Historiography from Herodotus to Voltaire

Historiography from Herodotus to Voltaire

The Birth of Clio [the Muse of History]

Classical Greco-Roman historiography, considered as a whole, presents a number of relatively clear, unitary and well-defined features in certain respects. As regards its contents (what deserves to be historized): the origins and evolution (above all, the recent evolution) of political communities (centring upon their own), especially at decisive moments in their existence (military conflicts and/or expansion), and through the most remarkable events. In addition, as concerns its aims and objectives: enquiry (into political matters, to a certain extent) is intermingled with reflections and ethical lessons about the ambiguous and elusive nature of human beings, in order to instil moderation, patriotism, a love of peace and fortitude in the face of changes in personal and collective fortune, since human wellbeing is not permanent.

All of this is carried out by means of a unitary narrative (structured around a central subject), which is well-structured, reliable (due to the verification and checking of the evidence, by and large oral in nature), captivating (above all in Herodotus and Livy) and convincing (especially in the case of Thucydides and Polybius). The experience of mutation over the course of time and comparative analysis between somewhat different peoples or individuals (the Greeks and the Persians, Alexander and Caesar) enriches classical historical research. Natural curiosity frequently leads attention to be drawn to the extraordinary (the feats of the community itself or other peoples’ habits that appear bizarre, such as the funerals of the Scythian kings).

Be that as it may, classical historiography had a very limited geographical, chronological and teleological scope. It is the history of the old Greco-Roman world and its immediate neighbours, of a few centuries (in general), a history whose culmination or final horizon is foreign to the concerns, at least the explicit and openly stated ones, of these historians. The notion of freedom and human perfectibility, to a certain degree perceptible in Thucydides, is balanced by the impact of practically immutable natural laws and the inexorable and almost unforeseeable consequences of fate or fortune. In order to answer the great question of whether history has any underlying unifying meaning, classical historiography has only vague and imprecise answers. It almost exclusively focuses its attention on the qualities and problems of the mid-term (the hegemonic expansionism of the Athenians to explain Peloponnesian War, for instance).

Greco-Roman historiography, the history of political communities at decisive moments, the history of the short-term timescale and a history that forms citizens and rulers, is carried out by men close to power, generals, politicians, or men of letters close to the latter, who write without any specific professional preparation, basing themselves on their own experiences (memoirs) or what happened to their acquaintances. For Greco-Roman writers history is a rather derivative activity of secondary importance that appears at a belated date in their lives.


The Baptism of Clio

Taking classical Greco-Roman historiography as a starting point, we can now see what continuities and changes can be observed in the course of the history of Western Christendom during the Middle Ages. Of course, there are sufficient continuities between the two of them for the identity of that term to reflect strong parallels as regards content: the investigation and narration of past events that really took place, centring on the historian’s own political community, for instruction in matters of morality and government, carried out by culturally and socially outstanding men (always males), often “well born and educated in the trade of important business” (as Montaigne was to say, referring to Commynes).

Nevertheless, it may well be between the historiography of the classical world and that of medieval Christendom that we can observe the greatest modification; a change undoubtedly greater than the one that was to take place between the latter and the Renaissance-Baroque phase; a change also probably of greater importance than the one that occurred between the history of Renaissance-Baroque period and Enlightened historiography. The baptism of Clio means a substantial change in approach, in different aspects, insofar as the way personal and collective human adventures were considered. It was a great change, above all, if we concentrate on early medieval history, written within the shelter of the cloisters.

There was also a change as regards contents: the history of salvation, of Christianization, of sanctity (religious and ecclesiastical history) dominated or was added to the history of political developments. With regard to the aims and objectives, reflection upon change and the fragile nature of human constructions (“maquinas transituras”) had religious edification, rather than political instruction, as its goal. It led not to stoical imperturbability but to Christian humility and hope. The first clear “consolations through history”, by Augustine of Hippo and Otto of Freising, appeared, for finalistic theological saturation (human history is a pilgrimage and is unitarily oriented towards a total future plenitude offered by God) was a fundamental characteristic of medieval historiography, clearly contrasting in this respect with classical works. This virtual universalism of medieval historiography, reflected in general or universal chronicles, did not prevent the geographical scope from hardly varying in comparison with that of Greco-Roman historiography insofar as the understanding of processes and specific historical events was concerned. Until the end of the Middle Age, Western Christendom was a geographically enclosed world, only marginally opened up by the Crusades. As regards the chronological dimensions, the interest in the earliest stages of mankind, from their Biblical origins in the time of Adam onwards, was not endowed with either the methods or the sources (unless biblical descriptions are taken into account) required to satisfy the objectives.

