Making Sense in History
Historical Writing in Practice

Andrew Szanajda

Bitingduck Press

© Andrew Szanajda

Published by Bitingduck Press
Altadena, CA 91001
Montreal, QC H3E 1T2

First published 2007 by GCB Publications Ltd.

Making Sense In History: The Process Of Research, Critical Reading and Writing. Copyright © 2007, 2012

No Part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers.

ISBN — 978-1-938463-03-7

For Stacy


The word history originates from the Greek noun στορια meaning learning. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined history as a systematic account of a set of natural phenomena, regardless of whether chronological ordering was a factor. This usage still prevails in describing natural history. Over the course of time, the equivalent Latin word scientia, or science, came to be used more regularly to define non-chronological systematic accounts of natural phenomena. The word history was usually maintained for accounts of phenomena, especially in human affairs, in chronological order.[1] It has developed into a study that involves interpreting past events on the strength of the available evidence in order to provide an account of the past.

History in an objective sense includes all surviving recorded past human events within a range of a subject that are permanent and irrevocably fixed,[2] which are recorded as evidence of these events. Historians determine the significance of any event within the context of a historical study of a problem or question. In a subjective sense, the purpose of historical study is to provide meaning to historical events through description and interpretation[3] to explain them. The process of historical research is thus the documentation and analysis of past events. It is defined as the usually chronological or thematical recording and interpretation of historical events to explain the developments of any facet of what has been done or occurred in the course of humanity. For such an account to be considered history, it also needs to include a scholarly commentary and explanation on the rationale of these events. As a discipline of study, it is the means by which a society can try to understand its past[4] through historians who set out to recover evidence from the past and then recreate it in the present through writing about it.

History is therefore a discipline with methods and concepts that historians used to collect evidence of past events, evaluate this evidence, and present a discussion of a subject[5] while drawing meaning from the evidence, such as determining causality when historical events are documented and analyzed. Historians want to understand why certain events happened, and how they were interrelated to each other. In order to achieve this purpose, they often consult a variety of sources in order to piece together specific details of past events by using various forms of verifiable evidence.

This variety of sources for historical data can be classified into three main types: written, spoken and the physically preserved. A conscientious historian often consults all of the available primary sources of historical data before presenting or publishing a historical account of a specific event. Among the three primary sources of historical data, they place the most importance on the written record as the most reliable of all three, considering that people may not remember details clearly long after the events had taken place, and the possibility that physically preserved evidence may have incurred some damage or has been lost altogether.

Since the entire history of humanity is such a broad subject, historians have devised various means to divide the past into more manageable sections to investigate. Most historians seek to document history in a chronological manner. That is, according to the specific timeline when each historical event took place. In chronologically organized history, specific events are discussed in the order of the earliest event up to the most recent in the time period that is under consideration. Historians may also seek to document and analyze history according to the relevant society or culture where the key historical events happened, or according to the geographical areas in which the events had taken place. This has led to the emergence of separate fields, such as European history or Chinese history, and the emergence of other specialist fields. The past can also be divided thematically, or according to key events, rather than according to a specific period or within a specific context.

History has been studied in various forms throughout the ages in different parts of the world. Historians have applied different methods in an attempt to achieve their goal, which is the search for a truthful and accurate representation of the reality of the past.[6] This process has involved the uncovering of sources and the presenting of the evidence about an event or historical period to their audience in a coherent and meaningful narrative that tells a story about the past. The evolution of history as a field of study has evolved, and it has moved beyond the production of a narrative to an analysis of the events with the intention of examining all the possible explanations for certain historical events and reaching an appropriate understanding for while they occurred. Searching for these explanations and understandings has also taken different turns, as new approaches for the uncovering of historical knowledge have been developed, and new conclusions have been drawn from the past as new interpretations have been made.

It is necessary that the students of history and their teachers who hope to make the study of history clear to them, understand the elements of what constitutes history, how it has been studied, how it is studied now and why it is studied. Historical writing begins the desire to solve a mystery from the past by consulting sources that serve as historical evidence, which in turn serve as the building material of a specific historical context, whether it is within a time period, a geographical area or a theme, or a combination of them. These sources of evidence are depictions of events, which form parts of the general context in which the events took place. History is thus a retelling of what happened in the past in the present and the asking of some important and relevant questions about what actually occurred in the past. It is necessary to evaluate the accuracy and relevance of the facts drawn from both the primary and secondary sources, and then determine how to organize them into a discernible pattern for the purpose of building an argument within the narrative about the subject under scrutiny in order to support a conclusion.

The purpose of this work is thus to provide a guideline for the understanding of what history is. Most works of this type deal with either the philosophy of history, methodology for writing history, or historiography. This work combines all of these elements into one work. The meaning of history is presented here along with examining the process of how it has been studied in historiography throughout history and the world, and to shed some light on the different historical approaches on how history has been and remains studied in different ways. How evidence from the past is to be evaluated is dealt with in a separate chapter on methods used by historians, thus demonstrating the methods that have been used for constructing an argument by consulting valid sources while evaluating the evidence that is drawn from them, and then supporting an argument in a guiding narrative. The concluding chapter will provide some practical guidance on how students should write about history themselves, and offer some suggestions on how to save some time while researching, critical reading and note-taking and writing while writing a research paper based on secondary and primary sources. The clarity of one’s own historical writing will depend on how evidence from the past is examined, and how facts and interpretations are organized into a clear and cogent argument — the ultimate goal of all historical writing.

