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Topic Subject: Why Modern Historiography Sucks
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posted 03 September 2007 18:57 EDT (US)   
I've needed to get this off my chest a long time. Really, the title says it all: I hate modern historiography. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Why? I'm so glad you asked!

1. Pathological hatred of chronological history.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to study history (I said broadly speaking, I meant broadly speaking, and I may not be using the commonly accepted terms): Thematic and chronological. Thematic history studies general themes of certain eras rather than the actual events. For example, a thematic historian of the Song Dynasty in China wouldn't name a single emperor, but would go in depth to discuss the prominence of the gentry class, and the effect of the examination system. A chronological historian is one who focuses on events and what actually happened. Modern historians believe that chronological history isn’t even worth the saliva it takes to spit on it. This, clearly, is stupid. In fact, I would rather read a purely chronological than a purely thematic history, because themes can be inferred. Events can't. The best is embodied in Gwyn Jones' "History of the Vikings", which intelligently uses both thematic and chronological history.

2. Pathological hatred of historical sources
I will be the first to admit that historical sources (eg, Herodotus) can be problematic. That does not mean they are worthless: Far from it. When intelligently analyzed, they are invaluable. However, the modern historian thinks that if the ancient sources put in an anecdote, or flesh out a character in some way, it must be false. For example, many modern historians don't believe that when Harald Fairhair came to the throne, he pledged that he would not shave his hair until he became lord of Norway. It is a story that is interesting, and shows several aspects of his character: His ambition, his arrogance, his flair for the dramatic. Also, because he was later dubbed “Fairhair”, but several of his skalds during the Unification called him “Tanglehair”, it is not only possible, but probable. Yet, because it is well told, modern historians don’t believe it.

3. Snubbing of certain areas of history
Mainly, military history. The modern historian spits on military history, because it is the matter of immature children, and also because people that aren’t historians might actually find it interesting. There are also some people who think that studying military history in some way glorifies wars. This is stupid. Professor Garret Fagin said it well when he said that studying wars without mentioning battles is like studying theology without mentioning God. I do not think that military history is greater import that the other areas, but it is at least somewhat important to know what, say, the Battle of Yorktown was. Political history is also losing ground to economic history, and the aforementioned chronological history is losing ground.

4. Footnotes
Yes, we understand that you did a lot of research. That doesn’t mean you have to source every single goddamned statement.

My hatred is vast, but not particularly broad. These four pretty much sum it up. Also, I know I am generalizing. I also don’t care: I don’t want to make a topic saying “I find certain trends in modern historiography misguided and foolish”.


"That which we call a nose can still smell!"
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posted 07 September 2007 07:13 EDT (US)     26 / 31  
Herodotus gets a lot of stick but there are times when he has proven to be quite accurate.

Incidentally, welcome to the TWH history forum to those folks I haven't seen here before.

-Love Gaius
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[This message has been edited by Gaius Colinius (edited 09-07-2007 @ 07:14 AM).]

posted 07 September 2007 09:02 EDT (US)     27 / 31  
totally exaggarates the size of Persian armies so make Greekish victories even more glorious
I'm not sure about that. The Persian forces are certainly exaggerated but Herodotus is hardly as biased against Persia as some modern commentators are against Herodotus. The exaggeration of enemy forces is hardly unique to Herodotus and I'm uncertain whether such exaggeration is actually purposeful as many seem to think it is.

Civile! Si ergo fortibusis in ero.
Wassis inem causan dux?
Gnossis vile demsis trux!

I suggest that before badgering for a translation you take the time to read it out loud. Thankyou.
posted 07 September 2007 12:26 EDT (US)     28 / 31  
The exaggeration of enemy forces is hardly unique to Herodotus
Yes, that's why I picked it up as an example of a general tendency in historiography in all ages. Whether it is purposeful that might be debatable indeed, but I think it still suits for an example I wanted to iclude in my first post in this thread.
posted 07 September 2007 15:24 EDT (US)     29 / 31  
I took Historiography in Spring 2007. Not a bad class. I had a row with the teacher about a disputable source for my paper (anyone remember that thread? ), but overall I found it very valueable. The footnotes did get very tedious and that's why I think endnotes should be mandatory because footnotes take up a lot of damn space and what if you didn't want to read it? With endnotes, you can just venture to the back and check it out without being obligated to read 3/4 of a page of a footnote.

I really enjoyed Historiography because I found learning about the different ways to analyze history intriguing. For us modern historians there will be nothing original, and we have to accept that fact unfortunately. But there's always room for new material of course.
posted 08 September 2007 02:48 EDT (US)     30 / 31  
Depends on the book for end or footnotes. A Bible with endnotes and no footnotes would suck. However, I much prefer endnotes in straightforward histories.

I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed. ~George Carlin
posted 10 September 2007 09:57 EDT (US)     31 / 31  
I'm quite fond of modern historiography, as it has reached new heights previously unattained. Furthermore, many of the trends you noticed are not present here; military history is actually undergoing a minor growth, with, for example, four major academic studies on our revolt being published in the last 3 years alone, and previously uncharted territories such as that of medieval warfare are also becoming more popular. The academic world seems positive to this at the very least, as we have a guest class in a couple of weeks on the Roman army, and the academic studies I spoke of were part of a large university-sponsored program.

When it comes to chronological history, there's only so few chronological history books you can write. Many periods have been thoroughly described, and, to gain new information, the only thing to do then is to take more specific case-studies. Chronological history, unless it becomes academic in length and detail, tends to only scratch the surface.

Kor | The Age of Chivalry is upon us!
Wellent ich gugk, so hindert mich / köstlicher ziere sinder,
Der ich e pflag, da für ich sich / Neur kelber, gaiss, böck, rinder,
Und knospot leut, swarz, hässeleich, / Vast rüssig gen dem winder;
Die geben müt als sackwein vich. / Vor angst slach ich mein kinder
Offt hin hinder.
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