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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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1. Europe. The downfall of the Roman Empire, the
migration of the barbarians, the attacks from outside
Europe, and those centuries of war and upheaval which
refashioned the map of Europe, had the effect of re-
ducing society to comparatively primitive forms and
led to a hiatus in the history of civilization. In some
respects historiography seemed to go back to the be-
ginning again and, in semi-barbarian conditions, we see
the emergence once more of the epic. We find also
the chronicle evolving afresh from notes that had been
inserted in calendars. For men who in that kind of
world had a simpler faith, the past was relevant and
interesting chiefly in the form of Heilsgeschichte, the
unfolding story of God's plan of salvation. A slightly
greater degree of sophistication seemed to produce a
love of pattern-making, an attachment to symmetries,
parallelisms, symbols—great pleasure at the thought
that the Annunciation occurred at the place where
Adam was born, the Crucifixion at the place where
he died. Even when it has limited materials to work
upon, the human mind does not cease its questioning
or its ingenuity. Men asked how the carnivorous ani-
mals fared in the Ark and wondered whether perhaps
all of them had not once been vegetarian—for, if so,
a reversion to this would not have been impossible for
them for a time. At a higher level the scholars even
now had to engage in serious controversy about the
date of Easter.

In the sixth century, when darkness had fallen upon
Italy, Gregory of Tours produced fine chronicle work
amongst the Franks, but after that, historiography,


which had become humdrum, seemed to be disappear-
ing altogether. The great surprise is the emergence of
Bede (ca. 673-735), whose Ecclesiastical History of the
English People
remains so important, so charming and
readable even at the present day. He was greatly inter-
ested in recording the history that was nearly contem-
porary, but he showed also the intellectual trans-
formation that could be produced in those days when
a man made use of what was available in the Christian
and pagan heritage. He possessed what was then an
unusual amount of classical knowledge and brought a
surprising number of sources to support his wider work
on universal history. He applied labor and ingenuity
to problems of chronology, worked out that the world
was created on 18 March, rejected the view that the
six ages of history must last 6000 years, and allotted
much of his space to the controversy over the date
of Easter. His work on universal history was widely
disseminated, and, along with Jerome's version of the
Chronicle of Eusebius, lay at the base of much of the
historical writing of the subsequent period. Anglo-
Saxon missionaries carried it to Germany, and it was
prefaced to various Frankish annals; and Bede had a
stimulating effect on the continent. Since the Anglo-
Saxon system of dating events by the regnal years in
the various monarchies proved cumbrous when ap-
plied, e.g., to synods of the English Church at which
a number of these kingdoms were represented, he
originated in his Ecclesiastical History the practice of
dating events from the Incarnation—a system intro-
duced two hundred years before in the compilation
of Easter Tables.

After a short classical revival under Charlemagne
around the beginning of the ninth century (when
Einhard, following a classical model, wrote a life of
the Emperor) the return of violence and disorder pro-
duced a further decline of historiography, particularly
in Germany. Only after the middle of the tenth century
did Otto the Great secure stability again, so that a
long-term cultural development became possible.
Then, in the eleventh century there is a distinct
awakening of historical consciousness and the conquests
of the Normans in England and Sicily, the religious
reforms, and the advance of the papacy, and above
all the beginning of the Crusades—in other words all
the large-scale history-making that was going on—
undoubtedly contributed to this broader vision of
things, especially as it drew attention to a wider world,
including Byzantium and the Near Eastern lands. If
there was a livelier concern for contemporary affairs
there was also a revival of interest in ancient history.
At the same time the writing of Latin became more
easy and fluent—less like a school exercise—and in the
general realm of scholarship a rapid development took
place. In the twelfth century—a really creative
period—medieval historiography came to its climax.

For men who envisaged a small world, with a com-
paratively limited time-span, universal history was
perhaps more practicable than it became at later pe-
riods; and those who knew something of the Bible and
the surviving traditions of Rome had both the incentive
and the basis for such an undertaking. Sigibert of
Gembloux (ca. 1030-1112) carried this form of writing
to a height never previously attained. He wrote a
world-history based on wide reading and extensive in
its political range—including the first attempt to un-
derstand the history of Byzantium. Secular history was
balanced against ecclesiastical history, and, though he
lived in the crusading period, he gave bygone centuries
their due proportion of space. Hugh of Saint Victor,
slightly later, brought out a world-history which was
intended to help biblical exegesis. He suggested a divi-
sion into three periods: an age that lived under natural
law; another that was represented by the Mosaic sys-
tem; then the present age that was under Grace.

