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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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History of Historiography. The history of historical
writing; initially tending to deal with a succession of
books, authors and schools; but later extending itself
to include the evolution of the ideas and techniques
associated with the writing of history and the changing
attitudes to the question of the nature of history itself.
Ultimately it comprises the study of the development
of man's sense for the past, and the manifold rela-
tionships between living generations and their prede-


1. Pre-classical Times. We may look around for the
past, but it is nowhere to be seen. Only after immensely
long periods, and under the pressure of strange com-
pulsions, did it come to be realized that a past once
forgotten could be recovered to a considerable degree
by research.

Men may remember the things that have happened
within their own experience, and they have tended to
treasure what we call the “tales of a grandfather.”
These latter have often been regional in character, and
in England and elsewhere have been turned into local
ballads even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Handed down within a tribe from generation to gener-
ation they would be rapidly altered in ancient days
through the very processes of oral transmission—the
accretion of legendary matter, for example. Some of
them—perhaps after being captured into a great theme
by a mastermind—would be organized into the epic,
which might be associated with a combination of tribes.
For the people concerned, the epic, which might
achieve great artistry and would be transmitted
through professional storytellers, represented their
actual history—sometimes the only history they knew
beyond the time of their grandfathers. But, on internal
analysis alone—that is to say, in the absence of inde-
pendent evidence—the modern student cannot disen-
tangle the historical truth from the element of fiction.
In some ways the epic seems to have assisted the
transition to what we regard as “genuine” history,


stimulating an interest in the past and providing a
narrative technique. Occasionally it may have been so
satisfying that it checked the desire for anything better.
There was a period when in Egypt it seems to have
had even a damaging effect on the style of the

The earliest historical writing of a more authentic
kind is nearer to earth, and the impulse both to enquiry
and to the production of a record seems to arise out
of some necessity. It is possible that owing to the
character and the needs of society men had an urgent
concern to secure accurate genealogies before they
became interested in historical enquiry, or aware of
its possibilities. Perhaps the earliest and simplest form
of a more authenticated kind of history consists of
dynastic lists, which come to be strung together—some
of them strung in succession, when in reality the fami-
lies ruled simultaneously. In the tremendous list from
ancient Sumer, one or two of the kings are identified
by a brief note referring to an episode in an epic, and
it does not appear that a name was identified except
where it was one that had occurred in an epic. In
another list from ancient Egypt, “events” are included
in the case of a number of monarchs, but though,
towards the end, their number reaches a dozen or more
in the year, they are copied from the monarch's annual
reports which seem to be announcements of duties
done—many of them ceremonial obligations, but in-
cluding an annual measurement of the flooding of the
Nile. In early times, the years were not numbered, but
in the first Babylonian empire they would be named
after some event, and official lists of them had to be
kept, so that the dates on business documents, etc.,
could be identified. The result was a lengthy list, with
one event for each year; but, here again, the events
were sometimes ceremonial—not the ones that an
historian would have chosen. It has been conjectured
that these “date-lists” are the things that led to the
idea of the “chronicle.”

Some of the earliest pieces of narration that survive
are on ancient Mesopotamian boundary stones, where
the story is told as a way of establishing the rights of
the case and rehearsing the precedents. Some descrip-
tive pieces from the same region—with vivid accounts
of the sacking of cities—turn out to have been prayers
or songs of lamentation. Again, in ancient Mesopo-
tamia, one monarch who had carried out a reform
provided a splendid description of the state of things
which had existed before he had taken action. And
here, after Babylon had first established an empire,
there appeared the first interpretation of history, based
on the very ancient view that disaster fell on any state
which neglected its gods. A Hittite monarch, explaining
a policy-decision, provided a retrospective survey that
ran through a number of reigns; and Hittite treaties
are remarkable for the very considerable account they
give of the origin of wars. From a much older date—
and for a long period—in ancient Egypt a distinguished
man who needed food and libations to secure his hap-
piness after death, would on his monument implore
the passerby to take pity on him; and, in order to
support his case, he would present an account of his
life—not so much a series of events, but a list of honors
enjoyed, a proof that he had been esteemed by the
pharaoh while he actually lived. In all these cases, the
recording of events in connected with something that
one might almost call a “utilitarian” purpose. In
Mesopotamia men asked interesting questions about
the early history of the human race and seem to have
seen that things might be explained by a study of
origins. But in this connection they produced, rather,
myths, which appeared in epic form.

For over a thousand years there existed what has
always been recognized as an historical literature of
remarkable extent and importance. It consisted of the
annals produced for the rulers of great empires—the
Egyptian, the Hittite, the Assyrian, in particular
—beginning in almost the form of notes, but devel-
oping into long and pretentious narratives, disappear-
ing whenever the empire declined. These were
engraved on the walls of palaces and temples, each
monarch recording now his building feats, now his
prowess in the hunt, but chiefly his military successes.
The ruler's purpose may have been to overawe his
subjects or impress his neighbors or secure his future
fame, but he may have been reporting to a god on
the carrying out of a commission (since warfare was
conducted on behalf of a god) or he may have been
expressing his thanksgiving on the walls of a commem-
orative temple. The disproportionate space often
occupied by the itemization of the booty (of which
the temple had a great share) suggests a religious origin
on many occasions; and it has even been conjectured
that the Assyrian annals may have developed from
letters in which a monarch reported to the god on his
execution of his commission. But the curses on anybody
who should ever tamper with the monument, show
that, though these writings give no sign of any interest
in the past, the rulers concerned had great solicitude
for their future fame. All this represented history of
the type of the commemorative monument, and though
it was produced over so long a period, it could not
develop beyond a certain point, and came to a dead
end. Its most remarkable feature was the literary
elaboration that it received. The Hittite annals would
seem to have been the most distinguished, whether as
history or as historical explanation; and, though deeply
religious, coming close in this respect to the ancient


Hebrews, they bring us surprisingly near to ancient
Greece as well. The handsome and impressive reliefs
from ancient Assyria provide excellent examples of
illustrated history.

Before the Assyrian annals had reached their peak,
however, the ancient Hebrews had come on to the
stage of history. They had been semi-nomads, yearning
for settlement in cultivated territory, and expecting
from their god that he would provide them with
it—almost testing his authenticity by his ability to keep
his promise. Perhaps because the fulfillment of the
promise was so long-delayed, they made a great deal
of it when it actually came, connecting it with an
exodus from slavery in Egypt which could only have
been experienced by a section of the combined tribes.
Henceforward, the gratitude for release from Egypt
and for the entry into the Promised Land became the
tradition of the whole people and stood as the ground
for religious obedience, the reason for submission to
the divine commandments. The Children of Israel
worshipped the God who had brought them up out
of the land of Egypt more than the God who had
created the world. They were able to make a great
contribution to religion, partly because they had their
eye on the God of History rather than on the gods
of nature, and this had important ethical consequences.
Even when they became cultivators of the soil they
did not transfer their allegiance to the gods of fertility;
and even when they borrowed from their neighbors
ceremonies based on the cycle of the seasons, they
transformed these (as they transformed circumcision
itself) into the celebration of an historical event. Their
religious ideas, covenant, judgment, the Promise, the
Messiah, are connected with history. If they took over
from their neighbors in Western Asia the idea that a
national disaster is a punishment for neglect of the god
or gods, they added the notion of history as charac-
terized by the continuing Promise—a conditional
Promise, subject to terrible acts of judgment, but re-
newed after the judgment had been suffered, and even
developing, so that it became something higher every

No country—not even England with its Magna
Carta—has ever been so obsessed with history, and it
is not strange that the ancient Hebrews showed pow-
erful narrative gifts, and were the first to produce
anything like a national history—the first to sketch out
the history of mankind from the time of the Creation.
They reached high quality in the construction of sheer
narrative, especially in the recording of fairly recent
events, as in the case of the death of David and the
succession to his throne. After the Exile they concen-
trated more on the Law than on history, and they
turned their attention to speculation about the future
and in particular about the end of the mundane order.
In a sense they lost touch with the hard earth. But
they did not quickly lose their gift for historical narrat-
ing, as is seen in I Maccabees before the Christian era
and the writings of Josephus in the first century A.D.

2. Greece. The classical Greeks began with a re-
markable handicap. They had behind them—behind
Homer—a brilliant civilization, the records of which
have recently become comprehensible to scholars. But
they knew scarcely anything about this earlier world
and could not have deciphered its texts; for after a
hiatus more complete than the Dark Ages in Europe,
they had learned a different art of writing which came
to them from a different source. Only a little oral
evidence, some of it difficult to disentangle from the
fictional material in Homer, had filtered down to them,
to give them a hint of that earlier age which we call
Mycenaean. And they, like the modern world, could
not even be sure that its language had been Greek,
though they were leaning to this view in the first
century A.D. For a long time they believed that only
a few centuries of history lay behind them, and in the
fifth century A.D. some of them were surprised when
the Egyptians produced the evidence that the past
went back for thousands of years. Even of their own
history as they emerged from their Dark Ages—indeed,
of the whole of Greek history since the Trojan war—
they knew hardly anything; for they did not have
monarchs who glorified themselves in annals, and they
were astonishingly late in producing documents at all.
It is difficult to see how the states that existed before
the fifth century can have been governed with so few
records. The earliest to appear were lists of officials
and priests. The Jewish writer, Josephus, in the first
century A.D. taunted the Greeks for these defects and
for the period before the fifth century B.C. it would
seem that even modern scholarship will never be able
to make good the loss. Athens appears to have been
particularly defective in this respect.

They had Homer, and the Iliad appears to have
taken shape in the Ionian region about the ninth cen-
tury B.C. There was an epic tradition in Ionia, and in
later centuries there were poets who filled in the nar-
rative of the Trojan war, and also carried the story
back to the supposed origins of the Greeks, and the
legends of warfare between the gods. They attempted
to deal with problems that Homer had failed to answer
and tried, for example, to straighten out the chronol-
ogies and genealogies, and to show what happened to
the heroes in later periods—perhaps to satisfy the needs
of families that wanted to clarify their connection with
such distinguished ancestors.

Ionia produced the earliest Greek prose, developed
what we should call philosophy and science, and saw


the beginnings of Greek historical writing. The stimulus
to this last would seem to have been given by great
events; and Hecataeus, overlapping the sixth century
and the fifth, like Herodotus later in the fifth century,
would seem to have been stirred by Greco-Persian
conflicts. Thucydides, later again in the century, was
moved by the Peloponnesian war. At the same time
the city-states of the Greeks had so developed that the
age was propitious for the awakening of the historical
consciousness in the effective general public. Down to
this time, and even much later still—even in the
twentieth century—war has been the most powerful
stimulus to the awakening of an interest in history;
Hecataeus and Herodotus were impelled to take a great
interest in neighboring peoples; and the situation of
Ionia was important partly because the interesting
Lydians, and later the Persians, were so near, partly
because it was almost the meeting-place of eastern
Mediterranean civilizations.

Greek historical writing developed to a considerable
degree out of the description of neighboring peoples
and the attempt to understand them. It emerged in
association with geography and ethnography; and this
in itself tended to give it a scientific bent, especially
as, before Herodotus, men had been writing about the
influence of climate and landscape on human nature.
In any case history emerged in Ionia at a time when
something of the scientific mentality had already been
developing there; and here (as in China) a civilization
distinguished by science also applied itself to history.
It is difficult to know how much the Greeks owed not
merely to the science but also to the historical writing
that had developed so greatly in Mesopotamia and
Asia; but it would appear that a genuine stimulus came
from Egypt; and to Egypt the Greeks went in the fifth
century B.C. to see if they could find answers to ques-
tions about the Trojan war.

In the absence of written sources, oral tradition
became particularly important in Greek historiography
from the start. Herodotus is dependent on it for the
history of the Persian war, which took place not long
before his time. Thucydides seems to have been skepti-
cal about the reconstruction of earlier Greek history,
though his opening pages contain inferences from what
we should call archaeology. It is easy to understand,
therefore, why the Greeks in general failed to feel
assured about the recovery of a remoter past, once that
past had been forgotten. Their great achievements
were in fields more nearly contemporary.

What they learned from Egypt, and the little they
knew about the Mycenaean age, seems to have given
them a powerful impression of history as involving
great progress up to a certain point and then decline
or collapse. They easily ran to the notion that there
had been a lot of these ups-and-downs, so that civili-
zation repeatedly had to start over again from almost
the beginning, without even the memory of former
achievements. We hear of the Egyptians taking special
pride in the advantages they had over the Greeks
through the continuity of their history and particularly
their immunity from damage by fire and flood, which
were sometimes regarded as the cause of the greatest
catastrophes. All this became part of the Greek way
of experiencing history—part of man's very feeling
for the time-process. And perhaps it was really for
this reason that Greek philosophy so easily ran to
cyclic views of history, contemplating on occasion the
notion of a cosmos and a world which—at colossal
intervals of time—go on forever repeating their history
in the minutest detail. Greek philosophy has been held
to be “antihistorical” therefore, and in a sense respon-
sible for the limitations of Greek historiography. Cer-
tainly the Greeks lacked the Jewish feeling that the
whole of creation is moving to some great end, as well
as the modern feeling that time itself is a generative

Yet our debt to the Greeks is immense; for they
opened the way to a deeper kind of history and to
a host of modern sciences by their determination to
subject historical data (once these were established) to
quasi-scientific procedures. They were not content, like
the Mesopotamians or the Chinese, to narrate history
as though everything were the result of acts of will
on the part of men or gods who could easily have willed
something else. They attempted to move to analysis,
and get behind the acts of volition, examining causes,
connections, and the operation of conditioning cir-
cumstance. They opened the way to a political science
which could examine the cause of the decline of a state
or the rise of a tyrant. And their cyclic views reinforced
their belief that, by the collation of instances, one could
arrive at maxims of statecraft, likely to be useful be-
cause history sufficiently repeats itself. All this entered
into the very texture of historical writing. The most
masterly example of this was Polybius (see below), a
Greek slave of the Romans, who set out to describe
the expansion of Rome in a book which was largely
a history of his own times. To the Greeks we owe the
view that history can be a political education.

