The past may be another country, as a cliché holds, but it nonetheless remains an enduring object of fascination. From Homer to Hollywood, authors have found true stories to be the best. Making sense of the past, however, presents a very different challenge, which John Burrow explores in a wide ranging study of historical writing from antiquity to the present. A fine line separates history from such genres as myth, epic, and biography along with academic fields including political science and anthropology. The way in which history separates itself as the distinct project of understanding the past—often with an eye to lessons for the present—provides a thread drawing together disparate authors working in the very different contexts of their own age. Burrow aims at recovering how past historians viewed their own past and what that story of historiography means.
Burrow’s approach to historiography—the history of historical writing that emerged as a discreet field only in the early 20th century—differs from the great-books model common in the United States. A leading scholar at the University of Sussex, Burrow worked with colleagues to develop a complex view of the intellectual past assessing the full range of ideas, idioms, and audiences that shape a piece of writing. Instead of presenting ideas as autonomous projects that propel themselves through time, Burrow treats them as actions of people as specific periods. Those actions can form a conversation and often a dialogue across generations shaped by reaction and imitation. Casting texts or ideas as timeless artifacts to be seen in abstraction distorts our perspective on the past and defeats history’s purpose as a form of inquiry.
Accounts of people and events date from the ancient near east, and they provided early historians like Herodotus material for their work. Recording fact differed from history, but Burrow notes that rendering an account can involve explanation and take the form of a narrative. Herodotus reached beyond both such accounts by Egyptians and Hittites and Homeric narrative by joining analysis of the Persian war with the theme of freedom in opposition to eastern despotism. That contrast would endure in Western historiography and political thought. Ethnography—the study of the diversity of manners and customs among people—marked another theme of Herodotus’ inquiry.
Thucydides insisted upon certainty as the chief quality in writing history as distinct from prose chronicles more intent on capturing the readers’ attention with arresting points. Reliable eyewitness testimony became a hallmark, and true history involved the study of contemporary or nearly such events. As an Athenian commander, Thucydides provided a first-hand perspective on the Peloponnesian War that analyzed how events reverberated through alliances among the Greek city-states. Burrow likens the circumstances to Europe before World War I, and he focuses on Thucydides efforts to explain their consequences. If the rendering of speeches and other aspects of his work appear stylized, its dispassionate analysis resonates as a model for political inquiry. How polities relate to one another and how they survive upheaval provide the driving questions behind Thucydides work.
Modern readers forget how much ancient historiography has been lost. What Burrow calls the not entirely accidental accidents of survival and extinction distort our knowledge of both the quality of ancient historiography and the kinds of history it recounted. If the greatest works survived, others survived only as exceptions to the general rule of extinction or at best preservation in epitomies or extracts. For example, Livy, the great historian of early Rome, survives only in part. Burrow thus cites the value of historians’ responses to other authors as a means of sketching a wider picture of historical writing than extant works supply.
Roman historians worked more from documents than Greeks like Thucydides, and their preoccupation with record keeping, genealogy, and antiquarian studies provided a range of material on which to draw. Rome’s rise to power and victory over its Carthaginian rival set the questions for historians to answer. Polybius and his counterparts followed Thucydides in seeing the relationship between the man of affairs and history. Those who dealt with public matters had the experience to judge past events, while lessons from history offered an essential guide to action. Much later historians, including Niccolo Machiavelli, Francisco Guiccardini, and the Earl of Clarendon, took up the subject in retirement as a complement to their earlier public careers. Tacitus later gave Edward Gibbon a model for “philosophical” or scientific history subordinating rhetoric to reflection. Admired as a political thinker for his ability to compress wisdom drawn from history into epigrammatic forms, Tacitus explored the consequences of Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire. He also described the Roman encounters with Britain and the Germanic peoples, and his discussion of the later became a starting point for inquiries by modern Germans into their past.
Christianity opened a new chapter in historical writing, not least because it presumes a linear and directional pattern to events with God as the central mover. History offered a means of justifying the faith—and the church as an institution—by recounting the actions of its believers. Burrow describes many works up through the Renaissance as chronicles of events rather than histories. Bede marks an especially distinguished exception whose work on the English people helped forge identity even before a state had formed to express it.
The medieval preoccupation with precedent and custom drew attention to the past, but not necessarily as history. Burrow sketches how politics and intellectual trends combined in Italy to bring a transition for chronicles and political commentary to humanist history in Guiccardini’s work. Applying methods of textual analysis pioneered by Renaissance literary scholars to interpreting the past marked a revolution in historiography greater than that of 19th century academic professionalization. Critical analysis of documents held in archives, often comparing different sources on the same topic, set a new standard for accuracy that gradually became dominant. A growing market for historical writing from the 17th century also shaped writing. Lord Clarendon’s study of the English civil wars became a bestseller, as did later work by David Hume and Thomas Babbington Macaulay. William Robertson applied insights from the Scottish Enlightenment to tracing social development in European history. History became a science well before it found a place within universities as an academic discipline from the mid-19th century.
Burrow covers so wide a range as to preclude concise summary, but his failure to look beyond the Western tradition marks the book’s main limitation. Comparing the authors discussed to others beyond the West like Ibn Khaldun or Ssu-ma Chien would give a better picture. Even among Western historians, the selection leaves out important figures. What of the Slavic world, particularly Russia? Burrow’s view of American historiography focuses on the New England tradition and its progeny, ignoring such figures as William Gilmore Simms, the South Carolina historian and journalist. Even in discussing British history, Burrow might have compared Macaulay with his great rival John Wilson Croker who epitomized the man of affairs as scholar while bringing source criticism to bear on history. Burrow offers an idiosyncratic overview with a very English list of historians that brings to mind the famous New Yorker cartoon showing the world as seen from Manhattan. While that has it charms—and Burrow applies admirable erudition to his task—it also leaves gaps in a work that provides less than a comprehensive approach.
Despite such flaws, A History of Histories offers valuable insight on the different ways authors have explained the past. Anyone picking up one of the authors discussed would find it a lively and helpful companion on his journey. Indeed, Burrow’s discussion of historiography is a useful primer on Western history from before Greece to the present. If Herbert Butterfield judged rightly in suggesting that examining the historiography is the first step in elucidating a problem in history, Burrow stands an engaging guide on that journey.
William Anthony Hay is an assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University and author of The Whig Revival, 1808-1830.
Posted: September 7, 2008