In the first half of the twelfth century medieval
English historiography blossoms out in the work of
William of Malmesbury who does not merely narrate
but embarks on historical disquisition. For a consid-
erable period both before and after this, the Benedic-
tines are making an important contribution to history,
as we can see in the chronicles of some of their great
English houses. On the continent, a number of famous
writers, such as Guibert of Nogent, Foulcher of Char-
tres, Raoul of Caen, and Ordericus Vitalis seem to show
the stimulating character of the early crusading era.
Historical writing had now become a serious matter,
and some of the writings of this time took decades to

The whole medieval view of history was brought
to its climax by Otto of Freising, an important bishop
and member of a princely family, who had both prac-
tical experience in the work of government and a
profound knowledge of theology and philosophy. He
produced in 1143-46 a universal history which he
entitled The Two Cities in token of the fact that he
was combining Saint Augustine and Orosius; and in-
deed there was a still wider sense in which he was
attempting a synthesis of Heilsgeschichte and profane
history. Lacking modern historical analysis, Otto was
chiefly impressed by the spectacle of the mutability
of things and he felt that pagan historians, describing
the actions of great men, had failed to do justice to
the miseries of mankind. In this respect, he meant to
continue the work of Orosius, and he wrote out of the
bitterness of his soul, he says, for the miseries seemed
at their worst when he was writing, and they opened
his eyes to what mankind had suffered in the past. His


narrative is most detailed and impressive when it
approaches his own time; and in 1156-57, after the
accession of his nephew, Frederick Barbarossa, he
worked over his treatise again for presentation to him,
having in mind the utility that history might have for
an emperor. He accepted the theory of the four world-
monarchies and tried to work out its implications in
secular history, taking Babylon as the starting-point of
civilization. If he saw culture moving from east to west,
he found that now, when it had established its seat
in France and Spain, there was nowhere further for
it to go. This was a further proof that the end of the
world was at hand. The profane history dovetailed into
the salvation-history, and the work concluded with a
full exposition of the end of the world. Otto writes
movingly on occasion—for example when he wonders
whether the Church was not better when it was in
humble circumstances—whether its power and wealth
were really the will of God. Above all, he was con-
cerned to expound the deeper meaning of history. Only
he, in the Middle Ages, understood Augustine, and (in
spite of the wide circulation of his work) there seems
to have been nobody who could rise to the level of
Otto's own thought.

A little later, William of Tyre, the historian of the
Crusades, had sufficient objectivity to be able to com-
mend even Arab and Turk, and to give a not unfavor-
able picture of Nureddin and Saladin. He recognized
the importance of commerce, analyzed personal mo-
tives and human factors, was prepared to discuss alter-
native possible policies and showed a breadth of view
that was unusual in Europe at the time.

Decadence was already beginning, however. Liter-
ary preoccupations were becoming detrimental to
scholarship. Henceforward, the finest work came from
what we should call the contemporary historians, in-
cluding in England the monks of Saint Albans, espe-
cially Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris who
wrote on a very considerable scale. World-history came
into decline, suffering from superficiality and over-
schematization, and becoming a rigid curriculum for
schools. Research into bygone ages went out of fash-
ion—the English writers were ready to take the story
of the remoter past ready-made from the chroniclers
of the twelfth century.

More of the religious houses produced annals and
these were kept more continuously than before.
Archives and charters were consulted for contemporary
affairs rather than for the study of the past. Local
history became important, especially the history of
abbeys and the chronicles of cities. The chief contri-
bution of the Middle Ages in general was in the field
of local and contemporary history. By the thirteenth
century, one meets the idea that history is valuable
as an education in politics.

2. Islam. Islam had drawn upon Jewish and Chris-
tian sources, and continued to have contact with such
sources (with the culture of the Byzantine empire for
example) all of which contributed to its consciousness
of being an “historical religion.” Its students learned
much from ancient philosophy and science, but did not
discover the historians of classical Greece, though, in
Aristotle or elsewhere, they learned how history could
contribute to a science of politics. They were aware
of early Christian historiography, however, and were
acquainted with the writings of Eusebius and Orosius.
For them it was the life of Muhammad that made the
great dividing-line in history. Even if the prophet
himself had not attached great importance to history,
they would have wanted to know more about the men
around him or to discuss the difficult historical refer-
ences in the Koran. It generally appears that an un-
usually large section of the literature of Islamic peoples
is connected with history, and the works produced
were sometimes very substantial in size. In some
countries, like India, a serious interest in the past (as
we understand it) and a considerable literary produc-
tion in this field, did not really emerge until the coming
of Islam. Yet the Muslim theologians were jealous of
history, which was a minor branch of study, without
a place in higher education; it never provided the
stimulus for an important intellectual movement. The
West in the Middle Ages seized upon the science of
the Arabs but seems to have ignored their historical
work. It is doubtful whether in any case the Muslims
would have contributed very much to European his-
toriography from the time of the Renaissance.

It seems that in pre-Islamic Arabia there had existed
a feeling for the past, and this expressed itself in forms
which are typical of primitive societies in that part
of the world. It issued in “battle-day” narratives of the
kind which survive from earlier times in parts of the
Old Testament—a Semitic product, describing the
events and adding a song, like the Song of Deborah
in Judges 5. As Islamic historiography emerges in the
eighth century, such things have developed into liter-
ary pieces, dealing with a single person or event. Influ-
ences from the Byzantine empire seem to have stimu-
lated annalistic writing, extending to points of cultural
history and to notes about unusual occurrences in na-
ture, as in the work of al-Tabari at the beginning of
the tenth century. The same writer produced an influ-
ential treatise, the most important of a number of
world-histories which appeared in that century. The
Muslim writers did not devote themselves greatly to
the remoter past, or learn much about the pre-Islamic
world, or establish a chronology for ancient times. They
did not go to archives for a more effective recovery
of a previous age, but would engage in documentary
work if they were producing histories of their own