Special thanks must be given mention to John Pope for editorial assistance in revising the contents, Mark Therriault for encouraging and useful comments, and to Richard Stuetz for providing useful assistance. I would also like to Ying-Feng Wang for contributing to technical assistance. My gratitude is also extended to Tatiana Goloviznina for providing the book cover. I hope that you will find this work useful, while I take responsibility for any shortcomings.

Chapter 1



Historiography as a subfield of history is commonly defined as the study of principles, theories and methodologies of scholarly historical research and presentation. Whereas the study of history is the study of the past based on the process of studying the relevant and reliable primary and secondary sources, historiography refers to the history of the process of historical writing, and the study of various approaches, methods and interpretations in different topics[7] in view of how historians have examined the same or similar subjects. When the same sources are reviewed by different historians at different times, they can and often do disagree on how they are interpreted, especially with regard to questions concerning causation, or why something happened, and the process of how the events unfolded, rather than just the factual questions, such as when and where they happened. It is therefore the study of the way history has been written to explain how it has changed as new evidence and interpretations have been used, and how historians have used the study of history for different purposes to answer various questions that had not previously been answered, and demonstrating how additional research on any given topic may change the earlier interpretations as well as factual information that had not been hitherto uncovered.

Historiography has several meanings as the study of what and how history has been written. It has been defined as the science of writing history based on the evaluation of available sources, and the integration of the information found in these source materials into a narrative that is open to critical review and analysis by other historians. It is also used to describe a particular body of historical writing. Another definition is the study of the process of writing history. Examining the history of the writing of history demonstrates how different historians have made their significant contributions to the understanding of the past, as well as determining how the writing of history has developed from the past to its current forms, which will probably be revised in the future as succeeding generations will change the kind of questions they will ask about the past, new information will become available or new perspectives will be established, and will therefore lead to history being rewritten[8] while new findings may be incorporated into the older ones.


In ancient communities and civilizations, history was not recorded in texts. Instead, it was relayed through the oral tradition or simply through the spoken word which was passed on through the generations. Ancient African communities for example have long relied on oral tradition to relate the history of a community’s ancestry. It was usually the oldest member of the community, a high priest or priestess, or simply the community’s most revered member, who was charged with relating the community’s history to the succeeding generations. With each succeeding generation, a community member or a certain distinguished group within the community was chosen and given the responsibility of upholding the community’s oral history. This oral tradition began to be recorded in written form by the medieval Islamic kingdoms of Africa, and the chronicles of these kingdoms’ history were often recorded in Arabic. The ancient communities found in sub-Saharan Africa later slowly transferred their oral history into written form.

Various historians throughout the world have produced influential works that have made some form of significant contribution to the understanding of the human experience throughout the history of humanity, as well as making contributions to the subject of history as a field of study. The following will consist of a survey of the most important historians, their understandings of what they considered to be history, their interpretations of the past, and the extent to which they were influenced by the environments in which they lived. Their works have been subjected to relentless criticism, but this was and still is the prerogative of the historians now and in the future because no historical work will ever be definitive.[9] Questions about the past can never cease, due to the possibilities of new evidence being uncovered. Historians have always asked new and different questions about the past which inevitably leads to new interpretations of the past in order to better understand it. The study of history is therefore always an ongoing process as new questions have led to new perspectives about the past. In the meantime, one may tread where others have gone before while pursuing the understanding of the past in new directions.


Greek Historiography

Recorded historical thinking first emerged in ancient Greece with the first examples of specialized and highly organized historical reflections. The finest examples of these writings are the logographoi that appeared some time during the sixth century B.C. From this time onward, the understanding of the meaning of history took many different forms, but it was the Greek historians who are credited with the origins of the practice of narrating historical events and defending the validity of their works by citing their various sources of evidence.


Herodotus (ca. 484-425 B.C.) is considered to be the world’s first historian. He wrote the first comprehensive historical narrative of the ancient world, the History of the Persian Wars. This work is a description and discussion of the causes for the conflicts between the ancient Greeks and Persians, a series of events which had previously been described by Homer in his poetry. Despite the existence of earlier writings, Herodotus’ work demonstrated a conscious desire to tell history by using factual evidence, and became a representation of how to look at past events as a series of interesting facts that were worth recording as part of a story worth telling.[10]

He approached the writing of history in a logical manner as he tried to distinguish verifiable historical events from what counted as myths that could not be substantiated on the basis of evidence. He also sought to differentiate between essential and incidental evidence in order to make connections and find causes.[11] He deliberately downplayed the role of the Greeks gods and goddesses that at the time were widely believed to influence every single aspect of Greek life, which meant that he wrote a historical account about essentially human actions. It can also be seen from his History of the Persian Wars that he did not display the bias against the Persians that one would have expected from a Greek citizen, and thus his account appeared to be fair and impartial. He also specifically identified his sources, whether they were written or oral narratives and commented on their reliability and critically evaluated his historical, geographical and archeological sources. The facts he set forth were thus substantiated as verified evidence.

