Historiography refers to both the study of the methodology of historians and the development of history as a discipline, and also to a body of historical work on a particular subject. The historiography of a specific topic covers how historians have studied that topic using particular sources, techniques, and theoretical approaches. Scholars discuss historiography topically – such as the "historiography of the British Empire," the "historiography of early Islam", or the "historiography of China" – as well as different approaches and genres, such as political history or social history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with the ascent of academic history, a body of historiographic literature developed. The extent to which historians are influenced by their own groups and loyalties—such as to their nation state—is a much debated question.
The research interests of historians change over time, and in recent decades there has been a shift away from traditional diplomatic, economic and political history toward newer approaches, especially social and cultural studies. From 1975 to 1995, the proportion of professors of history in American universities identifying with social history rose from 31% to 41%, while the proportion of political historians fell from 40% to 30%. In the history departments of British universities in 2007, of the 5,723 faculty members, 1,644 (29%) identified themselves with social history while political history came next with 1,425 (25%).
In the early modern period, the term historiography tended to be used in a more basic sense, to mean simply "the writing of history". Historiographer therefore meant "historian", and it is in this sense that certain official historians were given the title "Historiographer Royal", in Sweden (from 1618), England (from 1660), and Scotland (from 1681). The Scottish post is still in existence.
Furay and Salevouris (1988) define historiography as "the study of the way history has been and is written – the history of historical writing... When you study 'historiography' you do not study the events of the past directly, but the changing interpretations of those events in the works of individual historians."
Understanding the past appears to be a universal human need, and the telling of history has emerged independently in civilisations around the world. What constitutes history is a philosophical question (see philosophy of history). The earliest chronologies date back to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, though no historical writers in these early civilizations were known by name. For the purposes of this article, history is taken to mean written history recorded in a narrative format for the purpose of informing future generations about events. Some experts have advised against the tendency to extrapolate trends for historical patterns that do not align with expectations about the future.
The earliest known systematic historical thought emerged in ancient Greece, a development which would be an important influence on the writing of history elsewhere around the Mediterranean region. Greek historians greatly contributed to the development of historical methodology. The earliest known critical historical works were The Histories, composed by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484–425 BCE) who became known as the "father of history.". Herodotus attempted to distinguish between more and less reliable accounts, and personally conducted research by travelling extensively, giving written accounts of various Mediterranean cultures. Although Herodotus' overall emphasis lay on the actions and characters of men, he also attributed an important role to divinity in the determination of historical events.
The generation following Herodotus witnessed a spate of local histories of the individual city-states (poleis), written by the first of the local historians who employed the written archives of city and sanctuary. Dionysius of Halicarnassus characterized these historians as the forerunners of Thucydides, and these local histories continued to be written into Late Antiquity, as long as the city-states survived. Two early figures stand out: Hippias of Elis, who produced the lists of winners in the Olympic Games that provided the basic chronological framework as long as the pagan classical tradition lasted, and Hellanicus of Lesbos, who compiled more than two dozen histories from civic records, all of them now lost.
Thucydides largely eliminated divine causality in his account of the war between Athens and Sparta, establishing a rationalistic element which set a precedent for subsequent Western historical writings. He was also the first to distinguish between cause and immediate origins of an event, while his successor Xenophon (c. 431 – 355 BCE) introduced autobiographical elements and character studies in his Anabasis.
The proverbial Philippic attacks of the Athenian orator Demosthenes (384–322 BCE) on Philip II of Macedon marked the height of ancient political agitation. The now lost history of Alexander's campaigns by the diadoch Ptolemy I (367–283 BCE) may represent the first historical work composed by a ruler. Polybius (c. 203 – 120 BCE) wrote on the rise of Rome to world prominence, and attempted to harmonize the Greek and Roman points of view.
The Chaldean priest Berossus (fl. 3rd century BCE) composed a Greek-language History of Babylonia for the Seleucid king Antiochus I, combining Hellenistic methods of historiography and Mesopotamian accounts to form a unique composite. Reports exist of other near-eastern histories, such as that of the Phoenician historian Sanchuniathon; but he is considered semi-legendary and writings attributed to him are fragmentary, known only through the later historians Philo of Byblos and Eusebius, who asserted that he wrote before even the Trojan war.
The Romans adopted the Greek tradition, writing at first in Greek, but eventually chronicling their history in a freshly non-Greek language. While early Roman works were still written in Greek, the Origines, composed by the Roman statesman Cato the Elder (234–149 BCE), was written in Latin, in a conscious effort to counteract Greek cultural influence. It marked the beginning of Latin historical writings. Hailed for its lucid style, Julius Caesar's (100–44 BCE) Bellum Gallicum exemplifies autobiographical war coverage. The politician and orator Cicero (106–43 BCE) introduced rhetorical elements in his political writings.
Strabo (63 BCE – c. 24 CE) was an important exponent of the Greco-Roman tradition of combining geography with history, presenting a descriptive history of peoples and places known to his era. Livy (59 BCE – 17 CE) records the rise of Rome from city-state to empire. His speculation about what would have happened if Alexander the Great had marched against Rome represents the first known instance of alternate history.
Biography, although popular throughout antiquity, was introduced as a branch of history by the works of Plutarch (c. 46 – 127 CE) and Suetonius (c. 69 – after 130 CE) who described the deeds and characters of ancient personalities, stressing their human side. Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 117 CE) denounces Roman immorality by praising German virtues, elaborating on the topos of the Noble savage.
