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Fighting over History

Anthony Grafton is one of the world’s most gifted historical scholars. His field is the history of learning, particularly the learning embodied in the philological, historical, and scientific literature of Europe between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. This is abstruse and difficult territory, partly because so much of it is locked up in huge volumes of densely printed Latin, partly because it is impossible to write illuminatingly about learned people without being equally learned oneself. Early-modern scholars were polymaths who were expected to know about more or less everything. A comparable amount of erudition is required by those who wish to interpret their work.

Fortunately, Grafton is well grounded in the Greek and Roman classics, fluent in modern European languages, and voraciously energetic. He brings to what might have been a merely antiquarian pursuit a keen historical intelligence, honed by his over thirty years as a member of the Princeton history department, for much of that time the most dynamic historical powerhouse in the US. As a prolific writer and an inspiring teacher, Grafton occupies a position at the very center of the modern republic of letters. His references to other scholars are invariably generous, even effusive. (In What Was History? their works are repeatedly described as “splendid,” “superb,” “brilliant,” “wonderful,” “magnificent.”) His large, bearded figure is familiar in many of the libraries and archives of Europe; his magnetic presence has graced the podiums of innumerable lecture halls; and his writings have achieved a far wider readership than their often arcane subject matter would have led anyone to predict.

Grafton’s particular strength is his ability to write vividly and wittily about remote and difficult subjects. He knows how to engage his readers in the recondite scholarship of the past, so that they share his exhilaration when he exposes a sixteenth-century forger or discovers a previously unnoticed marginal note by some long-dead scholar. Admittedly, this easy accessibility is not apparent in his magnum opus, an austere study of Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540–1609), the greatest classical scholar of the early-modern period.1 Only the most dedicated students can have read their way through those two crowded volumes, the first containing three hundred pages on Scaliger’s textual criticism and exegesis, the second 750 pages on his studies in historical chronology. But most of Grafton’s other writings are highly seductive.

What Was History? exhibits all his customary virtues of wit, learning, and literary sprightliness. It originated as a set of four Trevelyan lectures at Cambridge University, and its title is a deliberate reference to What is History?, an earlier series of Trevelyan lectures given in 1961 by E.H. Carr, author of a monumental (and, nowadays, unfashionably sympathetic) history of Soviet Russia. The published version of Carr’s lectures, still in print, has sold over a quarter of a million copies.2 It is an iconoclastic polemic against the supposed objectivity of the historical profession, and is particularly famous for its cautionary advice: before you study the history, study the historian. It offers highly controversial opinions on such topics as the extent to which individuals can make history, the claim of history to be a science, the nature of historical causation, and the idea of progress. It enjoyed a succès de scandale at the time because of its attack on the views of such eminences as Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper; and it has been widely read by generations of undergraduates.

Grafton’s lectures comprise reflections on the work of E.H. Carr’s forgotten predecessors, the early-modern theorists who wrote comparable essays on the nature of history. They too asked Quid sit historia? or, since many of them were Italian, Che cosa sia historia? Theirs was the genre of writing that came to be known as the ars historica (the art of history). It emerged at the end of the fifteenth century, flourished in the mid-sixteenth century, and was given canonical status in 1576–1579, when the Basel lawyer Johannes Wolf issued an anthology, containing seventeen of these treatises, under the title Artis Historicae Penus (Treasury of the Historical Art). This anthology, together with a modern one compiled by a German scholar,3 provides Grafton with the material for his book. His venture into what he calls “the rich, complex, and compelling history of historical thought in the centuries before historicism” is not polemical and it is unlikely to sell a quarter of a million copies. But it offers an illuminating perspective on the evolution of historical consciousness.

The artes historicae were part of the much larger attempt by Renaissance scholars to organize the ever-growing amount of knowledge and to prescribe rules for its systematic study. Grafton suggests that their appearance in such numbers was a “response to the crisis in information management and assessment” precipitated by the floods of information pouring into sixteenth- century Europe from travelers, navigators, and missionaries. But it is likely that the artes historicae would have come into existence even without that crisis, for in the early-modern period the compilation of such guides was a necessary accompaniment of almost any branch of study. The artes historicae had their parallels in a host of other artes —the ars anatomica, the ars grammatica, the ars medica, the ars mnemonica, the ars rhetorica, and so on. The genre went back to classical times, when an ars was a treatise or handbook, usually on grammar or rhetoric.

Horace’s Ars Poetica was the most famous of these, Ovid’s Ars Amatoria the most flippant. But there was no Greek or Roman ars historica, unless one counts a brief essay by Lucian of Samosata (second century AD) on “How to Write History.” None of the great classical historians from Herodotus to Tacitus devoted much space to reflections on the nature of their art. History was not part of the ancient educational curriculum. It was regarded as an essentially literary activity, a branch of persuasive oratory rather than a form of scientific investigation. It preserved great deeds from oblivion, provided examples of good and bad behavior to be followed or avoided, and offered practical guidance for life. It was inseparable from rhetoric, and historians were judged primarily by their style.

