Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Introduction to Historical Method: The History of Historical Method

[Nota Bene: What follows is Part 3 of a five-part series entitled Introduction to Historical Method. The Series Index is located here.]

The History of Historical Method

The Ancient Greeks made no distinction between the writing of history and rhetoric. History found no place in their concept of an organized system of science. For his part, Aristotle ranked poetry above history as he believed poetry was closer to philosophy, which he held primary. He did believe that source material was necessary for scholarly treatment of history and that it couldn't just be made up. Some Greeks held history in higher regard. Herodotus is the acknowledged "Father of History" and was the creator of the narrative recital in his telling of the wars between Greece and Persia. Thucydides is considered by many to have been the first scientific historian and his Peloponnesian War is considered the first work of Didactic history as its aim was to instruct rather than entertain. Xenophon is generally classified as the lesser of the three great Greek historians. He was a good writer but weak in criticism. He was more of a reporter than a historian, though his Anabasis is a riveting first person account. The last of the ancient Greeks to mention is Polybius. He was a pragmatist and seeker of historical causes. He had views as to the function of the historian and the scope of his art, which is the most noteworthy of the historians of the ancient world.

The three great Roman historians were Sallust, Livy and Tacitus. Sallust was a truth-seeker, but was under the spell of party tradition, fails to mention sources and was careless with his chronology. However, he was skillful in depicting character. Livy is noteworthy for his psychological delineation of character and gift of presentation, but he is deficient in documentary research, methodical testing, critical selection and his main interests is rhetorical. Tacitus has a lofty outlook and love of truth. He is pragmatic and severely critical. He is adept in character sketching and psychological analysis, but he's also influenced by party spirit and is distortingly pessimistic and resorts to rhetorical finery. A later contemporary of the Romans is the often overlooked Jewish historian Josephus, who gives account of events in which he personally participated. However, his statements often need verification and he wrote according to the historical canons of the day and on the side of the Roman Emperor. Most importantly, he gives one of the very few non-Christian testimonies that refer to a historical Jesus.

The Medieval period started with works in Christian antiquity. Eusebius was the author of a Chronicle and a history of the Church. His history of the Church is a good source with important original documents not extant elsewhere and its method of treatment, which was critical for its day. St. Jerome revised and supplemented Eusebius' Chronicle, which furnished the conventional chronological framework for historiography all thru the Middle Ages. When discussing the medievalist, it is important to note, as was the case with the Ancients for the most part, that none of their work rises to modern standards of criticism and discrimination in the use of historical sources wasn't typical. "History" in the Middle Ages meant everything told and written in books, but many do show more than a measure of caution in dealing with sources.

Gregory of Tours wrote the History of the Franks, which is the most important work on the 6th Century Franks. The Venerable Bede wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation and was modern in method and included a bibliography of his own writings in the aforementioned work. Otto of Freising wrote the Two Cities and he posited an objective and impartial aim for historians. Interestingly, he believed that history passed from east to west and as there was no more land left in Europe, the end of the world was nigh! Salvian wrote De gubernation Dei in which he painted a picture of moral and economic confusion that went with the barbarian invasions of the 5th Century. He believed that the disintegration of the Roman Empire was a triumph of barbarian virtue over Roman vice. Einhard's Life of Charlemagne was probably the first and best secular biography written in the Middle Ages in contrast to Asser's Life of King Alfred which was poorly organized, but is remarkable because it is the only existing primary source of its subject. Matthew Paris wrote a Chronicle that he also illustrated. He was a prolific chronicler and hagiographer. Froissart, yet another writer of a Chronicle, echoed the views of his contemporaries and really had no original thought, but his work is a mirror on his era. Philip de Commines wrote Memoirs and was interested in what events reveal about men more than the men themselves.

The Italian Renaissance, or the age of Humanism, saw both Christian and Secular (or even Pagan) historians advance the field of history. The latter group elevated the Graeco-Roman world as a model for literature and art as well as standards of private and public conduct. Both groups worked to restore the 10th Century copies of ancient texts and printed them with the advent of the printing press. The Renaissance saw the beginnings of formal historical method, an example of which was the Italian Lorenzo Valla's work of historical criticism attacking (rightly) the authenticity of the "Donation of Constantine."

