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A History of Histories

Perhaps, in our history-challenged era, when so many college graduates appear to emerge innocent of all but the grossest outlines of world history, it's quixotic to claim must-read status for John Burrow's new book, A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances, and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century. Surely one must know some history before reading about it? Perhaps not. Perhaps what history needs right now is the conviction that underlies every page of this book: history is the most incomparable of mirrors.

It is difficult for me to say, because I have been reading history all my life. Most of what Mr Burrow has to say was to some degree familiar to me, making the pleasure of his book the very considerable one of intellectual tidying-up. The ideas that I already had about changes in the very idea of history what it is, what it's for since the time of Herodotus are now, thanks to Mr Burrow's lucidity, coherent and well-organized. But I think that I'd have gotten a great deal out of his book even if my brain were not already an overstuffed midden desperately in need of an archivist.

Considering the strong negative association that history seems to have these days with authority (or with the abuse of authority, a readably comprehensive overview of the the art of history offers a comfortable point of departure for readers who don't know much about history and who fear the tedium of doing something about it. History knowledge of what people have been up to is difficult to absorb without a mental armature that, like the memory palaces that intrigued Seventeenth-Century thinkers, makes it easy to store and retrieve the facts that, inescapably, constitute the building-blocks of historical understanding. Such an armature can take years to build from scratch. You can acquire it ready-made, from a general history of everything (such things exist), but at the cost of doing your own thinking. Mr Burrow's book will at least provide every reader with a stout foundation. Before learning any history yourself, why not consider why it has seemed important in the past?

This idea, that history (the subject) has a history, is easily dismissed as "meta," but upon inspection, however, this is now absolutely basic. Consider what Sallust says at the beginning of Bellum Catilinae:

But because Athens produced writers of exceptional talent, the exploits of the men of Athens are heralded throughout the world as unsurpassed. Thus the merit of those who did the deeds is rated as high as brilliant minds have been able to exalt the deeds themselves by words of praise. But the Roman people never had that advantage, since their ablest men were always most engaged with affairs; their minds were never employed apart from their bodies; the best citizen preferred action to words, and thought that his own brave deeds should be lauded by others rather than that theirs should be recounted by him.

If nobody writes history, there isn't any. This is, in fact, exactly what we mean by the term "prehistoric." Most of human life on this planet has come and gone unhistorically: we have very little idea what happened, and none at all as to what anyone thought about it.

Even more than the reader of history, the writer of history needs a purpose. Herodotus tells us that he writes in order to preserve the names of famous men and the memory of their deeds. We live with the very opposite problem: how to determine which preserved names and deeds warrant our attention. Just as it makes sense that someone writing history today might not share Herodotus's preoccupations, it it might be handy to know what today's historians' preoccupations are. In (possibly archaic) academic lingo, maybe having some perspective on history is a pre-req, not a post-doc.

Historians are not necessarily tendentious, but the temptation to skew stories toward a pre-existing bias is very great, and one may quite unconsciously succumb. A scrupulous historian wants to know what the story is. Facts are marshalled, and uncommon sense is brought to bear on the task of comprehending them. A tendentious historian already knows that the story is, and deploys facts to make a case for it. What is the story of the United States, for example? It is unlikely that anyone setting out to write it will not begin with a fairly clear idea of how the story is going to go. This historian might subscribe to the "city on a hill" thesis of American exceptionalism. That historian may see the United States as an unrivaled paradise for opportunists. The two are very unlikely to agree on an assessment of, say, Reconstruction. It might be argued that every historian is inescapably tendentious, simply by virtue of the original sin of having personal convictions. It makes more sense, though, to allow for the correctives of which scrupulous historians avail themselves. Herbert Butterfield's critique of the "Whig Interpretation of History" is one such tool. It cautions writers against the assumption that a given state of affairs was foreseen by pioneers who effectively worked to bring it about. A corollary reminds historians of the prevalence of unintended consequences. Truly tendentious historians may be known by their headlong self-assurance.

