Things Keep Happening

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the 20th Century by John Burrow
    Allen Lane, 553 pp, £25.00, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9337 0
  • What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe by Anthony Grafton
    Cambridge, 319 pp, £13.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 69714 9
  • The Theft of History by Jack Goody
    Cambridge, 342 pp, £14.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 69105 5
  • Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History by Darien Shanske
    Cambridge, 268 pp, £54.00, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 86411 4

A story, as John Burrow says of his own History of Histories, is selective. It looks forward ‘to its later episodes or its eventual outcome for its criteria of relevance’. Hence a difficulty:

The impulse to write history has nourished much effective narrative, and narrative – above all in Homer – was one of the sources of history as a genre. It would be a strange paradox if narrative and history turned out to be incompatible. But the example of Homer may teach us not to take the paradox too tragically. The Iliad has a climax, the fall of Troy, but it has many perspectives, and it would be a drastically impoverished reading of Homer’s epic that saw as its ‘point’ an explanation of Troy’s fall. The concept of a story is in essence a simple one, but that does not make all narrators either simple-minded or single-minded. Narrative can be capacious as well as directional.

Burrow and Anthony Grafton are as capacious as can be. Their question is not so much ‘how did it come to this?’ – in Grafton’s case, to a more critical historicism in the 17th and 18th centuries; in Burrow’s, to professional history-writing in the 20th – as ‘what pasts have this or that set of people found interesting and why, and how did they think and write about these?’ Since each is writing about historians who will not all be familiar even to specialists, each also takes care to convey the experience of reading them; and since each is himself an acute reader and an exceptionally good writer, the experience, even when filtered through translation, is vivid. Burrow writes for a general audience; Grafton, writing up his Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge in 2005, more for scholars. But each has a grasp of the whole, an eye for detail, and a sense of irony and wit that make them a pleasure to read.

For histories of histories, time itself is capacious. Grafton’s practitioners were writing in the decades around 1600; he can treat them as mutually curious contemporaries. Burrow’s stretch across two and a half thousand years, but until 1700 or so, his historians too had been engaged with one another: the ancients with themselves, and those who came after with the ancients. Histories of the Greek and more especially the Roman world had for a thousand years set the frame and rhetorical style in which histories of other times were written; the ancient historians were regarded also as sources of moral and political wisdom. And because so many of them referred to others, we can be reasonably sure that even where their work has not survived, we know who the more significant were. Burrow makes no apology for devoting the first third of his book to them.

Herodotus, with whom, after a dutiful prologue on the keeping of records and accounts in Egypt and Babylon, Burrow begins, was conversing with Homer; Thucydides was responding rather less generously to Herodotus; Xenophon was continuing Thucydides; and so it went on. After the Roman historians of Alexander, Burrow proceeds to Rome itself, to Polybius, Sallust, Livy and Plutarch; to Appian and Cassius Dio on the civil war; to Tacitus and the self-serving Josephus, sensibly changing sides in the course of the Jewish revolt in Palestine in 67-69 and surviving to write its history; and to Ammianus Marcellinus, an amiable pagan from Antioch, who was writing at the end of what Gibbon called the ‘long desert’ of three hundred years of no histories, and at the end, effectively, of the Western empire itself. Ammianus is a little ‘wobbly’, as Burrow puts it, on high politics, but good on Rome’s low life, gaming and gossiping in theatre doorways, and on its rich, who were anxious to be recorded as serving the biggest fish and roast dormice in town. He was sympathetic to the Emperor Julian’s attempt in the 360s to revive every rite he could find against the gathering force of Christianity, and lived to record what he would not have seen as the fateful decision in 376 to allow Goths to cross into Roman territory, and the death of the Emperor Valens, who vainly decided to fight them rather than talk at Adrianople in 378. Burrow ends his account with some brisk corrections of present misconceptions: ancient histories were not exclusively contemporary, were not all political or military, did not always see time as cyclical, and did not disregard longer-term changes.