The Sixteenth thru Early Eighteenth Centuries saw many general developments in historical method. The critical attitude was given impetus by the Protestant Reformation. The Magdeburg Centuries was an aggressively pro-Protestant work and was countered by Baronius, a Catholic scholar, whose Annales ecclesiastici was marked by vast research and sound criticism. The period also saw the emergence of the Bollandists, a group of Jesuits who began editing existing lives of the Saints by applying textual criticism and authentication. Their hagiographical series known as the Acta Sanctorum was a landmark of historical technique.

The Bollandists were also involved in the "bella diplomatica," a series of academic controversies between Jesuit and Benedictine scholars that resulted in permanent gains in critical history and paved the way for source analysis. The most important of these incidents involved the Jesuit Bollandist Papebroch and the Benedictine Mabillon. Papebroch challenged the genuinness of cetain charters of the Merovingian period and Mabillon came to the defense. He drew up a series of tests to distinguish genuine documents from false. This resulted in his De re diplomatica, which laid the foundation for the sciences of diplomatics (the exact reproduction of original documents) and paleography. Papebroch was the first to congratulate Mabillon on his success and the former's letter to his colleague is an expression of the correct attitude in an academic controversy.

History was becoming more distinct from literature. Mabillon's De re diplomatica is often called the first methodology. Gerhard Johann Voss' Ars historia was the first effective statement that "history is an independent subject of study." Henri Griffit also wrote a work that has been characterized as the "most significant book on method after Mabillon's" and the "most clear-cut statement of fundamentals of historical research." The shaping of methodology also owed much to the atheistic and anti-Christian writings of Charles de Montesquieu. His Considerations uncovered various factors that influenced Roman history and his Esprit des lois set forth geographical and social conditions which effected the various forms in which the state had assumed in different lands. Finally, the philosopher Leibniz formulated his law of historical continuity in which every historical phenomenon is the effect of antecedent phenomena and the cause of phenomena that follow.

The closing decades of the Eighteenth and all of the Nineteenth Century saw methodology make notable strides due to various causes. Johann Herder opened the way to a genetic or evolutionary concept of history and, along with Barthold Niebuhr, was a major influence at the University at Berlin. Barthold Niebuhr emphasized that historians had an obligation to appraise sources carefully and from the viewpoint of evidential value. In essence, he codified a method of source criticism. The rise of Nationalism after the Napoleonic Wars as nations became concsious of their own past. Voltaire had anticipated this history of civilization, or kulturgeschichte in his Le siecle de Lous XIV.

The Romantic Movement, a reaction to the rationalism of the Age of Reason, drew attention to the Christian viewpoint in history and held up the Middle Ages as the flowering of Christian spirit. One of the Romanticists, Chateaubriand is said to have unlocked the Middle Ages. The cultivation of legal history also advanced methodology as historians (like Savigny) researched the history of German and Roman law during the Middle Ages.

The literary study of classical scholarship, philology, also gained new attention and elevated the study of historical linguistics. Friedrich Wolf infamously tackled the "Homeric question" to prove his theory that the Homeric poems had multiple authors. He aggressively used "higher criticism" to prove his point and inspired rationalists who applied his method to the Bible. Wolf's theory is no longer favored, but his method of procedure, especially his use of internal criticism, has become convention. Finally, John Lingard, in his History of England, strove to use only original sources in his research and is a landmark in historiography.

The Modern Era was probably most affected by the "Father of Modern History," Leopold von Ranke. He was the inventor of the historical seminar in which his students performed first hand investigation of source material under the guidance of a professional. His exhortation to "go to the sources" instigated the "cult of the document" in the modern historical profession. Ranke's students disseminated throughout Europe, then America, and brought his teachings with them. Less celebrated is Lord John Acton. He was a Catholic who was prohibited from attending Cambridge because of his faith and went to learn in Munich instead. He became convinced of the importance of political liberty in the modern state. He eventually returned to England and ascended to the Chair of History at Cambridge. He planned one of the first great corporate works, the Cambridge Modern History. He had a profound influence on his contemporaries and the development of British historical studies.

The modern era also saw the emergence of collections, which overcame a major handicap of inaccessability to necessary sources that were often buried in public or private archives. The Monumenta Germania Historia (MGH) of Germany, Documents Inedits of France and the Rolls Series of Great Britain are all examples of these. But this was just the tip of the iceburg. By the Twentieth Century, photographic reproduction of source materials and microfilm of newspapers and other written works hastened the democratization of historical research, as did the wide availability of already translated texts. Technology has continued to improve the accessibility of source data with computers and the internet. Thus, in this current atmosphere of massive data availability from multiple sources, the need to promote sound method is important to maintain solid scholarship.

Up Next: Practicing The Historical Method

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