A History of Histories

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1783

The word “history” means both the remembered past and the process of telling the past. The second sense indicates that what is known of the world before the present always comes from someone’s telling, and the different ways in which people have told about the world have been shaped by their understandings, goals, and preoccupations. The recorded past is presented in particular human voices, so that reading history is the double act of hearing the tellers and hearing what they are telling us. John Burrow, in A History of Histories, describes the variety of the voices.

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Burrow begins with what he considers the first recognizable voices of historians, those of Herodotus and Thucydides. Before Herodotus (born between 450 and 430 b.c.e.), there had been recordings of events, notably by the Egyptians, but no reflections on events or interpretations of them. Herodotus, inspired by the rise of the Persian empire and its invasion of Greece, wrote the work known as Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709) in order to memorialize the great human achievements of the struggle between the Greeks and the Persians. This would be the motivation of most of the ancient histories in Burrow’s recounting and even a number of the more modern ones. It was certainly a motivation for the writings of the successor of Herodotus, Thucydides, who investigated the events of the Peloponnesian War, when the Greeks proceeded to fight among themselves in the years following their defeat of the invading Persians. Both Herodotus and Thucydides, wishing to create memorials, wrote epic narratives, creating one of the forms of history that would pass through the centuries.

Following a generally chronological approach, Burrow moves from the two Greek founders to histories of the Greeks in Asia, as mercenaries of the Persians and then as invaders. In reaching the historians of Alexander’s campaigns, there appears a curious chronological quirk of historical writing. While Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon (author of the epic of the adventures of Greek mercenaries in Persia) were writing about events that had occurred in their own lifetimes and in which they were involved, Alexander’s historians wrote centuries after the Macedonian conquests. Should a chronological telling place the historian according to the historian’s lifetime or the time of the historical narrative? Grouping all of the “ancients” together, Burrow uses the latter strategy for the Alexander historians Arrian and Curtius Rufus, but waits until the Enlightenment to deal with Edward Gibbon’s Roman history.

Following the Greeks with the Romans, Burrow considers the major historians of Rome. Consistent with the expansion of this new empire and its inclusiveness, several of the historians were not acutally Roman. Polybius, for example, was Greek. Josephus, who wrote on the Jewish revolt, was a Jewish Pharisee. The Roman historians also looked at peoples who were new to historical consideration, as when Tacitus provided observations on the Germans. The Roman historians, especially Tacitus and Livy, would also provide models for future historians, down to the modern period.

Because of the chronological approach, Burrow’s A History of Histories is also, necessarily, a history of the world (or at least the Western world), requiring divisions into epochs and periods. Burrow’s epochs are fairly traditional. He moves from the ancient world to that of Christendom, which presented a new, forward-moving scheme of history derived from theology. The Bible gave a new theme to historians, the idea of the people of God. It also gave them a new subject, the church. With the general decline in literacy, though, early Christian historical writers, such as Gregory of Tours, tended to lose their analytical capacities and fall into chronicling. The English historian Bede, as Burrow presents him, played a unique role, telling the story both of the English church and of the English people, preparing the way for the revival of secular history.

Secular history returned through the writing of annals and chronicles of the deeds of the knights. Burrow derives the sophisticated historical works of the Italian humanists Giovanni Villani, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Francesco Guicciardini from civic chronicles written during the late Middle Ages. He also discusses the interest of these humanist writers in the ancient Romans, suggesting that history continually looks back at models for rendering the past as well as at the past itself.

In taking up modern history, in which the past becomes something to be studied rather than remembered, Burrow renders a service to all readers and writers of history by defending the early modern antiquarians. Regarded in their own day as mere collectors and frequently looked down upon even today, the antiquarians, especially of England, not only assembled and preserved valuable historical sources but also kept alive local history as attention turned to national and political subjects. Burrow gives a pivotal position and an entire chapter to Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon (1609-1674), whose The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (1702) provided the foundation for all future histories of the English Civil War. Readers may question whether Clarendon should really receive roughly the same amount of space as Herodotus, but one could argue this issue, given the role of the civil war in shaping England and the importance of England for later world history. Following Clarendon, the study of the past reached an intellectual and artistic high point with the works of David Hume, William Robertson, and Gibbon. The discussion of Gibbon is particularly interesting, as Burrow details both the influence of ancient writers, such as Tacitus, and of contemporaries on this major shaper of modern thought.

