Historiography, the history of history. Or, more accurately, the study of how people analyze and interpret history.
We, as modern citizens of a modern society, have an ingrained perception of the gradual improvement of us. A movement forward and upward. It is more than the optimism that someday there will be a cure for cancer. We believe that our stocks will recover from a recession. It’s part of the language we use to describe a downturn in the economy, implying that it will return to normal.
We talk about the ideal of the ’Good Old Days’ but only because the progression of history has disappointed us in some way. It hasn’t moved forward as we expect. No one really wants to return to days of outdoor plumbing. We like having pineapples in the grocery store and GPS.
Ancient Greeks saw history as a gradual decline. The gods walked the earth in a Golden Age, before death and taxes. They fought and loved, creating mountain ranges and underworld kingdoms. They left to party on Olympus, but great heroes defended everyone from monsters through a glowing Silver Age. Heroes became constellations, leaving the common man to wriggle about in the dust of later ages, aspiring to the greatness of the past, and hoping to catch the ear of the gods through great deeds, sacrifice and prayer.
The Norse had a different view, a classic cyclical view, in which all of history would rise and fall, starting over again and again. Completely. All of history. It led to a bit of a fatalistic view, as everything would end. Zip.
So you have to be careful when using ancient writings as a mirror of history. The basic cultural view of history can affect the writings. Are they aspiring to greatness? Fatalistically showing you that all is dust in the wind? Writing a cautionary tale of hubris?
Ancient civilizations started writing about the history of themselves early on. Were they fact or fiction? Hard to say. Rameses II was probably exaggerating his exploits on the dramatic carvings depicting his victories over the Hittites when most historians agree that the two empires had a series of bloody squabbles that were not decisive. The earliest known peace treaty in written history was between these two rivals, and we actually have the documentation from both sides. The two written records are identical except that each side claims the other side came to them to sue for peace. Fact? Fiction? Would we have seen the conflict differently if only one side of the peace treaty had survived?
Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 BC-425 BC) was the author of the “Histories” which are considered the first critical studies of historic events. He analyzed the reliability of his sources and even visited areas to research the actual possibility of huge numbers of troops physically participating in a battle. While this may seem the bare minimum of today’s standards, it was a revelation at the time. Many histories of Greek wars and events were loaded with exaggerated numbers that were supposedly supported by eyewitness accounts. The accounts were beefed up to support an ulterior motive of making one side or the other look better. Obviously. History gets used for that a lot.
Another version or method of describing history was blooming at the same time. Local histories, written using civil lists of local events and weather, were being written. They existed before this time, but were usually written on common materials that did not survive the centuries except in small fragments.
Local history writing became a long-lasting tradition, surviving the upheavals of barbaric tribes and earthquakes and continuing into Medieval times. Many timelines used by historians today are the result of study of overlapping local histories. The history from one town of shooting stars, drought and tidal waves can be compared to other small-town histories to develop a string of known events and to place more accurately the events that would otherwise not be corroborated.
If three towns mention an earthquake, and one town mentions a star conjunction that happened a month after the earthquake, historians might be able to date the earthquake and a number of other minor events in all three towns such as a visit by a traveling scholar whose works were not otherwise dateable. Then you have dates for the scholar‘s travels, leading to other dates in other towns based on his writings. And, when no one is using the same calendar, that sort of information can be very useful.
A bit of a house of cards, perhaps, when one date falls through then a lot of other assumptions collapse as well. As the study of history changes, some of these established timelines falter. New information can update long lists of events.
The term ’Primary Source’ is used to describe this sort of material. Something written on the spot. Something someone saw. The original stuff. Caesar’s own words. A Civil War letter from the Battle of Bull Run. DaVinci’s sketchbooks.
Is it always accurate? In a way. Would you have written an accurate account of the Battle of Bull Run while dodging bullets and squinting through the smoke of black powder? No. You wouldn’t have even started to create an accurate account of the opposing side. Only your own impressions. A small piece of the overall picture. Accurate only to you. And if you waited until much later to write your impressions, you’d write them differently. You’d think about it and analyze it with info you got from your buds who were half a mile away.
So knowing the timing of the creation of Primary Source material can be relevant, as is knowing the position held by the writer. Was the writer of the Battle of Bull Run letter an officer or a private? Was he writing to a superior officer to explain his failures? Was he writing to his mom? A girlfriend?
Additionally, every author of an event has a bias. No author is immune. Does this make their material useless? No. By understanding the bias of the author, you can still sift through their writings and acquire information. Caesar had a bias against the politics and decadence of Rome. He described Celts under this bias as warriors more noble than the average Roman and at the same time made sure that his readers would recognize that no matter how noble and powerful they were, they had flaws that led to their downfall at his hand. He had to make them powerful in ways that Rome would understand so that when he got back after defeating them, Rome would be impressed. It gave him a chance to dig at his contemporaries who stayed in Rome, because he, Caesar, was out here fighting the mighty Celts and honing his skills while they watched fighting in the arena. And he’d be back soon.
