Arnold, John H. History: A Very Short Introduction.

NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

It has to be a challenge to write a useful overview of a large, complex subject in 120 pages or so, but the volumes I’ve read in this series so far have managed it pretty well. But I had my doubts about history, a field in various aspects of which I have been professionally engaged for half a century. I could undoubtedly fill half this slender volume myself with just a list of subtopics of history.

Arnold is a medievalist at one of Britain’s newer universities and also teaches the philosophy of history. He’s not someone I’ve ever heard of, but he’s done a pretty good job.

For the average student (who may regard the study of something he can’t obviously make a living at to be a waste of time . . .), history is just “stories about the past.” To Herodotus and Thucydides, that’s largely what it meant, too. They tried to get the story right, but history was supposed to have another purpose — mostly improving the morals or politics of the listener. Arnold leads us through the increased didacticism of the medieval centuries, when the Church was in charge of education, and then introduces the changes brought about by the antiquarians and other scholars of the Renaissance, such as Lorenzo Valla, who demonstrated that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery by analyzing the Latin in which it was written.

He spends some time on the great antiquarians, like William Camden — not quite the same thing as historians, though they developed many of the tools and methods later adopted by academic historians. The goal now became skeptical objectivity rooted in documents and original, “eyewitness” sources. This also led to a relativist point of view — the recognition that different periods of history are not all alike. (This seems obvious now, but it wasn’t in the 16th and 17th centuries.) That takes us into the Enlightenment and Voltaire (who hated having to mess around with historical detail), and the wish to make history “relevant.”

The Enlightenment loved argument, and this was a period of dozens of competing themes in the study and writing of history. The rise of the natural sciences and the rejection of the Creation story in Genesis also meant there was now a lot more history to deal with. And, along with Reason, the universality of human nature, and the role of pure chance in history, the “Great Men” theory made its appearance, which we’re still trying to shake off. And Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was groundbreaking in its modern methods, gets half a chapter all to itself. In fact, because of his approach to complex causation, Gibbon can make a good claim to being “the most integrated example of a working historian.” Elegant stylist though he was, for Gibbon, history wasn’t something you wrote, it was something you did. (Today’s historians will still nod vigorously at that sentiment.)

The turning point in the evolution of historical method is Leopold von Ranke, often referred to as the Father of Historiography, though that may be overstating things. (He was a strong believer in self-promotion.) What he demanded was the disinterested and impartial analysis and evaluation of documents and other sources. He wanted no “imaginative inspiration,” only the wish “to be able only to say how it really was.” Even though he actually was quoting Thucydides. If Gibbon was the first to view history as a vocation for its own sake, Ranke was the first professional historian. (He even invented the seminar system.)

After Ranke came university curricula, historical societies, and learned journals, and historiography has taken so many different paths, it’s almost impossible, Arnold says, to fashion a coherent narrative about it. Nevertheless, he makes the attempt in the remainder of the book, with extended discussions of the real meaning of “true” and our relationship to it, the nature and proper use of historical archives (which, speaking as a Certified Archivist for thirty years, I found to be very well written), the nature of a “source” and how one deals with it, the Marxist concept of social and economic context, the idea of origins vs. outcomes, and such special fields as paleography.

And the author includes detailed case studies of all these subjects, with examples ranging from the English Civil War to Sojourner Truth to the history of cat-killing (which is a more complex subject than you might have imagined). And finally, Arnold offers a brief but first-rate argument about Why History Matters. And he ends it all with a quote from novelist Tim O’Brien. Excellent.

This is a first-rate introduction to a huge subject, written in non-threatening prose, which should be recommended to every student taking his first serious history class.


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