It did not take them long to apply the canons of
rhetoric to the writing of history, and this was not so
indifferent a matter as we today might think. On the
Isocratean system the historian should interpret and
elucidate the story, discussing the plans of a leader,
describing the way in which he put them into effect
and explaining the results. But there is an alternative
method—simply to allow the reader to have the story
taking place before his eyes. It has been described as


“peripatetic” because it seemed to be connected with
Aristotle's theory of tragedy. The scenes are repro-
duced and one watches the action in the way that one
watches a play; and this is sufficient, without a discus-
sion of causes—the action itself producing the required
pity and terror. Attention may come to be concen-
trated too much on these issues of presentation as well
as on the style and the techniques which are appro-
priate to particular occasions. The result is liable to
be a decline in the quality of the history that has to
be presented—a decline evident at times in both
Greece and Rome.

The earliest of the great Greek historians whose
work has come down to us is Herodotus, who was born
in the 480's and seems to have died soon after 430
B.C. He wrote history partly in order that great deeds
(whether of Greeks or non-Greeks) should be placed
on record, and partly because he wished to lay out
the causes of the Greco-Persian War. He was interested
in the way in which things came to happen and would
look for rational explanations, showing the influence
of climate and geographical factors and presenting
excellent portrayals of character, though he was liable
to impute important events to trivial incidental causes,
the influence of women and purely personal factors.
At the same time he had a disturbing sense of super-
natural influences, showed the inadequacy of human
calculations, the retribution that Heaven would inflict
on great misdeeds, and introduced dreams, oracles,
visions, and divine warnings of approaching evil. He
seemed to make a point of repeating whatever versions
of a story had been reported and letting the reader
decide between them. He had a great admiration for
Athens which was connected with his love of demo-
cratic freedom and his feeling for the role of the city
in the Persian War.

Thucydides (who died early in the fourth century
B.C.) intended his history of the Peloponnesian War to
be useful to the future; for, since in his view human
nature and human behavior would be forever the same,
he held that similar situations and problems recurred,
so that the lessons of one period would be serviceable
in another period. He was influenced by the science
of the time and tried to apply the principles and
methods of Hippocratic medicine to politics, so that
everything could be covered by rational explanation.
He could separate the immediate occasion from the
deeper causes of an event, and was able to proceed
to general conclusions, as when he analyzed the rela-
tionship between wealth and power, or the remorseless
logic behind the development of Athenian imperialism.
He envisaged the characters of men as the result of
circumstances. He was compelled to leave a role for
chance, but his attitude to chance may not have been
very different from that of the twentieth century. He
saw that, with the resources and techniques then avail-
able, only something like “contemporary” history was
really feasible; and he made use of speeches to com-
municate what we should regard as the historian's
explanations of facts or situations, or of the motives
and ideas behind human actions.

Polybius (who was born in the decade or so after
198 B.C. and reached the age of 78) achieved a wide
form of general history in a work which examined the
rise of Rome and particularly its development to world-
empire within a period of less than fifty-three years
down to 167 B.C. He ostentatiously stresses the didactic
and pragmatic character of history, the fact that it
would be better if written by statesmen, and the im-
portance of the subject for people in public life; and
both in this and in his remarks about the critical treat-
ment of sources, he is in reaction against the “drama-
tizing” methods that had become popular amongst
historical writers. Though he traces causes and effects,
he fails to see the interconnections in the whole net-
work of events, or to discern general tendencies, and
he shows the operation of chance, the role of the
unexpected, as part of the very constitution of history.
He did not originate the idea of cyclic succession in
history or the predilection for a “mixed” form of gov-
ernment, but in the latter case it was his formulation
of the idea that influenced the modern world. He came
to the conclusion that even Rome would not escape
the tendency to fall into decline, a tendency which
he attributed to moral reasons.

3. Rome. At a time when events carried or acquired
religious associations, the chief of the priests in Rome
would note them (as well as omens, prodigies, etc.) on
a white board which recorded the names of the officials
of the year and then served as a kind of calendar. The
boards were kept available for future reference (though
they were liable to be destroyed by fire, as when the
Gauls sacked Rome in 390 B.C.), and the people of the
city came to have a sentimental attachment to them.
Such records were curiously typical of the character
of Roman historiography in general, which was gov-
ernmental in a sense (written by and for members of
the senatorial class), annalistic in form (beginning each
year with the names of the officials, and including the
omens, prodigies, etc.) but also flavored by religion,
by a certain piety towards the past, and by a deep
regard for public morality. The sense for history was
also—and perhaps primarily—promoted by the tradi-
tional devotion of the aristocratic families to their
ancestors, the religious observances connected with
these, the care taken over the preservation of domestic
archives, and the regular recital of old funeral orations.
All this intensified, if it did not generate in the first


place, the special feeling of piety towards the past,
and it helped to bring biography into favor in Rome.
It ensured also, however, that historical writers—more
than usually dependent on private archives—would
produce narrative distortions based on family preju-
dices or interests.

In a sense the Romans took to history more fervently
than the Greeks, who had their “antihistorical” side;
and at least their genius was more adapted to history
than to philosophy. They produced historical writing
that had a character of its own. Yet they contributed
nothing essential to the development of scholarship or
technique. They came to appreciate the finished
product but they learned historical writing from the
Greeks, and they met Greek historiography when it
was overripe. The result was that, from a compara-
tively early stage, they saw it as really a species of
rhetoric, and gave their minds to the problem of pres-
entation. They knew that history ought to be true,
of course; but they never realized (as Thucydides
realized) the amount of thought and labor and science
which is needed for the establishment of the truth over
and above the ordinary requirement of honesty. They
never really gave themselves to the task of investi-

It was the Greeks who began the writing of Roman
history; for, just as Herodotus had interested himself
in the peoples further east, his successors came to be
interested in their neighbors to the west of them, espe-
cially when warfare in Sicily brought home to them
the expansion of Roman power. The Greeks in any case
were inclined to enquire and speculate about the origin
of other people's cities and from them came some of
the legends concerning the foundation of Rome. The
first history produced by the Romans themselves was
written in Greek; and this is not so paradoxical as it
might seem, for, after the conquests of Alexander the
Great, a number of peoples—the Babylonians and
Egyptians, for example—showed a desire to present
their history in the language of what had become the
prevailing culture. The earliest Roman example of this,
Fabius Pictor, emerges in connection with the Second
Punic War, towards the end of the third century
B.C.—an important stage in the development of some-
thing like a national consciousness—a moment, too,
when it might have been felt that the Greeks were
seeing things too much from the Carthaginian point
of view.

The first historical work in Latin was in verse, and
the first prose work in this field was written towards
the end of his life by Cato (d. 149 B.C.), who was
influenced by the Greeks and was exceptional in his
desire to escape the annalistic form. In the subsequent
decades Greek culture exercised an increasing influence
on aristocratic circles in Rome that were interested
in public service, in literature, in philosophy, and in
the work of Polybius. They developed Latin prose,
sought to promote history rather than annals, and
picked up Stoic ideas of morality which were to help
still further to give Roman historiography its special
character. They produced historical writing of no spe-
cial distinction, however, and towards the middle of
the first century B.C., Cicero, in whom Latin prose
reached the stage of maturity, was clearly dissatisfied
with the general condition of Roman historiography.
But though he drew from Polybius some notions about
the objectives of historical writing, he called attention
mainly to questions of form—the need to follow the
rhetorical rules which had been developed under Greek

By this time there had begun to appear monographs
on limited themes (such as the Second Punic War) and
works which had the character of memoirs or autobi-
ographies—works which statesmen and soldiers pro-
duced for the purpose of self-justification. The Com-
of Julius Caesar (d. 44 B.C.) are particularly
important representatives of this latter class; partly
because they are so precise and sober, so rich in their
incidental information and so skillful in their conceal-
ment of their propagandist purpose. To the class of
monographs, however, belong The Conspiracy of
and The Jugurthine War by Sallust who, during
the few years after the assassination of his patron,
Caesar, withdrew from public life to produce history
of remarkable quality. Behind everything he was pre-
occupied with the decline and fall of the Roman Re-
public, which he attributed to a moral collapse; and
he emphasized the Stoic teaching which regarded the
evils as the result of luxury and ambition. He supported
with his intellect and fame a notion of ancient Roman
virtue which was already current and which came to
be of crucial importance, though it looks like a legend
produced and regularly transmitted by Roman histori-
ography. Though he had no love for the populace and
hankered after older aristocratic ideals, he wrote his-
tory with an antisenatorial bias, so that some people
have seen in it a propagandist purpose. It was history
in which Fortuna played an important part, and reli-
gion made perhaps only a conventional appearance,
the passions of men occupying the central place, with
the result that situations are dramatically developed,
and characters are presented with power. Sallust owed
much of his fame to his style, which was suited to his
subject; tense, rugged and dynamic, but with studied
archaisms—itself a creative achievement, owing much
to Thucydides and Cato, but a challenge to Ciceronian

Livy (59 B.C.-A.D. 17) produced 142 books of Roman


history which carried the narrative from the foundation
of the city to A.D. 9, though only about thirty-five of
these books survive. He conforms to the Roman ideal
of a historian—the ideal which Cicero did so much
to create—not the discoverer of new facts, not the
scientific analyst, but the narrator who looks for mo-
tives, discusses results, portrays character, supports the
cause of virtue and moves the reader by literary
artistry. The past inspires him with a mood of pietas
and he tells us that, when he is dealing with the early
history, he feels that he has been captured by the spirit
of those times. In this mood he seems unable to allow
even the legendary to be forgotten and in so far as
he did not create it, he expresses Rome's tradition about
herself, including an element of the mythical which
even the modern European has found it difficult to
sweep out of his mind. Livy presents—not without a
vein of poetry and a sense for drama—the whole tre-
mendous procession of the centuries, Rome being
chosen for greatness by the gods, who remain not
inattentive to her story throughout the generations.
Above all, the rise of Rome was a reward for a certain
virtue and greatness of heart which seemed to survive
only here and there in the present, but belonged to
earlier generations, comprising the things which the
Stoics loved—the simple life, gravitas, due deference
to authority, and some regard to religious observances.
But, although the discussion of authorities may add
plausibility to the narrative, it is evident that the au-
thor does not realize the need to come to grips with
the problem of sources. And in spite of his general
honesty, Livy can distort the narrative in favor of

Tacitus (ca. A.D. 55-120) expressed the view that the
deeds of good men ought not to be forgotten and that
evil men ought to be made to fear the judgment of
posterity. It is not clear, however, that he believed in
the possibility of altering things in his degenerate age;
and, as he realized that the moral decay reached back
to republican times, he seems to have felt that there
was no point in attacking the imperial system as such.
In his Histories and Annals he directed his hostility
against the individual emperors who ran the system,
and whom he described from the point of view of that
senatorial aristocracy which was the chief sufferer from
their misdoings. In his bitterness, he painted some of
these emperors as worse than modern scholars would
regard them, worse than would be suggested by the
facts that he himself adduced; and sometimes where
he recognized their good deeds he connected even
these with malignant motives. His narrative communi-
cates, therefore, something of the anguish of his soul,
and he speaks so much in terms of the way in which
he experienced the system that he fails to produce what
we should regard as the larger history of the empire
and of imperial policy. Even where he suggests some-
thing like supernatural action, he is sometimes tempted
to feel this (and the operation of Fortune itself) as
actively malignant. He was careful in his researches,
skillful in the production of dramatic effects, most
distinguished of all perhaps in his pithy style, charac-
terized by epigram and irony. His eulogies of the
Teutonic tribes, whose virtues appeared as an oblique
criticism of Roman decadence, seem to anticipate the
methods of French writers in the eighteenth century.
He emerges as the most remarkable historian that
Rome produced.

4. Early Christianity. The earliest Christians
seemed to have little place for mundane history; in
a sense they were too otherworldly, too intent on the
spiritual life. They thought that the end of the world
was near; and, even when the end did not come, they
felt that Christ had won the decisive battle—nothing
else that might happen in history could really matter.
They held to what we call the Old Testament, however,
and, though the gospel was preached to the Gentiles,
the continuity with the ancient Hebrew religion was
maintained. The Old Testament committed them to
history in a sense; however, they did not attach them-
selves to the mundane side of the narrative—they
abstracted from the Scriptures a skeleton of supra-
natural “salvation-history,” a story that culminated in
the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. This could easily
be an obstruction to any interest in what we ordinarily
mean by history; especially as the mundane events in
the Old Testament narrative could be given a figurative
or symbolic significance.

