*Historical Essay



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Historical Essay

Historiography in some form exists in the annals of the earliest civilizations; more than 20,000 clay tablets survive recording names and events from the Assyrian dynasty of Ashurbanipal, for example, and accounts from Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese dynastic archives are equally ancient. The modern reader, however, would find such early work difficult to identify as historical writing because of its lack of critical perspective and the absence of any genuine narrative. Indeed, until the philosophical and stylistic innovations of the essay had established literary dominance in Enlightenment Europe, few works of history were anything but eulogies, monuments, medals, or chronicles— representations of the past lacking analytical self-consciousness. Empiricism and its medium, the essay, are the true inventors of what we would recognize as historiography.
Among ancient writers, however, are two prominent exceptions to this generalization: the Greeks Herodotus and Thucydides, both of whom undertook their histories with “theses” in mind. Herodotus endeavored to show how the Greeks had withstood the Persian invasions, while Thucydides examined the causes of the Peloponnesian Wars which eventually involved all of the Greek states in internecine conflicts. It is Herodotus who first uses the word “historia,” meaning inquiry, and who demands of the historian a position of skepticism toward his sources. Thucydides goes further in his acknowledgment of the essentially political nature of history and in his statement that he “always tested the accuracy of a report by the strictest standards.” Both Herodotus and Thucydides are remarkable for their sense of what Virginia Hunter (1982) calls “historical space,” a recognition that history required a methodology to shape it and that it was a rhetorical mode subject to techniques of analysis and persuasion. Oratory is both a model and a component of historiography for both Greeks, but especially for
Thucydides. What survives of Roman history continues this tradition. Varro was remarkable for distinguishing history from antiquarianism and wrote an influential work of each kind, respectively his study of the first Triumvirate, the Trikaranos, and his exploration of the ancient origins of Rome, the Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum (Human and divine antiquities). Livy and Tacitus are the two other most influential of the Roman historians: the former for his monumental history of Rome from its beginnings, Ab urbe condita (History of Rome), published in installments and running to 142 books; the latter for his Historiae, covering the period from the reign of Galba to that of Domitian, and his Annales concerning the Julian emperors from the time of Augustus.
Subsequent European historiography until the 18th century is much inferior to these classical examples and more like the recording of history in other world cultures. Such works are more accurately described as chronicles than histories and lack the element of synthesis and the critical perspective that distinguished classical history. In China, the first historical records of this sort were the Shi chi, dating from 85 BCE, which established a tradition that is mostly unbroken into the 20th century and is best described as bureaucratic and archival. Arabic historical writing originated with the legal records of Muslim theologians, had its zenith during the 14th century in the work of Ibn Khaldun, and was very like the Christian tradition of that time in its obsession with recording the growth of the faith and the lives of exemplary holy men. Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (c. 732; Ecclesiastical History of the English People), with its narratives of miracles and saints, is typical of medieval work of this kind in Europe, the first instance of which were the chronicles of Eusebius, called the Historia ecclesiastica (312– 24 CE; Ecclesiastical History). None of these traditions is critical of its sources and all are chauvinistic in their biases toward their own cultural imperatives. There is no concept of anachronism in such writing, best witnessed in the inconsistencies of the monumental Anglo-Saxon Chronicles written between the 9th and 12th centuries. Only the work of the Bavarian Otto, Bishop of Freising in his Chronica (1146) and his Gesta Friderici I imperatoris (1158; The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa) shows any sense of a philosophy of history that is analytical and attempts to examine events within their chronological and political contexts.
However, with the rise of secular city states during the Renaissance, historians saw themselves as more than chroniclers, a trend that began with Italian humanists like Leonardo Bruni, who wrote the Historiae Florentini populi (History of the Florentine people). Flavio Biondo was the most important of the humanist historians, and two of his works established new standards for accuracy in source and concern with rhetorical purpose: Historiarum ab inclinatione Romanorum imperii decades (1483; The Decades) and Roma instaurata (1444–46; Rome restored). Still, the true invention of history as a modern discipline belongs to the European Enlightenment.
The 18th century saw the development of two kinds of historical writing, the work of the “érudits” and the “philosophes,” the former more or less antiquarians who emphasized documentation and research and the latter, theorists and interpreters who came to prevail during the century. Voltaire in his entry on “Histoire” in the Encyclopédie would emphasize the philosophical utility of history as a means of enlightening humanity by exposing the barbarity of the past. He eschewed detail in favor of opinion. On the opposite side as regards methodology were the English and Scottish historians for whom detail was crucial if opinion and theory were to be validated. Of these, Edward Gibbon and William Robertson are the most influential. David Hume in his essay “Of the Study of History” (1741) describes it as the narrative of human progress whose primary objective is moral by implication because it undertakes to delineate the rise and fall of civilizations by recounting “the virtues which contributed to their greatness and the vices which drew on their ruin.” Indeed, the Enlightenment notion of progress, that improvement defined the historic curve of all civilizations, combined with the cultural domination of the scientific method after the 17th century, shaped the best historical writing in the period. The essay became the vehicle for historiography in the early 18th– century work of such writers as the Italian Ludovico Muratori, the French Maurist scholars, and especially Pierre Bayle in his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary).