period. And what the annalist wrote about his own
day carried a special authority; it would be reproduced
without change by the writers of subsequent genera-
tions. Much of the writing was the work of official
historians, commissioned to produce the life of a ruler,
and possessing authority because they had held high
office or had inside knowledge. Partly perhaps because
of the interest in Muhammad and his associates, num-
berless biographies were produced, and they formed
an important part of history itself, while the course
of politics was regarded as determined by human wills,
personal motivation, and the character of individuals.
Historical novels abounded, but there were also his-
tories on special topics, like plagues; and one learns
of treatises on subjects such as “those rulers of Islam
who received the oath of allegiance before they
reached puberty.” These latter developments came to
their peak in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The one writer who might have influenced the West
was Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406), for a considerable early
section of his History was a quasi-scientific treatise on
the formation of states, the rise and fall of dynasties,
the maintenance of a civilization, and the relations
between urban and desert societies. From the Greek
geographers he had learned to relate peoples to their
environment, and he seems to stand alone amongst
Islamic writers in his attempt to connect history with
political science and forms of sociological enquiry. He
believed in the possibility of divine intervention in
human affairs, but allowed it only an exceptional role,
and was not deterred from a study of processes. He
held a cyclic view of the destiny of dynasties and states.
When the Westerns discovered him at a late date they
were astonished that Islam should have produced any-
thing that came so close to Vico and Montesquieu.

3. Historical Methods before the Renaissance. In
the days of the pre-classical empires, history was very
much under the command of those monarchs who
produced narratives written in the first person singular.
In Egypt, by the time of Thutmose III (ca. 1490-1436
B.C.) the ruler made use of a recorder who accompanied
the army and noted the events of a campaign. Amongst
the Hittites one has the impression that for a contem-
porary story, there has been a resort to the archives—
the occasional use of a political or military letter. In
the case of the Assyrian annals, the ruler may contra-
dict in a later narrative what he has said in an earlier
one. But the situation was such that the outsider—and
particularly the reader of the future—would have little
chance of getting behind the imperial record in order
to test its accuracy; and in any case it would hardly
occur to him to attempt such a thing. Later generations
would feel it a miracle that so much as this had been

The implications of all this were far-reaching, and,
at this initial stage in the development, we have to
abandon (or even reverse) some of our present-day
assumptions. The historian of a future generation
hardly expected to be able to improve on the record
that had been handed down, and could do little more
than copy or paraphrase or abridge the original story.
There was no point in advertising the names of the
writers of history, who would suffer rather than gain
from a reputation for originality. They acquired
authenticity by convincing people that they had had
the narrative straight from the horse's mouth; and we
are told that signatures in Assyrian writings are in-
tended really to attest the accuracy of transcriptions.
In the first century A.D., the Jewish historian, Josephus,
is quite sure of himself when he taunts the Greeks for
their lack of this really genuine thing—this story
straight from the age in which the events actually
happened. The Greeks had to reconstruct their past
by investigation, by detective work; and so there were
differences of opinion—the past seemed to have no firm
ground to rest upon. His own people, said Josephus,
could glory in a narrative which had been handed down
for so many centuries without suffering alteration.

We must remember that Thucydides himself had
doubts about the possibility of discovering by investi-
gation a past which had once been lost; and even the
modern scholar will say on occasion that we shall never
recapture the decades immediately prior to the
Peloponnesian War because no Thucydides has trans-
mitted the firsthand story. The Greeks in general ap-
pear to have felt that the natural field for an historical
writer was the period which, if not actually contem-
porary, was nearly so. Indeed, the notion that the past
is to be recovered and reconstructed by detective work
is more modern than is usually realized; and, in spite
of exceptions that will emerge, it might be said that
for two or three thousand years—and indeed down to
recent centuries—the favored basis for the narration
of events that were at all remote was the work of some
writer who had produced the “history of his own
times.” It was principally with the purpose of under-
mining this system that Ranke published his famous
critical exercise of 1824.

It may have been useful for history when, even in
the ancient countries of Western Asia, the priests were
able to take the writing of it out of the hands of the
egotistical rulers. This happened amongst the worship-
pers of Marduk in Babylonia and in the Hebrew Scrip-
tures; and at least it meant the production of a record
that might criticize the government. But where the
priestly narrative possessed a virtual monopoly, the
technical situation would remain exactly as before.
There are occasions where priests or religious men may
have taken an accepted narrative or followed a palace-
chronicle, merely infusing into this an interpretation


of their own. The priests would seem in any case to
have been the first “interpreters” of history, and a
prevailing (though not unquestioned) view would re-
gard the writer who is called the “Yahwist” as having
performed upon ancient materials a highly creative
work of this kind, the result becoming a main constit-
uent of the early books of the Bible. On the other hand,
behind many of the technical problems with which Old
Testament history must always confront us lies the fact
that, in a certain sense, Josephus was wrong. The an-
cient Hebrews refused to allow the original record to
sleep or the story to become fixed. Precisely because
history was such a living thing amongst them, they
would not let it alone; what we possess has been so
altered by editing and re-editing that it is we of the
twentieth century who would give our eyes for a glance
at the record in its original state. It may still be possible
for us to do less than justice to the superstitiousness
with which ancient peoples clung to things that had
been handed down from the past. When the editors
of the Old Testament allowed two versions of an event
or an episode to remain in the text, they may have
imagined that the accounts referred to two separate
things; but, like some historians elsewhere, they may
have felt that the transmission of the two versions was
the best way of doing justice to the past.

