Talking About History: From the Greeks to Marx

By Dave MacLeod

Weighing the sources

The practice of history begins with evidence and with sources - so much so that availability of sources is often the key determinant of what becomes popular with historians.

'Students of history need to be aware of the scope of historical sources and the methods of historians.'

Some areas and periods (for example 19th-century France or the 20th-century world generally) benefit from a greater volume of documents than others, such as ancient Germany. Whereas historians of early modern and medieval popular culture face a constant battle to find material, or else to reassess extant records creatively, those concerned with modern political history face a veritable forest of official documents - more than any one person could marshal in a lifetime.

Moreover, each month sees new government files being released the world over, while radio, television and the internet have enormously expanded the source base for contemporary history. Therefore, it is vital that students of history are aware of the scope of historical sources, and the methods which historians use to order them.

Historians claim to master no more than a small aspect of history's true scope. In this we are governed by the huge growth in the volume of sources available. Now, in the 21st century, this abundance is even more apparent.

Between 1475 and 1640, 30,000 books at least were published in England alone. From 1641 to 1700, the figure reached 100,000. During the 18th century, a further 350,000 appeared, and, since then, the number has run into many millions.

The changing face of history

Image of Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle, Victorian historian
The scope of the historian's endeavours is also shaped in fundamental ways by cultural attitudes.

The broadening of the discipline and the increased number of participants, as well as the burgeoning of university-based scholarship since the 1960s, have led historians to concentrate on smaller and more fragmentary pieces of the past. Whereas Lord Acton, the most famous of the Victorian historians, claimed to pursue 'ultimate' (meaning universal) history - a history requiring no subsequent revision on account of its perfectibility - the past has since become an arena for interpretation and reinterpretation.

'No history of Britain today would be complete without reference to ... its current multiculturalism ...'

History today is demarcated by chronological divisions, national distinctions, by thematic or subject-based identifications and by methodological differentiation. Moreover, the importance of changing mores must not be ignored. No history of Britain today would be complete without reference to the history of its current multi-culturalism and the important human legacy of its once-dominant global empire.

History changes over time

One of the vital elements in historical enquiry is an appreciation of change over time. While it is not correct to say that societies improve - for this suggests that the past is inferior - it is important to note the importance of change.

The same point can be made about the study of history. The way historians do their work, the assumptions they make about what's important and what not, and the research methods they use, have varied widely over time.

The passage of time also impacts on our ability to check a historian's work. We can verify the accuracy of a 20th-century scholar's work by going back to the same sources - something that's just not possible with a Greek historian of the fifth century BCE.

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.

Published on BBC History: 2005-01-31
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