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Historiography and Historical Methods

Week IV discussion questions


Ernst Breisach, Historiography:  Ancient, Medieval and Modern, 2nd edition (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Chapters 11-14

chapter 11

At the start of this chapter, what does B identify as the main social/intellectual/political changes that characterized the period 1350-1700?  What is his main point about how these changes led to change in historiography?

Did Italian Renaissance historians immediately or universally adopt a "humanistic" approach to history?  Explain.

What seems to have been the main characteristics of Italian humanistic historiography in the period before 1499?  What was its purpose?  How did it relate to ancient models of history writing?

Did all humanistic historians write in the service of republican governments?  Explain.

Again, what seem to have been the main common threads linking Italian humanist histories in the period before 1499?

What does B mean by the "Calamita" and how did it influence Italian historiography?  This brings us back to the familiar question of how the writing of history is linked to thinking about the future... 

In particular, what were the main themes in Machiavelli's writings about history?  For Machiavelli, what was the point of writing history?  What were the main causes of historical events/occurrences?  And what could people learn from history?

What new approach to world history did Giovio introduce in his work (in the 1550s)?

Where did the idea of the "Dark Ages" come from, and why did humanist historians create this concept? 

How did humanists periodize history and why?  Were these folks really fully "secular" thinkers?

B poses a question on p. 160, "what did [the work of humanist historians from 1500 to 1550] mean for the development of historiography?"; how does he answer that question?  Did their conception of causation change?  Did their conception of the public function of history change? Explain.

What was so important about the writings of Bionbo and Valla, who pointed out anachronisms in the republications and translations of historical texts?  Why was such text criticism important?  How was it related to the idea of change as "development"?

One might suppose that the "cosmopolitan" and "universalistic" ideas of humanism were antithetical to a "national" approach to history--does B think that this was so?  Explain. 

What was French textual criticism of Roman Law so important to the development of historiography?

What were the main similarities and differences between Italian humanist histories of the Church and the histories written by Lutherans?  What seems to be B's main point about Lutheran and English Protestant vs Catholic histories?

chapter 12

Yet again, B tells you the main point of this chapter in the very first paragraph--what is it?

Did the clergy still dominate the writing of history in the late 1500s and 1600s, e.g., in France and England? Why might this have been important?

What kinds of issues became subject to debate as a result of the effort to write "proper" French history in the late 1500s-1600s?  Explain.

What was the connection between the new historical approach to law in France in the late 1500s and new approaches to studying history?

What was "antiquarian history" in Elizabethan England, why was it popular with both writers and readers, what did it examine and how, and did it offer bold interpretations?  Explain.

For instance, what were the subjects of Stow's Survey of London, what kinds of sources did he use, and did he offer a synthetic argument?

If the antiquarian historians did not (like the humanists) try to offer broad interpretive arguments, what was their contribution to the development of historiography?

What does B think most threatened "Christian universal history" in the 16th century and why? 

How and why did the "discovery" of the Americas undermine traditional historical views?

How did Las Cases try to fit the American population into a Christian universal history framework?  How did Acosta try to accomplish the same goal?

B says that when "the unity of the sacred and the profane...began to fade...with it faded traditional universal history."  WHat does this mean?

If historians no longer saw human and divine history as inseparable subjects, how did they now begin to conceptualize the "divisions" of history?  What, for instance, would be the subject of divine history?  natural history?  human history?

Luther proposed a distinction between secular and ecclesiastical history--what did this separation infer, and what subsequently became of ecclesiastical history in the 1600s?  Did it still mean "divine" history?  Explain.

How did the fading away of Christian universal history change the way historians understood historical periodization?  For instance, what system of dividing up the past replaced the Biblical conception of "Four Empires"?  Why was that so important?

Did late 16th/17th century historians abandon the idea of God's will as a historical "cause"?  Explain.  How did the task of the historian seem to be changing?

Did late 16th/17th century historians (e.g., in France) establish a single, agreed upon, understanding of historical "causes"?  Explain.  Did they, for instance, understand history as the story of of "progress"?  Explain.  What ancient historical view of change did they revise?

Did late 16th/17th century historians abandon efforts to "unify" all human history?  Explain.

If we compare B's discussion of histories by Sir Walter Raleigh and by Bossuet (the Bishop of Meaux), what kind of picture do we get of the changes in historical writing in the early 1600s?  How does this connect us back to B's emphasis on the relationship between change and continuity in historiography?

On p. 186, B argues that in the 1500s-1700s, history (as a topic of study) began a "struggle" for its "place in the house of learning"--what does this mean?

Could historians in England or France freely examine questions of politics in the 1600s?  Explain.  What about historians in Italy?

So were historians central figures in the late 16th/17th century public debate over the nature of (how best to organize) the State?

What was the Italian ars historica movement?  How did its supporters (the trattatisti) understand the place of history in human knowledge?  What is B's point in including a discussion of ars historica in this chapter sub-section, which discusses the problem of where history "fit" into the "house of learning"?