As the Persian and Peloponnesian wars had been the critical events calling for the attention of the ancient Greeks, the revolutions in England and France became points of concentration for modern historians, especially the English and the French. Thomas Babington (Lord) Macaulay read his own Whig politics into the English Civil War, presenting it as leading the way to growing parliamentary democracy. Views of the French Revolution were more contentious, since its meaning was still a political issue in the nineteenth century and may well continue to be a political issue. In a unique declamatory style, Thomas Carlyle presented the French Revolution as the violent drama of growing realities casting off the dead forms of the past. Jules Michelet and Hippolyte Taine, two of the most important French historians of the nineteenth century, offered different versions of the revolution as a popular uprising. For Michelet, the revolutionary masses were “the people,” often acting in unfortunate ways, but acting in concert and in the name of the emerging new nation. For Taine, those same masses were “the mob,” anarchic and uncontrolled. The contrast between the two French scholars demonstrates that in modern times history is often separated from ideology only with difficulty, if at all.

One of the ideological themes that appeared in the nineteenth century was that of history as the story of freedom. Burrow give two examples of this trend. In the Constitutional History (1874-1878) of William Stubbs, the traditional political actors of the past, the rulers, began to recede into the background and history became the story of the emergence of constitutional institutions. The Swiss Jacob Burckhardt, in his interpretation of the Italian Renaissance, identified the rise of autonomous individuals as a characteristic of the rise of modernity.

In a sudden move to the United States, Burrow brings together two historians from different origins and eras. Bernal Díaz, who lived in the sixteenth century, was one of the companions of Hernán Cortés in the conquest of Mexico. Díaz wrote an account of the adventure that is still interesting today. William Hickling Prescott was one of the first major historians in the United States, and he is best known for his 1843 classic The Conquest of Mexico. The justification for presenting these two historians in the same chapter is clearly that Díaz was Prescott’s major source. However, earlier in the book, more than one hundred pages separated Edward Gibbon from his sources in the ancient world. A consistent chronological progression is difficult to maintain when the subjects are always looking across the centuries. From Prescott, Burrow moves to major historians in the United States concerned with their own country, Francis Parkman’s history of the American West and Henry Adams’s account of the growth of the United States as a nation.

Germany, not seen since the entry on Tacitus, reenters Burrow’s account in the nineteenth century. The German historians of this time were leaders in the professionalization of history, and they helped to determine the character of history as an academic discipline rather than as the concern of philosophic gentlemen or politicians out of office. Leopold von Ranke was especially important for creating a professional consensus about what history should be, as much through his personal connections with other historians as through his thinking and writing.

Burrow presents twentieth century history as movements in diverse directions. The “Whig history” of Macaulay and Stubbsthe presentation of history as a steady movement toward democratic institutionscame under criticism. Professionalization raised the question of whether history was an art or a science. The Annales school in France drew attention to the underlying structures of history and to cultural interpretations as a subject of history. Marxism arose as a grand narrative for some. Anthropological approaches became more common. The idea of world history became more common, even if most academic historians still tend to be highly specialized in time and place.

A History of Histories is an intriguing and erudite work, but one that does have its limits and eccentricities. Some readers may feel that it should properly be called “A History of Western Histories.” While he does not pretend to extend his consideration beyond European and North American historians, readers might consider how Burrow’s personal view of historical writing has been informed and directed by his European outlook. Nowhere in these pages will one find a mention of the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian (c. 145-86 b.c.e.), who wrote a massive work on two thousand years of Chinese history and laid the groundwork for all succeeding Chinese history writing. There is also no mention of the medieval North African Muslim philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who left behind a history of the world that has influenced modern Western as well as non-Western historians. Burrow leaves the impression that history moved geographically as well as temporally, beginning in Greece, spreading for a few centuries throughout the Roman Empire, then taking up residence mainly in England and France, taking a brief tour of northern Italy during the Renaissance, and popping up in the United States and Germany during the nineteenth century.

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