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18 September 2014
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Talking About History: From the Greeks to Marx

By Dave MacLeod
Schools of historical thought

Image of E P Thompson
E P Thompson  ©
We can make useful distinctions between methods and approaches according to time and place. The great Greek historian Thucydides, for example, wrote history based upon his own experience or that of people he had talked to, and he saw it as impossible to know anything securely about the more distant past. His purpose was to help posterity learn from the mistakes of the past.

In the medieval periodthe influence of God was seen as the crucial determining factor in human affairs (something which obviously cannot be referenced in earthly sources), and the main function of history was to justify God's ways to man.

'History became more wide-ranging in its definitions of who and what mattered in the past ... '

In the 19th century historians such as Leopold Von Ranke thought of themselves as having a thoroughly objective approach to historical evidence, comparable to the methodology of the newly prestigious hard sciences. But of course these historians too shaped their accounts of the past in accordance with their perception of the steady progress of the nation state and its institutions - not to mention the desire in historians such as Thomas Macaulay to cut a literary dash.

History from below

The 20th century was marked by a reaction against the previous century's style of historical writing, particularly a rejection of the centrality of great men and the employment of a heroic narrative style. History became more wide-ranging in its definitions of who and what mattered in the past, and also drew inspiration from social theory.

Thus the French Annales school brought environment, mentalité and ordinary peoples' lives into the historical viewfinder. The promotion of ordinary people's history - 'history from below' - reached a new intensity, with the Marxist social history tradition of scholars such as EP Thompson. Today, history is more catholic in spirit and more all-embracing in its range than ever was the case before.

About the author

Dr Donald MacRaild is head of history at the university of Northumbria at Newcastle. He is author of Irish Migrants in Modern Britain (Palgrave, 1999) and co-author with Jeremy Black of Studying History (Palgrave, 2000) - as well as a number of books and articles on aspects of Irish migration and labour history.


Published: 2005-01-31

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