In China, the Classic of History is one of the Five Classics of Chinese classic texts and one of the earliest narratives of China. The Spring and Autumn Annals, the official chronicle of the State of Lu covering the period from 722 to 481 BCE, is among the earliest surviving Chinese historical texts to be arranged on annalistic principles. It is traditionally attributed to Confucius. The Zuo Zhuan, attributed to Zuo Qiuming in the 5th century BCE, is the earliest Chinese work of narrative history and covers the period from 722 to 468 BCE. Zhan Guo Ce was a renowned ancient Chinese historical compilation of sporadic materials on the Warring States period compiled between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE.
Sima Qian (around 100 BCE) was the first in China to lay the groundwork for professional historical writing. His written work was the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), a monumental lifelong achievement in literature. Its scope extends as far back as the 16th century BCE, and it includes many treatises on specific subjects and individual biographies of prominent people, and also explores the lives and deeds of commoners, both contemporary and those of previous eras. His work influenced every subsequent author of history in China, including the prestigious Ban family of the Eastern Han Dynasty era.
Traditional Chinese historiography describes history in terms of dynastic cycles. In this view, each new dynasty is founded by a morally righteous founder. Over time, the dynasty becomes morally corrupt and dissolute. Eventually, the dynasty becomes so weak as to allow its replacement by a new dynasty.
The tradition of Korean historiography was established with the Samguk Sagi, a history of Korea from its allegedly earliest times. It was compiled by Goryeo court historian Kim Busik after its commission by King Injong of Goryeo (r. 1122 - 1146). It was completed in 1145 and relied not only on earlier Chinese histories for source material, but also on the Hwarang Segi written by the Silla historian Kim Daemun in the 8th century. The latter work is now lost.
The earliest works of history produced in Japan were the Rikkokushi, a corpus of six national histories covering the history of Japan from its mythological beginnings until the 9th century. The first of these works were the Nihon Shoki, compiled by Prince Toneri in 720.
Christian historiography began early, perhaps as early as Luke-Acts, which is the primary source for the Apostolic Age, though its historical reliability is disputed. In the first Christian centuries, the New Testament canon was developed. The growth of Christianity and its enhanced status in the Roman Empire after Constantine I (see State church of the Roman Empire) led to the development of a distinct Christian historiography, influenced by both Christian theology and the nature of the Christian Bible, encompassing new areas of study and views of history. The central role of the Bible in Christianity is reflected in the preference of Christian historians for written sources, compared to the classical historians' preference for oral sources and is also reflected in the inclusion of politically unimportant people. Christian historians also focused on development of religion and society. This can be seen in the extensive inclusion of written sources in the Ecclesiastical History written by Eusebius of Caesarea around 324 and in the subjects it covers. Christian theology considered time as linear, progressing according to divine plan. As God's plan encompassed everyone, Christian histories in this period had a universal approach. For example, Christian writers often included summaries of important historical events prior to the period covered by the work.
Writing history was popular among Christian monks and clergy in the Middle Ages. They wrote about the history of Jesus Christ, that of the Church and that of their patrons, the dynastic history of the local rulers. In the Early Middle Ages historical writing often took the form of annals or chronicles recording events year by year, but this style tended to hamper the analysis of events and causes. An example of this type of writing is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which were the work of several different writers: it was started during the reign of Alfred the Great in the late 9th century, but one copy was still being updated in 1154. Some writers in the period did construct a more narrative form of history. These included Gregory of Tours, and more successfully Bede who wrote both secular and ecclesiastical history and is known for writing the Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
During the Renaissance, history was written about states or nations. The study of history changed during the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Voltaire described the history of certain ages that he considered important, rather than describing events in chronological order. History became an independent discipline. It was not called philosophia historiae anymore, but merely history (historia).
Muslim historical writings first began to develop in the 7th century, with the reconstruction of the Prophet Muhammad's life in the centuries following his death. With numerous conflicting narratives regarding Muhammad and his companions from various sources, it was necessary to verify which sources were more reliable. In order to evaluate these sources, various methodologies were developed, such as the "science of biography", "science of hadith" and "Isnad" (chain of transmission). These methodologies were later applied to other historical figures in the Islamic civilization. Famous historians in this tradition include Urwah (d. 712), Wahb ibn Munabbih (d. 728), Ibn Ishaq (d. 761), al-Waqidi (745–822), Ibn Hisham (d. 834), Muhammad al-Bukhari (810–870) and Ibn Hajar (1372–1449).
Historians of the medieval Islamic world also developed an interest in world history. The historian Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838–923) is known for writing a detailed and comprehensive chronicle of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern history in his History of the Prophets and Kings in 915. Until the 10th century, history most often meant political and military history, but this was not so with Persian historian Biruni (973–1048). In his Kitab fi Tahqiq ma l'il-Hind (Researches on India) he did not record political and military history in any detail, but wrote more on India's cultural, scientific, social and religious history. He expanded on his idea of history in another work, The Chronology of the Ancient Nations. Biruni is considered the father of Indology for his detailed studies on Indian history.