So the Celts were a propaganda tool of Caesar’s. Using the knowledge of his bias, valuable information can still be extracted from his writings on the Celts. But nothing should be swallowed whole.
Social position, timing, bias, and purpose. Studying history is complicated. And we’re just getting started. I’ll tell you about my own bias later. If you don’t figure it out for yourself.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, our early historiographer, was a religious man. He dedicated a substantial amount of space to discussions on the movements and motives of the gods in history. A later Greek historian, Thucydides, tried something new.
Thucydides, said by some to have been influenced by the factual nature of local histories, trimmed the speculation of the motives of the gods out of his writings on the war between Athens and Sparta. Instead of writing about the war as the result of a conflict between gods, he worked to find the causes in historic events. Remember how the Trojan war started because Paris gave the golden apple to Aphrodite and ended up with Helen? Thucydides preferred to get down to the real causes of war such as economic and social pressures.
It seems obvious to us now, but back then it was a new thing. It did have an influence on later writers in the Mediterranean region, especially later Roman writers.
In China, we also have a tradition of extensive historical writing. The ’Spring and Summer Annals’ of the State of Lu describes local history from 722-481 BC. This is in an ’annalistic’ style in which items are documented as yearly events with little effort to explain or analyze the information. There is no ’cause and effect’ framework of events.
Hayden White’s rather dry but informative book, ‘The Content of Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation’ (which I have read but am using Wikipedia to help me condense for you) ascribes a social morality to other types of writing that annals lack. He says that annals do not provide a social context, a way of determining the relative importance or social morality of events. Annals do not provide the causes or the narrative of the event that gives it purpose. He also describes annals as describing events as happening to humanity rather than caused by humanity.
Annals, or ‘chronicles’ are arranged in chronological order. Obviously. Some sources define a chronicle as distinct from annals in that a chronicle has a theme, limiting the information documented to the reign of a king or the development of a religious order.
Narrative history, extensively used in China, is dated at the earliest to the 5th century. Narrative history, as its name suggests, uses a story or series of stories to describe events.
Traditional writings of narrative history are more centralized and tidy than other types. A narrative of a war would cover the beginning and the end. It would cover the stages of the war, the people involved in the war and the impact of the war. It would include biographical narratives on prominent people who were involved in the war, letters home, messages from the front. It is a descriptive method, rather than analytical.
A narrative of a dynasty would include the initial founder and the history of the people who made up the dynasty along with their contributions. It would end with the founding of the new dynasty. Traditional narrative history in China has a predominantly dynastic and cyclical nature. The dynasty is founded by a person with a good, moral basis. The dynasty rises but eventually loses the moral superiority and the Mandate of Heaven passes to another dynasty. Traditionally a new dynasty sponsored the writing of the narrative history of the old dynasty, a costly and labor intensive process.
Interestingly, this long-lasting, narrative tradition is used by modern People’s Republic of China (PRC) sponsored historians to subsume some non-Han Chinese dynasties into the majority Han Chinese fold. Because two non-Han dynasties of China elected to continue the costly narrative process, creating extensive histories and claiming legitimacy of the Mandate of Heaven through the tradition, PRC historians argue that the dynasties willingly gave up any pretense to separate ethnic recognition.
The uses of history.
Traditional narrative history, descriptive stories of events, gave way to more systematic and analytical views of history in the Renaissance and early Modern eras. Voltaire liked the narrative method, but in general, it became more fashionable to view history in terms of a social-science analysis. You look at the development of society in the movements of trade and people. Or in the politics and diplomacy of a nation.
Perhaps not as much fun to read. It depends on your experience in high school, I suppose.
So studying history is an investigation into the reliability of sources, analysis of cultural views and utilization of a historical tradition. Every historian has a historic tradition or framework on which they base their analysis. Or lack of it.
Political history covers the analysis and narrative of the development of nations. As stated by Hegel, political history implies that the nation state was the primary agent of change in history. It is a view that the creation or dissolution of states is the core catalyst for change.
Social History concentrates on the life and culture of ordinary people. People’s History is considered historical work from the point of view of the ordinary people. A subtle difference.
A Marxist analysis includes the development and distribution of economic resources.
The Annales School of historiography developed in France in the 20th Century, emphasizes social scientific methods instead of traditional political themes or narrative method. More influential in the 50’s and 60’s, it developed a strong publishing and research network, emphasizing various themes and methods over the years, but known for involved studies of ‘mentalities’ or mindsets of cultural groups. Also referred to as ‘cultural history’.
Recently there has been a return to the narrative and social methods of history. Political history, a strong force in universities through the 1960’s, has definitely lost ground. It’s easier to get a college freshman interested in the story of a common soldier in the Battle of Bull Run than the shift from linen to cotton clothing and the economic impact on farmers.
So, analyzing a historic source is complicated. And what about Archaeology? How does that fit in?
Enough of Historiography for now. I’ll go into more targeted historiographical method as related to Celtic Art and Celts next. Measuring heads, extrapolating the movement of languages and comparing Celts and Greeks. We’ll go there.
And I will get back to Wikipedia. I will not let that go.