What is Historiography?

What is Historiography?

The heterogeneity of works of history

Historiography can essentially be understood in two ways. In the most common way today, historiography (the writing of history) is equivalent to a set of works of history, meaning texts about the human past that were written at a specific time and place using a roughly consistent methodological and/or ethical-political approach. Thus, for example, we can speak of medieval, Renaissance or early 20th-century historiography; of French or Mexican historiography; of the historiography on states or urban historiography; of Marxist, liberal or positivist historiography; of internationalist or nationalist historiography, etc.

It is an incontestable reality today that the word history is associated with a diverse range of cognitive and writing practices, as summarised so aptly by K. Pomian:

“Today, the word history designates a heterogeneous epistemological set of cognitive practices (ranging from more traditional procedures to cutting-edge techniques) and a stylistically heterogeneous set of writing practices (ranging from literary accounts to equations of a retrospective economic model)”. [1]

The enormous variety of the titles in academic and scientific journals devoted to history today show this great heterogeneity of ways to approach the past.

The heterogeneity of history, shared with all other disciplines of knowledge (such as sociology or anthropology), is only understood by its own historicity. Ever since Herodotus, the effort to save the human adventure from oblivion, narrate it and understand it in time has left behind a rather sedimented overlapping strata of issues, procedures, documents and works written by historians. In this overlap, the most recent strata modify the older ones. Indeed, the sections on historiography on this website, bounded by the time in which they arose, reveal various examples of these same historiographic strata.


Historiography as meta-history

Historiography can also be understood as meta-history or second-degree history, meaning the study of how historians have built their readings of the past. In this sense, historiography is directly interested in how historians have chosen, captured and represented some events and processes of the past in their work. Here, the fundamental questions would be of this type: What worldviews, political-social options, aesthetic forms and research methods have come into play in creating those representations of the past? What were the explicit or implicit criteria that guided the historian in selecting sources and in configuring the interpretation of “his or her” subject? It should not be forgotten that history is always both the history of something (history of) and history in favour of something (history for). [2]

In his valuable “Schema of historical thinking”, Jörn Rüsen discusses the different keys, dimensions and strategies that are combined in historical thinking. [3] Practical interests, significant theoretical concepts and categories, methods for dealing with past experiences, forms of representation and functions of cultural and identity-related orientation interact in this. To give a historical sense, the historian uses strategies that are thereby semantic (to symbolise), cognitive (to acquire knowledge), aesthetic (to represent), rhetorical (to promote orientations) and political (in tune with a collective memory).

Through the study of the intellectual, ethical and political categories with which historians have operated, historiography helps to unveil the mentalities and cultural praxis of a certain time and social environment¾those of the “present” in which the authors wrote. It has been rightly written that a human group never reveals itself as well as when it projects its own image behind it. [4] Historiography is therefore found at the crossroads of cultural history (of mentalities), of intellectual history, of literary studies and of historical sociology.

Rounding off the concepts, it can be said that the historical narrative, as a cognitive-existential construct, results from the combination of a dual perspective. One is the perspective, with real aspirations, of the events that took place (the res gestae) in a past tense of which we have multiple representations or “sources” (as was said classically). The historian’s other perspective, even if only semi-conscious, is a “viewpoint” or a “vision” of the future that he or she incorporates. For due to their existential condition, humans are “futuristic” beings who forge their personal and social life from experiences (whether comforting or hurtful) and in view of (more or less grounded) expectations. This interaction between “spaces of experience” and “horizons of expectation” as an anthropological key in the construction of stories has already been thoroughly studied by Reinhard Koselleck, [5] based on the luminous Augustinian considerations about time and the triple present: memory, vision and expectation. The present of the past is memory; the present of the present is vision; the present of the future is expectation. [6]


Historiography and regimes of historicity

To describe the different ways in which Western societies have articulated the relationship between the past, the present and the future over time, François Hartog has proposed the concept of regimes of historicity. [7] A simple version of his argument is as follows. Until the great rupture of the French Revolution and its intellectual prolegomena, Western societies gave primacy to the past over the future. In that ancient regime of historicity, what was expected of the future was approximately what had already been experienced. History, as magistra vitae, had in that sense an extraordinary utility, although it was not yet a professional discipline. From the middle of the 18th century, and especially since the French Revolution in 1789, that old regime was replaced by another modern one in which the future prevails over the past. The relationship between the future and the past is thought of as key to ethical and scientific progress, a capital concept in modernity. The conviction grows that tomorrow will be different and better than yesterday. [8] With the change from the 20th to the 21st century, Western societies may have shifted to a final regime of historicity: the presentist. This is characterised by distrust of both the past and the future, as well as the primacy of the present.