Archaeology in the Middle East began with the study of the ancient Near East by Muslim historians in the medieval Islamic world who developed an interest in learning about pre-Islamic cultures. In particular, they most often concentrated on the archaeology and history of pre-Islamic Arabia, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. In Egyptology, the first known attempts at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs were made in Islamic Egypt by Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya in the 9th century, who were able to at least partly understand what was written in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, by relating them to the contemporary Coptic language used by Coptic priests in their time. Muslim historians such as Abu al-Hassan al-Hamadani of Yemen (d. 945), Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi (1162–1231) and Al-Idrisi of Egypt (d. 1251) developed elaborate archaeological methods which they employed in their excavations and research of ancient archaeological sites.
Islamic historical writing eventually culminated in the works of the Arab Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), who published his historiographical studies in the Muqaddimah (translated as Prolegomena) and Kitab al-I'bar (Book of Advice). Among many other things, his Muqaddimah laid the groundwork for the observation of the roles of the state, in history, and he discussed the rise and fall of civilizations. He also developed a method for the study of history, and is thus considered to be the founder of Arab historiography, or the "father of the philosophy of history". In the preface to the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun warned of seven mistakes that he thought historians often committed. In this criticism, he approached the past as strange and in need of interpretation. The originality of Ibn Khaldun was to claim that the cultural differences of another age must govern the evaluation of relevant historical material, to distinguish the principles according to which it might be possible to attempt the evaluation, and lastly, to consider the need for experience, in addition to rational principles, in order to assess a culture of the past. Ibn Khaldun often criticized "idle superstition and uncritical acceptance of historical data." As a result, he introduced a method to the study of history, which was considered something "new to his age", and he often referred to it as his "new science", now associated with historiography. The Muqaddimah is also the earliest known work to critically examine military history, criticizing certain accounts of historical battles that appear to be exaggerated, and takes military logistics into account when questioning the exaggerated sizes of historical armies reported in earlier sources.
During the Age of Enlightenment, the modern development of historiography through the application of scrupulous methods began.
French philosophe Voltaire (1694–1778) had an enormous influence on the art of history writing. His best-known histories are The Age of Louis XIV (1751), and Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756).
"My chief object," he wrote in 1739, "is not political or military history, it is the history of the arts, of commerce, of civilization – in a word, – of the human mind." He broke from the tradition of narrating diplomatic and military events, and emphasized customs, social history and achievements in the arts and sciences. The "Essay on Customs" traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference. Influenced by Bossuet's Discourse on the Universal History (1682), he was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks, and emphasizing economics, culture and political history. He treated Europe as a whole, rather than a collection of nations. He was the first to emphasize the debt of medieval culture to Arab civilization, but otherwise was weak on the Middle Ages. Although he repeatedly warned against political bias on the part of the historian, he lost few opportunities to expose what he saw as the intolerance and frauds of the church over the ages. Voltaire advised scholars that anything contradicting the normal course of nature was not to be believed. Although he found evil in the historical record, he fervently believed reason and educating the illiterate masses would lead to progress.
Voltaire explains his view of historiography in his article on "History" in Diderot's Encyclopédie:
Voltaire's histories imposed the values of the Enlightenment on the past, but he helped free historiography from antiquarianism, Eurocentrism, religious intolerance and a concentration on great men, diplomacy, and warfare.
Yale professor Peter Gay says Voltaire wrote "very good history," citing his "scrupulous concern for truths," "careful sifting of evidence," "intelligent selection of what is important," "keen sense of drama," and "grasp of the fact that a whole civilization is a unit of study."
At the same time, philosopher David Hume was having a similar impact on history in Great Britain. In 1754 he published the History of England, a 6-volume work which extended "From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688". Hume adopted a similar scope to Voltaire in his history; as well as the history of Kings, Parliaments, and armies, he examined the history of culture, including literature and science, as well. His short biographies of leading scientists explored the process of scientific change and he developed new ways of seeing scientists in the context of their times by looking at how they interacted with society and each other – he paid special attention to Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and William Harvey.
He also argued that the quest for liberty was the highest standard for judging the past, and concluded that after considerable fluctuation, England at the time of his writing had achieved "the most entire system of liberty, that was ever known amongst mankind."
William Robertson, a Scottish historian, and the Historiographer Royal published the History of Scotland 1542 - 1603, in 1759 and his most famous work, The history of the reign of Charles V in 1769. His scholarship was painstaking for the time and he was able to access a large number of documentary sources that had previously been unstudied. He was also one of the first historians who understood the importance of general and universally applicable ideas in the shaping of historical events.
The apex of Enlightenment history was reached with Edward Gibbon's monumental six-volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published on 17 February 1776. Because of its relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources, its methodology became a model for later historians. This has led to Gibbon being called the first "modern historian". The book sold impressively, earning its author a total of about £9000. Biographer Leslie Stephen wrote that thereafter, "His fame was as rapid as it has been lasting."
Gibbon's work has been praised for its style, its piquant epigrams and its effective irony. Winston Churchill memorably noted, "I set out upon...Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [and] was immediately dominated both by the story and the style. ...I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all." Gibbon was pivotal in the secularizing and 'desanctifying' of history, with his fiercely polemical attacks on Christianity. Unusually for an 18th-century historian, Gibbon was never content with secondhand accounts when the primary sources were accessible (though most of these were drawn from well-known printed editions). "I have always endeavoured," he says, "to draw from the fountain-head; that my curiosity, as well as a sense of duty, has always urged me to study the originals; and that, if they have sometimes eluded my search, I have carefully marked the secondary evidence, on whose faith a passage or a fact were reduced to depend." In this insistence upon the importance of primary sources, Gibbon is considered by many to have broken new ground in the methodical study of history:
In accuracy, thoroughness, lucidity, and comprehensive grasp of a vast subject, the 'History' is unsurpassable. It is the one English history which may be regarded as definitive. ...Whatever its shortcomings the book is artistically imposing as well as historically unimpeachable as a vast panorama of a great period.
