Historians and their Contributions to Historiography

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

An important contribution to historiography and history is the idea forwarded by Jerry Bentley.  Bentley presents yet an interesting slant of recording history.  He proposed a ”cross-cultural” periodization scheme that can establish “world history” without privileging a particular culture, society, geographic region, religion, civilization and others. 

Bentley defines three major forms of cross-cultural interaction as central to the process: long-distance trade, imperial conquest, and mass migration. Accordingly, he demonstrates a historical periodization consisting of six major eras: an age of early complex societies (3500-2000 B.C.E.), an age of ancient civilizations (2000-500 B.C.E.), an age of classical civilizations (500 B.C.E.-500 C.E.), a post-classical age (500-1000 C.E.), an age of transregional nomadic empires (1000-1500 C.E.), and a modern age (1500 C.E. to the present).

Periodization scheme proposes patterns of continuity and change that reflect the experiences of many peoples rather than Eurocentric claims. Long-distance trade, mass migrations and imperial conquests brought about political, social, economic, religious and cultural transformations for all people involved in all six eras.

This is the advantage of periodization because it does not concern itself of one race or one account but taking the historical context as a whole according to what significant event has transpired in the period across all cultures.
Cross-cultural periodization though is not the only useful or appropriate basis for world historical analysis. World history can be also viewed as the sum of the histories of distinct civilizations, thus denying the possibility of a unitary process. Such an approach might document the internal developments of different societies in much finer details and embrace equally well to all the lands and regions in all the times.

Thucydides also gives another bent on the idea of periodization.  His description of the name, social structure, progress and globalization of Hellenes society described his perspective of ancient history very closely resemble modern historic periodization.  

Thucydides considered his approach to recording of events more ”accurate” standard of historical documentation in comparison with earlier ”Greek” works under the genre of ”history.” Thucydides aim was to preserve an accurate record of the events not only for interest but also for the importance of facts.  He felt that the “Greek” works were simply recorded for interest and thus were not as accurate as his accounts.

Thucydides periodization approach though records the early history of the Hellenes in a general manner that addressed both the history of the Hellas and other tribes. Although, the text provided a very clear and simple account on the Hellas history, often the material would digress and discuss specific changes that came about in other cultures. Therefore it is not specific and could sometimes stray from the topic. For example, a large part of one paragraph focused on the development of the Spartan and Ionian fashion and another chapter concentrated on Agamemnon’s defense preparedness.  Also, Thucydides appears to be bias when he describes the Athenians.  Thucydides being Athenian holds a strong affinity for Athens and it somehow affected his writing.

Another radical view that provides the basis for history is Christine de Pizan. Her writing  The Book of the City of Ladies extensively discussed women’s rights and challenged all women to seek these rights. She is viewed as the pioneer for feminism. Her alternative viewpoints on society particularly on women and the roles they played challenged the integrity of those men who believed to suppress women.   Her writings offered women a point of reference for their journey towards freedom and equality to men.  This is a struggle which resonates even in this century.  Pizan, however, started the journey which provides much of the liberties women enjoy at the present although the fight is still far from over.

Her work at that time didn’t create much a stir or an immediate impact on society.  It, however, fueled the fight for women’s rights that we witnessed throughout the centuries.  Over the years her ideas were expanded on and have slowly impacted society substantially. Women today, to a much higher extent compared to Pizan’s time, have the opportunity to have the same amount of education as men, legal rights and most importantly are seen as equals to males thanks to her pioneering efforts.

David Arnold’s ”Introduction: Science, Colonialism and Modernity” in The New Cambridge History of India and Bain Attwood’s ”The Past as Future: Aborigines, Australia and the (dis)course of History,” described British colonization as western empires degrading the nations of India and Australia as weak, ignorant and dependent on superior powers for progress. Although, the force of British Colonialism was largely negative, the post-imperial world has begun to recover from its impact. India has continued to economically, socially and scientifically progress, as the Australian world has begun to acknowledge it’s indigenous past. From the experiences of these British colonies we can learn that we can all rise from adversities and create better futures for ourselves. Just as India and Australia have broken out of the mold and created for themselves new identities and better lives, we too are capable of changing our destinies and creating our history.

And finally, Sam Weinburg cautions us the danger of presentism – of projecting the present into the past.  According to Weinburg, the value of learning history can be lost if moderns create only the present, rejecting the past and future that allows existence of the present. The present is the by-product of the past.  All the actions, speeches and experiences in the past create the present. Just as what we do in the present will determine what will happen in the future. 

It is important therefore to examine the results of our past actions and weigh the consequences of our present doings.  If modern historians limit themselves to contemporary interpretations, this attitude of presentism can threaten their purpose of studying history. Also, focusing mainly on the contemporary concerns can change and reduce history into contemporary politics. In order for historical accounts to remain valuable, faithful and fruitful, true humanity must be taken into consideration. By this, it means both inadequacies and strengths of people are recognized and accepted as they are; without pride, forgetfulness, and reconstruction. There is no need for excuses for the mistakes in the past. What matters is how we use it to change the present and influence the future.  We should not commit past mistakes but correct them at the present. Promises of future are not achieved by reconstructing the present even before humanity catch a sight of them. We should accept what is happening as part of us and not deny it. Respect for past secures promises of future.

The essence of historiography is in interpreting the ideas of these important people and determining what has actually transpired.  The whole point of this exercise is to know from first-hand accounts such as de Pizan, Marx, Engels and Babeuf how ideas and actions evolved through time. These changes in ideas and actions provide the basis for the historical accounts.

Wayne Meeks in his article ‘Assisting the Word by Making (Up) History’ believes that the historian’s aim should not be focused on attaining certainty but reliability. A historian should seek to be reliable and records the way things actually occur. It does not matter which perspective they choose to write it from as long it is objective and based on facts as much as possible.

Each of us is capable of being a part of history.  From the examples of the past we can glean that a single person is enough to change the course of destiny.  Our collective voice could create impetus for transformation and better lives.  It is therefore necessary to keep in mind that history is not a matter of fate but of choice.

The importance of history could not be underestimated. We all looked back to the past to understand our present and we need the present to determine our future. The lessons we learned from history, therefore, are critical in the growth or progress of humanity.  Our fore bearers struggled and fought in the past so we can reap and enjoy certain benefits in the present. Just as we at the present try to correct the mistakes of the past in order to achieve a better future.


About Author

Leave A Reply