It would have been difficult to maintain this situation
for a long period, especially as people were bound to
enquire about the life of Jesus in the world. As time
went on, it became important to assert his humanity
as well as his divinity, and the fact that Christianity
did not involve mythical figures or demiurges, but one
who had been a real historical personage, became no
doubt part of its strength. With the passage of time,
there were decisions of the Church in Jerusalem to be
remembered, martyrs to be commemorated, stories to
be told about the missionary work in the Roman
Empire. In the controversies with the pagans it became
necessary to answer the charge that Christianity was
only a recent innovation—it had to be explained why
it maintained the continuity with historical Judaism
and, this being the case, why it broke with contem-
porary Judaism. It came to be held that Christianity
was a return to the religion of primitive humanity and
that this latter had everywhere fallen into corruption,
Moses himself securing later only a partial restoration.
Moses had preserved the worship of Yahweh, but the


Jews were still recalcitrant and needed the straitjacket
of the Law. When the Church had to answer the noble
pagans, and some of its own converts were unable to
forsake their devotion to Plato, it came to be held that
the Greeks—though more corrupted by polytheism
than the Jews—had themselves possessed gleams of
light. The total result was that Christianity was hence-
forth regarded as the heir of both Greek philosophy
and the Old Testament. The wisdom of the ancient
Hebrews was older, Homer not so early as Moses, while
Plato and Pythagoras were younger than some of the
prophets, and Plato himself even being indebted in
certain ways to the earlier prophets. Furthermore, the
language of the ancient Hebrews was taken to be the
oldest of all, anterior to the confusion of tongues,
indeed the language of God himself.

In this way a Christian interpretation of large-scale
mundane history was gradually developed; but, before
these ideas had been reached, churchmen had had to
tackle the elaborate enterprise of comparing the widely
differing chronological systems of the ancient world,
synchronizing events in one region with events in
another. Some time not far from A.D. 221 Julius
Africanus produced an important pioneering work in
this field, which had the further effect of involving the
scholar in universal history. The book of Genesis, with
its account of the primitive state of the human race,
the division into nations and languages, and the origin
of the arts and crafts, encouraged the whole notion
of a history of mankind. Till the early eighteenth cen-
tury, it still provided the material for the opening
chapter of such a work. Political history is generally
the narrative of one's own state and people; but reli-
gious and quasi-religious ideas encourage meditation
upon the destiny of mankind as a whole, and Christi-
anity was to give a great impetus to universal history,
though this had already emerged, particularly in a Stoic
context, amongst the Greeks and Romans. Jewish
apocalyptic literature had begun to periodize history,
and had seen the rise of colossal empires as in a way
a judgment of God—in a way the beginning of the
end. It had caught from abroad the theory of the Four
Monarchies or World Empires; and this, as formulated
in the book of Daniel, governed the periodizing of
universal history until the seventeenth and even the
eighteenth century. But for a time, while the Church
was settling down for a more protracted life in the
world, millenarian speculation was more interesting to
believers than the story of what had happened in the
past. In the Epistle of Barnabas, which may have
appeared between 70 and 130 A.D., it was suggested
that since the Creation took six days, a day was as a
thousand years to God, and the world was likely to
have a life of 6000 years, Christ was regarded as having
been born between 5000 and 5500 years after the
Creation so that the end of the world still seemed
reasonably near.

The world was then envisaged as remarkably small,
and the stars as forming part of the scenic background.
Amongst the Jews there existed the belief that
Jerusalem stood at the very center of the map. In
Aristotelian physics, the noblest things of all—fire and
air—tended to rise above everything else, and the
heavenly bodies were made of an especially ethereal
kind of matter. For both Christians and non-Christians,
the air was full of active spirits, some of them wicked
demons. There were converts who held their Christi-
anity rather as they had previously held their pagan
beliefs, regarding God as the successful worker of

The historical consciousness as it emerges in
Eusebius, who wrote before and after 300 A.D., was
adapted to this toy-universe that still expected only
a short life-span. This consciousness was stimulated by
the stirring events of the time, and the feeling that
things were now coming to a climax. For Eusebius,
Christ appears in “the fulness of time” (itself an inter-
esting historical concept); also he arrives appropriately
when the Jews happen to have no king of their own
line. In addition to this, both the Mosaic dispensation
and the philosophy of Greece had been provisional in
character, only a “preparation” for the gospel; and
since the days of Irenaeus, ca. A.D. 180, it had been
realized that time had a part to play in God's plan,
an “educational” function perhaps. The junction of
these two strands of Hebrew and Greek history, and,
in addition to these, the Incarnation itself, coincided
with the establishment of the Roman Empire, divinely
ordained to bring the peace, and the easy communi-
cations which were required for the spread of the
Gospel. Christ by his victory thwarted the evil demons
who were henceforward doomed to fight a hopeless
rearguard action. Indeed, from this time, the very
pagans were regarded as having softened their man-
ners. From this point in his historical work, Eusebius
stands as virtually the founder of what we call ecclesi-
astical history—trying to trace the successors of bishops
in their sees, to commemorate the martyrs and describe
the various heresies, though even he can use strong
language about the evils in the Church. The culmina-
tion of everything is the conversion of Constantine,
who achieves supreme worldly success through mira-
cles, and appears as something like a wonder-child

A century later, Saint Augustine has seen the evils
that can flourish even after the empire has become
Christian. He has to meet the charge that the desertion
of the ancient gods has been punished by barbarian


invasions and disaster in Rome. He surveys the whole
human drama and asks fundamental questions: How
did the world begin? What is the nature of time? He
also asks questions which are closer to earth, closer
to history: Where did civilization begin and why were
the early Romans so successful? He says that God
bestows empire and military success—like the sunshine
and the rain—on the good and the wicked indifferently.
Otherwise men might be induced to become Christian
for the purpose of achieving worldly success. Further-
more, it was the Christian God—not at all the pagan
deities—who had brought Rome to greatness, giving
mundane virtues their appropriate mundane reward,
though in the eyes of eternity these virtues could be
analyzed into something else and would appear also
as terrible sins. Augustine not only recognizes the
existence of profane history but comes near to treating
it as an autonomous realm. The despoiling of Rome
was the result of the customs of war. The destruction
of Carthage robbed Rome of its great fear, and this
led to a moral relaxation. The Roman conquests had
become too vast—her empire was beginning to break
under its own weight. Even the peace which the
empire established did not cancel the wickedness of
the wars that had made it possible; and Rome, in spite
of all that is owed to it, is only a second Babylon.
Augustine seems to prefer small states, if only they
could be turned into a family of states; but in his heart
he knows how difficult this is—he realizes that it was
the turbulence of the neighboring peoples which had
provoked the Roman attacks upon them. In regard to
sacred history, salvation-history—in regard to the
Incarnation, for example—he sees events as conforming
to a divine plan; but, in respect of mundane history,
he has more flexible ideas than Eusebius—a greater
readiness to study ordinary causation—and he does not
envisage Providence as working mechanically to a

In the City of God we see him arguing his way out
of a cyclic view of history, for he cannot allow that
everything that happens will go on repeating itself
throughout endless time—this would turn the Incarna-
tion into a puppet-show. Yet he had previously been
tempted by a cyclic view of history, and perhaps it
was really the pull of the Old Testament that saved
him from it.

He confided to his disciple Orosius the task of dem-
onstrating in detail that Rome and the world had
suffered great evils before the appearance of the
Christian religion. And Orosius achieved a certain
degree of relativity, showing that the rise of Rome had
involved disasters for many peoples, and wondering
why the greatest miseries of past ages do not seem to
produce in us anything like the pain that we suffer
from being stung by a fly at the present day. Coming
from Spain, he asked the Romans to imagine what they
would have felt like if they had been the defeated
Carthaginians. He was prepared to think that the bar-
barians of his time might someday establish an order
and a culture that would become as acceptable to the
people involved as the Roman empire had been. He
differed from Augustine in his excessive providentialism
and he was too content to think that God rewarded
piety with worldly success. He imagined that not only
the barbarities of the pagans, but the cataclysms in
nature—the ferocity of Mount Etna—had been miti-
gated by the very fact that the Incarnation had oc-
curred. His treatise became one of the most influential
books in world-history; and the Middle Ages, when
they thought they were following Saint Augustine,
were really following Orosius' view of Providence,
which was more easy for them to understand. It was
Orosius who provided the model for an interpretation
of world-history that lasted well into early modern


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.


1. Renaissance and Reformation. The custom of
producing annalistic notes about the chief events in
Florence has been traced to the early part of the
twelfth century. At this time, lists of officers would
be kept, and, as they served to mark the chronology,
the principal happenings would be recorded under the
successive names. At the same time there emerged the
story that Florence had been founded by Caesar after
Fiesole had rebelled and been destroyed. Florence
could claim to have been “Roman” therefore, while
her rival, Fiesole, had been “anti-Roman.” At a time of


patriotic awakening and emergent political conscious-
ness, the municipality remembered its tradition or
created one for itself. Giovanni Villani (ca. 1273-1348)
produced a chronicle still medieval in many ways and
going back to a legendary epoch but rich in informa-
tion about recent times. It acquired a lasting popularity
and influence.

At the opening of the fifteenth century, the city was
in conflict with the Visconti of Milan, and was begin-
ning to conceive itself as defending democratic liberty
against a tyrant. Its citizens now turned from their
admiration of the Roman Empire, and from their for-
mer interpretation of history, though this latter had
been supported by the authority of Dante. They also
began to look for an origin earlier than the supposed
foundation by Caesar, and they discovered it in the
world of free city-states which had preceded the ex-
pansion of Rome. From this time, they construed their
whole history as a story of liberty and took to them-
selves the eulogies once bestowed on Athens, inter-
preting their political life in terms of the ancient Greek
city-state. Humanist scholars, no longer preferring the
contemplative life, became preachers of civic pride and
civic virtues. Leonardo Bruni, the influential writer,
who has been called “the first modern historian,” was
at the heart of this movement. And the revival of
historiography at the Renaissance is connected with
the development of the modern political consciousness.

The long task of recovering the thought and learning
of antiquity was coming now to a climax, and produc-
ing perhaps a general change in man's attitude to the
past. Its objective transcended that of the historian for
it sought not merely to recapture out of antiquarian
zeal but to reinstate for working purposes in a living
world all the higher aspects of a culture that had been
at its peak in classical times. For the new age, antiquity
was beginning to emerge as a world that had an iden-
tity of its own. A modern lay intelligentsia found in
ancient literature something that answered to its own
secular outlook; and the historical narrator began to
dispense with the more obvious machinery of the su-
pernatural—began, indeed, to envisage his task in
something of the ancient spirit. Under the stimulus of
Leonardo Bruni, and primarily in Florence, there
developed a humanist historiography which went too
far in its subservience to antiquity, breaking up the
continuities of narrative and theme by its “annalistic”
method, encouraging artifice by its restriction of vo-
cabulary, and allowing rhetorical affections to carry
it to a conventional kind of theatricality which pre-
vented either the proper portrayal of men or the gen-
uine interpretation of what had happened. The new
historiography performed a political service, however,
for its function in the first place had been partly to
celebrate the glories of Florence and partly to commu-
nicate the desired image of the city of the outside
world. And all this was a thing that any city-state might
covet, so that other governments in Italy, wishing to
produce the same result, employed humanists as official
historians for the purpose in the fifteenth century.
Indeed, between 1450 and the 1530's, Italian humanists
served as something like court historiographers to an
emperor in Germany and to kings in France, England,
Spain, Poland, and Hungary. One of the significant
features of the new historiography was the closeness
of its identification with the new kind of territorial state
that was emerging; and, since this relationship was to
endure, here was a significant moment in the develop-
ment of modern nationalist historiography. At the same
time there had been awakened an interest in the sheer
pastness of things past, a genuine sentiment for the
remnants that had happened to survive. While the ruins
of Rome were still being plundered to provide material
for builders there emerged a great fervor for “antiqui-
ties” which began to show itself in societies, museums,
and imposing publications. In a tremendous drive to
discover new manuscripts, further ancient historical
writings came to light, e.g., in 1455 the Agricola and
Germania of Tacitus, and in 1506 part of the same
writer's Annals. Better manuscripts were secured,
sometimes from Constantinople; and it became partic-
ularly important to have translations into Latin, a great
part of Polybius, for example, in 1473. The invention
of printing and the wider circulation of both ancient
and modern books meant that history henceforward
was to play a much more important part in the de-
velopment of political consciousness and the shaping
of public opinion. At the same time the greater speed
in intercommunications enabled scholarship to de-
velop on a broader international scale.

The whole movement came to its finest blossoming
in a number of cultivated men who in the early decades
of the sixteenth century talked about politics in
Florence and produced historical work of considerable
quality in the vernacular. The troubles of the city had
led to constitutional speculation and to debate about
both the present and the past, which brought history
and politics into a more intimate relationship with one
another. The French invasion of Italy in 1494, the
political downfall of the peninsula during the subse-
quent conflicts, and the defeat of Florentine republi-
canism in 1512 provoked serious thought about the
ups-and-downs of nations, and historians were stimu-
lated somewhat as Thucydides had been by the
Peloponnesian War. The influence of classical Greece
was now most apparent in the attempt to approach
both history and politics in a semi-scientific manner,
to meditate on the processes that take place in states,


and to produce political maxims for the man of action—
indeed to produce narratives that were tingling with
the practical man's concern for policy problems and
the work of decision-making. Now, more definitely
than before, the case for both reading and writing
history was based on its importance in the education
of a statesman.