Historians describe Herodotus as a lively writer and commentator, and The History of the Persian Wars has been described by many as a highly organized artistic masterpiece with a series of informative digressions and commentaries that are skillfully integrated into the main historical narrative. This ancient historical text, despite mainly focusing on the Persian Wars, also provided information on the evolution of Persia into a large kingdom, as well as tracing the history and migration patterns of the ancient Greek peoples and masterfully placed Greece in its proper historical context and perspective.

Herodotus as a historian relied mainly on three sources: his own personal observations, eyewitness accounts from both sides of the war, and for events that occurred earlier than the onset of the war, he relied on the surviving records of the oral tradition. He never relied on official records of the war, mainly because these were not available to him. Current archaeological excavations of the ruins of ancient Greek civilizations revealed that he was indeed accurate on his firsthand observations of the war. However, his historical accounts also had flaws due to the fact that he failed to completely verify all the details in his accounts.

Historians have argued that he was lax in his evaluation of the eyewitness accounts, and that he did not make the necessary allowances for the expected bias from eyewitnesses from both sides of the war. There are several instances in his account where he included highly dubious narratives in his histories, because they were thrilling. Therefore, despite being inherently critical and reasonably objective when including his personal views of the war, he had the tendency to accommodate the inherent bias of others when he included their personal perspectives of the war in his work. He was also unable to critically evaluate either the military operations or the decisions that were made during the onset of the war, because he was not skilled and experienced in warfare. His historical narrative is also problematic with respect to his chronological arrangement of events. This is due to the fact that when he wrote his account of the Persian wars, each Greek city-state had its own specific calendar and followed their own specific methods of counting days, months and years. His greatest weakness was his naive analysis of the historical events, which have been attributed to his lack of expert knowledge about the political and military arenas of the time. He often attributed causality to the personal ambitions and motivations of the major figures of the war when it was clear from his own narrative that there were far greater political and socioeconomic factors that had caused them.[12]


The second Greek historian, Thucydides (ca. 456-396 B.C.), refrained from using the vast digressions and commentaries found in the works of his predecessor Herodotus. He concentrated only on the matters of state and war, while attempting to write an account that related people from the past to the present.[13] In addition to his search for the truth by reducing untruths, he also forwarded the conviction that history had permanent value as a potential guide to the future.[14]

In 424 B.C., he was an Athenian general during the Peloponnesian Wars (431 to 404 B.C.) He had been unable to prevent the capture of the important city of Amphipolis by the Spartan general Brasidas and this military failure led him to being sent into exile for twenty years. It was during this enforced exile that he was able acquaint himself with the mindsets of both the Athenians and Spartans, the two warring sides of the great war, and used his military knowledge to analyze the implications and the consequences of the war. The result of his exile was the masterpiece, The History of the Peloponnesian War. It is mainly a historical narrative from a military viewpoint that was written in a manner that called for it to be read and not recited. The focus of the work was the relating of the historical truth as he understood it, rather than mere entertaining storytelling.[15] The History of the Peloponnesian War chronicles the events leading up to the war by analyzing the policies of the two states. He strove for accuracy and impartiality and, unlike Herodotus, was very reluctant about accepting eyewitness statements. These needed to be verified for their reliability through interviewing surviving witnesses who could provide independent observations, and thereby avoid common dangers to which historians could be exposed, including bias, defective recollection, and careless lack of observation.[16] This approach meant that his work was based on the idea that history should be based on supported facts and evidence that could then be employed to explain certain events.

Historians agree that Thucydides was a philosopher of history as well as a historian. There was no evidence of divine or supernatural phenomena to be found in his historical accounts. He therefore developed the notion that history is supported by evidence, which he himself marshaled from his personal experiences and observations.[17] All the historical events recorded by Thucydides involved and were caused by individuals alone, their personal motivations and ambitions, as well as the stirrings of political power and the roles played by certain influential groups and individuals of the time. He thus moved historical writing away from epic poetry and supernatural causes in the interest of establishing accuracy and the discovery of rational causes for historical events, as well as focusing on materials that were relevant to the subject under scrutiny while basing his narrative on contemporary evidence that was well organized and correctly interpreted.[18]