The historiography of the pre-Greek period enables
us to see why the world was to slow in learning that
“criticism” could be more important than even trust
in documents or fidelity to an original text. And the
world was slower still in coming to the realization that
“criticism” could be a creative thing. The delay is
almost incredibly long; for, from the beginning of the
story, it had been amply realized that human beings
could be both mistaken and dishonest. Even the ancient
emperors had been so aware of this that they would
add to their campaign-annals a lengthy chapter of
curses against any descendant of theirs who altered
their record. On repeated occasions later, a world that
was capable of philosophical profundity and mathe-
matical subtlety would go on treating historical evi-
dence with remarkable crudity. Clearly, this was not
because man's intelligence was then incapable of rising
to the necessary procedures but because of the limita-
tion of the available resources, the fact that the mind
was not alerted to the needs and the possibilities; also
the existence of the feeling that there was nothing to
be done if one failed to believe what had been handed
down. Nor did men conceive that the connected events
of the past could be established in an almost “scientific”
manner, or a bygone century reconstituted once it had
been forgotten—i.e., unless a fairly contemporary
record had been handed down. One might almost say
that, as yet, history was not even supposed to be a
science—it was more like a collection of stories, of
which the best were those that could claim to have
come straight from the horse's mouth. We are often
surprised, but we ought not to be surprised that, even
at the Renaissance, history was treated as a branch of
belles lettres.

Even before the emergence of Greek historiography
there had been an occasional particular enquiry into
the past, but these seem to have been prompted by
a utilitarian purpose rather than an antiquarian inter-
est. From Egypt we have an account of a hunt in the
archives for the correct way of representing a god who
was to be honored by the creation of a new statue.
We hear of archaeological “digs” in the later Babylon,
but it turns out that these were necessary because,
when a temple was to be restored, one had to recover
from the ruins of the old one the inscription in which
the god had prescribed the form of the original build-
ing. It would appear that such an enquiry would bring
to light also the name of the monarch who had erected
the older building; and then somebody would consult
the king-list (which settled the date) and occasionally
he would note with amazement the great number of
years which had intervened. Greek historians seem to
have made some use of inscriptions from the very
first—when they were curiously rare—and in the early
pages of Thucydides there are some interesting infer-
ences from what we should call archaeological evi-
dence. It is perhaps surprising that this people did not
advance further in the archaeological field, especially
as they had the intelligence and the instruments for
the task, and they came to appear as fervent collectors
of “antiquities.” But it takes a long accumulation of
knowledge and thought—tremendous procedures of
trial and error—to turn archaeology into a system in
which items can be recognized and dated and properly
related to one another. Only after two thousand years
do the collectors of “antiquities” make the effective
union with history.

We have seen that amongst the Greeks, history had
to be a form of “investigation” from the very start;
and, by the necessities of the case, criticism itself seems
to have been more remarkable amongst them in the
early stages of the story than the later. At the begin-
ning, it was the epic that was examined—subjected to
a kind of historical criticism—this being exercised at
first by those poets who hoped to supplement Homer
or clear up the things he had left in doubt. Since there
was a lack not only of annals but also of literary
records, the early Greek historians had to make much
use of oral evidence or local tradition, which proved
impracticable for remoter periods and, even in respect
of recent events, must have presented obvious chal-
lenges to criticism. The chief contribution of the


Greeks to historical criticism emerged by necessity at
a very early stage, and is to be seen in both Herodotus
and Thucydides. It involved the realization that live
informants need to be not only heard but harried, that
even the eyewitness needs to be closely cross-ques-
tioned, so that his evidence can be made to square with
that of other people—to square even with itself.
Thucydides used official records, but even his successors
amongst his own people failed to maintain his critical
standards. For a long time, the progress of history was
slowed down by the fact that, even while recognizing
the criterion of truth, men so often thought that an
easy honesty was sufficient. It took a long time to
realize the need for training and technical equipment,
the need also for deep self-examination, if bias were
to be removed.