The tumultuous events surrounding the French Revolution inspired much of the historiography and analysis of the early 19th century. Interest in the 1688 Glorious Revolution was also rekindled by the Great Reform Act of 1832 in England.
Thomas Carlyle published his three-volume The French Revolution: A History, in 1837. The first volume was accidentally burned by John Stuart Mill's maid. Carlyle rewrote it from scratch. Carlyle's style of historical writing stressed the immediacy of action, often using the present tense. He emphasised the role of forces of the spirit in history and thought that chaotic events demanded what he called 'heroes' to take control over the competing forces erupting within society. He considered the dynamic forces of history as being the hopes and aspirations of people that took the form of ideas, and were often ossified into ideologies. Carlyle's The French Revolution was written in a highly unorthodox style, far removed from the neutral and detached tone of the tradition of Gibbon. Carlyle presented the history as dramatic events unfolding in the present as though he and the reader were participants on the streets of Paris at the [famous events. Carlyle's invented style was epic poetry combined with philosophical treatise. It is rarely read or cited in the last century.
Thomas Macaulay produced his most famous work of history, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, in 1848. His writings are famous for their ringing prose and for their confident, sometimes dogmatic, emphasis on a progressive model of British history, according to which the country threw off superstition, autocracy and confusion to create a balanced constitution and a forward-looking culture combined with freedom of belief and expression. This model of human progress has been called the Whig interpretation of history.
His legacy continues to be controversial; Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote that "most professional historians have long since given up reading Macaulay, as they have given up writing the kind of history he wrote and thinking about history as he did." However, J. R. Western wrote that: "Despite its age and blemishes, Macaulay's History of England has still to be superseded by a full-scale modern history of the period".
In his main work Histoire de France, French historian Jules Michelet coined the term Renaissance (meaning "Rebirth" in French language), as a period in Europe's cultural history that represented a break from the Middle Ages, creating a modern understanding of humanity and its place in the world. The nineteen volume work covered French history from Charlemagne to the outbreak of the Revolution.
Michelet was one of the first historians to shift the emphasis of history to the common people, rather than the leaders and institutions of the country. He devoted himself to writing a picturesque history of the Middle Ages, and his account is still one of the most vivid that exists. His inquiry into manuscript and printed authorities was most laborious, but his lively imagination, and his strong religious and political prejudices, made him regard all things from a singularly personal point of view.
Hippolyte Taine was the chief theoretical influence of French naturalism, a major proponent of sociological positivism and one of the first practitioners of historicist criticism. He was unable to secure an academic position. He pioneered The idea of "milieu" as an active historical force which amalgamated geographical, psychological and social factors. Historical writing for him was a search for general laws. His brilliant style kept his writing in circulation long after his theoretical approaches were passe.
One of the major progenitors of the history of culture and art, was the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt Siegfried Giedion described Burckhardt's achievement in the following terms: "The great discoverer of the age of the Renaissance, he first showed how a period should be treated in its entirety, with regard not only for its painting, sculpture and architecture, but for the social institutions of its daily life as well." Burckhardt's best known work is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).
His most famous work was The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, published in 1860; it was the most influential interpretation of the Italian Renaissance in the nineteenth century and is still widely read. According to John Lukacs, he was the first master of cultural history, which seeks to describe the spirit and the forms of expression of a particular age, a particular people, or a particular place. His innovative approach to historical research stressed the importance of art and its inestimable value as a primary source for the study of history. He was one of the first historians to rise above the narrow nineteenth-century notion that "history is past politics and politics current history.
By the mid-19th century, scholars were beginning to analyse the history of institutional change, particularly the development of constitutional government. William Stubbs's Constitutional History of England (3 vols., 1874–78) was an important influence on this developing field. The work traced the development of the English constitution from the Teutonic invasions of Britain until 1485, and marked a distinct step in the advance of English historical learning. He argued that the theory of the unity and continuity of history should not remove distinctions between ancient and modern history. He believed that, though work on ancient history is a useful preparation for the study of modern history, either may advantageously be studied apart. He was a good palaeographer, and excelled in textual criticism, in examination of authorship, and other such matters, while his vast erudition and retentive memory made him second to none in interpretation and exposition.
The modern academic study of history and methods of historiography were pioneered in 19th-century German universities, especially the University of Göttingen. Leopold von Ranke was a pivotal influence in this regard, and is considered as the founder of modern source-based history. According to Caroline Hoefferle, “Ranke was probably the most important historian to shape historical profession as it emerged in Europe and the United States in the late 19th century.”
Specifically, he implemented the seminar teaching method in his classroom, and focused on archival research and analysis of historical documents. Beginning with his first book in 1824, the History of the Latin and Teutonic Peoples from 1494 to 1514, Ranke used an unusually wide variety of sources for a historian of the age, including "memoirs, diaries, personal and formal missives, government documents, diplomatic dispatches and first-hand accounts of eye-witnesses". Over a career that spanned much of the century, Ranke set the standards for much of later historical writing, introducing such ideas as reliance on primary sources, an emphasis on narrative history and especially international politics (aussenpolitik). Sources had to be solid, not speculations and rationalizations. His credo was to write history the way it was. He insisted on primary sources with proven authenticity.