On p. 191, B uses the term "Pyrrhonism":  what does this term refer to and what does B see as its causes in 17th century historiography?

B goes on to discuss the how the efforts of key philosophers of the 1600s--Bacon and Descartes--to establish a new, certain epistemology (method of understanding how humans grasp knowledge and truth), was related to the subject of history. 

What did the Cartesian approach to knowledge mean for history's place in the "house of learning"?

What does B mean by "Erudite history" and how did it address the "Cartesian challenge"?  (This is where we figure out how B is going to tie together his discussion of Italian Humanist historians, the French legal historians, and the English antiquarians!) 

Did the Erudite historians (e.g., John Selden) focus on broad interpretive generalizations?  Explain--did this mean that they did not try to explain historical change?  What in general was their contribution to the development of historiography?

B argues at the end of this chapter that two very different approaches to history existed in early colonial North America--what were these?  

How did the approach to history (the "point" of history) differ in New England and in Virginia?  

And how in the 1700ss did the original New England emphasis on "history as man following God's plan" and the Virginia emphasis on "history as collective efforts in a new, rich world" begin to merge?  What are some examples?)


chapter 13

Again, by 1700 what forces had "shattered" the unified systematic Christian view of the past"?  (B notes four points.)  And what historical force seemed to dominate and shape new views of historical continuity?  (hint--think about the type of state that would dominate modern history.)

How does B define the 18th century "erudite concept of truth," and how was this linked to an approach to historical methods? 

Did one country have a monopoly on erudite history?  Explain.

How did erudite historians help history gain greater respect as a field of scholarship?  And who read their works?

What was the state of "university-taught" history circa 1700?  Where in the universities was history taught, for instance?  Why? For what aim or purpose?

Was Vico a Cartesian?  What did he think about human nature?

How did the philosophy of Leibniz apply to the study of history?

Does B think that the insights of Leibniz, Vico, and Herder moved beyond "erudite" history?  Explain.

According to B, what is the core idea of the "progress theory" of history?  What basic (Enlightenment) perspectives on nature and humanity underlay progress theory?

What kind of progress did the philosophes see in history?

Why were the concepts of "culture" and "civilization" important to "progress theory"?  How did the philosophes explain the diversity of cultures?

What vision of the future fueled this historical perspective?

How, then, did the philosophes understand the Middle Ages?  Why?

According to B, what was so revolutionary about this concept of history as progress?

How did Turgot and Condorcet understand and explain historical change? 

What did the philosophes consider the purpose of history?

Did all philosophes agree that rationality was leading towards progress?  What about Rousseau?  Explain Rousseau's idea of man's decline into decadence.

Did David Hume agree with the progress theory?  Explain.

Back to Vico--Explain Vico's version of the cyclical pattern of history.  What was his main focus?  What three stages of human history did he see?  (What, for instance, characterized the era of the gods, of heroes, and of men?)  And how did he explain the causes of historical change?

Did Vico consider progress (as a result of the march of rationality) to be inevitable?  Explain.

Does B consider cyclical theories to be as optimistic as progress theories?  Explain.


chapter 14

How does B characterize Enlightenment-era British historiography?  What, for instance, shaped the British conception of the Future, and how did that influence their views of the past?

Did Hume (ever the sore thumb!) think that Liberty was the result of ancient British traditions?  Explain.

How does B describe the common attributes of British historical writing, e.g., of the very different histories written by Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon?

How did Gibbon explain Rome's "decline and fall"?  Does his explanation sound familiar?  But was Gibbon, like the ancients, focusing on the characteristics of individuals?  Explain.

How does B explain the difference between German and French Enlightenment conceptions of reason?  Did the German thinkers see man's relationship to nature in the same way as did the French?  Explain.

How, therefore, did German Enlightenment conceptions of history differ from those of the French?

What does B consider significant about the manner in which 18th century Germans studied the history of law and government?  What sort of forces did they examine in these studies?  What was their methodology?

How did the German approach to "universal history" differ from that of the French enlightenment thinkers?  Why were the German historians more interested in the detailed mechanics and processes of change?

What was the concept of the volk as first suggested by late 18th century German thinkers like Herder?

Why were German historians drawn more toward biological models than models from physics?  How, for instance, did Herder use organic metaphors to describe the volk?

How did Herder understand the formation of cultures?  Did he see history as "progress"?  Explain.

As of 1800, according to B, had anyone synthesized the various peculiar strengths of the French, German, and English historical schools into a coherent "new" history?

What is B's main point about how the writing of history changed in the USA in the late 1700s?

How did most contemporary English writers and Loyalists explain the American Revolution?

How did Patriots explain the Revolution?

In the new American Republic, what fundamental rift in thinking about history (and about the meaning of the Revolution) had opened already by the end of the 1700s?  What different interpretations emerged of the meaning of the new nation?  What is his point here?