Despite his goal to be impartial, there is a degree of a pro-Athenian bias in Thucydides’ work, as he fully believed that Athens would win the war. This is of course due to the fact that he was an Athenian general who had played an active role in the war. However, he also included discussions of the strengths of the enemy, Sparta, and the weaknesses of the Athenian army. Aside from the comprehensive historical narrative, he skillfully wove emotionally moving speeches into the text, the most notable of which was funeral oration of Pericles. Admittedly, these speeches were fictional in nature and were merely literary devices to add drama to the historical text and were never really uttered by those to whom he attributed them. However, these speeches contained factual information, and were written with such great attention to the personality of the supposed speaker that it was if they had spoken it themselves. Another inherent weakness of his work was that he completely avoided any other references to the pervading socioeconomic conditions of the time. He concentrated on examining the external military and diplomatic factors driving the political activity without giving due consideration to the importance of geographical factors or the significance of cultural, social and economic factors, such as the economic causes of the Peloponnesian War.[19]

Historians agree that Thucydides was one of the greatest historians of all time. He introduced the objective and critical approach to historical writing, excluding any obvious biases while clearly maintaining an argument based on the chain of cause and effect. Other historians soon adopted his particular historical methodology. He also conscientiously told his readers how he gathered his evidence and how he tested these materials to separate fact from fiction. Even when he invented the speeches of contemporaries, he tried to make them as plausible as his sources of knowledge permitted,[20] thus compensating for the lack of available evidence by imagining what may have been said in view of the contexts of the time while a historian would lack much that was present.


Xenophon (ca. 430-354 B.C.) was a student and disciple of the philosopher Socrates. Like Thucydides, Xenophon was a soldier but he fought alongside Cyrus the Younger of Persia. He documented this experience in his best-known work, the Anabasis, which was comprised of seven books and followed the history of the expedition of the Greek mercenaries hired by the Persian prince Cyrus.

In Anabasis, he wrote the first-ever objective analysis of the intrinsic qualities of a leader, who in this case was Cyrus the Younger. This special analysis of leadership later evolved into a specific historical approach to known as “The Great Man theory.” He also wrote Hellenica, consisting of seven books that served as a continuation of Thucydides’ historical account, starting from the Peloponnesian War to the Theban supremacy, covering the period 411 to 362 B.C. However, later historians have noted that there is a pro-Spartan bias in the Hellenica. Aside from his historical works, he also wrote an encomium to Agesilaus, the Spartan king with whom he had shared a close friendship, as well as several technical and didactic works as well as some philosophical writings. While his capacity for profound historical analysis was limited, he displayed his considerable literary talents in his other writings which consisted of memoirs, biography, as well as works containing systematic history, constitutional analysis and economic theory.[21]

Roman Historiography


Thucydides was an important influence on the Roman historian Polybius (ca. 198-117 B.C.) who was the last of the major historians of ancient Greece. Polybius wrote forty books, of which only five have survived, which are known to us as the Histories or The Rise of the Roman Empire. This work consists of a detailed historical account of the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean world and the constitutional development of the Roman Empire to 146 B.C. His historical narrative is a first hand account of the events that he had witnessed, and also included the personal statements of eyewitnesses and the leading influential figures of these historical events.

He is credited for creating a unified historical perspective in his work. He not only used an historical methodology based on cause and effect, but one that also captured the raw human emotions and motivations behind the unfolding events. This is the first recorded historical narrative that displayed an obvious digression from the usually straightforward telling of history in a basic manner. His historical works narrate events involving the noble forms of human behavior, such as patriotism, bravery and valor as well as the ugly side of human nature, including brutality and violence, as well as the duplicity of the politics and the government of the time. His greatest contribution was developing a cyclical model of periodization that followed the human life cycle of growth, maturity and decay, arguing that all societies emerged, grew and aged, by first growing in strength, accomplishment and power, and then slowly and steadily declining until a more vigorous civilization replaced them.[22]

Polybius is considered to be the forefather of scholarly research for the painstaking and careful research he embarked on to produce his historical texts. He was also one of the first historians to consider geographical conditions in the outcome of war. He vividly described the topography of the locations where the wars were fought, such as how lakes, rivers and seas could contribute to a nation’s defense by impeding the advance of the enemy, while plateaus, valleys and hills provided the perfect hideaways to catch the opposing force off guard. He described how arid deserts contributed to the death of a large number of soldiers due to dehydration, and how intense fighting over large oceans and rivers also led to the increase of sickness and starvation. Like Thucydides, he outlined methodological guidelines for the production of accurate historical writings through the critical examination of both written and oral sources, to determine the reliability of those sources.[23]

Polybius also saw beyond the storytelling aspect of history by studying the aspect of causation, since he considered it to be an effective means of political education. Reading a historical text written was to inform the reader of the political struggles of their time and help the readers gain a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of war.[24] However, there is evidence of a personal bias in his texts, as he was an Achean who was deported to Rome as a hostage for seventeen years. Therefore his text always had the goal of explaining Rome to a Greek audience with the specific aim of convincing the Greeks that Roman rule was inevitable. His bias was something of a novelty because his loyalty was torn between the two great civilizations. He was born a Greek citizen but had learned the ways of the Romans and had been convinced of their superiority. Hence, his writings were an attempt to convince his fellow Greeks to come to the same conclusion.[25]

A new model of historical writing came to the fore in the Roman world and it was one that was characterized by an emphasis on both the recording of the historical truth and the presentation of it in a colorful literary style, as well as conceiving history as a study of practical morality.[26] This historical methodology was best exemplified by the great Roman historians Livy, Sallust and Tacitus.