Niccolò Machiavelli went further than others in his
belief that laws of political action could be elicited
from history and that, for any given contingency, the
ancient Romans were likely to have discovered the
right policy. Though his History of Florence in 1525
escaped some of the limitations of humanist histori-
ography, and in places showed a real ability to see
things in the large—to grasp connections between
events—it makes clear that his interest was not in
research or the establishment of facts.

Francesco Guicciardini had had a longer and more
successful career in politics, and insisted that Machi-
avelli was not sufficiently flexible in his attempts to
apply to modern situations the lessons drawn from the
past. In the last few years of his life both the tragedy
of Italy and his own disillusionments and disap-
pointments brought Guicciardini to a great confronta-
tion with the whole epoch, and his History of Italy
(from 1492 to 1534) is the most impressive Renaissance
achievement in this kind of literature. It is not limited
to Florence but deals with a complicated general
field—a system of interacting states. It set a standard
for sophisticated narrative in what we call political
history. It can almost be regarded as the beginning of
study of diplomatics. Perhaps it sees events a little too
much as the result of contrivance and intrigue on the
part of unscrupulous men. But Guicciardini has turned
out to be more scholarly, more interesting and authen-
tic in his historical methods, than was realized until
the mid-twentieth century.

In the north of Europe, a tremendous zeal for the
past was awakened, and the humanists had an impor-
tant part to play; but here the development started
from a lower cultural level than in Italy. Those who
were now stirred into some consciousness of history
tended to ask the old, universal “stock questions”—How
did nations begin, how did our own nation acquire its
name?—and there emerged the kind of spirit which
had been significant in Florence, the patriotism which,
as it turns to the past, hunts for things to commemorate.
The various countries liked to claim their origin from
the sons of Noah, and sometimes seemed unwilling to
leave a gap in the subsequent succession of generations.
There was a desire to go one better than the Greeks
and Romans in the matter of antiquity, and show that
one's ancestry could be traced through some leader
of the defeated Trojans. All this was particularly strong
in Germany and was accentuated there by the jeal-
ousies which the brilliant Italians of the Renaissance
had provoked; it was manifested also in the determi-
nation to assert, against the French, the German char-
acter of Alsace. The Germans thought to outdo the
Greeks and Romans, claiming an empire more ancient
still, and a prior cultural supremacy.

The fact that it is easy to exaggerate the modernity
of the sixteenth century is illustrated in the case of
England, where the infatuation for King Arthur
reached unprecedented heights and proved enduring.
The accession of the Tudors, the resulting glorification
of Wales, and the acceptance of Henry VII as being
of King Arthur's line—the naming of a Prince of Wales
after this monarch—helped to multiply the manifesta-
tions of the myth in pageantry, in social life, in
antiquarian speculation and in literature. And this was
a King Arthur who was supposed to have defeated the
Roman Empire, conquered most of Europe, and
acquired Norway, Iceland, and Greenland—the King
Arthur described in the twelfth century by Geoffrey
of Monmouth in a work that had not always been
credited even in the Middle Ages. In England the
antiquarian enthusiasts themselves could not forgive
the Italian humanist Polydore Vergil for his reserva-
tions on this subject; and it is remarkable to see how,
down to the end of the century, the more scholarly
historians (including William Camden) hesitated to
attack the prevailing myths. On the contrary, in the
work of Sir John Price in 1573, the skill and the knowl-
edge of the antiquarian operated powerfully in favor
of the myths which still kept their currency in the
seventeenth century. Eyes were fixed, therefore, on the
ancient Britons, and there were some people who said
that they saw no point in studying the Anglo-Saxons.
Some were prepared to insist that Christianity had
been brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea not
long after the Crucifixion. Before the end of the century
it was coming to be held that the English constitution,
the liberties of Englishmen, and the House of Commons
itself went back to the ancient Britons.

In the meantime, the Reformation had led to the
resurgence of religious preoccupations even in regions
where, during the Renaissance, historiography had
become secularized. The upheaval in the Church was
bound to give a stimulus to the study and writing of
history, and the emphasis now placed on the Bible—the
special importance which the Old Testament came to
have—resuscitated in the modern world some of those
things which historiography owed to the ancient
Hebrews. The challenge presented by Martin Luther
to the papacy and to other branches of ecclesiastical
government—indeed to the whole notion of authority
as hitherto understood in the Church—directed atten-


tion to the opinions held in earlier ages, the contro-
versies of the past, the precedents, the traditions of
fifteen hundred years. Such a debate could only lead
sooner or later to the development of ecclesiastical
history and to a closer analysis of actual official docu-
ments. Apart from this, there emerged also a need for
a history of the Reformation itself and the Protestant,
Johannes Sleidanus (1506-56), produced in Germany
in 1555 a documented study of the religious events
of the reign of the Emperor Charles V. He showed
in both his attitude and method the temperament of
a contemporary historian, not a mere polemical writer.
In 1563 John Foxe, greatly developing previous work,
produced what became famous as The Book of
—a study not merely of Protestant sufferings
(involving the use of bishops' registers), but the en-
globing of this within a framework of Church history
—the whole highly polemical, even dishonest in its
use of the sources.

The ecclesiastical issues of the Reformation were
dealt with in a more imposing manner through a co-
operative work directed by Matthias Flacius between
1559 and 1574—the famous Magdeburg Centuries, a
highly documented production, but crude in its parti-
sanship. The real answer to it from the Catholic side
appeared in twelve volumes of Ecclesiastical Annals
(1588-1607) by Cesare Baronius, a cardinal, who used
documents from the Vatican. Gradually these contro-
versies came to serve the cause of criticism, as each
party answered the arguments of the other, and each
came to realize that a vigilant enemy was ready to
expose its mistakes.

But the Reformation affected wider areas of histori-
ography. In England the “historical revisions” of the
sixteenth century produced a remarkable reaction
against Thomas Becket because he had sided with the
pope against his own country. It led to a still more
remarkable adulation of King John, because he was
held to have been victimized by a pope. On all sides,
Protestants were ready to suspect Catholic perversions
and they made a point of attacking the kind of history
that monkish chroniclers had produced. In England,
again, the desire to find a historical basis for the con-
ception of a national church gave a stimulus to Anglo-
Saxon studies, especially in Elizabeth's reign. The
attachment of Luther (and, still more, of Philipp
Melanchthon) to the general study of the past was to
have significant and enduring ecclesiastical effects in
Germany. Once again, the call for “universal history”
came from the side of religion, and this branch of
study—both stimulated and influenced by the reading
of the Old Testament—gained a firm foothold in the
German universities, ancient history forming an im-
portant part of the program. There was a revival of
the system of periodization according to the four
World-Empires—a system abandoned by the human-
ists, but accepted now by the Catholics, so that in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries men were able to
regard it as having been invented by Melanchthon's
friend, John Carion (1499-1537).

2. Historical Criticism in the Fifteenth and Six-
teenth Centuries.
In the humanist writing of fifteenth-
century Italy there seems to be something like a gen-
eral advance in historical criticism, so that amongst
the Italian cities there is less credulity about implaus-
ible “myths of origin” than one finds in the rest of
Europe. Italian humanists abroad—Polydore Vergil in
England, for example, as we have seen—showed a
certain distrust of such legends in other countries,
though it was no doubt more easy to deprecate the
cherished fables of another nation. While the natives
of the country concerned were inclined to attribute
the criticisms to the jealousy of the foreigner, it would
seem that at this extreme point the Italians had reached
a higher degree of critical awareness. On the other
hand, though there existed a fervor for ancient history,
the scholars of the Renaissance did not attempt to
reconstruct for themselves the narrative that had been
handed down from classical times. They believed—and,
in general they were right, as yet, in believing—that
they could not improve upon what a distant generation
had reported about itself. At this point in the develop-
ment—when, in any case, one tended to compile the
story of the past from previous narrators, whether
ancient historians or medieval chroniclers—there ex-
isted, in a harder form than we should accept, the
assumption that the older source was always the better
authority. Amongst other things, it was normally taken
for granted, and one finds it explicitly stated, that a
medieval source called for criticism while a classical
one did not. The reliability of Herodotus came to be
questioned, but even this was a further example of the
subservience to antiquity; for the doubts about this
writer were taken over from the scholarship of the
ancient Greeks, the resulting controversies becoming
a factor in the development of early modern criticism.

Flavio Biondo completed in 1453 a work chiefly on
Southern Europe since the decline of the Roman
Empire, which, owing to its disregard of the rhetorical
canons, failed to qualify as a piece of humanist litera-
ture, though it could be used as a quarry and was both
important and influential. It drew attention to the
medieval period as a whole and tried to vindicate it
in the face of current prejudices. It set out to present
the best of the source material, and then to produce
from this evidence an account of the period from about
410 to 1442 A.D. Biondo used not only chronicles but
documents—letters for example; and he was able to


keep closer to earth because he based himself on
the evidence that came earliest, though he lost a
point sometimes by dismissing a later tradition. In
other works on Roman topography and antiquities,
he contributed to the development of classical

In fifteenth-century Italy, however, there appeared
a kind of critical endeavor of which there had been
some traces in Ibn Khaldūn—a full-dress affair, exhila-
rating and clever—a case of calling up the troops and
marshalling all the arguments to dispose of a widely-
accepted legend. This kind of work brings us closer
to the genuine technical issues but it suggests—what
many other things confirm—that there is nothing like
violent partisanship for setting criticism alight and
driving it to ingenuity. The case is illustrated by the
famous work of Laurentius Valla who in 1440 set out
to prove that—as some had previously believed—the
Donation of Constantine had been a forgery. The work
appeared at a time when Valla was secretary to a king
who was at war with a pope. It was avowedly part
of a bitter publicistic campaign.

His treatise presents first of all a whole series of
arguments that might be said to rest on common sense
or ordinary experience—that no emperor would disin-
herit his children so shabbily, for example, and the
Roman Senate would never have agreed to the aliena-
tion of the western lands of the empire. Secondly, there
is a wide range of arguments to show that the Donation
cannot be squared with what is otherwise known of
the history of that time. Thirdly, Valla examines the
status of the document itself, the contradictions and
absurdities in the text, the barbarity of its Latin and
the mistakes in terminology. Bernardo Giustiniani,
whose career was spent in public service in Venice,
brought his practical knowledge of affairs to the criti-
cism of source-material even in early Venetian history,
showing, for example, what was militarily impossible,
and doing this in a manner that was remarkable at the
time. Over a century later, and at a date when the
massing of big guns was perhaps no longer necessary
for the purpose in France, L. V. de la Popelinière
produced with great humor and ingenuity a large-scale
attack on the legend that the Franks were descended
from the Trojans. He followed something like the pat-
tern of Valla: firstly, arguments from common sense
and from his own military experience; secondly, objec-
tions arising from the fact that the story could not be
squared with other things that were known about the
history of the relevant periods; and thirdly a destruc-
tive analysis of the supposed evidence for the belief.
More clearly than Valla, however, he dealt with a point
that is of some importance, if the critical task is to
be completed and the argument clinched. Granted that
the Trojan story was untrue, he made a point of en-
quiring how the legend could have arisen.

But, though the humanists did something to alter
the general outlook in Italy for a time, it cannot be
said that either Laurentius Valla or Bernardo Giustin-
iani or La Popelinière established a standard or brought
new methods into general currency. It cannot be
asserted that, now, at last, this much ground had been
gained for scholarship or science. As yet, at least, there
could be no organic story of the development of his-
torical technique, and the battles that had been won
for a moment would have to be fought over again in
the future. Even during the Renaissance, the attempt
of the writers in Northern Europe to answer the ques-
tions that preoccupied them—questions about the ori-
gins of nations, place-names, institutions, arts and
crafts, etc.—was often based on wild inferences from
flimsy evidence or from etymological speculations,
where it was not due to the easy acceptance of forger-
ies. It is perhaps curious that one of the most disastrous
and influential of literary forgeries—a compilation
associated with Annius of Viterbo, which was soon
detected in Italy, but almost dominated German
writing—should have been so closely associated with
the Renaissance.

It is possible that, in spite of the nascent criticism,
the weight of fabulous matter in the world was actually
increased in the sixteenth century. The great exception
in Germany is Beatus Rhenanus (1486-1547), who
travelled widely in search of inscriptions and antiqui-
ties, rejected the Annius forgery, and set himself to
work critically at the sources of early German history.
In this and in his further unfulfilled ambition for an
adequate treatment of German antiquities, he was a
follower of Flavio Biondo.

Amongst those who wrote “contemporary history”
Guicciardini has come to have a special interest be-
cause of what came to be learned later about his
sources and method. His working papers have shown
the wide range of his primary materials, and particu-
larly of the official documents, including archives of
the Council of Ten which he had taken into his posses-
sion a few years before. It has also been possible to
see how he worked over these papers, abridging and
copying, and then redrafting, until he had turned them
into narrative. It transpires that even a Ranke had been
unable to detect how much was behind this History
of Italy,
for sources have been found for one or two
speeches, as well as for statements and events, which
Ranke had accused Guicciardini of inventing. A proper
system of footnoting would have made the position
clear from the first.