If we consider the characteristics and qualities of historical writing, together with their truthfulness and clarity, which continued to be sought, it appears to us to be (likewise in contrast with classical historiography, which was rhetorically far more elaborate) fresh in its simplicity, in the style of the Bible, both as regards autobiographical narratives (Muntaner and Commynes) and also works based on other people’s evidence (such as the works of Bede, Otto of Freising and Alfonso X).

This change in values and social relevance also had an effect on the type of individual authors within medieval historiography: churchmen (monks and bishops) were added to rulers and educated nobles, in writing histories that, in immediate terms, continued to reach, in most cases, a fairly narrow public, since neither parchments nor papyri were easily reproduced in overwhelmingly illiterate societies.


Clio at Court

Renaissance and Baroque historiography display an evident degree of continuity from Later Medieval history. Generally speaking, histories of reigns and republics were also written (in this age of the adoption of Clio by courts) by counsellors and servants to princes, in order to inculcate (through the “healthy documents” of history) political and moral wisdom, above all among rulers, but also among their subjects. Ecclesiastical history continued to be important (strengthened by the age of religious Reforms), as did providentialist interpretations (the latter being more explicit in Gomara and Bossuet, and to be found as a backdrop in Guicciardini and Clarendon, although they were de facto rejected by Machiavelli).

In turn, the renewed assessment of the legacy of the classical past showed itself in other aspects of Renaissance and Baroque historiography: the return of rhetoric insofar as narrative form was concerned, the appeal to “fortune” or destiny, (especially in Machiavelli), Plutarchian characters (in Clarendon, for example), the attraction of Rome (as a major subject of study and the recognized point of interconnection between peoples and dynasties).

However, not everything to be found in the historiography of the 15th to 17th centuries was an inheritance from the past. In addition, there were important innovations, to such an extent that some see the beginnings of modern history in this period. Thus, the notion that a human group’s evolution over the course of time is represented in the changes to their written accounts (Valla’s “anachronism”, the protohistoricist approach in the French “histoire parfaite” (perfect history), the need to verify a document’s authenticity by means of auxiliary sciences to be found in Mabillon’s history). This chronological relativism was reinforced and complemented by cultural-geographical aspects (at the same time, two peoples can live in different ways).

This abovementioned relativism (already hinted at in Herodotus) is a consequence of the greatly enlarged geographical scope that Europeans now had in their vision of human nature, following the great expansion overseas. Since the end of the 15th century, these historical contacts had made very different cultures and peoples (in Africa and America) known, and had stimulated comparative reflections and a history of civilization that was no longer simply political, but global instead (already recommended by Bodin). In approximately 1600, an evolutionary philosophy of culture began to mature in Acosta and others. Exploration of the limits of the globe was contributing to an exploration, also from the temporal perspective, of the widespread limits of man, as well as to a new approach, more anthropological and cultural in scope, to history. Yet cultural relativism, even moderate in nature, often continued to be subsumed in the convictions of Christian natural law: the community of nature and the transcendent vocation of the human race.

Another no less important novelty in the Renaissance and Baroque periods was the spread of reading and pleasure in history among new social sectors (lawyers, traders), and the means to get to know about it (even dictionaries and other works of erudition as early as the end of the 17th century). All of this was thanks to the existence of printing and of other conditions for a certain diffusion of general culture in the urban contexts of the most dynamic parts of Western Europe. Moreover, the greater presence of men with legal training among authors of historical works encouraged an interest in finding laws in history and a tendency to be more demanding in the analysis of information (evidence and literary or material remains). This greater demand was sharpened by the Cartesian epistemological challenge. The change in the historiographical climate was such that, in the last decades of the 17th century, we could perhaps speak of the beginnings of a reasoned, methodical and pre-enlightened form of history, alongside the majority approach to history, represented by a rather rhetoric form of historical discourse, which edified monarchical or dynastic and national legitimacy, and which was more inclined to create myths.