Two of the most important testimonies of the presentist regime of historicity would be the extraordinary importance attached to the study of very recent eras (Zeitgeschichte; histoire du temps présent) and, paradoxically, the obsession with memory as a sign of identity.


The writing of history, from Herodotus to Ranke

Graeco-Roman historiography has always been a fundamental benchmark for writing history in the Western European tradition. Not surprisingly, the word “history” is a Latin adaptation of a Greek word meaning “investigation”. Among the Greeks, Herodotus’ Histories (ca. 430 BC), and Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 396 BC) are documents that investigate and relate important events, close in time, that affected the political community at decisive moments (the defence against the Persian threat in Herodotus, the struggle for hegemony in Hellas between Athens and Sparta in Thucydides), written for moral and government education. Later, Polybius would link Greek and Roman historiography, giving rise to the history of an Empire (the Roman one) and confirming the influence of Stoic philosophy. The greatness of that Empire would later be praised by Titus Livy, a great historian and rhetorician.

The Graeco-Roman world does not seriously raise the question of the meaning or purpose of the human adventure in time. This is introduced in the Latin West with the theological philosophy of the history of Augustine of Hippo, or Saint Augustine, exhibited in The City of God (or The Two Cities), a work that would have lasting repercussions in the Middle Ages. In the time of Christianity, from Constantine (4th century) to Bossuet (17th century), the history of evangelisation accompanied and overlapped political history. Hagiography (stories of the praiseworthy lives of saints) came into being. Following the model of the Gospels, historical accounts became simpler and less rhetorical. The authors of mediaeval historiography, written largely in Latin, abounded with ecclesiastics such as the English monk Bede the Venerable (8th century) and the German bishop Otto of Freising (12th century). At the end of the Middle Ages, the Memoirs in which Philippe de Commines narrates his experiences as a royal advisor and draws lessons from it mark a turning point in historical thinking. Commines stands at the crossroads between providentialist Christian moraltiy and the realisation that success sometimes accompanies those who violate morality.

During the Renaissance and the Baroque periods (15th-17th centuries), historiography continued to instil political and moral wisdom, first and foremost to the rulers and aspirants to power. Works of history are written mostly by rulers, by their secretaries or by historiographers (official chroniclers). Among the latter is Jerónimo de Zurita of Spain, who wrote the valuable Annals of the Crown of Aragon (1585). The most famous and influential secretary was the Florentine Machiavelli, author of The Prince (a seminal treatise on political theory) and historical works. In these books, he expresses his veneration for republican Rome and his aspiration to draw sociological laws from it.

The authors of the Renaissance were great admirers of Graeco-Roman culture and restored the rhetorical dimension to historical accounts. [9] Notable Renaissance Italian historians of the 15th and 16th centuries included Leonardo Bruni, Lorenzo Valla, Flavio Biondo and Francesco Guicciardini. We owe the concept of anachronism to Valla’s philological-documentary critique.

Although political history predominated in the Renaissance and Baroque era, there were some innovative approaches advocating a full and comprehensive history of civilisation, such as those of the Valencian Erasmist Juan Luis Vives and those of Jean Bodin in his Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (1566).

The disconcerting encounter of Europeans in the West Indies (the Americas) with great non-Christian civilisations, such as the Aztec and Inca empires, gave rise to a whole historiography and favoured a certain anthropological turn in the writing of history. This experience led some more thoughtful authors to outline an evolutionary philosophy of culture, such as the aforementioned Bodin and José de Acosta in his Natural and Moral History of the Indies (1590).

The religious controversies following the spread of the Lutheran Reformation gave rise to the historical question of the image of the early Church. The Magdeburg Centuries (on the Protestant side) and the Annals directed by Cardinal Baronius (on the Catholic side) are emblematic works.

In the Baroque era, history endured a serious intellectual challenge due to the mathematisation of knowledge in Newtonian classical physics and to the Descartes’ criticism of writing practices that were often more monarchical and dynastic propaganda than rigorous knowledge. This Cartesian challenge and attacks of Pyrrhonism (scepticism) encouraged historians to review the reliability of the documentary bases on which they worked. Thus, a new discipline, diplomatics, the study of diplomas (historical official documents), arose in 1680.

