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  • What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe
  • J. G. A. Pocock (bio)
Anthony Grafton, What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 330 pp.

The history of historiography is at last emerging as a program in Anglo-American scholarship. For the better part of two centuries it has been — and continues to be — overlaid by another program, the philosophy (and the history of the philosophy) of history, in which the philosophic intellect reflects upon the topos or the concept of history and asks what it is to be in and of it. Under such names as “historicism” and “historicity,” this inquiry reached one peak in the great age of imperial Germany, another in the Marxism and liberal conservatism of the Cold War, and is no doubt now passing into a postmodernism where I shall not attempt to follow it. Philosophy of history is not the same thing as historiography, the writing of history, unless the use of this word in the singular confines it to some universal meaning. If we use it in the plural, we can ask what “histories” have been written and by whom, when and where; what their writers and readers meant by calling them “histories,” or what we mean by calling them that. It will soon appear that this is to shift attention from what Michael Oakeshott termed “pure” history to what he termed “practical”: to histories written and read by those who had needs of one kind or another for writing and reading them, so that we study the writers and readers as closely as the histories they wrote and read, and do not separate the one from the other. Contextualism raises its head; we study actions in particular contexts, and even the ways in which “histories” of those contexts came to be written by those conscious of acting in them.

There are, however, internationals of such actors, which form their own contexts and create their own histories. Anthony Grafton’s book is concerned with one such, in Europe often called and calling itself “the republic of letters,” and, at the time he studies, composed of humanists studying the inheritance of Greek and Latin literature, of such obsessive concern to a neo-Latin “Europe” extending from Ireland to Poland and beyond either. Part of this literature consisted of works called “histories,” and he is studying the secondary literature of an ars historica, a debated method (methodus) of reading rather than writing them. It was assumed that “histories” had been written already, by “the ancients”; but the ars historica, whether it knew it or not, was looking beyond this literature and giving new meanings to its own vocabulary. What Was History? contains a narrative of change.

Grafton studied at Chicago with the great Arnaldo Momigliano, who gave the history of historiography one of its growth points and one of its governing models. Writing of Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century, Momigliano said that he had successfully joined antiquarian erudition to Enlightened philosophical history (which was not the “philosophy of history” mentioned above). In the last half-century, Momigliano’s model has been elaborated in a number of ways. [End Page 485] First, by the addition as a third but primary term of the Greco-Roman classical narrative of deeds recounted by witnesses; it was on this that “antiquarian study” made its first impact, with which the ars historica was immediately concerned. Second, to give “philosophical history” its due weight, it was necessary to consider not only general theories of the progress of society, but narratives of systemic change in European society — republic to empire, pagan to Christian, ancient to modern, and many others — which were taking shape by the period of Grafton’s study. The history of historiography itself came to consist of a number of narratives, and Grafton brilliantly and learnedly relates one of these.

He knows more than any of us about the scholarship of the late Renaissance or baroque period, when study of classical literature and Roman law had revealed past states of language, society, and culture other than that in which “histories” were now read for their value...


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pp. 485-486
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