As time went on, the original paucity of sources was
no longer the same problem, and the writing of history
could in any case become an easier matter. For even
those authors who were writing about remoter periods
might normally use previous narrators, inscriptions,
official lists and registers, public documents and private
letters. They could also travel in order to settle topo-
graphical points, or talk to eyewitnesses, or examine
local traditions. This is a pattern that endures for nearly
two thousand years; but in ancient Greece and Rome,
where the literary presentation had become so impor-
tant, the sources would be buried into the running
political narrative. A matter of notorious controversy
might be discussed or a clash between earlier narrative
authorities might be alluded to (sometimes vaguely, as
though rather to make a show of criticism). But only
at the high spots did there appear to be a real wrestling
with the evidence, and sometimes an author would be
satisfied to use a single earlier narrative source for a
considerable stretch of history. Where two previous
narrative authorities contradict one another the need
for criticism would seem inescapable; yet, in spite of
some exceptions, it is amazing to see the enormous
period during which even this problem was for the
most part weakly handled all over the world, partly,
no doubt because of the lack of crucial material, but
partly because of the superficiality of the detective
work. Rome added nothing essential on the technical
side and a modern scholar leaves us with the question
whether Livy, who followed now Polybius, now some
alternative source, was able to recognize that Polybius
was better in quality than the alternatives. This weak-
ness was possibly peculiar to political history (i.e., to
history as ordinarily understood). Hellenistic scholar-
ship in neighboring fields shows the activity of more
alert and penetrating criticism—e.g., in the handling
of problems in ancient literature.

In respect of the earliest stages of Christianity, the
narratives that have come down to us raise some curi-
ous points concerning the use of evidence. The disciples
of Jesus could not have foreseen—and would not have
been interested to know—what scholarship in the far
future would regard as necessary for establishing the
historicity of an event or the authenticity of a piece
of evidence. For the purpose of dealing with doubters
in their own day they evidently referred on occasion
to other “witnesses”; but, in the records that have come
down to us, the point is mentioned only in general
terms. There must have been an early attempt to lay
out one section of the history of Jesus in proper narra-
tive form, and with a more than usual degree of order,
precision, and detail—namely the course of events that
led to the Crucifixion. Here there exists what some
people have thought may be a pointer to specific
outside witnesses (Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). But, in
general, for the life of Jesus, we are dependent on
Gospels which come short of proper chronological and
narrative form and which—whatever literary compi-
lations may have intervened—must go back to oral
material, much of it of a special kind because adapted
and shaped (if not originally presented) to serve the
purposes of the preacher. The Church must quickly
have decided that its organization should be primarily
directed to securing that the evidence of the original
disciples should be properly preserved; and, later, it
excluded much obviously apochryphal matter, testing
in the light of its main tradition the host of pretended
“Gospels” that emerged. But evidence which has
gone—or which even may have gone—through such
a process as this will not suffice to “establish histori-
cally” for a skeptical mind the details of a biography,
or the conviction that the ecclesiastical tradition itself
went back to the very beginning. The fact that the
evidence as it reaches us has suffered this processing,
and is so difficult to reduce to an assured original
form—also that the early Christian narratives are not
produced with what we today should regard as an
unmixed historical intent—help to account for the
modern debate concerning the very feasibility of “the
quest for the historical Jesus.” The epistles of Saint Paul
carry us back directly to the first generation of the
Church, though even they were neither produced nor
preserved to serve the purposes of the historian. The
Acts of the Apostles, which arise out of an interest in
the early Church and the missionary journeys of Saint
Paul, have the advantage of including diary material
by a man who accompanied Paul for a time.

A further anomaly may throw light on the mentality
of men who would be attached to the truth but without
the modern feeling for what we call historical evidence.
When Jesus was recognized as being in important
respects the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy,


there seemed to occur a large-scale hunt for further
“anticipations” until scriptural history itself seemed to
be transformed into a great collection of prophetic
prefigurings. Clearly the matter came to have a domi-
nating place in the mind; and the issue is raised as
to whether the original process of thought may not
have been put into reverse on occasion. In quite good
faith, and in conformity with the whole general out-
look, one could come to feel that what had been
predicted must actually have happened in the time of
Christ, when all the prophecies were being fulfilled
at once. In the first centuries of our era there are
Christian writings in which one gets the impression
that the author is going to provide an historical intro-
duction, a discussion of antecedents. In reality one finds
that over great numbers of heavily loaded pages,
everything has been transmuted into prophecies and
prefigurings. For a time men are prevented from
realizing other, more mundane kinds of connection
between the Jewish past and the Christian present.

The Christian Church developed, however, in a
Greco-Roman world in which civilization was highly
advanced. The Fathers of the Church took over the
scholarly traditions of Hellenistic Greece, and some of
them were more at ease in the realm of criticism than
their successors during a long course of centuries. Such
criticism, however, would tend to be textual rather
than historical. Some of them realized for example that
the Scriptures had suffered from the errors of tran-
scribers and that chapters or verses were out of order
because scrolls had not been properly attached to one
another. One encounters in these early Christian cen-
turies the view that the narrative in the Pentateuch
was indebted to earlier historical writings. The task
of correlating and unifying the immensely varied and
difficult chronological systems of the ancient world
came to involve Christian scholars in serious work of
a fairly technical kind. In his Ecclesiastical History,
however, Eusebius, in the early decades of the fourth
century, made a contribution that was to be curiously
significant in the history of historiography. Though he
may not have been quite without precursors, he had to
reconstruct the earlier centuries of Church history and
so had to be to a considerable degree an “original” his-
torian, a pioneer who actually investigates. Also he had
in mind certain things which had long been making
history important for Christians—the need to refer to
older ecclesiastical decisions, the importance of re-
cording the succession of bishops, the commemoration
of the feats and sufferings of the martyrs, and the
description of the rise of heresies. Much of his material
was local in character and he needed to travel, though
he concentrated with some justice on his own Eastern
half of the Church, and seemed to learn surprisingly
little about Western regions. He was not uncritical, and
easily ignored a lot of popular miracle stories and
apochryphal narratives, though he seems to have been
better able to detect the spurious literary work than
the unreliable evidence; and he lacked whatever it was
that was necessary to prevent his being deceived by
the supposed literary correspondence between Jesus
and King Agbar of Edessa.