Not the least appealing feature of many of the ancients – to us – is their comparative lack of partisan passion. The early historians of Christianity knew no such restraint; none, certainly, showed the toleration that Ammianus extended to Christians themselves. Their object was to explain the continuity of the faith since before the Incarnation; their natural inclination was to present the continuity as a victory over Jews, heretics and secular persecution; a victory, moreover, at the centre of the universal empire that the Church would take over as its own. But they did not all attempt to be universal. Gregory of Tours in the late sixth century, the opening of whose candid and ramshackle History of the Franks might be the most engaging of any work of history – ‘A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad’ – came to concentrate on events in and around his well-placed diocese. A century or so later, in a more controlled fashion, the magisterial Bede recorded the successes of what he called the English Church over irritating Britons and the obstinate Christian Irish.

Burrow takes time to describe a return to secular annals and chronicles between the 11th and 14th centuries, before the emergence in Florence, in the 15th and 16th, of what has come to be called ‘humanist history’. It is an entertaining section: Geoffrey of Monmouth on the achievements of the probably inexistent Arthur (and his spear, called Ron), an account, Burrow observes, which seems so convincing, yet does not convince; the scurrilities of Matthew Paris, not least about Matthew’s own abbey at St Albans, plagued for a while by dodgy builders and a crooked monk who died shouting ‘Take him, Satan!’ on a distant privy; Jocelin de Brakelonde’s contributions to the chronicle of his local abbey at Bury St Edmunds, which include an arrestingly delicate account of opening the tomb of the saint; and some crusader and chivalric histories. The secular Florentines that follow are illuminated by the works of these chroniclers.

By the end of the 16th century, humanist historiography was all but de rigueur, and had acquired a strikingly common character, as Grafton, whose more restricted compass allows him to include minor figures and expand on contexts, explains:

Whether you were Protestant or Catholic, cleric or layman, engaged 16th-century jurist or dryasdust 17th-century polymath, if you chose to write an ars historica, you committed yourself to explaining how to learn the truth about the past, how to reduce its lessons to systematic form, and how to apply them to the present. Your reader knew, before he turned the first page, that he would encounter quotations from Cicero, praise of Polybius, discussion of speeches and battle scenes, and – in almost every case – texts forged by Annius of Viterbo [‘a well-trained bad Dominican’ who had in 1498 published a volume of 24 purportedly well documented histories of ancient kingdoms]. Every author responded to others who had written before him and drew on what rapidly became a standardised international range of traditions.

The art survived for as long as it did because ‘it provided a shell, a portable house and carapace, which any hermit crab of a humanist could inhabit and move about in safely as he explored strange and dangerous places.’ These are, however (to change the image, as Grafton often does), ‘children of very different generations, trying on the same Ciceronian garments as they played in an attic that became dustier with time’. His chosen players are those whose critical ‘method and madness’ served around 1600 to blow the dust away and inadvertently reveal that much of what lay beneath was fit for the fire. ‘Study the historian before you study the facts,’ E.H. Carr suggested in 1961 in What Is History? Grafton does, with scholarship and zest.

Francesco Patrizi studied at Padua and taught in Ferrara and Rome in the later 1500s. Inclined to philosophy, he wrote ten dialogues in admiration of Plato’s. In several, he casts himself strolling through Venice, buttonholing promising passers-by to refute whatever conventional opinion they have about historical understanding; his interlocutors, Grafton remarks, like Plato’s sophists, are eventually ‘ready to tear their own heads off rather than face another round of full and frank discussion’. In another, he has his great uncle in conversation with an Egyptian holy man, who persuasively claims that ancient Egypt had not only been culturally prior to Europe but greater than anything that had ever existed there. Reiner Reineck, by contrast, ‘led a relatively peaceful life in the small, obsessively erudite academic communities of Protestant north Germany’. For him, history was pragmatic in a sense different from that intended by the ancient writers. ‘In his world of well-ordered police states, charters rested on birth, orders emanated from the top, and birth order often determined the destiny of individuals and of states.’ It was important to get this order right, and Reineck excited fellow obsessives, disappointed a few pretenders and no doubt tortured his printers with thousands of pages of princely genealogy.

