Chapter 19 of John Burrow’s History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances, and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century, is the opening chapter to Part VI of Burrow’s study, titled Studying the Past. The title of Chapter Nineteen is “Antiquarianism, Legal History and the Discovery of Feudalism.” History of Histories, of course, is a study of history, beginning with ancient Greece, but is concerned not with the recitation of the evolution of mankind from that period, but rather with the ways in which history has been recorded since the dawn of modern civilization. While Burrow discusses the history of history from his book’s beginning, it is with this section of his study that he introduces the reader to a major transformation in the study of history beginning with the Renaissance Period, a transformation that both ushered in the exploitation of previously unavailable and highly significant sources of information and that reflected the influences of political developments often at the expense of objective analyses of the past. As he opens Chapter Nineteen:
“’Studying the Past,’ the title of this last group of chapters, marks a new beginning: the use, from the sixteenth century onwards, of the textual methods of Renaissance humanism to reveal and understand not only the works of ancient philosophers and poets but the European past, which from the later seventeenth century began to be called the Middle Ages. This technique was archival historical research . . .and by this means, inquiries could be carried back beyond the memories of the historian, or of eyewitnesses, and freed from dependence on earlier historians and chroniclers. This was a great transformation . . .”
Burrow is, basically, dating the introduction of modern scholarly techniques or methodologies to this period in time. As he would go on to note, scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries “stumbled into archival research rather than adopted it as a programme for history, and their motives . . .were often political rather than what the nineteenth century, when an ideal of historical research was made explicit, approvingly came to call ‘scientific’.” History of Histories is evolutionary in its approach, a logical framework given the importance over the centuries of developments in communications, printing and transportation, all of which would facilitate the greater accumulation of information, its synthesis, and its distribution.
One of Burrow’s main themes in Chapter Nineteen is the fealty scholars of the period held towards their antiquarian predecessors. The writings of Herodotus, in particular, were (and largely remain) sacrosanct, as the ancient Greek is deservedly considered the “Father of History.” While reference to the writings of the ancient historians is understandable and deserved, however, the obvious paucity of written histories of the past left the study of history bereft of what we would today consider credible recordings of ancient times.
Another major theme of this chapter is Burrow’s interest in the influence of humanism on the study of history. Humanism was, clearly, a major transformative development in the social sciences, as the role of humans rather than of divine beings would provide the study of history a more practical if secular focus. Contemporaneous with the emergence of humanism was the vastly greater prominence given the role of man’s law, or the legal profession, but the role of humanism, with its emphasis on scientific research, represented the greatest advancement in the study of history. Balancing the objective study of the past with the dictates of Crown and Church – especially difficult when the two overlapped as much as frequently occurred – constituted an enormous challenge, and one that ultimately facilitated the politicization of history, but as part of an evolutionary process, the period covered in this chapter provided one of the more important sections of Burrow’s work.