Eusebius is especially interesting, however, because
of the general character and form of his Ecclesiastical
He was so greatly concerned with church
debates and intellectual issues that it was perhaps
natural for him to imitate from ancient Greece the
biographies of philosophers and historians of philo-
sophical controversy rather than the pattern of the
political historians. It has been suggested that he may
have been influenced too by Jewish-Hellenic histori-
ography (Josephus, for example) where the religious
aspects of the story were so important. He adopts the
method of reproducing considerable extracts from
literary works—a method he himself abundantly fol-
lows in other large works of his which are more
specifically connected with the history of thought; and
he reproduces in the same way other kinds of literary
evidence (including letters of Origen, of which he had
a hundred available). Something of the same can be
seen in Bede's work on the English Church, and in
the revival of ecclesiastical history in the epoch of the
Reformation controversies.

It has been alleged that Eusebius wrote history by
stringing masses of long extracts together. But he set
the example of not allowing the evidence, the docu-
mentary materials, to be lost (i.e., to be dissolved away
in the narrative text). And so ecclesiastical history
emerged as a more erudite affair than political history.
It has been suggested, therefore, that we may have
learned from Eusebius to check our references. We are
told also that the first writer to present Roman history
in a similar documentary way was Louis-Sébastien le
Nain de Tillemont (1637-98), originally an ecclesiasti-
cal historian.

When, after the emergence from the Dark Ages,
medieval historiography makes its interesting develop-
ment, it does not lead to anything that is scientifically
novel. It has perhaps the rarer distinction of producing
a number of people who really bring home to them-
selves the need for criticism—a need which in century
after century may be conventionally recognized while
nobody realizes the effort, the originality, that it calls
for. In the twelfth century William of Malmesbury goes
beyond the humdrum in that, while carrying his en-
quiry back for centuries, he transcends the scissors-
and-paste methods in his handling of earlier chronicles.
He uses them rather as materials for constructions


which were his own; so that he achieves something
by just being genuine in a further sense. Glastonbury
was to acquire considerable prestige for itself through
its claim to have been founded only a few decades after
the Crucifixion. But William, for his part, did not flatter
this presumption; he confined himself to the cautious
statement that there were “annals of good authority”
which reported the sending of missionaries to England
in the second century. A little later, Ordericus Vitalis,
on the continent, went to archives, bewailed the man-
uscripts that had been destroyed in Viking raids, and
complained that monasteries treated their papers so
carelessly. He studied burial inscriptions, visited
monasteries abroad in order to examine local chroni-
cles, and consulted the great men of his time. He
enquired also into oral tradition, and would talk to the
peasants, who have a way of keeping things in memory.
As a writer of fairly contemporary history, he may have
found these procedures imposed upon him—he was
committed to being a pioneer. It still remained
true—as in the ancient world—that those who worked
in very recent fields had the greater need for research.
Ordericus is impressive in the ample way in which he
conceives the task.

But if we wish to find in the Middle Ages an antici-
pation of the mood and vigor of Renaissance criticism,
we must go to the Muhammadan, Ibn Khaldūn working
in the latter half of the fourteenth century. This man—
one of the greatest of all the students of the past—urged
that the historian should study conditions, states of so-
ciety and the march of civilization. A knowledge of the
conditioning circumstances of an age was the means
of weeding out the legends and untruths which encum-
bered the history handed down from bygone times, he
said; it enabled one to discover that the supposed event
could not have happened—one eliminated a whole
class of errors because one could show that the alleged
happening was impossible in the nature of things. The
prime example of his method was his treatment of the
story, based on Numbers 26, that Moses had over
600,000 men in the Israelite army. He set out to show
that there could have been no sufficient basis—no
adequate political organization—for such an army, and
that in any case no military leader could ever have
maneuvered such a body. He pointed out that the
descendants of Jacob (Israel), who was regarded as
having lived only four generations before Moses, could
not have multiplied at the speed required. He recalled
that Persia—a vast empire compared with the people
of Israel at their best—only had 120,000 men at the
time of the greatest concentration of its forces; while
King Solomon, who saw the Israelite state at its maxi-
mum, was described on Israelite evidence as having
only 12,000 troops. He drew a conclusion which might
usefully have been hammered home to Western his-
torians down to comparatively recent times:

Whenever contemporaries speak about the dynastic armies
of their own or recent times, and whenever they engage
in discussion about Muslim or Christian soldiers, or when
they come to figuring tax revenues and the money spent
by government, the outlays of extravagant spenders, and
the goods that rich and prosperous men have in stock, they
are quite generally found to exaggerate, to go beyond the
bounds of the ordinary and to succumb to the temptation
of sensationalism

(Ibn Khaldūn, I, 19).

