Overview of Historiography

As a budding historian, it is significant to learn the history… of history. Historiography has taught me to look beyond words on a page. Equally as significant as a historian’s work is information about the historian him (or her) self. Do they have bias? Were they commissioned to write this work? Did they love who they were writing about? Did they hate them? What period of time did they write in? What happened during their lives? There are so many questions we should ask ourselves when writing history to make sure we can fully understand what we are reading.

Historiography teaches us to be thorough  (however tedious it may feel). We cannot simply pass over one piece of information to reach another. We must embrace  the unknown of each new work of history we pick up. We must search beyond the most famous and peer into avenues less traveled. Without a knowledge of historiography we lose the HOW and the WHY and are left with the WHEN, WHERE, WHO and WHAT.

The budding world of digital technologies and resources before us open up a bright future for historians to access information and connect with other historians on an international level. But, in a landscape of historical misnomers and inaccuracies, historiography has taught me to not judge history based on its legend and look deeply into its foundations. Stories that have been passed down can prove to be fiction and written history that has been held as definitive can be as false as a bards tale. To understand history, we must know what to look for, and we must put in the time to prove its value.  

Historiography that brings me joy: Lectures that inform. Readings which supplement. Presentations for enrichment. Discussions to ignite thoughts and ideas. Digital resources for the expansion of our knowledge. 

History as a Social Science

Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry…. History? The emergence of an evolved, more scientific history in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century changed the way that history is taught and studied. Through evidence, evaluation of fact, and specific organization, history took on a new character. Like any science experiment, many studies in history can be broken down using the scientific process. Though this type of scientific approach to history may be possible, it yields different results than a traditional science experiment. Take for instance the scientific method. Used in its most primitive forms by Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Descartes, the scientific method was used for traditional “hard” sciences, as well as more lofty social sciences like philosophy and even history. Does the scientific method work in a historical context?

The first step is to ask a question, like: Was the American Civil War a Total War?

Next, we must make a hypothesis: Yes or No. The American Civil War WAS a total war, or the American Civil War WAS NOT a total war. 

After taking a stance, we must make a statement, or prediction about our findings. In history this would be something like: A total war includes ______. The American Civil war had ______ and _______. I believe that there will be evidence to back up my claim that the American Civil war was/was not a total war. 

Next comes the hard part, research. For scientists, this step is composed of testing the experiment over and over again, hoping to achieve the same results. For historians, this means reading primary and secondary sources, researching, and writing about a specific topic. 

Once all of your facts are in line, its time for analysis. This could mean writing a research report or article, giving a lecture, or writing a full book about your findings. Historians are constantly contributing to the field of history with their findings based on research and analysis. 

Finally, and what i think is the most unique part of history’s take on the scientific method, is the replication or external review process. For historians, this is where the scientific method diverges into its own category of the Social Sciences. In general, historians do not tend to agree with each other. As a historian, we each want to have our own idea of what happened. True, we sometimes agree, but up until recently, discrediting and breaking down another historians work was part of the field. History has taken many turns in its existence, and it has a lot more room for growth!

Modern Historical Divisionism – A Coat of Many Colors

Military. Economics. Society. Culture. Politics. Religion. Environment. Gender. Drawn and quartered, modern historians divide history into subject areas to focus their study. Does this modern form of historical division benefit the study of history or hinder it?

Unbeknownst to me, Karl Marx was a historian. Only recently was this brought to my attention. Known most for his theories regarding Socialism and his most well known writing, The Communist Manifesto, historian was the last title i would have attributed to Marx. In fact, I am now convinced that he was essential to the growth of modern history. As a great communicator of ideas, he built upon the foundations on the idealism of German philosopher Hegel, gained passion from Rousseau’s political philosophies, continued French social theorist Saint-Simon’s ideals, and developed his unique historical perspective based off of Adam Smith’s economic studies.