When Titus Livius (59 B.C. - 17 A.D.), also known as Livy, started his historical narrative of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita or From the Founding of the City, the Romans had already been writing history for nearly two hundred years, and most of them had already covered the entire history of Rome. However, these earlier Roman historians were mostly members of the ruling class who had taken active roles in the military and politic arenas. These earlier historical writings on Rome were based on the annalist system, a method in which all of the events within a year were discussed as a whole, despite the fact that there were no inherent connections between these disparate events. During Livy’s time, the Roman historians also adapted the Greek method of incorporating speeches within their historical narratives, as exemplified by the great Greek historian Thucydides. Livy integrated these historical traditions, the annalist system of historical writing, as well as the inclusion of literary devices, such as emotionally stirring speeches, into his own historical work without question or contemplation.[27]

Ab Urbe Condita was his voluminous historical masterpiece. There were a hundred and forty-two books in total, of which only thirty-five are complete and extant, while the rest have not been recovered. Historians agree that one of Livy’s greatest weaknesses was his dependence on the works of the historians that came before him. He made no original methodological contribution to the genre of historical writing. Furthermore, he was hardly objective or critical of the sources that he chose to include in his work. Although he did choose the Greek historian Polybius as his source for the Eastern wars, his other sources were less reliable. When given alternative accounts of a historical event, he would rarely choose the most comprehensive, objective and unbiased historical account. More often than not, he would consciously prefer to include unreliable accounts that produced a moral lesson, or pointed to the glory of Rome.

Unlike the historians that came before him, he was never active in the military or in politics. This served both as an advantage and a disadvantage to him as an historian. His lack of participation in politics or in the military made it nearly impossible for him to critically assess the objectivity of the historical accounts that he would include in his work. However, his lack of political or military connections also enabled him to write a historical account that was free of any personal bias aside from the obvious bias he displayed in choosing his sources. It is therefore clear that he was not a scholarly or even a traditional historian of the time, but a romantic one, choosing to sacrifice historical accuracy in order to achieve a perfect literary style while assigning the supernatural interference of the gods as the primary causes for historical events.[28]

He fully believed that the importance of history was not to be found in its objectivity towards historical events, but in its direct applicability and usefulness to daily life. Greatly influenced by Cicero and Latin poetry, he wrote history in a vivid and colorful manner. His writings reflect his personal admiration of the greatness of the early Roman civilization that he described with such magnificence and splendor, without any concern for reality. His preference for literary excellence as a patriotic storyteller thus interfered with his objectivity in documenting historical facts, in contrast to the accuracy of Polybius, and this tendency consequently undermined the historical value of his work.


Unlike Livy, Gaius Sallustius Crispus, also known as Sallust (ca. 86-34 B.C.), probably had both military experience and political affiliations. He was an historian, a tribune of the people and a praetor. Sallust’s first historical work was The Conspiracy of Catiline, which was published in 43 B.C. This work was an historical narration of the career of Catiline with particular emphasis on the discovery and suppression of the conspiracy. He described Catiline as a deliberate enemy of the law, social order and morality, despite not giving any other concrete evidence for what seemed like a personal opinion. Many historians have therefore pointed out that in writing The Conspiracy of Catiline, he was writing a biased historical account with the goal of supporting his patron Caesar and absolving him of all involvement in the conspiracy. It was also a grave testament to the moral decline of the Roman aristocracy that failed to uphold the standards of its predecessors. The historical text is notable for its pertinent facts, since he had a personal involvement in the event. The Conspiracy of Catiline is best known for its brilliant speeches and character depiction.[29]

In 41 B.C., he completed The Jugurthine War, a historical narrative of the Romans’ war against Jugurtha, the king of Numidia in Africa. One of his greatest strengths was his decision to veer away from the annalistic method of historical writing. Instead of discussing a year’s historical events together without any obvious connections to each other, he chose to depict history by subject or topic, and documented them according to their importance and value. He therefore wrote historical monographs that centered on a single or a few related historical events, which was far less ambitious than Livy’s attempt to document the entire history of Rome. His greatest work, the History of Rome from 78 to 67 B.C., has been lost.

The characters in his monographs were portrayed carefully. He was able to probe deeply into their personal motivations and inclinations for their actions. It largely focused on a single event or a single group of related highly important events that shaped the Roman world, and not merely a collection of small issues and events that were unimportant and simply confusing. Overall, Sallust’s historical work has been praised for its directness and because of his excellent character portrayals that are often vivid and dramatic, and for the maintenance of his impartiality during the decline of the Roman republic, but he did not fully recognize the historical trends in the Roman republic and was rather careless in recording chronology and geography.[30]


The last great Roman historian was Publius Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 55-117 A.D.), simply known as Tacitus. His first major historical work was the Histories. They were his historical documentation of Rome under the Flavian emperors, which contained around twelve to fourteen books in total, but only the first four books have been found. He then followed the Histories with the Twelve Annals, which he originally wanted to be a historical account of the reigns of Nerva and Trajan. However, he later changed his mind and instead the Annals narrated the history of Rome in the first century A.D., from the death of Augustus to the suicide of Nero. The Annals comprised sixteen to eighteen books, most of which have also been lost. He is best known for Germania, which described the lives and habits of the Germanic tribes and events that took place north of the Italian Alps.