Jean Bodin was more erratic. An international celebrity, he studied and taught law in Toulouse, then went on to practise in Paris, fought for the privileges of the governed, argued against many of these in his Six Books of the Republic, and ended ‘as a royal officer in Laon, a participant in the Catholic League, a speculative philosopher and a particularly rabid demonologist – the only one of all his tribe who believed that witches could physically remove the genitals of their male victims’. But his exuberantly penetrating reflections on the ars historica were to stir all but the most fearful crabs. Like Patrizi’s dialectics and Reineck’s researches, they can in retrospect be seen to have contributed to the end of what they purported to extend.

Grafton is too sensitive to the great variety of what he has unearthed, and has too fine a feel for circumstance and the ragged nature of intellectual life, to give any simple account of how the end came about. But the elements are as evident in Grafton’s three principal players as they are in Jean le Clerc, the late 17th-century editor and man of letters whose cauterising ars critica he describes in his first chapter, as well as in the host of writers he collects in his last, on ‘the death of a genre’. It was becoming increasingly difficult to resist suggestions that what the ancient authors wrote – they had always been valued more for their rhetoric than their facts – may not always have been true. Even where it might have been, it was increasingly difficult to deny that the more closely one considered ancient circumstances and purposes, the less easy it was to see what they offered to one’s own.

And there were other pasts. The piously inclined historians in the German lands who believed that the Holy Roman Empire was the last of an unquestionable quartet, the Assyrian and Babylonian, Mede and Persian, Macedonian and Roman, as well as those who went back more directly to Greece and Rome, were made uneasy by the point, put most strongly by Bodin, that the Goths, Arab caliphates, Turks, Tartars, Chinese and others, the more recent of whom were now being revealed in proliferating works of travel (and the publishing world’s first subscription series, the Elzevir Republics), had their pasts too: pasts which had started from somewhere else, developed in parallel times, and could not all be got into what Grafton describes as the Book of Daniel’s prophetic corset. Isaac Dorislaus wasn’t the only one to make the inference: time and politics were realms ruled and shaped by human action. It was for this view, and his incendiary observation that he could find no record that ‘democracy was ever abrogated by ius or lex’, having always simply been arbitrarily overturned, that Dorislaus was sacked – after his second lecture – from the first university post in history at Cambridge in 1627.

Dorislaus’s own preferred ancient, Tacitus, was increasingly being taken to have shown that there was an alternative genealogy to that favoured by antiquarians like Reineck, coming down not from princes and emperors but from free communities in the German woods. By the 16th century, the nearer past was also becoming clearer: it had been ‘feudal’, and was veering into what the 19th century was to call ‘absolutism’. And there were new settlements overseas, and revolutions. Burrow takes up the story in a long section, another third of his book, on the new ‘senses of the past’ that these things were exciting in Europe and America towards the end of the 19th century. He writes about Clarendon’s insistence on the ‘wilfulness of particular men’ in his History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England in the 1640s; the more general ‘philosophic’ histories of Hume, William Robertson and Gibbon, each wary of ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘superstition’; Macaulay on the ‘glorious revolution’ in Britain in 1688; and, in vastly different idioms, Carlyle, Michelet and Taine on what they variously regarded as the glorious or inglorious revolution in France in 1789 (Burrow can’t contain his relish for the Old Testament thunderings of Carlyle, on whom his chapter is quite brilliant, any more than his distaste for the relentless Taine). He also discusses the imaginative celebrations of England’s communal freedoms by William Stubbs, and of the creative individualism of ‘modernity’s first-born son’ by Burckhardt in Renaissance Italy.

Outside Europe, there are Bernal Díaz and the nearly blind New Englander William Prescott (a revelation to me) on the conquest of New Spain, Francis Parkman’s expansively romantic histories of the American West (in one of which Parkman muses on La Salle’s first sight of the Mississippi flowing into the Gulf of Mexico in 1682, ‘limitless, voiceless, lonely as when born of chaos’), and Henry Adams’s nine-volume History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, less compelling for its narrative, Burrow finds, than for its long prologue on the character of the country in 1800 (‘even in New England the ordinary farmhouse was hardly so well built, so spacious or so warm as that of a well-to-do contemporary of Charlemagne’).