The revolutionary movements that took place in the Western monarchies of Europe in the mid-17th century fuelled the tradition of writing political memoirs. The Cardinal of Retz, in France, and the Earl of Clarendon, in England, were prominent cultivators.

With the cultural movement of the Enlightenment, a threshold in the readings of the past was crossed in the 18th century and a new regime of historicity was entered: the modern one. The future would be the point of reference henceforth. Montesquieu, still an admirer of Rome, criticised the legal foundations of the old socio-political regime and advocated the division of powers. The capital idea of progress (of civilisation) as a summary of the past and prophecy of the future dominated the “rationalist” historiography written by French philosophes (intellectuals), such as Voltaire and Condorcet, and the Scots of the Edinburgh school (such as the historian William Robertson). There was already a new “philosophy of history” (as coined by Voltaire) and there were many “considerations”, “discourses” or “essays” that were more than simple stories.

The Age of Enlightenment has given us some classics that combine narrative talent, scholarship and philosophical approach. One of the most famous is The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776).

There is consistency between the role of the bourgeoisie in the social development of Western European countries and the required presence of that part of the Third Estate in works of history. A good example of this in Spain is the Historical Memories on the Navy, Trade and Arts [Guilds] of the Old City of Barcelona (1792) written by the Catalan Antonio (or Antoni) de Capmany.

Given France’s great cultural influence on 18th-century Europe, the Revolution that began in Paris in 1789, which ended the old socio-political regime, had an enormous impact on the entire European continent, as well as on readings of the past. The nation of citizens began to be the subject of study and narrative, as well as a of certain sacralisation. Understanding the past of the French nation became the task of public authorities (whether republicans or monarchists). This is how the association between historiography and nationalism was set, [10] so characteristic of the 19th and 20th centuries and rather contrary to the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment.

Jules Michelet was one of the French historians who wrote the most passionately in favour of the Revolution. He did so in an epic-romantic style, aspiring to “the resurrection of life in its entirety”, and wished to explain how the French people preached their “gospel” to the world. French nationalism and the Napoleonic occupation prompted an opposing national sentiment in Germany, Spain and Russia that appeared not only in historiography, but also in the historical novel. Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) comes immediately to mind for its exceptional value.

When Michelet wrote, history was already being taught as an autonomous discipline in secondary and university education in France, Germany and other European countries. The historiographic seminar model adopted by the University of Berlin from which Leopold von Ranke graduated (1795-1886) was especially influential. Ranke’s work has prompted different interpretations. Sometimes he is considered positivist for his desire to adhere strictly to verifiable documentation; at others, he is viewed as a testimony to the Hegelian idealist interpretation of history, tempered by its temperamental moderantism. Ranke’s identification with his country of origin (Germany) and with the Protestant Reformation did not prevent him from conducting excellent studies on the popes, on the history of the 17th century in France and England and on the Spanish and Ottoman Empires.

The 19th century has been perhaps the one in which history as knowledge and a story has been the most important. In that century, a certain specialisation was perceived in researching the past. In addition, the various European states committed to the objective of collecting sources and creating national archives. The study of history as a genealogy of the nation-state is a common denominator of a lot of historiography.


What type of knowledge does the “science” of history achieve?

As  the study of the way that history has been written, historiography broders on historiology. [11] Though little used today, this term defines an approach to the past in which the theoretical-philosophical aspect prevails, meaning a systematic reflection on the most radical issues raised by history (like knowledge or human evolution).

Historiological reflection on the type of knowledge that history produces and on its difference with the knowledge achieved by the natural sciences was carried out in the final decades of the 19th century, especially in Germany. The contributions of Gustav Droysen, Wilhelm Windelband and Wilhelm Dilthey led to a theory of history that tended to distinguish between Kulturwissenschaften or Geisteswissenschaften (cultural sciences, human sciences or sciences of the spirit) and the Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences). The latter, like physics, capture regularities and general mathematical laws, making them nomothetic sciences (from nomos, which means “law” in Greek). On the other hand, cultural sciences, like history, use interpretation to grasp specific human realities specific to a time, place and cultural system, making them idiographic sciences (from idios, which means “singular” or “particular”).

In the second half of the 19th century, an area of knowledge close to history called sociology was shaped. Despite their great differences, Auguste Comte, Karl Marx and Max Weber agreed on this principle to interpret social evolution: concrete historical knowledge must be closely related to broad social dynamics. History was thus, in a way, made subject to sociology.