Ranke also rejected the 'teleological approach' to history, which traditionally viewed each period as inferior to the period which follows. In Ranke's view, the historian had to understand a period on its own terms, and seek to find only the general ideas which animated every period of history. In 1831 and at the behest of the Prussian government, Ranke founded and edited the first historical journal in the world, called Historisch-Politische Zeitschrift.
Another important German thinker was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose theory of historical progress ran counter to Ranke's approach. In Hegel's own words, his philosophical theory of "World history... represents the development of the spirit's consciousness of its own freedom and of the consequent realization of this freedom.". This realization is seen by studying the various cultures that have developed over the millennia, and trying to understand the way that freedom has worked itself out through them:
World history is the record of the spirit's efforts to attain knowledge of what it is in itself. The Orientals do not know that the spirit or man as such are free in themselves. And because they do not know that, they are not themselves free. They only know that One is free.... The consciousness of freedom first awoke among the Greeks, and they were accordingly free; but, like the Romans, they only knew that Some, and not all men as such, are free.... The Germanic nations, with the rise of Christianity, were the first to realize that All men are by nature free, and that freedom of spirit is his very essence.
Karl Marx introduced the concept of historical materialism into the study of world historical development. In his conception, the economic conditions and dominant modes of production determined the structure of society at that point. In his view five successive stages in the development of material conditions would occur in Western Europe. The first stage was primitive communism where property was shared and there was no concept of "leadership". This progressed to a slave society where the idea of class emerged and the State developed. Feudalism was characterized by an aristocracy working in partnership with a theocracy and the emergence of the Nation-state. Capitalism appeared after the bourgeois revolution when the capitalists (or their merchant predecessors) overthrew the feudal system and established a market economy, with private property and Parliamentary democracy. Marx then predicted the eventual proletarian revolution that would result in the attainment of socialism, followed by Communism, where property would be communally owned.
Previous historians had focused on cyclical events of the rise and decline of rulers and nations. Process of nationalization of history, as part of national revivals in the 19th century, resulted with separation of "one's own" history from common universal history by such way of perceiving, understanding and treating the past that constructed history as history of a nation. A new discipline, sociology, emerged in the late 19th century and analyzed and compared these perspectives on a larger scale.
The term Whig history, coined by Herbert Butterfield in his short book The Whig Interpretation of History in 1931, means the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasized the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms and scientific progress. The term has been also applied widely in historical disciplines outside of British history (the history of science, for example) to criticize any teleological (or goal-directed), hero-based, and transhistorical narrative.
Paul Rapin de Thoyras's history of England, published in 1723, became "the classic Whig history" for the first half of the 18th century,. It was later supplanted by the immensely popular The History of England by David Hume. Whig historians emphasized the achievements of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This included James Mackintosh's History of the Revolution in England in 1688, William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England and Henry Hallam's Constitutional History of England.
The most famous exponent of 'Whiggery' was Thomas Babington Macaulay, who published the first volumes of his The History of England from the Accession of James II in 1848. It proved an immediate success and replaced Hume's history to become the new orthodoxy. His 'Whiggish convictions' are spelled out in his first chapter:
This consensus was steadily undermined during the post-World War I re-evaluation of European history, and Butterfield's critique exemplified this trend. Intellectuals no longer believed the world was automatically getting better and better. Subsequent generations of academic historians have similarly rejected Whig history because of its presentist and teleological assumption that history is driving toward some sort of goal. Other criticized 'Whig' assumptions included viewing the British system as the apex of human political development, assuming that political figures in the past held current political beliefs (anachronism), considering British history as a march of progress with inevitable outcomes and presenting political figures of the past as heroes, who advanced the cause of this political progress, or villains, who sought to hinder its inevitable triumph. J. Hart says "a Whig interpretation requires human heroes and villains in the story."
The French Annales School radically changed the focus of historical research in France during the 20th century by stressing long-term social history, rather than political or diplomatic themes. The school emphasized the use of quantification and the paying of special attention to geography.
The Annales d'histoire économique et sociale journal was founded in 1929 in Strasbourg by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre. These authors, the former a medieval historian and the latter an early modernist, quickly became associated with the distinctive Annales approach, which combined geography, history, and the sociological approaches of the Année Sociologique (many members of which were their colleagues at Strasbourg) to produce an approach which rejected the predominant emphasis on politics, diplomacy and war of many 19th and early 20th-century historians as spearheaded by historians whom Febvre called Les Sorbonnistes. Instead, they pioneered an approach to a study of long-term historical structures (la longue durée) over events and political transformations. Geography, material culture, and what later Annalistes called mentalités, or the psychology of the epoch, are also characteristic areas of study. The goal of the Annales was to undo the work of the Sorbonnistes, to turn French historians away from the narrowly political and diplomatic toward the new vistas in social and economic history.
An eminent member of this school, Georges Duby, described his approach to history as one that
relegated the sensational to the sidelines and was reluctant to give a simple accounting of events, but strived on the contrary to pose and solve problems and, neglecting surface disturbances, to observe the long and medium-term evolution of economy, society and civilisation.
The Annalistes, especially Lucien Febvre, advocated a histoire totale, or histoire tout court, a complete study of a historic problem.