Finally, and for modern history-writing most decisively, Burrow turns to ‘the German influence’, especially of Ranke, whose 60 volumes in the collected edition are now little read and remain for the larger part untranslated. Burrow here confesses to taking an ‘impression’, not least from Lord Acton, but gives a characteristically sharp account of Ranke’s metaphysics of nations ‘immediate to God’ reaching their highest expression in the ‘individuality’ of the modern nation state. Through the Berlin seminaries, and the invention of the research degree, a new archival professionalism was established.

For an English historian as determined as Burrow that his story shall have no point beyond itself, it is natural that he should at the end turn to Herbert Butterfield’s essay The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield’s subject in 1931 was particular, even parochial. He disliked the liberal triumphalism of much of what he read. But put into the lower case and generalised, his argument can be deployed against any story that sees the present as the end to which everything has been tending and sorts its protagonists into those who could not see what this end was and the prescient, who did. As Gregory recognised, there is no ‘end’ to the past or to its writing.

The aspiration to a bloodlessly ‘scientific’ practice has largely disappeared and there is a lot of good popular history-writing. What we might think of as the last grand narrative, Marxism, has faded (though to Burrow, withering as he is on E.P. Thompson’s evasions on ‘class consciousness’, that is still an open question); but another could appear. Meanwhile, other kinds of other, including the upper-cased Other of the 1980s and 1990s, have come back into view. Historians have extended their scope from the national to the regional and the ‘global’, returned to the local, gone beyond the political, and sought to hear all the voices they can find. Burrow and Grafton are both evidence of the fact that what is variously described as intellectual history or the history of ideas, the history more generally of what people of all sorts, everywhere, have had in their heads, flourishes as never before. Burrow ends his book – one might say, pointedly – on the nicely judged diminuendo of Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath, a village on Exmoor, in the Reformation. History writing now is as heterogeneous as it has ever been.

Jack Goody, however, is not satisfied. The deformations of a Eurocentric whiggism, he believes, are with us still. Historians who were writing around the middle of the last century – Moses Finley on the ancient world, Joseph Needham on ‘science and civilisation’ in China and the West, Fernand Braudel on Europe’s economy, Norbert Elias on the emergence of civilised manners – have, in the very breadth of the comparisons they make, served to strengthen the prejudice that Europe was predestined to be superior in its economy, towns, institutions and learning, in its values of ‘humanism, democracy and individualism’, and in its expressions of feeling. Finley in this way reinforced the cult of Greece as ancestor, Needham the assumption of Europe’s eventual superiority in science and technology, Braudel the case for the decisive effects of European ‘finance capitalism’, Elias the claim that it was in Europe that personal habits had become uniquely polite.

Goody’s attack is informed and fierce, and proceeds on two fronts. One is ethnographic. He counters almost every point in his chosen writers with instances of precepts and practices in Asia and Africa (he draws on his own anthropological fieldwork in Ghana) to match what have been claimed to be Europe’s alone. In his discussion of expressions of love, he even brings to mind the conversation Patrizi invented between his great-uncle and the Egyptian holy man in claiming that the allegedly new expression of amour courtois in the European 12th century, long supposed to have been special to this continent, is already recorded in Egypt in the second millennium BC.

Goody’s other front, as this suggests, is historical. It was absurd, he argues, to assume that we owe so much to the evanescent energy and prosperity of one Greek city between the late sixth century BC and the middle of the fourth. Athens had a great deal, but much of what it did have, from its alphabet on, had been taken from the already complex and sophisticated civilisations in Phoenicia and points east, and in Phoenicia’s colony Carthage and Egypt before that to the south. Athens was a small and relatively peripheral moment along the way from more distant places that were, in most practical matters at least, superior. Goody also insists that it has been wrong to claim that the ‘comparative advantage’ of some European societies in the 18th and 19th centuries was evident even a few hundred years earlier, let alone more than two thousand. What Europeans had come to call ‘feudalism’, for example, was a discontinuity not matched in China, and the subsequent Renaissance in Europe owed much to the Arab world. The central question, he says, one not asked by those who have been committed to tracing a European route to Europe’s modernity, is what happened to emerge in Eurasia from a more or less common Bronze Age.