Mr Burrow's survey is, as I say, comprehensive. After a note on Egyptian and Babylonian record-keeping, he marches doughtily through the historians of classical antiquity, from Herodotus (for whom historia meant "inquiry") to Tacitus and beyond. Three chapters on Eusebius, Gregory of Tours, and Venerable Bede dispose of Christian history, or the history of the Church in the world, as directed by God. These writers would have much more in common with the Egyptians and the Babylonians (not to mention the ancient Jews) if it were not for the intervening millennium of secular history, toward which, as Europe settled into a distinct identity on the eve of the Crusades, chroniclers and annalists tended to return. Secular humanism reasserted itself through writers flourishing around 1500, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, who seem to us almost modern.

That "almost" is crucial. The second half of A History of Histories begins with a devilishly important essay that is the only material in the book that historical tyros may have a bit of difficulty grasping, not because it's abstruse but because, on the contrary, it undercuts a very basic assumption that most readers will be unaware of having made. One may be forgiven for thinking that the people of the Middle Ages knew that they were living in feudal times, but it seems that they did not. "Feudal times" turns out to be a concept developed by Renaissance humanists and not historians so much as lawyers and philologists (the professionals charged with establishing correct texts of old charters and the ancient classics). This concept "feudalism" satisfied the need to explain what had "happened" after the Roman Empire "fell." How's that? What's with those scare quotes? Again, one might be forgiven for imagining that an institution such as the Roman Empire could hardly fall without anyone knowing about it. In one sense, however, that's exactly what happened: the "fall of the Roman Empire" is an historical construct, visible, apparently, only a millennium after the fact. In another sense, it didn't happen at all: the Roman Empire did not "fall" until the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453. Take your pick.

A consequence of making Roman law a historical phenomenon rather than a timeless model, and of the growing perception of stubborn realities, presumably of more recent origin, to which it could not be fitted, was the recognition that in large part the characteristic laws, customs and institutions of the modern nations must derive from these nations' barbarian ancestry, or at least have evolved since the establishment of the barbarian kingdoms, owing perhaps nothing to Rome and to imperial edicts. One possible inference was an exaltation of local customary law, as suited to the people or peoples who lived by it. This was Hotman's solution. The charge of barbarism, in a sense true, had to be faced down, and historical and scholarly attention had to be refocused from Rome and the empire to as we should say the early and high Middle Ages. In discerning the alienness of much of the late-Roman codes, the sixteenth-Century French jurists were in a sense discovering medieval history though not yet by that name and recognizing medieval Europe not merely as ignorant, barbarous and uncomprehending, but as creative. For jurists who wished to discern the origins and guiding principles of their own laws, the Middle Ages were fundamental.

What you might take away from this, before learning anything very specific about "the Middle Ages," then, is that they didn't exist until they were over. During what we call the Middle Ages, you see, clerks dealt with the "timeless model" problem by warping the Roman law, in both conception and detail, to suit their needs. It was only when jurists refused to continue this creative refashioning of Roman law that the Middle Ages snapped into existence. What makes Mr Burrow's essay even more head-wringing is the obligation to point out that this new understanding of the past did not did bear fully historical fruit until the Nineteenth Century. The history of the Middle Ages didn't begin until hundreds of years after its invention.

Mr Burrow's coverage of Twentieth-Century developments is brilliantly and mercifully succinct. After a review of the "Whig History" problem that I've already mentioned, he looks into the "structural" schools of French history, the playing out of Marxism as an interpretive tool, the application of anthropological outlooks to high history, and, finally, the modern phenomenon that any general reader will be familiar with: the history of "suppressed identities." His conclusion is spankingly up-to-date:

But genuinely new possibilities are also being explored, as with great distinction in the remarkable series made by Ken Burns on the American Civil War. Restrained but informative commentary, sensitive editing, haunting photographs and music and readings from letters and diaries made this a deeply moving production, matching the scale of the events it recounted in a way no printed book could do. Considered as the presentation of an epic theme on a grand scale this has claims to be the outstanding work of history of the late twentieth century.

That's as may be. A History of Histories is arguably the best imaginable kick-off of Twenty-First Century historiography. (July 2008)

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