History and Historiography


I’ve talked about my recent obsession with world history a few times over the last month. I’ve wrapped up the Columbia University world history to 1500CE course on YouTube, I’ve worked my way through The Great Courses offering “Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations” ($10 sale price, bought before I realized how much learning there is for free), and even as I type this I’m listening to an episode of BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” I’ve recently added five podcasts to my iPod, in almost their entirety:

  • The History of Rome
  • In Our Time Archive: History
  • Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
  • Norman Centuries
  • 12 Byzantine Rulers

In total this represents probably a week’s worth of history. Oh, not the amount of history I could listen to in a week, not a week of commutes or a 40-hour workweek. A solid non-stop week of history, in the range of 150-170 hours. It’s about learning things that I never knew before, but through it all I realize that it’s not so much history that has fascinated me. It’s historiography.

I was aware that historiography was a thing, the word laid somewhere in my brain thanks to course catalogs back in college, but it came back up while listening to the Columbia University course linked above. Taught by Dr. Richard Bulliet, one of the authors of the textbook being used in the class, it was equal parts world history and explanation of the choices made when created the text, and that fascinated me. Then the word surfaced, and I went to make sure I understood its meaning. Simplified, it’s the history of history. It’s all the questions about how we approach history, how we teach it, how we understand it.

In the first episode of the 100 Objects BBC series, presenter Neil MacGregor made it clear that the title of the show is “A History of the World” not “The History of the World.”  The latter would likely require more time than it took to make the history to begin with. Really, the notion that what I learned in school was only a world history is what brought me on this path. I learned a history of the world called Western Civilization, which generally goes Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Dark Ages, Renaissance, Columbus then sort of peters out because the semester ends. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this world history, just incomplete. Yes, it’s a little provincial, but it tells a story. Something that Dr. Bulliet makes clear is difficult to craft when it comes to a more broad-based world history. In the end even his history, or the broader history of Crash Course, leaves out some core elements. Japan and the Vikings become rumors. Native groups outside Africa, Asia, and Europe only show up when contacted.

There’s a lot of world history.

History is, at its heart, a story. A narrative. Historiography asks how do we craft that narrative? Do we track Western thought through its origins through to its exportation to the New World? Do we talk about a series of great men as they mold and shape their world? Do we approach history as a clash of civilizations? I’ve taken a break from my series about world building the earth, but if we are to look at our planet as a story setting, and approach questions of “why are things they way they are?” as a world building question, then historiography is how we decide on our plot, and look at how other people have approached their plots.

And that might be where my fascination lies.

History is such a broad narrative that there are endless right answers on how to approach it. And endless wrong answers. Each of the right answers has its weaknesses, but each provides a different angle that can fill in the gaps. As a crafter of stories, it’s fascinating to see how many approaches there are to stories I once thought set in stone. Or how many other stories were going on at the same time.  Or how stories I thought unrelated to each other share some characters I’d never noticed. It turns history from a single narrative into this weird shared-universe anthology, only with considerably more disagreement between authors about the underlying canon.

Of course, the easiest way to explore historiography is exposure to multiple histories. So I continue on. Back and forth, looking at broad themes and tight focuses. What can I say? It’s actually kinda fun.

, ,

  1. No comments yet.
(will not be published)


%d bloggers like this: