Thursday, September 03, 2009

What I do in history class

Perhaps you are interested in what I am doing in this history progam. Aside from real research papers I have to make entries on an on-line discussion board. One particular class requires that I make one post of my own and then make "scholarly comments" on the posts of at leasttwo class mates.

Here is an example of one of my posts. The assignment was to discuss the effects of three different eras on historiography.


Maybe I am a little dense here, but I am not seeing that the Renaissance did anything new historigraphically other than change the subject of history. Instead of demi-gods and heroes, kings and armies, bishops and heretics the Renaissance historians wrote about merchants and cities. Maybe that is a big change, but I don't see it as one. They are still telling a story, relying on sources, and trying to fit things together so they make sense. I don't see that as being very different from what Polybius and Eusebius did. In fact, Bruni, even made up speeches and put them in the mouths of the people when wrote about Renaissance-era Florence. (Breisach, p. 154) Except for subject matter that is the same thing Herodotus and Thucydides did. They did it with kings, he did it with Florentine republicans. Sure it might be a fun and informative read, but is it true? I have a novel on my shelf about an English bridge builder in the same period. It is likewise informative and entertaining, but it isn't true. It doesn’t tell me what really happened.

With the Reformation I have a different problem: Polemics. It seems to me, that if Martin Luther "developed a conception of history to suit and to legitimize his critical view of the earthly life of the church." (Kelley, p.1) he didn't really advance history so much as he enslaved it to propaganda. Sure, he had nice things to say about the Biblical historians (Kelley, p.2), but we can see in his "allein" (Kelley, p. 4) how he is willing to pervert even the Biblical text to reach his theological ends. For Luther, I think, it was all about reaching that end. He castigates those who " embellish or besmirch histories" (Kelley, p.2) but isn’t that what he does?

Luther, as much as those he criticizes, "writes and ignores, praises, and decries whatever he likes" (Kelley p.3) and willing adopts positions that have noting to do with truth but have everything to do with expediency. (Edwards, p.134)

In summary, I do not think Renaissance historians contributed anything very significant to historiography besides a change in subject matter, and, I think the Reformation historians, as exemplified by Martin Luther were a step backward.

This leaves the historians of the Scientific Revolution. But as the hour is late half past eleven o'clock in California, and I am tired, I will take that up tomorrow.


Breseich, Ernst, "Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern (2nd Ed.)", Chicago,1994
Kelley, Donald, "Versions of History from Antiquity to the Enlightenment", New Haven, 1991
Edwards, Mark, "Luther's Last Battles", Concordia Theological Quarterly, Volume 48, Nos. 2 & 3, April-July 1984, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

(part 2)

Having stated what I think are the defects of Reformation Historiography, or at least the less than desirable influence of the Reformation on Historiography, and having shown why I think the Reneiassance historians were interesting but not unusually important, I want to talk about the Scientific Revolution and its effect on historiography. What I am not going to talk about is the related, but different topic, history of science.

It is generally true that prior to the Scientific Revolution things we moderns think of as areas of scientific inquiry were ruled by tradition and ancient texts. How many limbs were lost to gangrene because physicians followed Galen's prescriptions instead of cleaning wounds and stitching them up? Our own first president was bled to death because Galen's ancient texts ruled medicine even into the 18th century.
But the Scientists were less enthralled by the opinions of the ancients. The fact that something had been written down did not make it true. Neither did the position or reputation of the proponent of an idea have any impact on the veracity of the idea. As Sir (1) Francis Bacon, said "Those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury."(2)

In that statement lay the foundation of the Scientific Revolution, and upon that foundation Bacon built the philosophical construct for establishing the "progressive stages of certainty" (3) we now call the Scientific Method: Hypothesis, theory, experimentation, revision of theory, more experimentation, etc. It is this font that watered and continues to water historiography. For, now, if there is no documentary evidence to show Washington camped at Valley Forge, that the phoenix was born again from its ashes, that Nero played the harp, or the Titanic had plenty of life boats, the historian that asserts the truth of those claims is derided and considered no historian.

But that is not all. The Scientific Revolution held, contra Pontius Pilate, that truth was knowable (4). Here is a river; jump in you're wet. My hand has been burned; touched by fire. But truth mixed with lies is untrue. Bacon said discussed mixing gold with silver to make the coin stronger, but also how the silver "embaseth" the gold. Likewise he said mixing truth with fiction might make a better story but a less true story. (5) Thus, the propagandizing of Martin Luther and the inserting of speeches in historical figures' mouths by Bruni are repudiated.

There is another thing the Scientific Revolution did for historiography. It gave historiography a new purpose. In the past one read history, such as Plutarch's "Lives of the Noble Greeks" or St. Patrick's "Confessio" or Herodotus' "Persian War" for moral instruction. And, historians wrote history, as many writers write other things, as actors act, and as singers sing, that is for acclaim. That is not why the scientists did science. They did science to solve problems. Galileo didn't improve and build a telescope to become famous for building better telescopes than Johann Lippershey. He didn't even build it to have a telescope. He built the telescope to solve a problem. Likewise, Bacon says it should be for increasing wisdom in "understanding of plots and the marshalling of affairs", that is, for solving practical problems, that men study history (6). And if that is why men should study history, that is how historians should write history. In such manner we see Bacon using history in his writing. When dealing with the problems of placement and design of houses he looks to a conversation between Pompey and Lucullus (reported by Cicero)(7) for an idea of how to solve the problem. When looking at Britain, which during his lifetime was beginning to grow into a great empire, Bacon wanted to address the problem of the greatness of kingdoms. He attempted to solve the problem by looking at the history of Rome, Spain, and other great empires.(8)

In summation, the effect of the Scientific Revolution on historiography consists, at least, in these elements:
A. That truth can be known
B. That knowledge can be tested
C. That truth is always better than fiction, even if the fiction is of some utility
D. That history can be a tool for solving problems and should be written for that purpose

1 - Actually, though he was a knight, he ranked much higher than that as Viscount St. Albans)
2- Bacon, Francis, "Novum Organum", 1620,
3- Ibid
4- Bacon, Francis, "Essays" (1972, Dent: Melbourne & London), p. 4
5- Ibid
6-Op. Cit., 150
7-Op.Cit., 133
8-Op. Cit., 89

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