Historians of a more particularistic inclination favour archival sources, which prevent them reaching back so far in time. But both they and the generalists are becoming markedly less parochial about space. The now receding Eurocentrism that Goody deplores can be seen to have been an over-confident reaction to the widening of view that had begun with the widening of worlds in the 16th century and was already evident in the final flourishings of the old ars historica. As Colin Kidd observed in his review in this paper of Christopher Bayly’s Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914, historians in Europe are again paying attention to the Rest as well as the West, and now that the old empires have gone, are doing so in a way that does not presume that the one has in every respect always been beneath the other, and behind it.[*] As in Bayly’s splendid book, which Goody mentions in passing, they are also starting to detect the many often perverse actions and reactions between the worlds, in the course of which many of the differences between them have become less obvious and the complexities within them more so. What Goody does not mention is that although, in their grand moment in Europe from the later 19th century to the middle of the 20th, general historians may have stolen the pasts of others, they did not steal the practice of thinking about how to think about pasts. That has been and remains a prerogative largely of the West.

Yet old habits can die hard. The ars historica has migrated to the social sciences and been represented as ‘theory’. Thucydides is a prime example. Burrow, however, is right to press his point about the dangers of having a point: ‘Almost all historians except the very dullest have some characteristic weakness: some complicity, idealisation, identification; some impulse to indignation, to right wrongs, to deliver a message. It is often the source of their most interesting writing. But Thucydides seems immune. Surely no more lucid, unillusioned intelligence has ever applied itself to the writing of history.’ It is only therefore the most superficial of ironies that those who do have a message have continued to require Thucydides to provide it. Hobbes, the first to translate him from Greek into English, saw him as a critic of democracy. Students of international relations have recruited him as a model realpolitiker. Since the fall of ‘scientific history’ – of which Thucydides was once hailed as the fount – students of literature have exposed his rhetoric. And now that professional respect for Ranke’s facts ‘as they are’ has gone, there can be a temptation to find in Thucydides an alternative foundation for history itself. It is to this that Darien Shanske responds in Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History.

Shanske reads Thucydides to be saying that it is with what the Greeks called logos, or reasoned speech, that men attempt to master events, and that what they manage to achieve not only falls short but in war, politics and much of the rest of life, contains the ‘dreadable’ and often realises the ‘dreadful’, what the Greeks referred to as deinon. This is clearer in the contemporary tragedies than from a first reading of Thucydides himself, but that might simply be because dramatic tragedy ends, whereas epic, which is what Thucydides might be seen to have been practising, tends just to peter out. Shanske’s reading certainly captures something that many modern students of war and politics have missed, which is that one can make sense of Thucydides only by appreciating that what he writes about happens through time, and that in war and politics, the passage of time – as Enoch Powell, a student of Thucydides, once observed – usually leads to tears. Shanske remarks that his book is a reply to Pericles’ claim that the Athenians would achieve a glory in war that would outlast the decline of their empire. One might add that it is through this pre-eminent political character and his successors that Thucydides unpacks the confusion between inciting war, avoiding it, being confident of it, wondering if it’s a mistake, engaging it, failing to understand it, and eventually losing it.

It is a matter more for wonder than regret that Shanske can dare to claim that Thucydides provides a foundation for history. He certainly fits a present disposition to open-endedness, irony, paradox, scepticism, even pessimism. Shanske suggests that this may be a conscious invocation of Heraclitus, writing what he may have written a generation or two before Thucydides and regarded by later ancients as the philosopher of ‘tears’. But if Burrow and Grafton’s histories of histories reveal any one truth, it is that different dispositions co-exist and change, and will lead even those most dedicated to truthfulness to disagree about which truths matter, not least about the practice of history itself. Thucydides, moreover, wrote in a genre of his own, immensely effective, it’s true, and in language of notorious density, producing what we now think of as literature as much as history. What makes him such an attractive writer is his lucidity and unillusion, his ability to capture the general in the particular and to write a good story. But he was not much imitated even in the ancient world, and although it is good to experience his humanity across two and half thousand years of specious moralism, no historian now would think of trying to write as he did.

[*] LRB, 2 September 2004.