In his studies, Marx described history as a function of economics. For Marx, economic history was history. Labor and production was the force that pushed the world in an endless cycle of growth through four stages of development, which would eventually end in a communist world society where history no longer needed to exist. His ideas incited revolution, sparked economic and social change, and gave rise to modern historical divisionism. The influence of his works on society ultimately made it so that his Utopian future would not take hold, but his ideas still hold significance to this day, both in history and in society.

The next generation of historians of the early 20th century took their cue from Marx’s tendency to write as a proto-economic historian. Now, history not only became its own field of study, but was divided into multiple subdivisions. Marx’s influence on history may have diverged from his original intentions, but became extremely influential nonetheless.

Remember, Revise, Rewrite – How History is Remembered

As a young history student in elementary school, I remember learning about the history of the United States. We were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America when he “Sailed the ocean blue in 1492″  in the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria and that the Boston Massacre was an act of unprovoked brutality by British soldiers. The more history I learned, the more it began to shift. There were less catchphrases and events became riddled with background information that diluted the significance of these monumental events.

Columbus’ ships weren’t named the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He didn’t even set foot in North America, rather he landed in the Bahamas and traveled up and down the South American coast. The Boston Massacre only resulted in 5 deaths (not worthy of the title of massacre if you ask me) and the British soldiers defending themselves and were heavily provoked by a dissatisfied America mob which pelted them with rocks and snowballs full of rocks. Important histories have been told many times, in many different ways.

For historians during the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, rediscovery of truth in history became a fundamental aspect of Enlightenment culture. The focus on reality and individualism in a movement away from tradition brought about a change in historical writing. Texts were reanalyzed and the Church was a prime target for any discrepancies that historical writing had. The movement away from traditional stories as legitimate sources of history was obvious during the Enlightenment.

For me, the Enlightenment reminds me of my experiences learning history throughout my life. When we are learning about history at a young age, we are taught history through traditional, and sometimes inaccurate, stories. As we grow up, in high school and college, we are able to question the truth in these stories and learn the real history behind these events. Much like this trend of learning history from youth to adult, in the timeline of the world, the Enlightenment brought about the intellectual community’s ability to question tradition.

The Rebirth of Classical Thought – The Renaissance

Like a well made smoothie, the Renaissance blended classical Greek and Latin theology with modern critical thought. As humanism flourished throughout Europe, scholars began to actively defy strict sacred doctrine and the critical analysis of history blossomed. No longer were historians and philosophers forcibly bound by the rules of the Roman Catholic Church. With the Reformation in full swing, many intellectuals challenged the authority of the church and sought a higher level of individualism.

The rediscovery of classical historians’ works after the fall of Constantinople brought about a revolutionary change in the study of history. As histories were analyzed, the focus of historians shifted from glorification of God or King to valuation of individuals and history based on evidence. The profound change in intellectual thought created a distinct shift in society.

The Renaissance gave way for modern history as history became interwoven with Philosophy and Theology. Although history was not its own separate discipline, it benefited from its connection to Philosophical inquiry on reality and Theological analysis of the divine. Many of the historical figures of the Renaissance were well versed in multiple forms of critical analysis, allowing them to question everything and become critical historiographers.

Historians like Lorenzo Valla, who was commissioned to question the legitimacy of a Church doctrine, exemplifies the dedication and skill of Renaissance historians in the art of analysis. Valla’s analysis of the Donation of Constantine utterly demolished its legitimacy and made a significant impact on historiography as a whole. The contribution of critical analysis by Renaissance historians to historiography brought the study of history to a whole new level and paved the way for a more modern form of history.

Legitimacy – A Modern Historian’s Bias

Have you ever wondered what makes history more than just stories about things that happened long ago? In truth, many great writers have captured our imagination and whisked us off to a far away places, but we cannot call those narratives history no matter how real they may seem. History is more than just narrative for historians, we want legitimacy.

I would say, above all, modern historians demand that if history is to be deemed legitimate, it must be written with objectivity and references to reputable sources. This trend causes quite the conundrum when looking at the historians of the past who established the process of writing history with writings that were thick with bias.