The second era of the school was led by Fernand Braudel and was very influential throughout the 1960s and 1970s, especially for his work on the Mediterranean region in the era of Philip II of Spain. Braudel developed the idea, often associated with Annalistes, of different modes of historical time: l'histoire quasi immobile (motionless history) of historical geography, the history of social, political and economic structures (la longue durée), and the history of men and events, in the context of their structures. His 'longue durée' approach stressed slow, and often imperceptible effects of space, climate and technology on the actions of human beings in the past. The Annales historians, after living through two world wars and incredible political upheavals in France, were deeply uncomfortable with the notion that multiple ruptures and discontinuities created history. They preferred to stress inertia and the longue durée. Special attention was paid to geography, climate, and demography as long-term factors. They believed the continuities of the deepest structures were central to history, beside which upheavals in institutions or the superstructure of social life were of little significance, for history lies beyond the reach of conscious actors, especially the will of revolutionaries.
Noting the political upheavals in Europe and especially in France in 1968, Eric Hobsbawm argued that "in France the virtual hegemony of Braudelian history and the Annales came to an end after 1968, and the international influence of the journal dropped steeply." Multiple responses were attempted by the school. Scholars moved in multiple directions, covering in disconnected fashion the social, economic, and cultural history of different eras and different parts of the globe. By the time of crisis the school was building a vast publishing and research network reaching across France, Europe, and the rest of the world. Influence indeed spread out from Paris, but few new ideas came in. Much emphasis was given to quantitative data, seen as the key to unlocking all of social history. However, the Annales ignored the developments in quantitative studies underway in the U.S. and Britain, which reshaped economic, political and demographic research.
Marxist historiography developed as a school of historiography influenced by the chief tenets of Marxism, including the centrality of social class and economic constraints in determining historical outcomes. Friedrich Engels wrote The Peasant War in Germany, which analysed social warfare in early Protestant Germany in terms of emerging capitalist classes. Although it lacked a rigorous engagement with archival sources, it indicated an early interest in history from below and class analysis, and it attempts a dialectical analysis. Another treatise of Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, was salient in creating the socialist impetus in British politics from then on, e.g. the Fabian Society.
R. H. Tawney was an early historian working in this tradition. The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912) and Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), reflected his ethical concerns and preoccupations in economic history. He was profoundly interested in the issue of the enclosure of land in the English countryside in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in Max Weber's thesis on the connection between the appearance of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. His belief in the rise of the gentry in the century before the outbreak of the Civil War in England provoked the 'Storm over the Gentry' in which his methods were subjected to severe criticisms by Hugh Trevor-Roper and John Cooper.
A circle of historians inside the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) formed in 1946 and became a highly influential cluster of British Marxist historians, who contributed to history from below and class structure in early capitalist society. While some members of the group (most notably Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson) left the CPGB after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the common points of British Marxist historiography continued in their works. They placed a great emphasis on the subjective determination of history.
Christopher Hill's studies on 17th-century English history were widely acknowledged and recognised as representative of this school. His books include Puritanism and Revolution (1958), Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (1965 and revised in 1996), The Century of Revolution (1961), AntiChrist in 17th-century England (1971), The World Turned Upside Down (1972) and many others.
E. P. Thompson pioneered the study of history from below in his work, The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1963. It focused on the forgotten history of the first working-class political left in the world in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. In his preface to this book, Thompson set out his approach to writing history from below:
I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "Utopian" artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.
Thompson's work was also significant because of the way he defined "class." He argued that class was not a structure, but a relationship that changed over time. He opened the gates for a generation of labor historians, such as David Montgomery and Herbert Gutman, who made similar studies of the American working classes.
Although Marxist historiography made important contributions to the history of the working class, oppressed nationalities, and the methodology of history from below, its chief problematic aspect was its argument on the nature of history as determined or dialectical; this can also be stated as the relative importance of subjective and objective factors in creating outcomes. It increasingly fell out of favour in the 1960s and '70s. Geoffrey Elton was important in undermining the case for a Marxist historiography, about which he argued was presenting seriously flawed interpretations of the past. In particular, Elton was opposed to the idea that the English Civil War was caused by socioeconomic changes in the 16th and 17th centuries, arguing instead that it was due largely to the incompetence of the Stuart kings.
In dealing with the era of the Second World War, Addison notes that in Britain by the 1990s, labour history was, "in sharp decline," because:
Biography has been a major form of historiography since the days when Plutarch wrote the parallel lives of great Roman and Greek leaders. It is a field especially attractive to nonacademic historians, and often to the wives or children of famous men who have access to the trove of letters and documents. Academic historians tend to downplay biography because it pays too little attention to broad social, cultural, political and economic forces, and perhaps too much attention to popular psychology. The “Great Man” tradition in Britain originated in the multi-volume Dictionary of National Biography (which originated in 1882 and issued updates into the 1970s); it continues to this day in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In the United States, the Dictionary of American Biography was planned in the late 1920s and appeared with numerous supplements into the 1980s. It has now been displaced by the American National Biography as well as numerous smaller historical encyclopedias that give thorough coverage to Great Persons. Bookstores do a thriving business in biographies, which sell far more copies than the esoteric monographs based on post-structuralism, cultural, racial or gender history. Michael Holroyd says the last forty years “may be seen as a golden age of biography” but nevertheless calls it the "shallow end of history." Nicolas Barker argues that “more and more biographies command an ever larger readership,” as he speculates that biography has come “to express the spirit of our age."