The mid- to late 18th-century publications of accomplished essayists like Montesquieu (L’Esprit des lois [1748; The Spirit of Laws]), Voltaire (Le Siècle de Louis XIV [1751;
The Age of Louis XIV]), d’Alembert (“Discours préliminaire,” Encyclopédie, 1751), David Hume (History of England, 1756–62), William Robertson (History of Charles V, 1769), Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776), Gilbert Stuart (The History of Scotland, 1782), and Edward Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776–88)
focused the writing of history both upon the perception of the individual as interpreter of his own history and upon the struggle of the individual within historic time as the primary subject of such writing. But it was the idea of history as much as the practice that obsessed 18th-century historians. Here the influence of the scientific method and the Enlightenment concern for applied learning were especially apparent in work like Giambattista Vico’s Scienza nuova (1725; The New Science) and Voltaire’s Essai sur l’histoire générale et sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations (1756, 1761–63; Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations, and on the Principal Occurrences in History). Both men saw history as a mature discipline of learning which drew on all aspects of human culture from the arts through the sciences to provide theories of civilization. Immanuel Kant took this concept further in his “Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht” (1784; “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose”), where he argued that the knowledge of history would provide the basis for a just and universal society. This universalism had its opponents in Johann Winckelmann, who emphasized the unique unity of historic epochs, and Johann Gottfried von Herder, who presented a pluralistic model of world history in Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1785–91; Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Man).
The Enlightenment development with the most impact on the 19th century was the professionalization of the study of history, especially in its establishment as an academic discipline at the University of Göttingen, with the first seminars and learned journal (1734–37). As the academic practice of history grew, so too did specialization, and after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), the scientific bias in historiography became nearly absolute. At the same time, national archives became crucial to serious historians; Jules Michelet wrote his work on medieval France entirely from archival sources, while the British Public Record Office opened government archives to the public in 1838. The Napoleonic Wars created a public appetite for contemporary history, at first satisfied by newspapers and magazines which proliferated at this time and eventually resulting in popular histories like Macaulay’s History of England (1848–61). Still, professional history became the preserve of the academic by the 20th century, as we see in the appearance of journals like the Revue Historique (Historical review) in France in 1876 and the founding of modern historiography by Henry Baxter Adams at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (1876), from where he also established the American Historical Association (1884) and launched the American Historical Review in 1895.
Historiography has continued to reflect the two primary traits it derived from the influence of the Enlightenment essayists: a scientific bias and an emphasis on critical scrutiny. Biases peculiar to the 20th century have made their mark, from economics in the work of Charles A.Beard (Economic Interpretation of the American Constitution, 1913) to the anthropological perspectives of Walter Burkert (Homo Necans, 1983). But it is the growth of journalism and the international press that may have had the most significant impact on how European culture looks at history. Certainly, the essay as a format for exploring and critiquing the historic moment dominates the newspaper and magazine; and popular periodical publications like Time magazine and more specialist magazines like The Economist present an experiential view of history through their presentation and analysis of the news in a culturally definitive way. Journalism in the late 20th century has helped to define history as a living encounter that changes almost daily and reflects the dynamism and uncertainty of modern society. In many ways, journalism is the ultimate expression of Voltaire’s sense of historiography as an interpretive dialogue, not a compendium of factual detail. Its emphasis is upon history as an experience in the organic, unstable present. Thus the journalist becomes both an “eye witness” to history and its adjudicator, the document and the interpreter at once.


Further Reading
Braudel, Fernand, On History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980 (original French edition, 1969)
Burke, Peter, Sociology and History, London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1980
Carey, John, editor, Eyewitness to History, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987
Froude, J.A., Historical Essays, New York: Alden, 1886
Gooch, G.P., Historical Surveys and Portraits, New York: Barnes and Noble, and London: Longman, 1966
Halévy, Daniel, Essai sur l’accélération de l’histoire, Paris: Îles d’Or, 1943
Hunter, Virginia, Past and Process in Herodotus and Thucydides, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982
Robinson, James Harvey, The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook, New York: Free Press, 1965 (original edition, 1912)

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