One of Tacitus’s pitfalls as a historian was his limited understanding of military operations,[31] and as a result his historical accounts of military campaigns were very vague with hardly any emphasis on the reasons and motivations for them, or even the personal motivations of those who took part in them. He also concentrated most of his historical accounts in Rome, and only delved into the historical events that occurred in the provinces surrounding Rome during the times of war, which meant that his historical works mainly concerned Rome and not the Roman Empire.

Historians also fault him for his depiction of Tiberius in the Annals. It seemed that he could not overcome his own personal convictions and bias against Tiberius, whom he portrayed as a cruel tyrant. Even after discovering historical evidence pointing to the contrary, he still maintained his claim that Tiberius’s tyranny was the source of newly discovered dishonorable acts. This inability to dismiss his preconceived notions has been seen as a blemish on his reputation as an objective historian. He otherwise generally displayed good judgment in critically evaluating the sources of his historical data. Due to his extensive experience in the political arena, he also displayed his expert knowledge and insight on Roman political life.[32]

Medieval Historiography

The rise of Christianity in Europe interrupted the long-held tradition of a historical narrative and the use of history as a means of political education. Medieval historians also regarded faith as the dominant criterion in assessing the credibility of all historical writings, as it was designed to serve Christianity while perceiving the past as having been influenced by God’s intervention. Scholars in this particular time were also not interested in examining sources and interpreting them because they were primarily guided by the stories of events[33] in the forms of annals and chronicles while failing to make use of criticism to evaluate evidence for its credibility.[34]

The Christian philosophy of history emphasized how history was part of a process that involved the intervention of God in human affairs. Narrative history declined and was replaced by annals and chronicles that emphasized the divine and the miraculous that necessarily undermined its objectivity. Historians adopted the method of seeking hidden ulterior meanings and applying allegory and symbolism when reading “inspired” documents that contained statements that seemed incredible, which inevitably replaced candor and critical analysis as the basis of historical method, which inevitably lead to moral rather than literal interpretations.[35] History written during the medieval period was mainly divided into two categories: universal history and chronicles.

St. Augustine

The foremost example of universal history written during the medieval period that expressly demonstrates the Christian philosophy of history[36] was St. Augustine’s The City of God. It was written around 426 A.D. as portrayal of human history fulfilling divine purpose toward the final judgment.[37] The City of God had been written shortly after Rome was ransacked by the Visigoths and the people were left in a state of shock and despair, attributing their great misfortune to their communal abandonment of pagan religion. It was in this atmosphere of utter despair that Augustine tried to provide some consolation to the Romans by emphasizing that it would ultimately be the City of God that would triumph in the end. The City of God is not a purely historical work. It was also a philosophical and theological one. History was intimately intertwined with divine assertions and he presented history as the conflict between the City of God, represented by people who voluntarily give up worldly interests, and the Earthly City, represented by a civilization that had strayed from the City of God.[38] St. Augustine’s The City of God is therefore a historical text filled with many symbolisms connoting the divine as well as the mystical, which means that The City of God is not to be read as a purely objective historical text.

Paulus Orosius

Another example of medieval universal history was Paulus Orosius’s Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, which continued along the same thread as St. Augustine’s The City of God. Orosius actually wrote Seven Books of History Against the Pagans upon the suggestion of St. Augustine and the text was an elaboration on St. Augustine’s arguments in The City of God. Seven Books of History Against the Pagans lists the series of calamities that occurred to humanity from the fall of Rome until around the year 417, and emphasized that despite this series of events, Rome did not become worse off because of its conversion to Christianity.[39]

He essentially wrote a historical narrative that tried to convince its readers that Christianity had acted as its saving grace in the face of calamity and despair. Most historians criticize Seven Books of History Against the Pagans for its lack of historical accuracy and its lack of any literary charm. The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, like the City of God, is not just a purely historical narrative since it presents history with several references to the subject of God guiding humanity.

Since both St. Augustine and Paulus Orosius were theologians, their historical works were full of many references to the divine and the mystical. These works were vastly different from the relatively straightforward historical texts produced by the Greek and Roman historians. Those works usually contained some personal biases due to military or political affiliations of these writers, but the works by St. Augustine and Paulus Orosius were heavily biased in favor of Christianity and the divine.

