnings of humanity have always talked about their collective past. However, one of the first individuals in the West who had directly dealt with writing and interpreting the causes and effects of past events was an ancient Greek scholar, Herodotus. In his Histories Herodotus predominantly discusses the origin of conflict between Greek city states and the barbarians. Both Ancient Roman and Greek historians when writing their interpretation of the past events focused predominantly on the end outcome of the action, therefore making it appear that most rulers were destined to either win or lose a battle or a political debate.

Suggested reading list:

  • Herodotus, Histories
  • Hesiod, Five Ages of Man

Think like a Historian:

Can different Historiographical traditions influence each other? Why do you think so?
If you’ve heard Herodotus’ name before, especially if you’d played Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, here is a quick video about him.

Mediaeval Christian Historiography

As the traditional pigeon-holing of historical periods goes, after the Classical period came the Mediaeval period. With a new period came new emphasis on history writing. Speaking broadly, Historiography in the Middle Ages focused on attributing various successes in battles and politics to fate that was controlled by God. Just as Ancient Historiography, the Historiography in the Mediaeval Europe focused on the end result, or a telos. However, several the differences were present. For example, Mediaeval Historiography introduced the idea of punishment for one’s sins rather than for being on the ‘wrong side’ as Classical Historiography did.

Suggested reading list:

  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England (the file we’d attached has a very lovely introduction to history writing in the Middle Ages)
Originally a podcast, but now a YouTube video that only has an audio, give a listen to this podcast about Bede that was produced by the wonderful team of BBC’s in Our Time.

Enlightenment Historiography

After several hundred years, a new trend in Historiographical writing emerged. The historians of the Enlightenment were predominantly preoccupied with discussing what the terms ‘societal progress’ and ‘manners’ were. That is not to say that the only preoccupation of historians in this period was to address the philosophical questions as the ones above. Indeed, the discussions of ‘progress’ were rooted in a debate about breaking away economically from feudalism of the Middle Ages.

Suggested reading lisT:

  • David Hume, History of England (the work overall has 6 volumes, so to save up space we’re attaching only the first volume)
  • Voltaire, Essay upon the Civil Wars in France and other writings on history (we suggest that you use this collection of essays)
  • Nikolay Karamzin, Memoirs (although not a work of historiography per se the writer does talk about his experience and motivations behind writing his most famous work ,The History of the Russian State, which is sadly not available in English translation)
Although this video doesn’t discuss the Historiographical trends that arose in the Enlightenment, it does encapsulate what the Enlightenment was quite well.

Think like a Historian:

Can different schools of thought conflict with each other? Can you think of any examples? They don’t necessarily have to be connected to Historiography.

The Whig Historiography

This Historiographical tradition emerged towards the end of the Enlightenment period in the first half of the 20th century as a somewhat counter-culture to the Enlightenment history-writing tradition. Whig historians, most notably Herbert Butterfield, argued that the discussion about ‘progress’ has misinterpreted what the word ‘progress’ actually meant. Butterfield objected to the idea that ‘progress’ meant ‘better over a period of time’ and suggested to lose any moral connotations that the word may have. Whilst proving and remaining highly controversial, this view point highlighted many issues historians face today- that of having hindsight and projecting present moral judgements onto the past.

Suggested reading list:

Marxist Historiography

This Historiographical trend was influenced by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxist historians highlight the importance of class struggle as well as the inequalities that stem from economic factors. Although proven controversial amongst more Conservative historians, such an approach gained increasing popularity in Europe from 1920s onwards.

SUGGESTED READING LIST:

  • Matt Perry, Marxism and History
  • Karl Marx, Preface to A Critique of Political Economy
  • Eric Hobsbawm, On History (Hobsbawn is a Marxist historian so the book should give you a neat overview of popular Marxist views about history)
  • Sir Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life, is an extremely well-written biography of Hobsbawn, which will be useful for those who don’t want to dwell in Marxist interpretations for too long.

Annales Historiography

This school of Historiography is a relatively young one. Originating with the creation of the French Annales journal in the 1930s, the approach gained significant popularity in the mainland Europe. Historians who use this approach emphasise the view that it was contemporary cultural trends that dictated most of the historical events. They also emphasise the surrounding environment in shaping history.

Here is a video that discusses the Annales school in slightly more details.

Think like a Historian:

What approaches to Historiography do you think are popular today? Can you give any examples?

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