The prefaces to medieval chronicles sometimes contained reflections on the nature of history, but there were no separate treatises on the subject before the fifteenth century. In the medieval universities history was not regarded as a distinct liberal art; there were no professional historians, and no obvious pressure for a discussion of the nature and methods of history. What stimulated reflection on the ars historica was the appearance in Renaissance Italy of great works of humanist historiography, like Leonardo Bruni’s history of Florence (circa 1444) and the writings of Flavio Biondo (1392–1463) on Italian antiquities and on European history since the decline of Rome. In the fifteenth century many Italian humanists expressed their views on history in letters, orations, and literary prefaces. But it was the publication in 1499 by the Neapolitan Giovanni Gioviano Pontanus of his dialogue Actius that is normally taken to mark the beginning of the new genre of works devoted exclusively to the theory of history.

These treatises signaled the recognition by the humanists that historical composition was too important a matter to be left for individual authors to work out for themselves. There was a technique to be learned and rules to be followed. The new ars historica was pioneered by Italian authors, but from the mid-sixteenth century onward, it was taken up in other parts of Europe, first by the Germans and the French, later by the English and the Dutch. By 1600 over forty such works had been published. The genre would have a long subsequent history, culminating in the mass of late-twentieth-century writing on how, why, and whether history should be written. But essentially the ars historica was the invention of the sixteenth century—“the greatest age of capital-T theory before our own proud epoch,” remarks Grafton.

It was not until relatively modern times that historians began to give these early-modern artes historicae more than sporadic attention. In 1939, when the American scholar John Lackey Brown published an excellent thesis on the greatest and most influential of the artes historicae, the French philosopher Jean Bodin’s Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, 1566), he remarked that the artes historicae constituted an unpromising field of study: “Tiresome in their repetitiousness, unavailable in convenient form, and often trivial in content, they have not attracted many students.”4 In the ensuing seventy years, however, as the discipline of intellectual history has expanded, these treatises have been intensively studied by American, Italian, Swiss, and German scholars.5

As a result of their work, the evolution of the ars historica is nowadays a reasonably familiar story. Initially, it treated history as just another branch of rhetoric. Its rules were literary rules and its models were the classical historians, particularly Livy and Sallust, whose subject matter was politics and military affairs. By composing imaginary speeches to put in the mouths of the participants, historians could show their literary virtuosity. History, however, could never aspire to the status of poetry, because the poet’s imagination was unrestrained, whereas historians had to confine themselves to what had actually happened.

As for the purpose of history, that seemed obvious in an age when the justification of all learning was that it enabled people to live better lives. History was exemplary: it supplied instances of good and bad behavior in the past, thus illustrating and confirming the ethical precepts of the present. As a way of teaching morality and prudence, history was thought more effective than philosophy, because memorable examples that engaged the reader’s sympathies were more persuasive than mere precepts. History was accordingly regarded as an essential guide to the conduct of life. In the words of the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “the principal and proper work of history” was “to instruct and enable men, by the knowledge of actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present, and providently towards the future.” It was particularly recommended for politicians, courtiers, generals, and all those who aspired to get on in the world.

The early Italian artes historicae were primarily concerned with narrative style and presentation. They prescribed the order in which events should be treated and stressed the need for brevity, gravity, and eloquence. But in the 1560s, particularly in France, the emphasis changed. The new concern was with “method,” that is, the appropriate intellectual procedure not just for writing history but for reading and understanding it. This greatly extended the scope of the debate. Indeed, several scholars have described it as “a Copernican revolution.” Instead of being seen as a branch of rhetoric, designed to persuade and to please, history was now treated as an independent discipline, a kind of social science, involving an inquiry into the underlying causes of things. This ambitious objective ran counter to the early-sixteenth-century revival of the skepticism about the very possibility of certain knowledge that had been expressed by the ancient Greek Pyrrhon of Elis, and expounded in the second century AD by the doctor Sextus Empiricus. Pyrrhonist skepticism could be invoked to deny the validity of the entire historical enterprise. Most historians were liars, claimed the German writer Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in 1526.

  1. 1

    Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, two volumes, 1983–1993).

  2. 2

    The most recent edition (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001) has an excellent introduction by Richard J. Evans.

  3. 3

    Theoretiker humanistischer Geschichtsschreibung, edited by Eckhard Kessler (Munich: Fink, 1971).

  4. 4

    John L. Brown, The Methodus ad Facilem Cognitionem Historiarum of Jean Bodin: A Critical Study (Catholic University of America Press, 1939), p. 46.

  5. 5

    Grafton includes an extensive bibliography. For English-language readers, the best initial guides remain the pioneering article by Beatrice Reynolds: “Shifting Currents in Historical Criticism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 14, No. 4 (October 1953), pp. 471–492; and Donald R. Kelley, Faces of History: Historical Inquiry from Herodotus to Herder (Yale University Press, 1998), Chapter 8.

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