Marxist historian E. H. Carr developed a controversial theory of history in his 1961 book What Is History?, which proved to be one of the most influential books ever written on the subject. He presented a middle-of-the-road position between the empirical or (Rankean) view of history and R. G. Collingwood's idealism, and rejected the empirical view of the historian's work being an accretion of "facts" that he or she has at their disposal as nonsense. He maintained that there is such a vast quantity of information that the historian always chooses the "facts" he or she decides to make use of. In Carr's famous example, he claimed that millions had crossed the Rubicon, but only Julius Caesar's crossing in 49 BC is declared noteworthy by historians. For this reason, Carr argued that Leopold von Ranke's famous dictum wie es eigentlich gewesen (show what actually happened) was wrong because it presumed that the "facts" influenced what the historian wrote, rather than the historian choosing what "facts of the past" he or she intended to turn into "historical facts". At the same time, Carr argued that the study of the facts may lead the historian to change his or her views. In this way, Carr argued that history was "an unending dialogue between the past and present".
Carr is held by some critics to have had a deterministic outlook in history. Others have modified or rejected this use of the label 'determinist'. He took a hostile view of those historians who stress the workings of chance and contingency in the workings of history. In Carr's view, no individual is truly free of the social environment in which they live, but contended that within those limitations, there was room, albeit very narrow room for people to make decisions that have an impact on history. Carr emphatically contended that history was a social science, not an art, because historians like scientists seek generalizations that helped to broaden the understanding of one's subject.
One of Carr's most forthright critics was Hugh Trevor-Roper, who argued that Carr's dismissal of the "might-have-beens of history" reflected a fundamental lack of interest in examining historical causation. Trevor-Roper asserted that examining possible alternative outcomes of history was far from being a "parlour-game" was rather an essential part of the historians' work, as only by considering all possible outcomes of a given situation could a historian properly understand the period.
The controversy inspired Sir Geoffrey Elton to write his 1967 book The Practice of History. Elton criticized Carr for his "whimsical" distinction between the "historical facts" and the "facts of the past", arguing that it reflected "...an extraordinarily arrogant attitude both to the past and to the place of the historian studying it". Elton, instead, strongly defended the traditional methods of history and was also appalled by the inroads made by postmodernism. Elton saw the duty of historians as empirically gathering evidence and objectively analyzing what the evidence has to say. As a traditionalist, he placed great emphasis on the role of individuals in history instead of abstract, impersonal forces. Elton saw political history as the highest kind of history. Elton had no use for those who seek history to make myths, to create laws to explain the past, or to produce theories such as Marxism.
In the historiography of the United States, there were a series of major approaches in the 20th century. In 2009-2012, there were an average of 16,000 new academic history books published in the U.S. every year.
From 1910 to the 1940s, "Progressive" historiography was dominant, especially in political studies. It stressed the central importance of class conflict in American history. Important leaders included Vernon L. Parrington, Carl L. Becker, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., John Hicks, and C. Vann Woodward. The movement established a strong base at the History Department at the University of Wisconsin with Curtis Nettels, William Hesseltine, Merle Curti, Howard K. Beale, Merrill Jensen, Fred Harvey Harrington (who became the university president), William Appleman Williams, and a host of graduate students. Charles A. Beard was the most prominent representative with his "Beardian" approach that reached both scholars and the general public.
In covering the Civil War, Charles and Mary Beard did not find it useful to examine nationalism, unionism, states' rights, slavery, abolition or the motivations of soldiers in battle. Instead, they proclaimed it was a:
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote the Age of Jackson (1945), one of the last major books from this viewpoint. Schlesinger made Jackson a hero for his successful attacks on the Second Bank of the United States. His own views were clear enough: "Moved typically by personal and class, rarely by public, considerations, the business community has invariably brought national affairs to a state of crisis and exasperated the rest of society into dissatisfaction bordering on revolt."
Consensus history emphasizes the basic unity of American values and downplays conflict as superficial. It was especially attractive in the 1950s and 1960s. Prominent leaders included Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, Daniel Boorstin, Allan Nevins, Clinton Rossiter, Edmund Morgan, and David M. Potter. In 1948 Hofstadter made a compelling statement of the consensus model of the American political tradition:
Consensus history was rejected by New Left viewpoints that attracted a younger generation of radical historians in the 1960s. These viewpoints stress conflict and emphasize the central roles of class, race and gender. The history of dissent, and the experiences of racial minorities and disadvantaged classes was central to the narratives produced by New Left historians.
Social history, often called the new social history, is a broad branch that studies the experiences of ordinary people in the past. In its "golden age" it was a major growth field in the 1960s and 1970s, and still is well represented in history departments. However after 1980 the "cultural turn" directed the next generation to new topics. In the two decades from 1975 to 1995, the proportion of professors of history in American universities identifying with social history rose from 31% to 41%, while the proportion of political historians fell from 40% to 30%. It growth was inspired by the social sciences, computers, statistics, new data sources such as individual census information, and summer training programs at the Newberry Library and the University of Michigan. The New Political History saw the application of social history methods to politics, as the focus shifted from politicians and legislation to voters and elections.
The "cultural turn" of the 1980s and 1990s affected scholars in most areas of history. Inspired largely by anthropology, it turned away from leaders, ordinary people and famous events to look at the use of language and cultural symbols to represent the changing values of society.