Saxo Grammaticus

The second form of historical writing that emerged during the medieval period was the chronicle. The medieval historical chronicles ranged from its simplest form, the annals of local monasteries, to the more comprehensive and high-level historical accounts. A pertinent example of a highly organized medieval chronicle was Gesta Danorium, or the Story of the Danes written by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. The Story of the Danes was the comprehensive historical chronicle of the Danish kings, and it is considered as Denmark’s first historical contribution to the world of literature. The sixteen-volume Story of the Danes contains impressive accounts of Denmark’s panorama and traditions to the extent that this historical text inspired many of Denmark’s nineteenth century romantic poets. The Story of Danes was also the source of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.[40]

Otto of Freising

Historians consider Otto of Freising’s Chronicon sive historia de duabus civitatibus or The Two Cities: A Chronicle of Universal History to the Year 1146 as one of the most remarkable historical texts written during the Middle Ages. Chronicle of Universal History of Two Cities is both a historical and philosophical text written in a total of eight books contrasting Jerusalem and Babel, representing the kingdoms of heaven and of earth.[41] Otto of Freising was one of the first German students of the philosopher Aristotle and was also a firm disciple of St. Augustine. The Chronicle of Universal History of Two Cities was an attempt to write a moral history of the world up to 1146 and it was the first attempt by a medieval historian to bring “the whole story of humanity into a foreordained system of causes and effects.”[42] Like St. Augustine in The City of God, he saw worldly events only as a prelude to eternal ones. Similar to the assertion presented in The City of God he argued that it would be the people who shunned earthly desires who would emerge victorious in the end, he also believed that earthly despair has its own happy counterpart in eternity.

He used reliable sources while giving special attention to cause and effect, and endeavored to explain the present in view of past events. He recorded historical events faithfully, although some were proven to be highly doubtful in the details since his primary focus was the philosophy of history and this meant that he was biased against secular and pagan matters. However, he injected an elegant style into his writing since he considered the form to be as important as the content. He used rhetorical effects and dramatic contrasts,[43] and skillfully revealed his creative ability by using direct address and by interweaving exciting stories of battles and sieges into his narrative that he sought to be as factually accurate as possible.

Roger of Wendover

Another historical chronicler during the middle ages was an English monk at St. Albans, Roger of Wendover. His greatest work was Flores Historiarum or Flowers of History that chronicled historical events from the creation of the world to 1235, dealing mainly with the history of England after the Norman Conquest.[44] A large part of the text had been based on material that was already located in the St. Albans convent and some historians have argued that the greater part of the text had been taken from the earlier compilations of John de Cella, but this claim has never been verified. Therefore, despite being full of lively and colorful narratives, the Flowers of History cannot be praised very highly as a historical work since it is a compendium of the works of earlier historical writers.

Matthew Paris

The convent of St. Albans contributed another noteworthy chronicler to history in the person of Matthew Paris (ca. 1200-1259). He became the official historiographer of the St. Albans convent after the death of Roger of Wendover. His greatest work was the Chronica Majora, which attempted to tell the history of the world from the creation until 1259. The first part of Chronica Majora was a reworked version of Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History. This reworked version painted King John in a bad light, which is an image that has remained largely unchanged since then. The second part of Chronica Majora, however, is Matthew Paris’ original work. Paris was such a prolific chronicler that he wrote around 300 000 words in his original section of Chronica Majora. He also had close associations with King Henry III and his brother Richard, the Earl of Cornwall, which allowed him an intimate glimpse into their personalities which he incorporated into his work. Therefore, the Chronica Majora contained his personal commentaries that displayed his strong prejudice against King Henry III, the pope, friars, theologians, civil servants and everybody else whom he thought was guilty of abusing their power. Unlike other medieval chroniclers, he demonstrated his capacity for independence of judgment while devoting himself to English political developments without being constrained by religious interests.[45]

Roger of Wendover, like his predecessor wrote in Latin which was the predominant literary language of the middle ages. His acclaim as a chronicler, and his close associations with leading figures of his time, made it very easy for the distinguished visitors to St. Albans to open up to him regarding their adventures. He recorded these testimonies which he then included in his historical chronicles. Aside from being a historian, he was also a biographer, chronicling the lives of Edmund Rich and Stephen Langton. Furthermore, he was also an excellent illustrator and cartographer, drawing his own illustrations for his manuscripts and his historical narrative.

The historical chronicles of Otto of Freising, Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris are all parochial in nature. This is because of the historical context in which these chronicles were written. At that time, learning and literacy was limited to the church and to the clergy, and therefore, these narratives tended to be church centered. Unlike the Greek and Roman historians who came before them, these historical chroniclers had very limited knowledge of military or political affairs since they were mostly secluded in their convents and monasteries. This meant that these historical accounts were very limited with regard to the world and society at large.

St. Gregory of Tours

There were several literary attempts to fuse the two kinds of historical writing, the annals and the chronicles, into a single body of work. A primary example of this literary attempt was the Historia Francorum or History of the Franks by St. Gregory of Tours (538-594). Like Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, St. Gregory’s background was also centered on the church as he was the bishop of Tours. The History of the Franks is comprised of ten books that provided the first complete description of the Frankish invasion of Roman Gaul and the subsequent transition to the rise of Merovingian civilization. He showed how this civilization came into through a fusion of Gallic, Roman and Teutonic elements. He also demonstrated how the Church had become such a dominant institution in medieval civilization.[46]

Much of this history was based on firsthand information in which he was in a very favorable position to gather in light of his position. He was sincerely dedicated to expressing the truth by keeping the reader informed about the sources of his information. His writing was full of digressions, anecdotes, allegories, sermons and accounts of miracles that he accepted as truth[47] and he also wrote about his scorn for pagans and Jews. However, this should be read in the context of his position, as well as the historical setting at the time History of the Franks was written.