Ibn Khaldūn had a prejudice against “Israelite stories.”
But his critical approach was more than the mere effect
of this.

4. China. In China, the beginnings of history were
very remote and independent of outside influences; the
achieved tradition was unparalleled in its length and
its internal consistency, the prestige of the subject
exceptional, and the literary output of incredible bulk.
Most imposing of all was the way in which the classical
values, the established techniques, and the organization
of the profession were able to maintain themselves for
century after century, and almost down to the present.

From the very first the importance of the individual
historian is a significant factor in the story. He descends
from the “temple-archivist” who, in the place where
sacrifices were made to ancestors, looked after the
documents—the registers, inventories, family trees,
records of contracts, and decisions of the oracles. In
the case of princely houses, he would draw up treaties,
record edicts, and draft the documents which granted
feudal enfeoffment. But also he had charge of divination
and would decide the day for making a journey, hold-
ing a ceremony, beginning a war. From an early date
this archivist-astrologer recorded events, and in this he
was perhaps regarded as making a report to ancestral
spirits. He would also look after the calendar, record
eclipses of the sun and moon, and deal with the time-
table generally. Even at a later date the account of
events, anomalies, or catastrophes in nature would
sometimes have a disproportionate place in historical
writing, and some have suggested that, for the Chinese,
there existed an intrinsic relationship or a special sym-
pathy between the workings of nature and the work-
ings of history. A certain mystique always attached to
writing itself and it seems to have been regarded as
a way of communicating with the divine order. The
recording of an historical event was important there-
fore; in a sense it was necessary in order to catch and
clinch the event—like the case of a run in any game,
which is unachieved unless it gets into the score-book.
At the imperial court the archivist-astrologer-recorder
sometimes acquired great influence, and acted as sec-


retary to the ruler or went on diplomatic missions.

The cataclysms of Chinese history seem to have
spared little of the historical writings of the pre-
Confucian days, and from early times there was con-
troversy over the genuineness and the textual accuracy
of the things that did survive. This did not prevent
the establishment of a small group of Chinese classics,
which everybody was required to study; and amongst
these was the Shoo King, known as the “Book of His-
tory” or the “Book of Documents.” It is a collection
of royal speeches, edicts, memorials, feudal documents,
etc., some of which purport to go back to very ancient
times. There are sections which anticipate the later
treatises on governmental institutions, but the impor-
tance of the work lay in its political and moral teach-
ing. Another classic was the Spring and Autumn
an example of a type of literature which the
princes of various states were apparently producing
from at least 753 B.C. It consists of the crude annals
of the principality of Loo, the country of Confucius,
whose connection with the work is so difficult to un-
derstand that even in ancient days there were con-
jectures that it must have been written in a kind of
code, or valued in view of some oral tradition attached
to it.

The Chou dynasty had already been ruling in China
for six hundred years when, in the fifth century B.C.
it entered its final stage, which lasted till the third
century and is known as the period of Warring (or
Contending) States. It coincided with a tremendous
flowering of culture, bringing philosophical thought to
its climax (almost synchronizing with the rise of phi-
losophy in Greece) and producing in thought and liter-
ature an originality and freshness never acquired again.
For a long time before this there had been a movement
towards what we should call rationalism—one which
brought incidental support to history by insisting on
the “immortality” that men might secure in the mem-
ory of future ages. But history was still more greatly
helped because philosophy at this place and time did
not mean either cosmological theory or metaphysical
speculation; it meant the kind of wisdom that is neces-
sary for the conduct of life, and particularly the con-
duct of government. Philosophy came down to street-
level and greatly affected the general mentality; but
also it sought to exercise its persuasive power on
princes, and it resorted, not to deductive reasoning,
but to the exploitation of historical examples. Con-
fucius in particular (born probably 551, died in 479
B.C.) stressed the importance of history, and seems to
have been afraid that, in those times of confusion and
war, the records of the past would be destroyed. A
reverence for the past and respect for the example set
by one's ancestors were an important part of his teach
ing. In this period, converging forces were in fact doing
much to shape the Chinese mentality and to dispose
it for a great development in the study and writing
of history. And history which had once been almost
a ritual art, was turned into a secular moralizing affair,
greatly addicted to “praise and blame.”

In 213 B.C. the famous “burning of the books,” de-
creed by an Emperor who had united the country and
was hostile to the Confucians, combined with a change
in both the forms and the materials of writing to
produce a serious cultural hiatus. But in 206 B.C. the
victory of the Han dynasty led to the reversal of the
ban on books and now the Confucians came under
imperial patronage. The recovery of the ancient writ-
ings became a great objective, but clearly proved more
difficult than a Westerner can easily understand, so that
these ancient writings emerged in a state of confusion.
The followers of Confucius took charge of the restora-
tion of the classics, the reestablishment of the tradition
and the revival of history. Confucianism, in fact,
secured the whip hand in China at this moment, and
men were taught to see the past with Confucian eyes,
but also to treat the ancient texts with superstitious
care. As a result of the vicissitudes that had been
suffered by these texts there emerged a subtle tech-
nique of textual criticism, which was later to develop
greatly and became one of the remarkable features of
Chinese scholarship.

Then the famous Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien (ca. 145-87 B.C.)
inherited from his father the undertaking to narrate
the course of history from the very beginning. The
work that he produced is mythical in its early parts,
but, from the middle of the third century B.C., it be-
comes more detailed, more personal—a more precise
piece of connected narrative. When it comes to the
fuller story of the Han dynasty (down to the Emperor
Wu) it uses official records, but supplements these by
personal experience and the cross-questioning of eye-
witnesses. Sometimes the narrative is strange and diffi-
cult for the Western reader, because different aspects
of it emerge as it is repeatedly retold in successive
studies of leading people. The reader who wants the
overall story is left to look after the dovetailing himself.
The author does not see the need for connections,
developments, underlying movements of causation—all
the things which enable a Western narration to become
more organic. The whole texture is governed by the
fact that the author sees history as the product of men's
wills and does not seek to get behind the wills. It is
as though we had stories from eyewitnesses who re-
ported what they had actually seen in a battle but
never envisaged the affair as a whole, or looked for
any policies behind it. If Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien sees things in
the large—the collapse of an empire for example—it


is for the purpose of moralizing. The result is most
impressive as literature, and it achieves real beauty,
standing as perhaps the best thing in Chinese histori-
ography. Besides recording imperial history, Ssŭ-ma
Ch'ien produces chronological tables, monographs,
annals of vassal princes, and biographies, e.g., of
scholars. The monographs include studies of music, the
state of the calendar, hydrography, and political econ-
omy, for Chinese historical writing was intended to
be of particular use to public officials. Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien's
influence on the future was to be very great.

Henceforward the specialized role of the historian
becomes recognized as part of the civil service, and
one can trace the early stage in the development of
the examination system which was to make the entry
into the bureaucracy so conditional on scholarship.
Under the T'ung dynasty (from the seventh century
A.D.) there emerged a History Office which was an
organ of government, and history became an important
subject in the civil-service examination, which now
achieved its permanent form as a competitive affair.
The Chinese bureaucracy always produced a great
amount of writing—reports from officials, financial
accounts, memoranda concerning government, criti-
cisms of contemporary conditions. A high proportion
of government officials would spend part of their ca-
reers in the History Bureau, and historical narratives
came to be produced on the committee method. The
Diaries of Activity and Repose reproduced the utter-
ances of the Emperor and the business that he con-
ducted, day by day. These were abridged so that when
the Emperor died there emerged the Veritable Record,
a survey of his whole reign. When a dynasty came to
an end, a comprehensive account would be written
under the succeeding dynasty; and this, the Standard
was an important thing, produced for nearly
two thousand years on a pattern set initially in the
first century A.D. by Pan Ku in his History of the Former
Han Dynasty.
The succession of Standard Histories,
if translated into English, is calculated to require 450
volumes and 500 pages each; and this is only a small
proportion of the vast historical production of China.
No other nation possesses such voluminous, continuous,
and (within their own terms) accurate records of so
long a past. One of these dynastic histories, begun in
the year 1679, took forty-six years of labor though
fifty-three historians had been set to work upon it.

It was all official history, written by civil servants
for civil servants and not intended to form reading
matter for a wider public. Even those who wrote
history privately would themselves belong to the
official class and would need government records—they
might even be aspiring to enter the civil service. The
historian had to register discrete facts, not to produce
generalizations, or describe the background or examine
processes. He was not supposed to be an interpreter,
but if his words could coincide with the text of actual
documents, it was imagined that his objectivity was
complete. It was really in essays and monographs that
he was able to discuss institutions, economic conditions,
the state of the arts, etc. As time went on, everything
tended to become conventionalized, and in any case
there would sometimes exist a conspiracy of silence—
the refusal to take note of the important influence of
Buddhism during a number of centuries, for example.

The Chinese were remarkable in their textual criti-
cism. They could seize on the anachronism that ex-
posed a forgery or an interpolation. They learned a
great deal about the transmission and the vicissitudes
of ancient texts, and were helped by masses of bibli-
ographical material that had been handed down from
very early times. As successive historians so often
copied one another verbatim, they could check the
authenticity of ancient texts by comparing what had
been reproduced by previous writers at various times.
It naturally followed that an important aspect of
Chinese criticism was the detection of forgeries. On
the other hand they seem to have assumed that if a
statement in a chronicle or a document had not been
contradicted anywhere, this alone would justify their
accepting it as true. Where there were two contra-
dictory accounts of an event, their first impulse would
be to try to reconcile them with one another, or to
produce a story that would embrace both. At worst,
they would have to opt for one of the two and they
would not say why—they might simply leave the re-
jected source unmentioned. When they were satisfied
about the genuineness of a document, it did not occur
to them to interpret it—construing it in terms of the
people or the situation behind it. They would not ask
whether a witness might be insincere, or prejudiced
or moved by vested interest; and—in their reverence
for the written word—they did not see that a document
ought to be treated rather as a detective would use
a clue.