A significant impulse was given to history on the
technical side by the work on Roman Law conducted


on the part of humanist writers, particularly in France.
The law that they studied threw light on the institu-
tions and conditions of the ancient world, and in order
to recover the exact meaning of the texts it was neces-
sary to examine many aspects of Roman life and activ-
ity, interpreting the legal terminology in the light of
the social arrangements that then existed. This led—as
in the case of Guillaume Budé—not merely to an
attempt to recover the realities of ordinary life in
ancient times but also to a study of the transition to
feudal times, an enquiry and then a controversy as to
the role of Roman Law in the transition to the medieval
order of things. At a much later date, as will be seen,
this interest in the feudal order of society passed to
England, where it had an important influence on his-

John Bodin produced in 1566 his Method for the Easy
Comprehension of History.
His ideas on criticism were
vague. He ratified Aristotle's view that authorities were
likely to be unreliable if they were either too ancient
or too recent; yet, when they clashed with one another,
he preferred the more recent, provided it supplied
effective proofs of its assertions. He thought it better,
where possible, to follow a writer who was interme-
diate, i.e., neither a hostile nor a friendly witness. He
considered geographical factors in history and said that
people who lived under extreme climates were prone
to vice; but he allowed also for the influence of the
heavenly bodies. In his chapter on chronology he gave
a lengthy proof that the world had had a beginning.
One of his ideas was to study the beginnings, the
flourishing, and the downfall of empires—comparing
the ancient with the modern and confronting the views
of philosophers with those of historians in order to get
a better grasp of universal history. Here we see that
modernism of the sixteenth century which is so often
still mixed with medievalism.

3. Scholarship, 1600-1750. In the seventeenth cen-
tury, historiography comes to be more scholarly, more
technical, and this is due not only to the ecclesiastics
but also to the lawyers who deal with constitutional
rights and historical precedents, with charters, laws,
and other documents. In England the common lawyers,
with their theory of the “immemorial constitution” and
their interpretation of Magna Carta, provided an his-
torical basis for the previous hit ideology next hit of the antiroyalists, and
the controversy brought out great masses of documen-
tary material. Sir Henry Spelman, however, (under the
influence of continental scholarship) called attention
to the feudal system and the danger of arguing from
a past that was assumed to have been like the present;
and his ideas helped to produce after 1660 an impor-
tant reaction against lawyers' history. Particular em-
phasis was now placed on the fact that words still in
currency might, when used in a medieval text, carry
a different meaning, and that a document like Magna
Carta must be interpreted with reference to the kind
of society from which it had emanated. The revolution
of 1688, however, swept away for a century these ideas
which were tending to a more historical view. They
were the kind of ideas that emerge but drop out again,
so that in the history of historiography they have to
be repeatedly rediscovered, as well as being repeatedly
brought home at different levels.

The Reformation controversy, which in the Mag-
deburg Centuries
and in Baronius had covered vast
ranges of Church history, produced more permanently
interesting results when in 1619 there appeared the
famous history of the Council of Trent by Paolo Sarpi.
Working as a pioneer in a fairly contemporary field,
Sarpi could use knowledge that he had acquired from
men who had been present at the Council, as well as
archival sources, private correspondence, etc. His
antipapal narrative was answered in 1656 by Sforza
Pallavicino who had secured access to great quantities
of material in Rome. The transition to a more scholarly
type of historiography, however, goes back to a co-
operative endeavor, particularly amongst the Jesuits—
the Acta Sanctorum (the first volumes appeared in
1643) associated with John Bolland and then with the
famous Daniel Papebroch. Almost contemporary with
this was the attempt of the Congregation of Saint Maur
to recover for the Benedictine order the distinction that
it had had in medieval historiography. From 1668 the
Acts of the Saints of the Benedictine Order began to
appear, and from 1703 the Annals of the Benedictine
—works in which Jean Mabillon played a leading
part. It was to be of the greatest importance for schol-
arship that the men concerned in these enterprises had
no doubts about their religion—they believed that they
could pursue their enquiries and criticisms without any
fear that the result would be detrimental to the faith.

Daniel Papebrochin found himself in the position
of having to assert the important truth that the oldest
authority might not necessarily be the best—that the
quality of the source had to be considered. On the other
hand, an error of his provoked Dom Jean Mabillon
to defend his order in a treatise of 1681—itself a mo-
mentous demonstration of the fact that matters relating
to distant centuries could be established with some-
thing like moral certainty—without dependence on
mere “reporting.” He dealt with old charters which
might still be essential as evidence for proprietary
rights or constitutional claims or monastic privileges,
but were easy to forge, so that the lawyers had long
been interested in discovering how to test their
authenticity. He showed how these documents could
be properly assessed through detective work on the


parchment, the writing materials, the form of the seals,
the technical terms employed, the kind of Latin used;
he investigated also the way of describing dignitaries,
of stating dates, of introducing and concluding the
main text. In other words, he is the real founder of
the auxiliary science of diplomacy. Many of his criteria
would not have been feasible if a great deal of knowl-
edge had not been accumulated about the history and
geographical distribution of materials, formulas, lan-
guage peculiarities, and so forth. In this sense there
was a certain analogy with the work of the archaeolo-
gists on nonliterary material, and Mabillon's technique
could have been established only after many other
matters had been settled.

The period from 1660 to 1720 has been described
as the grand age of scholarly research, and the “second
Alexandrian period of scholarship.” At a time when
there was also great interest in the assembly of speci-
mens in the natural sciences, the collection and study
of the actual remains of the past—archaeological sur-
vivals, inscriptions, coins, etc.—had become large-
scale. The general study of these “antiquities” led to
important developments in what historians call the
“auxiliary sciences,” but it still stood apart from the
work of the ordinary writers and narrators. In a similar
way, and partly through cooperative enterprise, there
occurred in this period massive publications of docu-
ments—more than could be properly digested as yet
into the narrative-writing, though sometimes vast
quantities would be shovelled into the rambling texts
that were now being produced.

In the realm of ancient history an important crisis
had arisen. Laurentius Valla had expressed doubts about
Livy, and in 1685 Jakob Perizonius challenged the
reliability of the sources of early Roman history. There
followed a period that is associated with “historical
Pyrrhonism,” that is to say, with skepticism about the
very possibility of history. These doubts were not re-
moved and Levesque de Pouilly made a more trenchant
attack in 1722, while Louis de Beaufort, in his Disser-
tation sur l'incertitude des cinq premiers siècles de
l'histoire romaine
(1733 and 1750), declared that, down
to the third century B.C., the history of Rome had been
built up out of material that was really legendary. The
controversies over this issue reveal the fact that, in this
field, Western Europe did not yet greatly differ from
China in its criteria. It relied on previous historians
who had been contemporary or nearly contemporary,
unless there seemed special cause for distrust; and men
argued that a Livy would not have survived if he had
not secured acceptance in his own day, when people
were better equipped to judge him (and he better
equipped to judge his own sources) than modern
scholars could be. One even meets the assertion that
if two ancient historians provided different versions of
a story, it was preferable to construct a narrative which
would embrace both; also, that for a great simple event
like the Flood, a mere tradition might be a sufficient
authority, provided it were old enough, and not
contradicted by known facts, and not the kind of
thing that somebody might have had an interest in in-

Owing to the limitations of existing resources, the
insistence on criteria more strict than these would have
left no alternative but skepticism and would have
led—indeed, sometimes did actually lead—to the feel-
ing that history was impossible. The disciples of the
natural sciences, led by Descartes, sometimes doubted
the bases of historical knowledge. Some of the students
of “antiquities” declared on the other hand that it was
only the nonliterary sources that could be trusted.

For the rest, religious and political partisanship was
often the powerful motor behind a new critical en-
deavor. In the early eighteenth century a circle of
scholars in England made an interesting and significant
attempt to rescue ecclesiastical history from the
Protestant and nationalistic prejudices which had con-
stricted it down to the time of Bishop Burnet's His-
tory of the Reformation
which began to appear in
1679. This movement was connected, however, with
a High Church and nonjuring party, that was unable
to reconcile itself with the Revolution of 1688. Voltaire
and his successors did some service by raising the
issue—by talking about criticism—but their own con-
stricted outlook would have prevented their solving
the problem even if they had had the patience to carry
out the detailed work that was required. Like the
Protestants of the sixteenth century they thought that
the proper target for the critic was ecclesiastical tradi-
tion and that it was sufficient to reverse what the
Catholics had said. And, as in the case of the Protes-
tants, the procedure was sometimes right, but it was
capable of carrying them further than ever from the
truth. Their determination to see history as the transi-
tion from savagery to culture and to condemn the past
in the light of the present, makes it not improper to
describe them as in a certain sense “unhistorical.” Yet
they did a great service to historiography by the kind
of questions they asked, by their determination to give
the past a kind of structure, and by their attempts to
draw laws from historical data. Voltaire in his Age of
Louis XIV
(1751) introduced a wider conception of
general history, to include art, learning, science, and
many varied aspects of life. In his Essai sur les moeurs
(1754) he rose above the older kind of compiling and
used reasoning and thought to give meaning to a uni-
versal history that was conceived in the same generous
manner. The elimination of the supernatural factor was


used to clear the way for deeper mundane reflections
about the processes of time.

4. The Impact of New Ideas. In the sixteenth cen-
tury, the upholders of the “moderns” against the “an-
cients” claimed for the benefit of their side the com-
pass, gunpowder, and printing, as though these were
recent Western achievements. Giordano Bruno saw the
“moderns” enjoying the advantage of the astronomical
observations of ancient Greece, together with all that
had been recorded since, and concluded that the
Greeks really had belonged to the childhood of the
world. When towards the end of the seventeenth cen-
tury, the feud of “ancients” and “moderns” broke out
again, those who argued that the literature of Louis
XIV's reign excelled that of antiquity, still did not
necessarily believe in the idea of progress, for some
of them thought it possible that a relapse would take
place sooner or later.

It was perhaps more important that the victory of
the “scientific revolution,” the achievement of Sir Isaac
Newton and the overthrow of Aristotelian physics
destroyed the authority of both the Middle Ages and
classical antiquity. Technical advances and the per-
ception that society was ceasing to be static—also the
reports of travellers about men in a more primitive
state—tended to supersede the picture of an ideal
world long ago, and the belief that in society there
was a natural tendency to decline. Gradually men
carried their conclusions beyond their observations, and
swallowed some of the misgivings that they had at
times; and, as theorists and manufacturers of broad
historical surveys, they would advance ideas of general
and indefinite progress. In a sense just as the notion
that the Jews were God's “chosen people” became
transmuted, and the English themselves claimed the
benefit of it, so the Jewish belief that history was based
on “the Promise” became in a certain sense secularized.
In other words, the transition to the idea of progress
was assisted by faith and a forward-looking spirit. The
Greeks had been able to conceive of progress from
primitive conditions up to a certain point. The early
Christians had come near it when they saw both the
Old Testament and Greek philosophy as a “prepara-
tion” for the Gospel. Henceforward the idea helped
to provide the structure for a new world view.

History was bound in the long run to be greatly in-
fluenced by this idea of progress; for it was no longer a
case of one generation succeeding another on the same
virtually unchanging stage, countries merely having
their ups-and-downs—all the centuries still form-
ing only a rope of sand. Here was something which
made it possible to give shape and structure to the
course of ages. In a way it contributed a meaning to
history, and gave point to the temporal succession,
making change more than kaleidoscopic, and turning
time itself into a generative thing. In spite of a certain
pessimism about human beings in the eighteenth cen-
tury, it gradually came to appear that world-history
had something like an objective—one which lay within
history itself. Paradoxically, a world that now began
to turn its eyes to the future rather than the past did
not desert the study of what had gone before, but
became more interested in history than ever, as though
the subject had acquired a new relevance. Men became
exceptionally interested in lengthy surveys—in study-
ing the way in which mankind, from a primitive be-
ginning had come to its present civilized state.

In 1681 Bishop Bossuet had produced his Discourse
on Universal History,
which followed Saint Augustine
rather than the cruder views of Eusebius and Orosius,
while avoiding the danger that the conflict between
good and evil might be interpreted as a conflict be-
tween religious and secular organizations in the world.
He saw the divine ends often achieved through identi-
fiable secondary causes, the turns of the story being
repeatedly decided by the fact that men and nations
are what they are. God achieves his objects often by
the control of the human heart or by just leaving men
to their passions; the key to human history is L'esprit
des hommes,
though God has something to do with
the character of this esprit. It was easy to eliminate
the last stage of this argument, to get rid of the super-
natural and move to the Voltairean view that history
depends on the spirit of men.

The universal histories of the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries followed the pattern of the Chris-
tian ones in the sense that they were intended to ex-
plain the meaning of things and to show an analogy
to the Providential plan, a purposeful history-making
that goes on over men's heads. Even the pattern of
the book of Genesis leaves its mark on these works,
though the chapter on the Creation comes now to be
replaced by a scientific account of the globe itself.
Instead of theologies of history, we now have works
which, from the time of Voltaire, call themselves
“philosophies of history.” They brought into their sur-
vey the whole social and cultural history of the world,
not concentrating on politics, not confining themselves
to courts and kings. They extended the horizon of the
historians, including India and China in their survey
of world-history, and thinking it a feather in their cap
when they could add Tibet. They begin with Voltaire
and then, through Herder, Condorcet, et al., run in
a series which culminates in Hegel. When “academic
history” emerged, it took up arms against such philos-
ophers of history, at least until the time of Ranke,
because they inferred so much of their generalizing
from their theories about life, instead of allowing it


to emerge more slowly from careful researches. Yet
even Ranke said repeatedly that his ultimate object
was “universal history.”

