- Relics and Wonders
Giving tribute to the past is older than the pyramids. We can safely guess that it’s older than the most ancient known treasure-laden burials. Since the beginnings of civilized life we have collected relics and contemplated our relationship to the past. True histories, in which an effort was made not just to record important human events but to understand them, came as early as the fifth century BCE, when Herodotus and Thucydides described Greece’s triumph and its self-destruction in their vivid depictions of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.
The knowledge of history, and the interest in it, fell to a low point after the decline of Rome. Early and medieval Christian art showed only occasional efforts at historical accuracy, partly because there were so few resources for pursuing it. However, the chronicle form of recording events did survive and even became necessary in certain fields. By the thirteenth century, for example, English law depended on collected records of previous legal decisions. In Italy, with the Renaissance in full force by the fourteenth century, several writers went beyond record-keeping and antiquarianism with the rediscovery of the classics and their own writing of local histories—for example, Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People, a narrative portrayal of the civic development and rise of Florence.
The spreading regard for the subject is apparent in the fact that over twenty of Shakespeare’s plays were historically set, covering the twelfth century BCE (Troilus and Cressida) to 1570 (Othello). Shakespeare was [End Page 6] cannily using historical settings partly to avoid political censorship of his plays, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that he and fellow playwrights had a passion for the subjects of classical and English histories such as those of Livy, Plutarch, Ovid, and Holinshed.
However, few writers of the Renaissance were concerned with what we now consider to be essential historical methods. By the time of the French Enlightenment, intellectuals were fascinated by history and skeptical of previous historians yet still unable to come up with clear new approaches to its study. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that a memorably broad, detailed, synthetic history appeared in England. Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covered classical Rome and the Eastern Empire, its several volumes published during the same years when Americans were fighting for our own Enlightenment- and classically inspired republic.
Over the next seventy-five years, German scholars gave definite form to what we now think of as modern scholarship, demanding comprehensive research along with clear views about how to approach and interpret subjects. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a prodigiously knowledgeable scholar of the classics and classical history as well as the Bible and economics. His dialectic view of history is now mostly remembered as the inspiration for Marx’s scheme of economic development based on methods of production. But it came from Hegel’s revolt against the then-dominant skeptical theories of Kant, who believed that we are limited to understanding a finite world of appearances and that any effort to reach some higher understanding is quickly lost in inconsistencies. Hegel’s dialectic theory was a hard-earned idealistic expression of faith in the broad progress of history and the power of the mind to understand it. Following Hegel in Germany was Leopold von Ranke, whose Zur Kritik neuerer Geschichtsschreiber (Critique of modern historians) became the foundation of modern historiography, with its emphasis on detailed and comprehensive research using primary documents such as diaries and letters.
While German thinkers established the standard for modern scholarship, France was the home of sociology, which in the nineteenth century became one of several new directions in historical study. Auguste Comte believed that two phases of history were already past—the theological and philosophical—and that we had entered a human phase when the focus should be on the observable forces in social history. This turn toward broader human history led to the development and—especially [End Page 7] after World War II—the dominance of sociological approaches, such as that of the Annales School. Annales historians Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre emphasized...