History has always had a literary and aesthetic dimension. In fact, many of the most famous historians, such as Edward Gibbon, Jules Michelet, Jacob Buckhardt, Theodor Mommsen and, more recently, Winston Churchill and Fernand Braudel, have been excellent writers. The importance of historiography in shaping the story greatly increased in the second half of the 20th century, after studies by Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White publication of Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (1973).

Since the beginning of the 20th century, when the teleological (finalistic) stories of history entered into crisis and suspicions grew regarding metaphysics, historiology has mainly been devoted to dealing with epistemological problems. It is an academic field cultivated by philosophers and a few historians that is sometimes called the analytical philosophy of history. [12]


Is it worthwhile to ask about the meaning of the human adventure in time?

Instead, what has been called the speculative philosophy of history theorises about the possible global meaning of humanity’s collective trajectory across time. The cultural climate of the 20th and 21st centuries has been reluctant to give credit to this philosophy. This type of theorising involves a serious risk of excessiveness and superficiality. However, the need for a relatively unitary and coherent explanation that gives meaning to the human adventure over time seems to be an underlying requirement for the most common task carried out by most historians: that of investigating, understanding and recounting a set of events limited temporally, spatially and thematically. But how can they assess and broadly contextualise those events or processes without a background that provides a canvas to interpret them and give them meaning? For example, would it be possible today to discuss the Spanish presence in the Americas during the 16th century (let’s call it, arguably, colonisation and evangelisation) without having some overall vision of the process of globalisation and the relationship between Western European civilisation and other cultures?


The influence of new socio-cultural realities in historical thinking and writing

This overview of historiography has focused on the writing and thinking about history that emerged in Western European civilisation. Following the moral and political bankruptcy of Europe in the 20th century and the acceleration of globalisation in recent decades, a change in historiographic perspective has clearly taken place. In this new perspective, readings of the past that emerged from the old domains of Europe or from countries almost alien to Western European civilisation have demanded their place. [13]

Today’s new sociocultural realities are expanding and transforming readings of the human past. These new realities include the extraordinary importance acquired by the image at the expense of the word, the primacy given to emotions over reasoning and the awareness that we are all responsible for preserving the natural environment. Giving a voice at last to minorities and other social groups (categorised by race, class, gender or religion) in canonical historical accounts is a social demand that must also be met when writing about the past.


Dr. Fernando Sánchez-Marcos (2020)

(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 Dustin Langan].



[1] Pomian, Krzysztof (1999). Sur l’histoire. Paris: Gallimard, pp. 31-32.

[2] White, Hayden (1978). Tropics of Discourse. London: J. Hopkins University Press, p. 104.

[3] Rüsen, Jörn (2005). Narration, Interpretation, Orientation. New York: Berghahn, p. 133.

[4] Carbonell, Charles-Olivier (1984). L’Historiographie. Paris: PUF, p. 4.

[5] Koselleck, Reinhart (1985). Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Cambridge, MA: Massachussets University Press, 1985. [Original German edition, 1979].

[6] See Ricoeur, Paul (1993). Temps et récit, II. París: Seuil, p. 28.

[7] See Hartog, François (2003). Régimes d’historicité. Présentisme et experiences du temps. Paris: Seuil. Hartog develops a concept previously proposed by Koselleck in Futures Past (op. cit.).

[8] It has been discussed to what extent this concept of progress is ultimately a secularised vision of Christian hope. See Löwith, Karl (1993). Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. In Invitación a la historia (Barcelona: Labor, 1993, p. 126), I have referred to the gradual substitution of Providence by Progress that began before the Enlightenment.

[9] Petrarch, the forerunner of Renaissance humanism, wrote: “’What else, then, is all history, if not the praise of Rome?”

[10] In his Addresses to the German Nation (1809), the philosopher Fichte held that the true borders of the nation were internal, and especially those of language.

[11] “Historiology/Philosophy of Historical Writing”, appears in Boyd, Kelly (ed.) (1999). Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing. The term historiología has been used in the Spanish-speaking world by the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset and by the Mexican historian Edmundo O’Gormann.

[12] The content of the most emblematic journal on historical theory, History and Theory, is a clear testimony of the primacy granted to the epistemological approach.

[13] This website also provides a broad overview of historiography that also covers China, Japan, and the Islamic world. Daniel Woolf, “Historiography”, in Horowitz, M. C. (ed.) (2005). New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, v. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, pp. xxxv-lxxxviii