In 1725, however, Giambattista Vico published his
Scienza nuova, and in certain respects he represents
a reaction against the tendencies of his age. He set
out to vindicate historical knowledge, in a world that
had doubts about it; and he asserted that man can know
history—events and institutions or mental achieve-
ments—for the simple reason that one can know the
things that one actually makes. Only God (not the
scientist) can know Nature with equal intimacy—know
it as the creator of it. While believing in Providence,
he identified its influence with the workings of history,
and regarded it as securing its objects through human
beings, using even their passions to serve its purposes.
Contemplating the whole development of civilization,
he divided the story into three stages, representing
respectively the ages of gods, heroes, and men—
themselves corresponding to the mental development
of the human race, from feeling to imagination, and
then to thought. He differed from the eighteenth cen-
tury in general in that he was so sympathetically pre-
occupied to recover the mood, the notions, and the
animating forces of primitive man, in whom he saw
wisdom of a poetic kind. Early myths and legends were
not merely fictions to him, but embodiments of a kind
of truth. He traced Homer back to folk-poetry and
regarded the leading “Legislators” of early history as
mythical, for he conceived of law as having rather a
spontaneous origin, emerging out of society as a whole.
He is a precursor of modern historicism, yet he does
not seem to have influenced the eighteenth century,
and, though he was rediscovered in the nineteenth, the
influence attributed to him during the romantic period
may rather have been due to Herder. In fact, the
twentieth century may have found more in him than
did any preceding age.

Montesquieu influenced historians, though he never
came to grips with primary sources except when he
studied Merovingian Gaul. In his Considérations sur
les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur
(1738) he broached the questions which have
most engaged the minds of historians for nearly two
thousand years, but he intended only to ponder on the
knowledge that had long been current, and behind all
other factors he imputed the real cause to the fact that
Rome had extended too rapidly and too much, while
he assigned great importance in history to L'esprit gén
In his L'esprit des lois (1748) he became interest-
ing to historians because he applied the comparative
method, and sought to explain causation in the histori-
cal realm, showing the influence of climate and other
physical conditions, as well as the importance of the
economic factor. For the rest, his influence also rein-
forced that of Voltaire (see above) whose main histori-
cal contribution takes place in the 1750's.

Two writers of history were important for the influ-
ence that they had in the development of a more
organic conception of the whole subject. Johann
Joachim Winckelmann, in his Geschichte der Kunst des
(1764, History of Ancient Art), was unhis-
torical in that he treated one Greek standard of beauty
as absolute, and saw development too schematically;
but he broke away from the practice of treating litera-
ture and the arts by the study of individuals or separate
schools, and set out to achieve a genuine history—
including the things which happen over the heads of
individuals and are not consciously willed—the whole
being related to the entire life and culture of the
Greeks, to the spirit of a people, and even to climatic
and economic conditions. Justin Möser, in his
Osnabrückische Geschichte (History of Osnabrück), in
1768 was concerned with a small territorial unit, but
was distinguished in the period of the Aufklärung by
his attitude to the Middle Ages—an admiration without
romantic sentiment. He used original sources and
brought an intensely practical mind to the analysis of
them. Above all, in a constitutional and administrative
history, he found a place for all the needs of a people,
including geographical, economic and social factors,
working these into connection with one another.

Johann Gottfried von Herder, the effective founder
of the philosophy of history in Germany, is in some
respects analogous to Vico, and stands as partly the
product of eighteenth-century rationalism, partly a
pioneer in the reaction against it. He had an undoubted
influence on practicing historians and is one of the
people who, through their interest in the Bible, in
Homer, and in earlier states of society as presented
in Ossian, learned to understand a little more about
the “historical sense”—the gift of “feeling” oneself into
the past—the thing the philosophes had lacked. He saw
nations and ages as organic unities, in which all things
were fused into something like a unique “personality”
by the governing influence of a spirit—morals, laws,
and artistic production so interrelated in a given cul-
ture that they could not be transplanted from one
nation to another. They all sprang from their own
central spiritual source, which was unlike anything else
in the world, and all required to be judged in their
own context. To a great degree it was through Herder
that the romantic movement became so influential
amongst historians.

In many respects the influence of the romantic
movement in Europe in the late eighteenth century
and the first half of the nineteenth came to be regarded
as unfortunate. This is illustrated in some of the extrav-


agances of “romantic nationalism,” including the ex-
cessive adoration of the primitive culture of one's own
people. In some respects the ideas of the romantic
movement were beneficial, however, and this has re-
mained as a final deposit, becoming a constituent part
of the historical outlook. This was the case with that
particular aspect of the revolt against the philosophes
which involved the rejection of the policy of treating
previous generations as though they were only links
in a chain leading to the present day. History was only
too easy if one seized on what a bygone age had
contributed to one's own time, and assessed its ideas
by their analogy with those of the present, or judged
personalities by the standards of a later period. The
romantic movement showed the importance of being
interested in the past for its own sake, seeing things
or people or ideas in their own context, and even
judging men in terms of their own age. Realizing that
for each generation life has its aspect as an end in itself,
exactly in the way that it has for those living today,
the historian contributes something of himself to
achieve understanding—the past having one claim on
us, and one only: namely the right to be understood.
The sympathetic imagination plays its part in the effort
of understanding; and, in a sense, this means that the
historian should really be drawn to the past and deeply
interested in it—not simply anxious to use it, not
merely concerned with it as it throws light on the
present day. Something of all this was brought to its
climax in Leopold von Ranke's famous dictum: that
all generations are immediate to God. Even this had
its dangers, for the romantic historians sometimes ex-
cused too many things on the ground that they had
been tolerated in a given period; and it would have
been better if they had learned that history (particu-
larly their kind of history) had the function of explain-
ing rather than either judging or exonerating. Also,
though the romantic historian loved detail and sought
a concrete visualization of the past, something in his
sentimental equipment seems to have made him soft,
where he ought to have been hard, in historical criti-

5. New Developments in Criticism. Even in the
eighteenth century the effects of criticism might be
limited if the work was governed by the concealed
assumption that only the evidence of the “other
party”—now, perhaps, the Catholic, now the Tory,
now the foreigner—called for the critical endeavor.
And this limitation could be overcome only as the
passion for historical understanding became all-
consuming—a thing which was happening in the
eighteenth century, and still more in the nineteenth,
as this branch of scholarship became more autonomous.
Even today it is always possible for a man's view of
the past to be distorted through his prejudices in re-
spect of the present. On the other hand, in the middle
of the eighteenth century the world still needed in any
case a form of criticism that went further than a blind
dependence on a witness or an early historian who was
deemed reliable, or an equally blind rejection of one
who was regarded as unsafe. This would be a “positive”
form of criticism, constructive (and not merely de-
structive) in its results, like the kind which had enabled
Mabillon to show that certain things can in fact be
established with moral certainty. It might also be a
creative kind of criticism, bringing the historian to
something new, something not contained in the sources
themselves. In this respect historiography made a great
stride in the eighteenth century.

At this point, the study of the ancient world and
even biblical scholarship made a remarkable contri-
bution to the development of history; for, owing to
the priority of these branches of study since the
Renaissance, owing to the amount of ingenuity which
they devoted to a limited number of sources, and owing
to the importance attached to the results, these fields
had made the greatest technical advances. A point of
particular importance in modern historiography can
be best illustrated perhaps by work that was done on
the earliest books of the Bible. In 1685 a French writer,
Richard Simon, picked up the problem, saying that he
was only continuing a work of criticism already begun
by the Fathers of the Church. He held that Moses—still
regarded as the author of the Pentateuch—must have
used detailed chronicles of an earlier date. In the mid-
dle of the eighteenth century, Jean Astruc claimed that
one could identify some of these sources, particularly
the main two which were distinguished by their differ-
ent ways of naming the deity. He showed further that
when these were disentangled—the patches and frag-
ments of each extracted from the present text and
properly arranged—they formed a better narrative
than Genesis, where the interweavings have produced
repetitions, contradictions and passages that appear in
the wrong order. The result was a pattern of what
could be achieved by getting behind a piece of histori-
cal writing, detecting the earlier sources that had been
used, and then even reconstituting them after they had
been lost. It was to become an important matter that
the historian should discover “the source of the source.”

In Göttingen, where a similar analysis of Genesis was
produced, a great development was made in historical
study in the later decades of the eighteenth century,
so that the University acquired a reputation in this field
which lasted through the early decades of the nine-
teenth century. Here were created the first seminar
and the first learned journal in the subject, and much
attention was given to the auxiliary sciences, such as


diplomatics and numismatics. Here Professor August
L. von Schlözer transported the various techniques of
the classical and biblical scholars into the medieval
field in his edition of the Russian “Chronicle of Nestor,”
for which he, too, reconstituted a lost source. And here
men first dreamed of what was to be the Monumenta
Germaniae historica
(a vast critical edition of sources,
discussed below), besides carrying the development of
historiography to the point from which Ranke began.
It was virtually the birth of “academic history,” for
the University was able to improve its standards, and
hand them down in a teaching tradition, so that hence-
forward there could be a continuity of development.
Rejecting some things from the philosophes but ac-
cepting others, choosing sometimes rather the princi-
ples that were associated with the romantic movement,
but insisting at the same time on scholarship, they
brought the “antiquarians” and the narrators or gener-
alizers closer together for the final synthesis, a synthesis
more adequately achieved for the time being, however,
in the work of Edward Gibbon.

Gibbon found a magnificent theme in The Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire
(6 vols., 1766-88) and
his work is the greatest monument of eighteenth-
century historiography. He showed great enterprise in
dealing with a thousand years of Byzantine history after
the downfall of the empire in the West, though this
later section of the work, running to 1453, shows his
hand less sure and his command of the sources less firm.
He distinguished himself by combining some of the
virtues of the Enlightenment with the assiduity of the
érudits; and he mastered the original historians and
primary sources of the classical period, though it was
noted at the time in Germany that he was not quite
up to the stricter standards of criticism which were
becoming current. Otherwise the work made maximum
use of the resources then available, and it provided
(perhaps in a more provocative manner than its author
really intended) an interesting attempt to deal on a
considerable scale with the rise of Christianity from
the point of view of the profane historian. Standing
as an end in itself it ranks as a masterpiece, but it lacks
that sense of the importance of, e.g., economic factors,
which some writers were beginning to have, and it was
not calculated to influence the course of things so much
as were certain Scottish historians of the time, who
were moving to the wider view.

A further achievement, stimulated this time by clas-
sical scholarship, is illustrated by the “Prolegomena ad
Homerum” in an edition of the Iliad published in
1794-95 by Friedrich August Wolf, who was himself
not without antecedents and was even accused of
plagiarism. He traced the development of the Homeric
poem back to sources no longer extant, and declared
that the epics were a later construction, compounded
out of heroic songs and primitive folk-poetry. This field
of scholarship became particularly relevant because the
historian learned how light could be extracted even
from legendary material, even from scraps and sur-
vivals once rejected as simply untrue.

Barthold Georg Niebuhr, in his Römische Geschichte
(which first appeared in 1811) was responsible for the
transmission of these techniques to the ordinary field
of history; he applied the method to the early part
of Livy's History of Rome, the unreliability of which
had created so much uneasiness at the beginning of
the century. Niebuhr began with the assumption that
the early part of Livy had ultimately arisen out of
primitive nationalist poetry. As a romanticist, he was
interested in origins, myths, and folk-art—anxious not
to wipe out this material as merely untruthful, but to
do detective-work on it and use it as evidence. He
knew how to distinguish the different kinds of source—
the original from the secondhand, the newer from the
older—but also how to compare societies that were
similar in pattern though distant from one another in
time and place. He used his romantic sympathy to give
him a grasp of the relations between early Roman
society and the North Friesland agrarian life which he
knew at firsthand. Neither his results nor Wolf's would
be accepted today, and the former himself revised so
many of his conclusions that his second edition was
almost a different book. Niebuhr is important because
he transplanted into historiography a dynamic contri-
bution to the “positive” type of criticism.

In Germany the awakened spirit of nationality, the
pride in an imperial tradition and the romantic love
of the Middle Ages reinforced the demand of various
Göttingen professors for a critical edition of the sources
of German medieval history. In 1819 there was founded
the society which inaugurated the Monumenta
Germaniae historica;
all the auxiliary sciences were
invoked to locate the original texts, to discover the
best traditions, to follow the fate of the various manu-
scripts, to test the genuineness and value of the sources,
to examine their relationship with other sources, to
trace earlier documents that had been embodied in
later ones, and to discover where a writer had contrib-
uted original matter. Until this time the French and
Italians had been ahead of the Germans in producing
these critical editions of their national sources. Gibbon
had called for the publication of the chroniclers of
medieval England, but it was not until 1863 that
William Stubbs began his great work on the Rolls

In 1824, Ranke produced his first book—the
Geschichten der Romantischen und Germanischen
Volkes von 1494 bis 1535,
and appended to it an essay


which was later regarded as a landmark in the history
of criticism. He was anxious that the new methods in
ancient history—translated into the medieval realm by
one of his teachers, G. A. H. Stenzel—should be intro-
duced into the modern field, and he exposed the uncer-
tainty of the ground on which modern history had
hitherto been largely based. Of late modern history had
been in the hands of men like Robertson and Roscoe,
Coxe and Sismondi, good easy men whose merit con-
sisted chiefly in making things more accessible which
were quite well known already. In a criticism of
Guicciardini which in some respects later proved to
have been unfair, Ranke at least insisted that the
writers of “histories of their own times” could no
longer be regarded as first-class sources. The insuffi-
ciencies of “memoirs” in particular were now widely

4. The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. In the
long previous history of the subject, nothing had
equalled the surge of historiography in the nineteenth
century, and the accompanying leap of Western
Europe into historical consciousness. This has some-
times been attributed to the reaction against the
French Revolution, which had represented an un-
usually defiant break with the past. In the period after
1800 the world was in a position to remember chiefly
the atrocities and failures of the Revolution, and its
culmination in dictatorship and war. It was as though
the human race had gone through a tremendous new
experience, and even in the political realm one had
learned the danger of flying in the face of history.
Edmund Burke had been the chief representative of
this point of view. It is clear that his particular fusion
of politics and history and his views about tradition—
about maintaining the continuity between past and
present—had existed before 1789, but it was through
his opposition to the French Revolution that he became
an important European influence.

