Flavors of History – Alma Boykin
In the beginning there was vanilla, and it was . . .
OK, correction. In the beginning there was olive oil on flat bread with goat cheese, better known as Herodotus. He really does deserve the title of the Father of History, in the sense that he did research, interviewed people who had traveled, and made clear what he knew to be fact, what he had been told was fact, and what he suspected was conjecture. As far as Western history goes, he is the first general historian, and we might say the first social historian, since he wrote about unusual people way over there and what they did. He could also count as an anthropologist, back before the two sides parted company. In China, I’d count Sima Chin as the first historian who was not simply compiling king lists or writing on oracle bones. He is a political historian and intellectual historian, writing about monarchs and the good and bad things they did and if they accorded with his preferred philosophy. No, he wasn’t “objective” but back then historians weren’t supposed to be.
The next major Western historian was Thucydides, a military and political historian. In fact, political and military history dominated the field for quite a while, if you focus outside the Christian Church. People who could write tended to be churchmen and/or affiliated with royal or princely courts. The most important things going on involved ruling, challenges to ruling, inheritance, and how good the patron was. As a result, we tend to find pious descriptions of saintly monarchs (Alfred the Great) interspersed with descriptions of battles and marriages and offspring, or accounts of how horrible the previous monarch was and how G-d, in His mercy and grace, allowed the current claimant to the throne to overcome the bad monarch and replace him. Buried within the accounts, we find nuggets of what moderns consider history.
During the early middle ages (say, 1100s – 1300s or so) we find a lot more national histories written. These are descriptions of the long history of the Bohemians, or Magyars, or Britons (although the English and Welsh started early with Gerald of Wales and the Venerable Bede tracing things back to the Trojan War). The goal was to show how long a nation had been in the land, and how noble and dignified their ancestry was, thus locking in their claims to territory and respect from other, less worthy peoples and rulers. This is when the Magyars staked their claim to Pannonia based on descent from wandering ancestors related to the Huns and farther back, to the sons of a princess and an eagle. The Bohemians didn’t go quite that far, settling on a princess in the 600s or so (pre-Magyar and German) and a plowman. The Kieven Primary Chronicle dates to this period, skipping the mythology for the most part.
Until the 19th Century history focused on what we call today political and military history, with some diplomatic history wrapped in, and historical biography. When people grumble about “history is just dead kings and battles” they are thinking of this sort of writing. But the people writing histories were not interested in “objective” history. They were recording events in order to support a certain side, or to justify certain actions, or to explain why their side won (or lost). And the most important things to the literate people who were not businessmen and women, or clergy, were politics and wars. Politics and wars shaped everything in the world of the nobility and upper classes, international trade and diplomacy, and even some religious matters, so that’s what you wrote about. And that’s what interested the people who had enough extra money to hire scribes to write family histories and accounts of events. A few individuals wrote diaries and detailed accounts of events that they participated in, like Samuel Pepys (most famously), a latter-day version of the old monastic chronicles, but they were not writing history per se and did not claim to be.
Then along came the professional historians, first Gibbon, and then most importantly Leopold Von Ranke, who ordered his students to go into the archives and government documents and write down things as they really happened, no favoritism or glossing. And political history, diplomatic history, and nibbles of economic history appeared in the form of trade histories. The American diplomat George Perkins Marsh wrote the first environmental history in the 1890s, with the book Man and Nature where he compared the descriptions of the Classical world with what he observed as an ambassador, and described what he thought had happened and why. After WWI people began turning away from the older kinds of history, looking below the level of monarchs and ministries, to see what had been going on in departments, counties, parishes, and villages. The French in particular started combing through local records, digging up anything they could find and trying to make sense of it. Called the Annals’ School because of the title of the journal where the first of their work appeared, the French also began looking at the longue durre, the extended stretch of history of places and peoples.
After WWII, with the surge of new people coming into the universities and more access to archives and new tools to analyze things, history either exploded or shattered, depending on how you view things. Political and military history still led the field in terms of respect and number of practitioners, as the box on my office floor containing the full paperback set of Samuel Elliott Morrison’s history of the US Navy in WWII can attest. Governments still funded historical writing. But economic history emerged as an official specialty, and environmental history, women’s history, Marxist and labour history that looked back at the working classes, and peasants and slaves and serfs to tell their story (E. P. Thompson most famously), religious history that didn’t focus on the development of theology or advance a pro-denominational thesis, corporate history and industrial histories, much better histories of non-Western places with South Asia, China, Japan, and so on developing their own standards and patterns and conventions, geographically focused histories such as American West or Borderlands, and new takes on older writings. Medicine developed its own history that lapped into social and political history. Military history shifted from how battles were won and lost into the daily experiences of soldiers, and of civilians around the soldiers, to histories of logistics and supply, how warfare affected society and shaped culture (see Victor Davis Hanson’s early work), and war-on-the ground like John Keegan’s Face of Battle.
Historians also began nibbling, then gulping, the tools of other fields. We crunched numbers and developed Cliometrics, history based on statistical analysis that could be amazingly useful when it worked and miserable to read when it didn’t. We pestered the archaeologists and the Dark Ages turned into Late Antiquity as more and more continuity appeared in the historical and archaeological record, plagues, invasions, and the climatic downturn in the 500s-600s notwithstanding. We harassed geographers (OK, we’ve been doing that since Herodotus), plagued engineers, annoyed ecologists and foresters and naturalists, irked physicists and chemists, “borrowed” from archaeology and linguistics and hydrology and anyone else who forgot to lock up their journals and research notes, and came up with some wonderful results. And some not so wonderful results.
Today, late 2016, you can find a historian looking under pretty much any rock you mention. Music historians, art historians, historians of ideas, environmental historians, historians of sex (not as exciting as it sounds), historians who write about people and animals, historians of water, or fire (Stephen Pyne and yes, that is his real name. He was predestined to go into fire science and pyrohistory). Is this good or bad? It can lead to some pretty dead-end research, because the PhD requirement is to either find something new, or refute something old. Classics and political history especially have grown some pretty esoteric-to-questionable branches, in my opinion. But it also means that anything is fair game for anyone, and you can find works about all sorts of fascinating and odd and intriguing and “that is so cool!” things and peoples and places.
Of course, I’m the poster bad example for someone who could not focus in graduate school and who still refuses to specialize to the extent required by academic standards. So you might not want to follow my lead.