History of Historical Writing/Introduction

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< Table of Contents Introduction | Archaic Historians | Ancient Historians | Medieval Historians | Early Modern Historians | Enlightenment & Professionalization | Academic Historians

Introduction[edit | edit source]

This wikibook is about the development of historical writing.

Prolegomena[edit | edit source]

There are many ways in which such a history could be organized for individuals. For example, we could organize the narrative spatially, discussing the historians of the individual countries. Or we could identify the principal forms of historical writing, such as the chronicle, the annal, the monumental inscription, the monograph, the treatise, the legend, the biography and its cousins, and so on and so forth. Or we could enumerate the different forms of philosophy of history and the conceptions of history, and then exemplify these forms by correlating them with their styles and representatives. And these are just a few of the possible approaches.

However, historians have a gentle preference for chronological arrangements, and that with good reason. For each of the different organizing principles we have just named — countries, historical forms of writing, philosophies and conceptions of history — are themselves historical. Countries change; their boundaries move; their territories are renamed; their rivers change their courses or stop running altogether. Equally literary forms: they are invented, they undergo development, they fall out of fashion, they get rediscovered. The process for philosophies of history is not dissimilar.

The intention is now clear: Organizing a historical narrative along forms that are themselves historical complicates the matter considerably. It is therefore appealing to use time, that is, an idealized linear chronological sequence of time, as a common reference system, in which all the changes of the other principles can be put into relation to each other and described.

Unfortunately, a chronological sequence is merely a start. Most of what historians work with beyond just time is itself historical. This is especially true for many of the words with which historians write and for many of the concepts that historians use. At the same time, we would prefer not to be restricted to those words that the historians of a particular time knew or employed.

The method historians employ to get around this apparent contradiction of wanting to use the concepts and words of their subject matter but also use the conceptual tools since then developed is to use the hermeneutical circle. Basically, the hermeneutical circle says that as one studies and re-studies evidence from the past, one comes to a deeper understanding of its meaning by realizing the assumption the reader made and the assumptions that the author made, and reflecting them explicitly.

Finally, we must briefly think about the problem of historical interest. Almost any event of significant size is so rich in detail that one could not enumerate the detail completely. At the same time, not every little detail is in fact "relevant" in all situations. That is why in historical writing we find "historical interest" at work, namely the observation that the authors of historical texts will choose from the multitude of details those details that they consider relevant to the stories that they want to tell.

The problem is that people can and will disagree on what the important details of an event are. In addition, rhetorical devices such as the "lie of omission" indicate that manipulating the amount of information can seriously distort the impression that one gets of an event. At the same time, historical interest is itself historical and influenced by socio-political conventions.

Thus, with the above said in mind, we will attempt a chronological reconstruction of the history of historical writing. The following briefly sketches the contents of the individual chapters.

Archaic Historians[edit | edit source]

In our modern information society, it may be surprising to learn that historical writing was a relative late development. But people who could write were few; and since they were writing, others had to provide food and shelter for them. Consequently, it was not until the first bureaucratic states, such as Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, that the surplus of food and labor was sufficient to make historical writing possible.

At the same time, the historians writing for the pharaos, priests and kings of the ancient civilizations are rarely known to us by name. There was little interest in their authorship; the focus of their writing was on the deeds and tribulations of their masters, states, people or colleagues. Indeed, initially I was tempted to call this chapter not the archaic, but the anonymous historians, for this seems to be one of their key characteristics.

Their stylistic repertoire was equally limited. Often, these early historians were primarily chronicler of events, that is, they wrote a form of historical writing that simply enumerates the individual events but provides no overarching narrative or structure.

Ancient Historians[edit | edit source]

With the beginning of the 5th century BC, we begin to encounter the first historians who are authors in the modern sense of the word, that is, people who are associated with their works in the mind of their audience.

For the Mediterranean world, this means writers like Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch or Flavius Josephus, to name just a few of the more well-known names.

The majority of the writing that was produced at the beginning of this period was still intended for public reading to the audience. The authors might travel from settlement to settlement and read from their stories. As the period progressed, the number of people with literary training in society increased. As a result, historical writings for a more personal consumption were produced. Writers like Xenophon come to mind, who not only wrote books intended for public, that is, political consumption, such as his Anabasis, but also books to be circulated among good friends, such as his Hellenica.

The situation is more complicated for the Far East. Take China, where during the period of the Warring States, some form of historiography must have taken place, as the Confucian Classics include both a Book of History and an annal, the Spring and Autumn Annals of the State of Lu. Unfortunately, the authors of these works remain anonymous, assuming that Confucius primarily functioned as their editor. It is not until Sima Qian's Records of the Great Historian that we can associate a name and a biography with a great Chinese history.

Toward the latter third of this period, we see the rise of Christian Church Historiography, a topic that would deserve its own Wikibook.

Medieval Historians[edit | edit source]

The state of historical writing in the West changes very drastically with the fragmentation of the Roman Empire at the end of the 5th century AD, and the invasion of the Germanic tribes. In the western half of the empire, local pockets of both the ability to write and the ability to deal with existant sources remain, especially in the larger cities and on the more secure island of wikipedia:Ireland. Administrators of the Roman state or the Christian churches, such as Gregory of Tours, Paulus Diaconus or Bishop Asser continue to write historical records of their times, often with heavy theological interpretative agendas. The new potentates of the former Roman provinces sponsored annals and chronicles, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and eventually also vitae, that is descriptions of their life. Two mid 9th-century examples would be Einhard's Vita Caroli and Notker's De Carolo Magno.

For the former Eastern half of the Roman Empire, most of the cultural productivity remains focused in the capital Byzanthium. The production of historical writing revolves around the maintenance of existing literature and of writing that is relevant to the imperial court, e.g. the Alexiad of Anna Commena, one of the first female historiographers we will encounter.

  • development of Persian historiography and the "passing of the staff" to the Arabs and finally to the North African historiographer Ibn Khaldun
  • the developments in China, Japan, Korea (including the Secret History of the Mongols and similar such things)
  • the developments in India

Early Modern Historians[edit | edit source]

  • the rise of Humanism
  • the Reformation and its impact on historiography
  • Machiavelli, Montesquieue and other fans of the past
  • the historiographers of the New World, such as Landa and Diaz
  • the historical writings of the Incas and Aztecs

Englightment and Historical Professionalization[edit | edit source]

  • the criticism of existing world history in Spinoza and Bayle
  • Vico, a transitional figure
  • Voltaire and the French Encyclopedists
  • the librarians as historians: Lessing and Hume
  • Marx and the discovery of the economic problem
  • David Friedrich Strauss (maybe Feuerbach?) and other examples of historical writers who could live off their writing
  • what's happening in the rest of the world?

Academic Historians[edit | edit source]

  • the rise of University Historiography
  • the development of the philosophy of history
  • the rise of University geography
  • the rise of nationalism and its influence on historiography: Ranke and Droysen
  • the invention of sociology and the historical question: Durkheim, Weber, et al.
  • European University Historiography goes to America
  • WWI
  • historiography and Faschism
  • WWII
  • the rise of Social History
  • the development of Structuralism
  • the development of Post-Modernism