For Christian historians like Bede and Augustine, the inclusion of God and the divine may hurt their legitimacy in the eyes of modern historians. While we can move past overt religious rhetoric and write it off as a cultural difference, the bias of writing from the perspective of a devout man of God who takes the bible as the most essential source of all, leaves modern historians with questions regarding the historian’s legitimacy.

While bias can be observed and understood, a lack of sources cannot be overlooked. Second in importance to legitimacy is accurate recording of sources. Until the significant development of footnotes by Bede in his work History of the English People from 731 A.D., the inclusion of source references was limited name dropping and confusing chronology that made finding referenced works difficult. Since the development of source citation, it has become a staple of history as a means to prove that your word is more than narrative. It is based upon something definable, referable, and contingent on facts,

Without objectivity, history becomes filled with bias that overwhelms the facts, and without citation, history loses its structure and plausibility. It takes both objectivity and citation to prove to modern historian that history really is more than just a narrative based on possible events of the past.

Historians Illuminate the Past

Do you remember what you had for breakfast this morning? What about what you did for your last birthday? Do you remember what your great grandmothers name was? History is what we have chosen to remember. As historians, we find that the events of the past can be foggy and difficult to understand when we are limited by our resources. 

The further we move away from an event, the less detail we are able to remember. This is why written record has been so important to historians. Through analyzing ancient texts, historians try to bring to life what they read. As storytellers and riddle solvers, historians take pieces of information and pair them together to form a complete picture. Unfortunately, not all pictures can be completed.

Like any good storyteller, we often focus on the hero of the story, or the “great man” in history. Whether they were a king, religious leader, military commander, or politician, we are able to give focus to a confusing world of facts and figures. But who does this leave out? Often times, women and the uneducated poor who could not write for themselves.

For history lovers like me who try to picture themselves in their studies, the lack of information about common people, the everyday Joe, who makes the world go round for those “great men” to sow their seeds of power, really puts a kink into the discovery process. One thing is clear, history was often written with a specific audience in mind. It was most often written by the rich and educated, about the rich and educated, for the rich and educated. Thankfully, we do have some opportunities to learn about ordinary citizens through interactions with the public, census records, and religious texts which target a wider audience.

Still, with only bits and pieces of information about the lower classes, we are able to paint a picture about the lives of people that lived hundreds and even thousands of years ago. I know that my goal as a historian is to breath life into the words of the past, to take my perspective on life and try to connect with people that existed ages before me. If we do not do well to remember the people that came before us and the deeds they have done, both good and bad, we will lose a huge part of who we are. History is all we have, lets remember it.

The Foundations of Historiography

Historiography, the study of history. In a sea of facts and the wondrous mysteries of the past, academics and history lovers alike are faced with a major dilemma: how should history be recorded and remembered? Fortunately, there is no one correct answer to that question (although there may be a few wrong answers here and there).

As historians began to write history, there are a few general themes which we generally seem to agree: Truth. Narrative. War. Morality.

Truth. Referring either to the factual accounting of an event or the truth that lies in our understanding of the past, historians have shown a reverence for truth above all else.

Narrative. Who doesn’t love a good story? There is something to be said about the way historical narrative can capture the imagination and bring life the events of the past.

War. The landscape of history is riddled with skirmishes for territory, warring factions between rival neighbors, and the destructive force of full-scale warfare. It is no wonder that many historians have turned their focus to the study of war and its effects.

Morality. While the idea of morality has shifted slightly over the course of history, the ideals of moral leaderships and honor are echoed in our understanding of human nature. Whether it be in war, politics, or simply in the fabric of society, historians tend to highlight the great men (or women) of history with hero-like status because of their “moral” significance.

Though historians strive to capture the best understanding of the past possible, we are limited by our resources and the belief that we cannot truly know what happened in the past. Thwarted by barriers of dead languages, incomplete texts, authors bias, and traditional oral history that is forever lost, we are left with the pittance of surviving text and our best educated guess. We must call upon our understanding of human nature and the truths of historical inquiry which provide us with a glimpse into the lives of the people who lived before us.

Historiography, the study of history (from the perspective of people who try to understand its mysteries).