The British historian Peter Burke finds that cultural studies has numerous spinoffs, or topical themes it has strongly influenced. The most important include gender studies and postcolonial studies, as well as memory studies, and film studies.
Diplomatic historian Melvyn P. Leffler finds that the problem with the "cultural turn" is that the culture concept is imprecise, and may produce excessively broad interpretations, because it:
Memory studies is a new field, focused on how nations and groups (and historians) construct and select their memories of the past in order to celebrate (or denounce) key features, thus making a statement of their current values and beliefs. Historians have played a central role in shaping the memories of the past as their work is diffused through popular history books and school textbooks. French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, opened the field with La mémoire collective (Paris: 1950).
Many historians examine the how the memory of the past has been constructed, memorialized or distorted. Historians examine how legends are invented. For example there are numerous studies of the memory of atrocities from World War II, notably the Holocaust in Europe and Japanese behavior in Asia. British historian Heather Jones argues that the historiography of the First World War in recent years has been reinvigorated by the cultural turn. Scholars have raised entirely new questions regarding military occupation, radicalization of politics, race, and the male body.
Representative of recent scholarship is a collection of studies on the "Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe" SAGE has published the scholarly journal Memory Studies since 2008, and the book series ‘Memory Studies’ was launched by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010 with 5-10 titles a year.
World history, as a distinct field of historical study, emerged as an independent academic field in the 1980s. It focused on the examination of history from a global perspective and looked for common patterns that emerged across all cultures. The basic thematic approach of this field was to analyse two major focal points: integration - (how processes of world history have drawn people of the world together), and difference - (how patterns of world history reveal the diversity of the human experience).
Arnold J. Toynbee's ten-volume A Study of History, written between 1933 and 1954, was an important influence on this developing field. He took a comparative topical approach to 26 independent civilizations and demonstrated that they displayed striking parallels in their origin, growth, and decay. He proposed a universal model to each of these civilizations, detailing the stages through which they all pass: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration. With his endless output of papers, articles, speeches and presentations, and numerous books translated into many languages, Toynbee was perhaps the world’s most read and discussed scholar in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet Toynbee's work lost favor among both the general public and scholars by the 1960s, due to the religious and spiritual outlook that permeates the largest part of his work. His work has seldom been read or cited in recent decades.
Chicago historian William H. McNeill wrote The Rise of the West (1965) to improve upon Toynbee by showing how the separate civilizations of Eurasia interacted from the very beginning of their history, borrowing critical skills from one another, and thus precipitating still further change as adjustment between traditional old and borrowed new knowledge and practice became necessary. He then discusses the dramatic effect of Western civilization on others in the past 500 years of history. McNeill took a broad approach organized around the interactions of peoples across the globe. Such interactions have become both more numerous and more continual and substantial in recent times. Before about 1500, the network of communication between cultures was that of Eurasia. The term for these areas of interaction differ from one world historian to another and include world-system and ecumene. His emphasis on cultural fusions had a major impact on historical theory.
The historical journal, a forum where academic historians could exchange ideas and publish newly discovered information, came into being in the 19th century. The early journals were similar to those for the physical sciences, and were seen as a means for history to become more professional. Journals also helped historians to establish various historiographical approaches, the most notable example of which was Annales. Économies. Sociétés. Civilisations., a publication of the Annales School in France. Journals now typically have one or more editors and associate editors, an editorial board, and a pool of scholars to whom articles that are submitted are sent for confidential evaluation. The editors will send out new books to recognized scholars for reviews that usually run 500 to 1000 words. The vetting and publication process often takes months or longer. Publication in a prestigious journal (which accept 10% or fewer of the articles submitted) is an asset in the academic hiring and promotion process. Publication demonstrates that the author is conversant with the scholarly field. Page charges and fees for publication are uncommon in history. Journals are subsidized by universities or historical societies, scholarly associations, and subscription fees from libraries and scholars. Increasingly they are available through library pools that allow many academic institutions to pool subscriptions to online versions. Most libraries have a system for obtaining specific articles through inter-library loan.
According to Lawrence Stone, narrative has traditionally been the main rhetorical device used by historians. In 1979, at a time when the new Social History was demanding a social-science model of analysis, Stone detected a move back toward the narrative. Stone defined narrative as follows: it is organized chronologically; it is focused on a single coherent story; it is descriptive rather than analytical; it is concerned with people not abstract circumstances; and it deals with the particular and specific rather than the collective and statistical. He reported that, "More and more of the 'new historians' are now trying to discover what was going on inside people's heads in the past, and what it was like to live in the past, questions which inevitably lead back to the use of narrative."
Historians committed to a social science approach, however, have criticized the narrowness of narrative and its preference for anecdote over analysis, and its use of clever examples rather than statistically verified empirical regularities.
Some of the common topics in historiography are:
How a historian approaches historical events is one of the most important decisions within historiography. It is commonly recognised by historians that, in themselves, individual historical facts dealing with names, dates and places are not particularly meaningful. Such facts will only become useful when assembled with other historical evidence, and the process of assembling this evidence is understood as a particular historiographical approach.
The most influential historiographical approaches are:
Scholars typically specialize in a particular theme and region. see:
Important related fields include:
This essay deals with, what I call, "nationalized history", meaning a way of perceiving, understanding and treating the past that requires separation of "one's own" history from "common" history and its construction as history of a nation.