Clio among the Philosophers

In the historiography of the Enlightenment, there was considerable evolutionary continuity as regards the Renaissance-Baroque phase: the progress of erudition (Muratori was one of the outstanding figures), the very marked educational orientation of history, its teleological approach, its cultural relativism, the contributions of leading cultural and social figures, (jurists, librarians, publicists, professors), its diffusion among relatively widespread urban groups – although they continued to be minorities –, in addition to being favoured by the style of great popularizers, such as Hume and Voltaire; and its particular attention to national history.

Yet in the historical works written in the Age of Enlightenment there are certain no less noteworthy innovative features. For this reason, we have the feeling of a way of approaching the past that is quite close, in several respects, to our own present-day conceptions. The most important transformations could be synthesized, perhaps, in three aspects, which will be explained below and which it may be possible to reduce to the conviction that socio-political changes towards more satisfactory forms (with greater freedom and a more rational approach) can and must be favoured by reflections of historical substance (“discourses”, “considerations”, “essays”), supported by formidable erudition that is represented in footnotes.

We can distinguish, as one of the key differentiating aspects, the clear and self-confident assertion of humanity’s progress towards perfection and worldly happiness (Voltaire, Gibbon) as a thread of history; as a synthesis of the past and a consoling philosophical faith (in the history that has elapsed and for the history that is to be expected). In many cases, such a statement runs the risking of breaking away from the idea of Providence as a guarantor of progress.

Another innovative aspect: was the efforts made to put forward, from the known historical facts (the importance of which was thus accentuated) explicative theories, embryonic in nature, but relatively explicit and formalized, concerning the progressive evolution of human societies (some kind of social physics that did not always avoid the influence of determinism). Demographic and economic realities (especially trade) played an essential role in these reflections (for example in Campmany), in keeping with the growth of such aspects in this period. Montesquieu set the standard in his efforts to construct a science for the human world analogous to that of the physical world. For that reason, it is logical that the former political and factual approach to history was found to be insufficient. In many cases, there was also a preference for studies covering broad periods of time and space, which enabled a more comparative perspective to be adopted: Gibbon chose Rome; Voltaire universal history from Charlemagne; Robertson synthesised medieval European history. 

A third aspect, no less important, distinguished enlightened historiography from that of the Renaissance and Baroque: in general, its authors had a more critical attitude towards the established monarchical power and were slightly more independent of it as regards its patronage. More than in the previous period, the philosopher-historians of the Enlightenment contributed with their analysis not only to legitimizing power, but also to the reform (to a greater or lesser degree) of the same, as regards the (ideological and material) objectives that it pursued and as regards the groups that exercised it. The fact that liberals, Marxist socialists and many Christians could identify themselves with a substantial proportion of the analyses of Enlightened historiography could be interpreted, at the same time, as evidence for its validity and the ambiguity of its message.

We can conclude with a number of overall considerations. It is well known that there is a series of deep questions and underlying motivations that continually reappear in history, which are revived in that fascinating and interesting exploration, over time, of the shape of human nature. These include the experience of decline and decay, and the desire to last forever; the concurrence of liberty and necessity in the unfolding of events; the enquiry into the existence or lack of progress towards a goal that endows history with sense; the concern about the origins and legitimization of different powers, which is linked with human capability for solidarity and the tendency towards confrontation between people and groups, etc. The persistence of these leitmotivs in human history is, in a way, existential proof of the continuity of one single nature, of a core of common humanity, which to some extent leads us to consider the reports and reflections of Thucydides, of Clarendon and Voltaire, for example, as our own; in fact, undoubtedly doubly so, as both men and as members of the Western European civilization that they have contributed to shaping.


Dr. Fernando Sánchez-Marcos (2009)

(Professor Emeritus of Early Modern History at the Universitat de Barcelona. Founder and Director of http://culturahistorica.org)

[Translation of the original Spanish text by Dr. Philip Banks].