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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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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.