Historiography is a fundamental part of any historian’s life. Whether they be a professional professor, a public researcher, or a simple hobbyist, understanding the history of historical writing is a rather foundational aspect of the job title. It’s also, unfortunately, where many students of the subject get discouraged. The two of the most ‘daunting’ obstacles I’ve personally witnessed in any upper-leveled history class (on a high school or undergraduate level) would be any student’s ability to recognize ‘relative significance’ in their essays and the overall grasp of knowledge on historiography. Both, when briefly glanced at, can seem like challenging tasks – ones set for academic professionalism and annoying to process if the passion for the subject isn’t there. Of course, to people who literally research history and write essays for fun (the madmen we are), it can come more naturally. Every student has different methods of understanding any topic; but any skill has the potential to be acquired through dedication to the subject at hand.
While ‘relative significance’ in an essay is important, I do believe it is far easier to explain that the vast topic of historiography. In a sense, relative significance is the absolute value of a historical topic being analyzed and then compared to a similar concept. Some essay structures prefer relative significance in specific locations throughout pieces as a way to identify whether or not a student of history actually has the capacity to understand the underlying features of what they’re discussing – or if they’re simply vomiting their memorization skills all over the paper in a limited time-span.
Historiography, on the other hand, is a higher leveled way of identifying history. It is, to put in simple terms, the study of historical writing, and therefore the actual writing of history. Many graduate schools for history make a historiography-based class a mandatory credit; and many undergraduate programs have their own more foundational (or primitive, based on how you look at it) classes that basically prepare students for historiography throughout their careers. To put it gently, it’s of high importance that any self-proclaimed or degree-wielding historian be able to identify (and properly use) historiography.
While relative significance and historiography may be implemented in different ways, they both allow a professional historian to be separated from the typical Google enthusiasts and pub-hopping trivia gurus that think they are experts in the subject without any formal or informal training. Anyone can simply blurt out a historical fact, as history exists in just about every form throughout our society. It takes a true historian to use higher leveled thinking and fantastic research skills to turn different eras into a flowing domino effect.
Historiography basically allows modern historians to look back and identify the methodology and terminology of the men and women before them. It’s a highly encouraged academic discipline, sort to say, that essentially exists as an archive to show how any specific history “went down”. It takes in different perspectives from different eras to create a timeline within a timeline. In its most barebone essence, it is the closest thing to a living form of an actual chronology – one that interprets cultural, political, and social elements of a predestined society. From there, we can formulate different interpretations of history and allow new information to add upon the never ending story of ourselves. Different interpretations manifest themselves as time progresses, and eventually our contemporary society creates a view that is socially accepted! Until the next round, that is.
An interesting fact would be that historiography technically ‘existed’ (in primitive formats) before the actual creation of writing. Prehistoric societies and minimalistic communities would have had their own versions and interpretations to their short and limited history (perhaps one limited to generations rather than epochs). It’s ironic that, in a way, “the writing of history” can be told through other means of communication. Early non-societies could have (once again, incredibly primitive) versions of historiography through oral history and traditional stories. However, in a more modernized sense, the greatest anthologies of our world look back upon centuries of resources and primary/secondary resources in order to compose new works of historical writing. For the purpose of most ‘courses’, historiography is limited to the constructs of writing – no matter how early said writing might be.
I, personally, love referring to the Roman senator and historian Tacitus when discussing historiography. As he authored The Annals and The Histories, Tacitus formulated a historical truthfulness that was quite advanced for the Roman World. He worked with levels of history in a way that modern historians work with today! Imagine that! A member of the ancient world could work with such limited resources (no internet, no encyclopedias, no archives or databases, not as many well-adjusted professors dedicated to the subject, and very few histories to relate back to) compared to what we can look back upon today. Even though the work is still backbreaking and (unfortunately) usually underappreciated, at least we have the necessary materials to work with and benefit our research! Tacitus is a true pioneer on the topic, and I believe his works have to be analyzed for centuries to come.
That about does it for this crash course post. You can check out the Professionalizing History archives here. I have a 10-page essay in the works concerning Tacitus and his influences on historical writing along with his personal relations to stoicism and imperialism throughout the Roman Empire. Whenever that goes live, I’ll go ahead and link it here. Until then, check out some other great history posts!