An Introduction to Historiography
Selected essays on the history of history
What is Historiography?
While reading history often seems like an adventure into the past, it never fully leaves the present. The ways in which existing power structures, political ideologies, personal interests, cultural criticism, and professional conventions impose on our interpretations of the past are rarely obvious. Historiography examines what these are and shows why we must aware of them for any critical reading of history.
In studying history, doubt is not only healthy, but necessary to the pursuit of ‘truth’. The most dangerous histories are those which are believed wholly and without hesitation.
The interest in the study of history can be traced back to the Greeks as bards and poets traveled widely around the Mediterranean before knowledge was recorded. Historical tradition in the ancient Greek world consisted of firsthand accounts that were retold across generations.
Roman historical works emphasized the Romans' superiority in relation to the rest of the world. The inclusion of fables and myths would create new challenges as it would be harder to determine what is the 'truth' that they are setting out to find and what is the 'fictional' or unimportant details.
Only victors get to share their stories but one Greek prisoner refused to be silenced.
Were the so-called "Dark Ages" really all that dark? Despite what many scholars would have you think, there were histriographic advancements taking place before the Rennaisance in Medieval Europe.
Medieval Islamic Historiography
Middle Eastern scientific and cultural achievements have traditionally been ignored by Eurocentric Western academia, and Middle Eastern historiography has accordingly been excluded from the traditional historiographical narrative. The sources most commonly used for Historiography classes focus almost exclusively on Greco-Roman and European historiographers, and this section hopes to include a medieval Middle Eastern perspective.
With humanism the approach to history began to change as scholars studied individual events and people in a more secular context. This shift in focus changes the purpose of writing history.
Reformation historiography largely centered around the revision of history, removing the elites as the sole makers and consumers of history. Protestant historians attempted to write their religion into history and to provide Protestantism with authority through origin stories. In the end, the Reformation became the catalyst for secular history and the professionalization of history as a profession.
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) is well known for his political writings---as well as his motives for political dominance and acquisition of power---but less appreciated are his impact on the writing of history. His emphasis on learning from history, human nature, and fortune changed the ways many historians approached their work.
Often described as a long 18th century, the Enlightenment spanned from 1685-1815 and has held a crucial place in the narratives of history and the methods of historiography. The social and political situations of the past led to the need for new ways of thinking with various innovative and revolutionary methods that broke from the historical traditions of past centuries.
The Dunning School
For a long time after the Civil War, The Dunning School of Thought dominated historical scholarship of slavery and Reconstruction. This deeply racist ideology was often mistaken for the truth because it was written in such a way that upheld the historical industry's highest standards.
The Annales School
Some of the most innovative and influential historiographic changes in the twentieth-century came from a group of French historians known as the Annales School. The methods they introduced challenged traditional historical focus from prominent and powerful individuals and shed light on often overlooked or dismissed populations and cultures.
Have you ever wondered how *where* you live has influenced *who* you are? Are you a person of the desert, the mountains, the sea? Have you ever questioned the relativity of time or thought of time in terms of its relationship to space?
The Meiji Restoration and Japanese Historiography
History has the power to create nations. 19th century Japan's response to Western colonialism was not only a period of rapid modernization, but a time where the country would reforge its past, and construct a new identity.
Early Feminist History
Feminist historians criticized the notion that there was a natural place for women within the world. This was not a view that historians actively tried to perpetuate, but rather a concept that previous historians had conformed to.
Eurocentrism encompasses many Western concepts and their effects, including colonialism, capitalism, monotheism, racism, and patriarchy. Yet, viewing the world with a Western perspective even impacts less-obvious aspects of daily life, such as conceptions of time, the calendar, familial structures, cosmology, use of the environment, etc.
This essay will focus on the “History Wars” of conflicting historical narratives, different approaches to studying history and ultimately, the battle for authority, particularly the conflict between popular history and academic history.
The writing of Postcolonialist histories is an effort to counteract the lasting effects of the colonial histories, which tend to ignore or gloss over the severe damage colonialism has had on society. This includes the loss of land and resources, which hold significant spiritual and economic value. Cultural traditions and knowledge of pre-colonial pasts have also been wiped out in many places, due to persecution and forced conversions.
Chinese historiography contains a longer continuous tradition than any other on Earth, stretching back to ancient times. The length of this tradition, and the long standing belief by Chinese academics that Chinese historiography is the paramount form of the discipline make it valuable counterpoint to European historiography.
The Historical Value of Film
When watching a film or documentary, the average viewer is immersed in a moment in history in a way that reading a text could never accomplish. When viewing film through a historian’s lens, we can be more objective in our observations of footage from the past.
From the scrolls of ancient Greece to the jargon packed books of the modern academic historian, historians have searched for “true histories”. In studying what constitutes history, we must focus on some themes that belong to what we call today historiography.
In mid-nineteenth century Germany, a professor at the University of Berlin would fundamentally change the way history is taught and applied. No individual contributed more to the professionalization of historiography than Leopold Von Ranke.