Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Mapping the past – the Historian’s dilemma.

The middle ages, with its church dominated society, saw writing about the past reduced to bullet point monastic annals and chronicles. The annals were an example of how society determined how history was written. The lack of questioning of the events of the past being as a result of faith in an all-powerful and all controlling God and the belief that the past was no different to the present. The realisation that a very different past existed before the middle ages saw Renaissance historiography draw on sources from the classical period to provide models on how to live and act in the present. Humanist scholarship led to a more critical examination of sources but there was much imitation of the moralising historians of the classical period.

As society changed over time it was reflected in what was selected and what was written about the past. The purpose of the writing and the motivation of the historian also varied. History was not defined, nor was the role of the historian, they were just writers who happened to write about the past. They might write to entertain, to inform or to persuade. How they selected their topics depended on the audience they were addressing, for as Jenkins tells us &ldquoHistory is never for itself; it is always for someone”and both the nature of the audience and the historians own background was reflected in the sources called upon by the historian to support the case they were making. The question of bias or objectivity was not a consideration until relatively recent times. Certainly, some historians, even as far back as Thucydides, strove to use credible and verifiable sources, but to claim that ones sources were unimpeachable was just another way to lend weight to the argument the historian was making.

The nineteenth century saw the emergence of romantic Nationalist Histories with the past being trawled for material, no matter how spurious, that might add to the greater glory of the nation, but it also saw the first real attempt to move away from moralising history. Leopold von Ranke’s exhortation to tell how things actually happened: ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’was a reaction to romanticism and an attempt to define history as a scientific discipline. He stressed the need for critical evaluation of sources and above all that the historian be detached. As Lord Acton said of him ‘He decided effectually to repress the poet, the patriot, the religious or political partisan, to sustain no cause’Ranke set historiography on the road towards objective factual history. How far it has progressed, or indeed, if it can ever reach its destination has been the matter of hotly contested debate.

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