But, visible also before 1789, the romantic movement
in general literature had its part in the story—particu-
larly that side of the movement which hankered after
the past and ran something of man's emotional life into
the sympathetic appreciation of bygone ages, now
studied for their own sake. Furthermore, if the philoso-
movement had been unhistorical, particularly in
its way of judging early periods by the standards of
the present and seeing them only as the stepping-stones
to the present, it had made a great contribution to the
understanding and analysis of the whole course of
general history, including man's cultural development.
In spite of a certain reaction against the thought of
Enlightenment, which was regarded as responsible for
the evils of the French Revolution, it proved possible
for students to combine the best of the romantic move
ment with the best of the philosophes; and, as the
nineteenth century proceeded, more of the thought of
these latter re-entered historiography. It was as though
the philosophes had been right in many of their
hunches, but had been deficient in the researches nec-
essary for working them out.

Amongst the factors which came together and gave
a tremendous impetus to historiography, was that
course of technical development in scholarship which
had led to the emergence of “academic history” in
Göttingen. In the 1820's this achieves more definite
self-consciousness as Ranke emerges, and the Monu-
menta Germaniae historica
is inaugurated. Great im-
portance must be attached also to the fact that, in a
number of countries, a wide range of population had
come to be concerned with politics, and therefore with
issues of a historical nature.

It might almost be said that, if the present day is
under the dominion of science and technology, it was
really history that held the presidency in the nineteenth
century. This was a period of remarkable progress in
the subject itself; the world has still to learn whether
the tendencies of the twentieth century will turn out
to have been equally beneficial to history, regarded
as a sheer study of the past—a study very much at
the mercy of the winds that play upon it. In the early
decades of the nineteenth century, Hegel is a demon-
stration of the way in which philosophy itself had come
to crown its endeavor with a survey of the universe
in its historical dimension. The theologians now be-
came engrossed in history, and a great feature of their
work was to be “the quest for the historical Jesus.”

Already in the eighteenth century the natural scien-
tists had become interested in the history of animal
species, of the earth itself and of the solar system. Now,
however, the interest in the time-process is heightened
—the great scientific idea of the nineteenth century is
that of evolution; and even before Charles Darwin had
produced the Origin of Species, the notion of develop-
ment was coming to be important in various fields of
thought and scholarship. It may have seemed natural
that history should provide an intellectual basis for a
new kind of conservatism in politics after the French
Revolutionary period, but in the 1830's a new kind
of liberalism emerged in Mazzini against a background
of schematized general history. In the 1840's, Karl
Marx was developing a doctrine of revolution and a
general outlook on life which were based on a study
and interpretation of history. Henceforward, we meet
the paradoxical truth that, in the world of politics, it
was the revolutionaries who most had the mania for
history, and the determination to make use of history.

The development in historiography, and the wider
emergence of the historical consciousness, were most


remarkable of all in Germany, which led the technical
advance in scholarship, as well as the development in
the theory of the subject. Largely through its historical
achievements, that country marched forward to a gen-
eral cultural leadership. In the early decades of the
century Göttingen enjoyed international distinction as
a school for historians, where George Bancroft and
John L. Motley, for example, went for training. Initially
through the work of Protestant writers, the German
Middle Ages were rediscovered and the epic of the
Holy Roman Empire—the reminder that the country
had had its glories in the past—assisted that awakening
of national feeling which had been produced in the
War of Liberation against Napoleon. But a better un-
derstanding of the work of the medieval Church stim-
ulated the German Catholics in their turn, and helped
to produce an intellectual Renaissance amongst them.
In Europe as a whole, from this time, the interest in
history played an important part in the development
of the idea of nationality. Countries acquired a pride
in the past, an affection for the primitive stages of their
own culture, a veneration for their traditional lan-
guages, and a better awareness of the territory which
had once been theirs but had been lost at one time
or another. Perhaps to an unreasonable degree, history—
now more closely connected with the life of men and
states—was used to provide the basis for political

But Germany also had Ranke, whose stature and
influence would in any case have given her the primacy
in the historical field. He developed along with the
nineteenth century itself, but at the same time he was
the pioneer who planned and led much of the develop-
ment. An important stage in the evolution of his man-
uscript work was his use of the famous relazioni—the
long descriptive accounts produced by Venetian am-
bassadors after their period of residence abroad. This
procedure still had its limitations, and it was still a
case of using the finished pieces produced by what were
almost “contemporary historians.” Also it involved the
employment of diplomatic documents for the recovery
of the internal history of various countries. Soon Ranke
came to the conclusion that the whole of modern
history needed to be torn to pieces and reassembled
with the help of all available manuscript sources. He
held a privileged position and was able to secure early
access to archival sources at a time when the scholar
who had the first glimpse of the official documents
could be certain of rich returns. His famous seminar
helped the development of research on the new
methods and the establishment of recognized standards
and techniques.

The opening of government archives to scholars, first
partially in the 1830's, and then on a more generous
scale in the 1860's, came as the crown of the whole
development, providing it with its most essential in-
strument, and enabling men to feel that history had
now come into its own. Its importance lay not merely
in the fact that things were now revealed which gov-
ernments had hitherto kept hidden, or even the fact
that vast ranges of documents now available had been
produced by men who could not have dreamed that
their productions would ever be exposed to the outside
world. Most significant of all was the fact that, now,
more than ever before, the historian could base himself
on something that was not mere “reporting,” whether
on the part of contemporary historians or memoir-
writers, or Venetian ambassadors in their relazioni.
Henceforward he could study the papers in which (and
by means of which) the business of government had
actually been transacted. To a great degree he could
study official papers in their continuity and, following
events day by day, could reconstruct the framework
of an entire narrative.

The new history, arising from the archives in various
European capitals, concentrated itself largely on the
work of government and tended to see events from
the point of view of government. Political history was
now triumphant, and, possibly because diplomatic
documents were so accessible, so nicely arranged and
so easy to use—so capable moreover of presenting the
reader with their own story, in all its continuity—there
was an emphasis on the external relations of states, and
on that states-system which had already been a great
subject of study at Göttingen. Ranke himself has some-
times been held to have been responsible for this, but,
insofar as a certain bias of the mind was involved,
something is due to his predecessors; his own outlook
was so broad that the “cultural historians” were nearer
the truth when, later in the century, they claimed his
support in their criticism of the prevailing system. For
a very short period in his younger days Ranke had a
connection with a conservative political journal, but
quickly found the situation unsatisfactory. For the rest,
he held that the historian should be primarily a scholar,
aloof from the movements of his time. He received
moral reprobation for this, and even his pupils (who
tended to grasp only parts of his teaching) proved
unwilling to follow his austere example.

The historical movement of the nineteenth century
came into alliance therefore with the powerful German
national movement that culminated in 1870-71; the
result was shown in what came to be the classical
school of German historiography, which from 1861 was
dominated by supporters of Prussia and entrenched
itself in the universities, putting history at the service
of the national cause, and even insisting on this as a
point of ethics. As the work of Frederick the Great


and Bismarck acquired such a central place in the story
of modern Germany, it became easy for any student
to draw conclusions about the nature of history and
politics very different from those which would be
drawn by Germans taking their bearings at the present
day. Even in 1870 Gervinus vainly tried to point out
that a wider view of Germany's past would have pro-
duced a better understanding of the real tradition of
the country, enabling historiography to do greater
service in its role as the discoverer or creator of a
nation's tradition about itself.

In the middle of the century the great works were
appearing which showed that, over a wide area, his-
toriography had been carried to a new stage. Ranke
himself had completed between 1839 and 1847 his
massive treatise on German History in the Age of the
and, after dealing with Prussia, he moved
in the 1850's to large-scale work first on French history
in the early modern period, and then on England in
the seventeenth century. The most formidable scholar
amongst his pupils, Georg Waitz (1813-86), was pub-
lishing from 1844 a tremendous work on deutsche
which went back to the customs
and institutions of the early tribes and showed his
mastery of medieval sources. After Waitz moved to
Göttingen in 1849 he made that University the most
distinguished school of medieval history in Europe.
Macaulay published the four completed volumes of his
History of England between 1848 and 1856; and,
though limited by the excessive positivism of his judg-
ments, by the smallness of the area of history that he
really mastered, and by the extraordinary insularity of
his whole outlook, he took some pains in the collection
of his materials; nor was his Whiggism more preju-
diced—more detrimental to his work—than the parti-
sanship of some of the Prussian giants of the period.

A powerful pupil of Ranke who came to diverge
from his master because he so strongly believed that
history should be put at the service of what was re-
garded as a great public cause, was Heinrich von Sybel.
From 1853 he was producing his most imposing work,
his History of the Revolutionary Period, which, in its
use of sources, represented a significant advance in its
own field. It had been intended from the start to show
up the evils of political radicalism, though in the course
of execution it came to be still more dominated by
the idea of demonstrating the effect of external rela-
tions on internal development, the primacy of foreign
policy, and the influence of the French Revolution on
other countries. Johann Gustav Droysen was not a
pupil of Ranke and was influenced rather by Hegel,
but must be regarded as perhaps the chief of the foun-
ders of the Prussian school. In the thirty years or so
from 1855 there appeared the successive volumes of
his History of Prussian Policy, a work based to an
almost unprecedented degree on manuscript sources,
and packed with new material. It has been described
as one of the most important of the achievements of
the new historiography and, by G. P. Gooch, as “the
most exhaustive study of the foreign policy of a great
power ever written”; yet, by the constant anachronistic
attribution to Prussia of a national German policy, it
showed how tremendous learning can be piloted to
produce a false result. The work was dominated by
Droysen's view of the state as a vast power-organiza-

One of the most distinguished of the pupils of Ranke
was Wilhelm von Giesebrecht, and his great work, the
History of the Period of the Empire began to appear
in 1855. It was inspired by the idea of awakening the
Germans to the glory of their medieval history—the
romanticism and the achievements of their famous
emperors—and Giesebrecht proved to be a wonderful
narrator, the evidence of his immense scholarship being
relegated to the footnotes. Giesebrecht had the dis-
tinction of reconstructing an old chronicler from later
writers who had made use of him, and then having
his scholarship confirmed when the work itself came
to light a generation later. It was his history of the
Kaiserzeit which provoked the great controversy over
the effects of medieval imperialism on the cause of
German nationalism.

In 1856 Alexis de Tocqueville published L'ancien
régime et la révolution,
a treatise based on the study
of provincial and other local archives, and devoted to
an examination of the roots of the Revolution—the
effective opening of analytical work on the character
and structure of ancient France.

Other forms of history were developing, however,
principally in Germany itself; their challenge to the
prevailing system built up the pressures which in the
1890's produced controversies on the very nature of
a history—controversies that mark another stage in the
story, since the position and state of the whole subject
could never be quite the same again (though the classi-
cal school maintained its hold through the universities).

In various countries there had long been antecedents
of what we should call economic history; in the eight-
eenth century these are to be found in Adam Smith's
Wealth of Nations and in histories of commerce, some
of which covered a considerable area of economic life.
Descriptive works—regional studies and accounts of
particular industries, for example—went on appearing
in the nineteenth century; and, partly perhaps through
the influence of Montesquieu, possibly also as a result
of influences from the Scottish Enlightenment, exam-
ples were to be found in Göttingen at the very be-
ginning of the century, particularly in the work of


A. H. L. Heeren. The main nineteenth-century move-
ment owes its rise, however, to Wilhelm Roscher, who
had been influenced by Heeren; and, for some decades,
the real purpose of the movement—a purpose already
made clear in Roscher's famous “manifesto” of
1843—was to establish a new kind of economics, which
should attain a wider kind of generalization based on
the study of the past as well as the present, and partic-
ularly a comparative study of the development of the
various nations. William Ashley, who held at Harvard
the first chair of economic history ever created, took
his start from this position, and it was only in his
Inaugural Lecture in 1893 that he began to depart from
it. By the late 1870's books had begun to appear in
Germany which claimed to be “economic histories,”
and some were proposing to cover the whole economic
history of the country, for, here as elsewhere, what
was particularly required was the full-length account
of a nation's development. By the late 1870's, however,
Gustav Schmoller, who became the dominating figure
in Germany (and greatly influenced Ashley, for exam-
ple) was concentrating on the economic policy of
Frederick the Great; and, whether because of the
analogy with political history or because of the exist-
ence of etatist views, or because the sources were
governmental, or because economists hoped that they
might be advisers on policy, economic history at this
stage in its development tended to be preoccupied with
the work of government, or to see events from the
point of view of government. It was in the nature of
the subject to envisage, however, a life and activity
that sprang from society in all its length and breadth,
and the transition to this wider survey of a nation's
material development was continually assisted by the
appearance of regional studies and descriptive accounts
of particular industries. The depiction of an economic
life which rises autonomously out of the whole land-
scape would seem to have depended somewhat, also,
on the availability of a larger range of nongovern-
mental sources.

