Those Who Do Know the Past
By ADAM KIRSCH | April 2, 2008
In the sixth century, Bishop Gregory of Tours began his "Histories" with the observation, "A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad." This is, as John Burrow writes in "A History of Histories" (Knopf, 544 pages, $35), an "entirely accurate" reflection. It is also, of course, an absurd one, and it takes a certain alertness to pick up on the dry satire hidden in Mr. Burrow's bland endorsement. In his deadpan mockery, and in his choice of a pious Christian target, Mr. Burrow deliberately recalls Edward Gibbon, who is one of his heroes.
Mr. Burrow, a historian of the 18th and 19th centuries who teaches at Oxford, is the author of a short introduction to Gibbon, and in his new book he writes lovingly about the author of the "Decline and Fall." He especially admires Gibbon's famously feline treatment of the early Church — the way the man of the Enlightenment makes clear his disdain for superstition, without ever committing himself openly to atheism. "Sometimes we have a phrase," Mr. Burrow writes of "The Decline and Fall," "which, depending on the preconceptions of the reader, can be read either devoutly or skeptically." When Gibbon observes that "the laws of nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church," for instance, it is not immediately clear whether he is making a statement of fact, or silently laughing at those credulous enough to accept it.
So, too, with Mr. Burrow's playfully mocking account of Gregory. By the time the reader of "A History of Histories" reaches the chapter on this chronicler of an age of darkness, he has already been thoroughly exposed to the most brilliant lights of the ancient world: Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus. Those Greek and Roman writers not only invented the very discipline of history, they created some of its most lasting monuments; in some ways they have never been excelled. By the time Gregory came on the scene, the Roman Empire had fallen in the West, and the historian's horizons, intellectual and geographical, had shrunken pitifully. "Gregory's life and the contemporary events he records were centered on, though not entirely confined to, the Loire valley," Mr. Burrow writes. In his chronicle, as in a medieval painting, the sense of perspective has been lost: "A great many things keep happening," one after another, but there is no way to distinguish great from small, or even fact from legend.
Yet even in Gregory, Mr. Burrow helps us to recognize, the spirit of the historian remains, just as the legacy of Rome survived in fragments in the medieval monasteries. Gregory writes that his goal as a historian is "to keep alive the memory of those dead and gone, and to bring them to the notice of future generations." It is a direct (and unconscious) echo of Herodotus, the father of history, who a millennium earlier declared that he wrote "so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time."
And it is substantially the same impulse we find in historians today. E.P. Thompson's influential study "The Making of the English Working Class," published in 1963, approaches the past in a way Herodotus or Gregory could scarcely have comprehended, with its Marxist categories and its interest in history "from below." Yet when Thompson writes, "I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver ... from the enormous condescension of posterity," he is giving his own inflection to the old promise of history: It is an artificial immortality, a stay against oblivion.
This humane understanding of history, its methods and its goals, serves Mr. Burrow as a constant guide through an enormous amount of material. In his introduction, he makes clear that he has not set out to write "the history of history," which would be a truly limitless subject. To explain all the different ways human beings have understood their past would mean invoking not just historiography but biography, literature, religion, philosophy, and science.
In writing "A History of Histories" instead, Mr. Burrow assigns himself a finite subject rather than an infinite one. Yet the breadth of knowledge and erudition Mr. Burrow displays is sufficiently astonishing. Ranging far beyond his area of scholarly expertise, he offers the reader a series of introductions to most of the major historians in the Western tradition. Each chapter combines a brief sketch of a historian's subject with remarks on his style and how he conceived of his calling. (And until the 20th century, it is always a "he.") Rather than a tightly argued thesis about what historiography is or should be, Mr. Burrow offers a leisurely tour around some of the monuments of the discipline.
Beginning at the beginning, with Herodotus and Thucydides, Mr. Burrow shows how these Greeks of the fifth century BCE invented history as a secular literary genre, distinct from the annals and king-lists of the ancient Near East. Every reader tends to become a partisan of one of these founding historians, and Mr. Burrow seems to prefer the tolerant, curious, myth-loving Herodotus to the stern, pessimistic, proto-scientific Thucydides. Mr. Burrow points out that, while Herodotus has been censured by later historians for his apparent credulity about strange peoples and customs, some of the tales he found most outlandish can now be verified. For instance, he "dismissed as incredible the story that Phoenician voyagers traveling west along the southern coast of west Africa found that they had the sun to the north of them, on their right." Not until the Portuguese repeated the journey, two thousand years later, would the truth of this observation be confirmed.
Mr. Burrow proceeds to the great historians of Rome, from Polybius, who wrote in Greek in the second century before the common era, to Ammianus Marcellinus, who lived during the waning days of the empire. After the shattering of the antique world, Mr. Burrow guides the reader through the sadly reduced histories of the Middle Ages, when powerful minds like the English monk Bede tried to stay afloat on a sea of ignorance. (Not until this point in his story does Mr. Burrow come to grips with the Bible, which emerged in the Middle Ages as the Western world's chief guide to the past.) He is good-humored enough to see the appeal even of a writer such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in the 1130s made up the "history" of King Arthur more or less out of whole cloth. "It is perhaps not wrong, and certainly tempting, to use the word 'hoax'" for Geoffrey's work, Mr. Burrow writes, "but whether Geoffrey was in his own mind a hoaxer seems more problematic. He was a parodist of near-genius, and a considerable imaginative writer."
It is not until the 14th century, with the dawning of the Italian Renaissance, that historiography starts to resemble the discipline we know today. The Florentine humanists' rediscovery of the Greeks, and their renewed interest in the ethos of republican Rome, inspired a new way of writing history "as a source of republican inspiration and political lessons." Machiavelli's "Discourses on Livy" turned to early Rome for instruction in the laws of statecraft, while Guicciardini's "History of Italy" brought a new level of realism and detail to the study of modern power politics. Still more important in the long run, Mr. Burrow points out, is the way the humanists' interest in the accurate understanding of ancient texts led to a new respect for the pastness of the past, and a new attention to the techniques of philology and archival research.
It is in his discussion of the 18th and 19th centuries, his own period of expertise, that Mr. Burrow is at his most enthusiastic. This was the age of Gibbon, Hume, Carlyle, and Macaulay in Britain, of Taine and Michelet in France, and of Parkman, Prescott, and Henry Adams in America. Mr. Burrow writes sympathetically about each of them, even when, as with Taine and Michelet's works on the French Revolution, they took diametrically opposite approaches. What is notable about all these writers is the way they combine modern research techniques and standards of accuracy with the ancient historians' interest in narrative, moral insight, and literary quality. Mr. Burrow clearly prefers such independent scholars to their professorial successors, for whom history became not a literary genre but a university department. He mocks the late-19th century notion that "the long history of historical writing and inquiry from Herodotus onward had reached its terminus: Clio was unveiled and holding a chair, probably in Germany."
While Mr. Burrow concludes with a respectful summary of recent trends in academic historiography, from Marxism to the Annales school, he leaves no doubt that even the most up-to-date historians do not render their predecessors obsolete. Every great historian is, rather, a permanently valid witness to human experience. Together, they form what Mr. Burrow calls "a kind of community of the dead and the living," of which he is himself a honorable member.