In the meantime, Jakob Burckhardt's Civilisation of
the Renaissance in Italy,
published in 1860, had given
a fresh stimulus to that cultural history which had been
quickened by the work of Voltaire and the interest of
the eighteenth century in the history of the arts and
sciences. In the late 1880's there was a foretaste of
the larger controversy that was due to appear shortly
afterwards. Dietrich Shäfer's insistence that the state
must be the central point in historical reconstruction
was answered by Eberhard Gothein, who held that
Kulturgeschichte was necessary for the achievement of
the essential synthesis. In various countries the kind
of history which concerned itself with the processes
of society rather than the narrative of political events
had already begun to raise important issues. The influ-
ence of Auguste Comte had encouraged a tendency
to believe that the study of the past could be regarded
as analogous to the natural sciences, aspiring to achieve
generalizations and laws. This had shown itself in
H. T. Buckle's History of Civilisation in England, which
had appeared in 1857 and was receiving renewed
attention in the 1890's; and a brilliant and imposing
illustration of it was Hippolyte Taine's Origines de la
France contemporaine,
published between 1876 and
1894. By the end of the 1870's, furthermore, some
economic historians were insisting that, in any com-
prehensive history of culture and society, the economic
factor must have the determining role and in reality
provides the clue to the processes of historical change.
It is not clear that this view owed anything to the
influence of Marx in academic circles, though the first
volume of Das Kapital had been published in 1867.
At the same time the system that Marx produced—
however much it owed to antecedent writers—must
be regarded as one of the most remarkable and power-
ful contributions ever made to the interpretation of
the past, and in the period after 1917 it came to have
an important influence even on historians who were
not themselves Marxists.

It was the publication (from 1891 to 1913) of Karl
Lamprecht's large-scale German History which, by
provoking a considerable controversy, led to the dis-
cussion of some of these larger issues, and to heated
debates amongst historians themselves on the subject:
“What is history?” Lamprecht's conception of his work
as a comprehensive study of society and culture, his
views about the importance of the economic factor in
the synthesis, his insistence that history should be re-
garded as a science—and the interest which he also
had in social psychology—made him militant against
the prevailing school in Germany. And ideas which,
though not necessarily new, were thrown out in this
controversy—and so gained a general hearing—have
remained in currency during the controversies of the
twentieth century. The battle in the 1890's was a very
bitter one and Lamprecht attempted on one occasion
to gain control of the historische Zeitschrift, which was
the chief instrument of his opponents. Lamprecht was
vulnerable himself in many ways, but, though he failed
to dislodge his opponents, he could not be repressed
and he preached his doctrines in the United States. For
historiography, a new period had in fact opened.

In the meantime the development of historiography
had produced problems still more profound—problems
that were calculated to tax the mind of the philoso-
pher—and the discussion of these reached great in-
tensity in the 1890's, though its influence amongst
practicing historians tended to come later. Funda-


mental issues affecting the emergence of “historicism”
had been raised by the writings of Friedrich Karl von
Savigny from the year 1814. He had taught that law
was not to be manufactured rationalistically from a
blueprint, but grew naturally out of the Volksgeist, like
a country's language or its manners or its consti-
tution—an attitude that tended to lead to historical
relativism. Later still, what had begun as a conflict with
positivism became in Dilthey, Wilhelm Windelband,
and Heinrich Rickert an enquiry as to the basis (and
the very possibility) of historical knowledge—a discus-
sion which, this time, stressed the differences between
history and the natural sciences, probed into the prob-
lem of the historical consciousness itself, and posed the
question whether the universe has any ethical meaning.
Instead of the old “philosophy of history” there now
emerged a primary concern with methodological and
epistemological issues in the historical realm; and
(through Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch and Friedrich
Meinecke, for example) these discussions carried
their influence into the realm of the actual historian,
particularly in the twentieth century. In the 1890's,
furthermore, there emerged some imposing criticisms
of Marx.

By the last two decades of the nineteenth century,
academic history had come to have an imposing char-
acter in books both massive in form and intricate in
texture. The intensity of research, the accumulated
results of government support in the publication of
great amounts of archival sources in various countries,
and the vast range of manuscript material to which
historians had now found their way, were transforming
the whole landscape and giving scholarship its modern
appearance. The adoption of the new methods and the
new standards by universities—the palpable effects of
all this during the last two decades of the century in
the United States and at Oxford and Cambridge—
secured that a regular progress should take place on
all sides; and the fruits of the movement were apparent
even in Russia.

The establishment of learned journals in one country
after another encouraged the natural tendency of re-
search to become more microscopic, and, in 1900, the
inauguration of the International Congress of the His-
torical Sciences turned historians into a cosmopolitan
fraternity, though it failed to eliminate the constrictive
effects of nationalism. The whole study made solid
advances irrespective of the theoretical controversies
that seemed in the 1890's to be shaking its very basis.
There were interesting developments in historical
thinking, characterized in the case of Great Britain by
the revision of anachronistic and excessively Whiggish
interpretations in the writings of William Stubbs and
in the modern history field. Still more important were
the problems raised in Germany by writers like Max
Weber and Ernst Troeltsch. As a result of many decades
of work and a long accumulation of documentary
materials, certain fields of sixteenth-century history—
particularly the Revolt of the Netherlands, the French
Wars of Religion and the period of Philip II of Spain
—were due for a considerable reshaping by the end
of the century; French Revolutionary studies had
achieved a great development, the emergence of
François V. A. Aulard marking a new era; and similarly
the intensified researches into Frederick the Great and
Napoleon now brought scholarship to a new stage.

From the time of the ancient campaign annals, his-
torical writing repeatedly had a curious relationship
with war. The historical consciousness was sometimes
awakened (or spread more widely) as the result of a
conflict that had come as a great human experience.
War would also seem to have been the point at which
men of all classes were compelled to feel the impact
of historical events. All this has been illustrated afresh
in the twentieth century, when two world wars (and
the revolutions more or less connected with them) have
greatly altered the position of history. Immediately
after 1919 the consequences came in a flood—the host
of memoirs from political and military leaders, the
controversies over the question of “war-guilt,” and the
interest of governments in the production of the record.

The flood itself went on mounting in every subse-
quent decade. Massive selections, particularly of
diplomatic documents, were published. Archives were
opened to a more recent date, especially in the case
of defeated or revolutionized governments. There
emerged avowedly “official histories” and sometimes
the most recent documents would be made available
to such scholars as were deemed reliable. The special
concern which the general public had for issues that
were still in a sense alive brought a revival of the
tremendous importance which had so often been at-
tached to the writing of “contemporary history.” In
a world in which democracies have a special claim
to information and the journalists have a special skill
in exposing the underside of events, the production of
“instant” history, and the attempt to achieve scholarly
accounts of episodes still very recent, have altered the
center of gravity in historiography.

The situation has its dangers, especially where a
wider general public can act as the arbiter, and its
voice may have an effect on scholarship itself. Men
are more completely locked within the framework of
their age than they ever realize, and history can easily
lose what Lord Acton once specified as its important
function: to release men from the tyranny of the pres-
ent. Even for the purpose of writing “contemporary
history,” it may be best that a student should have


received his training in a past sufficiently remote to
allow of a certain degree of detachment, and should
have had exercise in the mental transpositions which
are required for an understanding of more distant
ages—an understanding of men not like-minded with

The pursuit of immediately “utilitarian” objects, and
the assumption that the past is interesting only as the
preparation for the present can be unfortunate for both
students and writers, who may never learn that further
dimension which historical thinking acquires when its
roots go back to more distant times. Even the European
(and still more the global) scene is altered by the fact
that young democracies, young nationalities, find it so
difficult to combine their necessary sympathies with
the due degree of detachment in respect of their own
history. The powerful position of communism has
made it hard for men of both Left and Right to be
judicious about Marxist history, though, particularly in
the economic history field, a genuine dialogue between
the West and Russia has been more possible in recent
years. It would be unfortunate if historians, anxious to
secure special privileges (special access to documents,
for example) should compete with one another for the
favor of government.

On the other hand, the “contemporary historian” has
an advantage, for the passage of time, which in some
respects makes it possible to produce a fairer record,
is attended by losses as well as gains. So much of the
atmosphere of a period—or of a given circle, a given
episode—may disappear; and the future may fail to
recover that host of thoughts and assumptions which
never needed to be expressed because they were part
of the atmosphere—the future may even forget the
delicate connotations of words. It has become evident
that those sensitive aspects of an age which disappear
from sight once direct contact with that age has been
lost are the ones that require for their ultimate resur-
rection the most penetrating and laborious kind of
research. The “contemporary historian” may fail to
realize that, by “taking sides,” even perhaps uncon-
sciously, or by otherwise accepting a framework of a
story already current, he has made the task of mounting
and organizing the narrative too easy for himself. But
if he possesses judgment and training he may pass down
to the future a record of permanent and unique impor-

Another important feature of twentieth-century
historiography is the relationship with the social sci-
ences, which themselves had reached a new stage (and
had come into closer contact with history) in the work
of men like Émile Durkheim and Max Weber. That
work arose out of lively intellectual movements of the
1890's, and was paralleled in the United States, where
Frederick Jackson Turner's paper on “The Significance
of the Frontier in American History” appeared in 1894.
Turner's “frontier” hypothesis and his insistence on the
importance of sectionalism in American life sprang
from a more comprehensive view of the whole past
and had great influence on historical study in the
United States. After a period of intense discussion and
rapid progress, his paper on “Social Forces in American
History” appeared in 1910 and along with it, James
Harvey Robinson, writing on “The Relation of History
to the Newer Sciences of Man,” prepared the way for
his volume, The New History, which came out two
years later and launched a further controversy.

So far as historical scholarship is concerned, it is
particularly since the Second World War that the
whole landscape has been transformed as a result of
the developments in the social sciences. The appli-
cation of social science procedures to various problems
and periods of the past has tended to change the direc-
tion of historical enquiry itself, and to alter the notion
of what might be needed to achieve satisfactory forms
of historical explanation. The historian himself now has
a different view of what must be done to produce, for
example, a “reconstruction of the ordinary working
world of the politician” in a bygone period. At the
same time, he enters upon forms of analysis which
would hardly have been possible if masses of further
source material had not become available and research-
work had not been organized so as to make a coopera-
tive endeavor more feasible.

The historian, also, is now more ready to envisage
society as a whole and movements in the mass, and
to turn his mind to population problems, the sociology
of religion, and so forth. For a long time, even during
the twentieth century, the historian and the social
scientist were in conflict with one another, and seemed
unable to agree about their respective roles in the
recovery or the explanation of the human story. Today
when the historians (though so many of them continue
to work as before) are more prepared to use the results
and the methods of the social scientists, and even to
move further afield, to psychology, for example, the
controversy has not been brought to an end. The claim
has arisen that history should itself be regarded as a
social science—no more and no less—and this is con-
strued as though it meant relegating into the realm
of mere useless antiquarianism that work which his-
torians throughout the ages (and still largely even at
the present day) have been accustomed to producing:
namely, the sheer recovery of the past and the narra-
tion of what actually happened.

History is enriched by the developments that have
taken place, but those who build up their outlook only
from the social sciences will have only a sectionalized


view of the overall process of historical change, a
process in which the genius of a single leader who sees
and uses existing conditions can secure an enormous
leverage, and a handful of men who have faith can
move mountains, as the twentieth century itself has
shown. It is possible that democracy will also radically
turn its back on what was for so long a main objective
of historical writing—the communication of what the
art of statesmanship requires. When help has been
recruited from all available sciences, there is something
left for the mind of the historian who, surveying the
whole, can make the presidential contribution that is
itself something like an act of statesmanship. Some-
times the subject has been reduced almost to a study
of conditions, but Camille Ernest Labrousse and
Georges Lefebvre, students of conditions, came to
admit that the French Revolution cannot be explained
without the political narrative, and that a man like
Henri IV on the throne of France, instead of Louis
XVI, might have given a different turn to the whole
story. It is still going to be true that when a people
has been involved in a war, it will want to know how
that war came about and how its leaders behaved; and
perhaps this basic human demand for narrative will
secure the survival of what has always been regarded
as history, and will tend to keep the subject on the
rails. Indeed, there is something absolutely essential in
history and in the processes of time to which justice
cannot be done save in the form of a narrative in which
one does not know in advance what is going to happen


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Geschichte der deutschen Historiographie seit dem Auftreten
des Humanismus
(Munich, 1885). E. Weis, Geschichts-
schreibung und Staatsauffassung in der französische
(Wiesbaden, 1956).


[See also Ancients and Moderns; Causation in History;
Christianity in History;
Historical; Historicism; Historiog-
raphy, Influence of Ideas on Greek;
Islamic Conception;
Nationalism; Periodization in History; Progress; Renais-
sance Literature and Historiography;