Historians have greatly revised their opinions on the History of the Franks over the years. They had previously opined that St. Gregory of Tours had historically depicted Merovingian Gaul to be in chaos. On the other hand, a closer and more in depth scholarly reading of his work have led to the conclusion that this chaotic depiction was St. Gregory’s literary technique to provide a contrast between the vanity of secular life and the saintly life that he espoused.

Bede the Venerable

One of the best-written historical accounts written during the Medieval Age was Bede the Venerable’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, which outlined the history of Britain from 55 B.C. to 597 A.D and earned him the title “The Father of English History.” This well organized narrative contained vital historical information on the advent of Christianity through the recording of the early days of the church in Britain, the development of what became the preponderant Anglo-Saxon culture in England in combination with the native elements of Britain, and biographies of early English church leaders and saints.[49]

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People was written in five books and four hundred pages that covered the history of England, both from a political and an ecclesiastical perspective. He used a variety of written sources, including a compilation of the works of earlier historical writers, such as Orosius and Gildas, and the letters of Pope Gregory I. He also traveled all over England in order to obtain official documentary sources for his historical narrative. When he was given oral testimonies, he undertook a critical evaluation of the sources before deciding to include them in his work, and he cited his sources, almost to the point of compulsion, thus demonstrating his sincerity in using reliable sources. However, like other medieval scholars, this work also introduced many miracles that he accepted as historical truth, albeit with more restraint than Gregory of Tours.[50]

William of Tyre

Another noted historian of this period was William of Tyre (ca. 1130-1193), who was born in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. He was part of the second generation of children born to the children of the original Crusaders and he was educated in Latin, Greek and Arabic. He began as a canon in the cathedral church of Tyre, and was later selected by King Amalric to become the official historian of the kingdom. His greatest work was Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, or History of Deeds Done beyond the Sea, consisting of twenty-two books and an unfinished twenty-third. This work began with the conquest of Syrian by Umar, but the vast majority of the work is dedicated to chronicling of the separate Crusades and the resulting political history of Jerusalem.[51]

During this time, he was already a chancellor of the kingdom of Jerusalem as well as the archbishop of Tyre. It was in the midst of the political intrigue and chaos in the kingdom of Jerusalem under the leadership of the dying King Baldwin IV that he wrote the History of Deeds Done beyond the Sea. Historians have praised his lack of bias towards the different leading personalities he featured in his historical work. His fluency in several languages also allowed him to translate several pertinent documents written in various languages and include them in this work. Furthermore, his resulting political connections due to his high position as a chancellor and archbishop of Tyre gave him unrivalled insight and understanding of the political and diplomatic events that were occurring in the weakening kingdom of Jerusalem. Once he became convinced of the kingdom’s inevitable collapse due to both internal and external threats, his historical narrative and commentary became a somber account of a sad tragedy that was echoed throughout the literary world.

Geoffroi de Villehardouin

Secular historical documentation emerged during the twelfth century in Europe, as demonstrated by the work of Geoffroi de Villehardouin (ca. 1167-1213), a French historian and knight who was the leader of the Fourth Crusade. He wrote De la conquête de Constantinople or The Conquest of Constantinople, in which he described in an excellent prose style the overall campaign of the Fourth Crusade rather than delving into its individual details. This work is considered one of the earliest works of French prose.[52]

Jean de Joinville

Another secular historian during this period was the French nobleman Jean de Joinville. He was the biographer of Louis IX of France. He accompanied Louis IX during the Seventh Crusade and became his counselor and close friend. He was captured with Louis IX by the Mameluks in al-Mansourah, and only released after the payment of a ransom. The failure of the Seventh Crusade and their period of captivity together brought him closer to Louis IX. When Louis IX went on with the Eighth Crusade, he decided to stay in France and was right to do so. The Eighth Crusade was also a failure and resulted in the death of Louis IX.

He wrote the biography of Louis IX entitled Livre des saintes paroles et des bons faiz de nostre saint roy Looÿs, or The Life of St. Louis. He was commissioned to do so by Jeanne de Navarre, the wife of King Philip IV of France. Unfortunately, Jean de Navarre died while the biography was still in progress. Due to his close ties with the subject, The Life of St. Louis is a very personal text outlining Joinville’s memories of the Louis IX.

It is a text in which he simply wrote every single memory he had of Louis IX, especially during their time together throughout the Seventh Crusade as well as their captivity by the Mameluks. What is particularly impressive about his biography of Louis IX was the exactness of his memories and testimonies about the subject, especially since it was written many decades after the events had occurred. This has led several historians to argue against the usefulness of the text as a historical document because he was a not an experienced historical chronicler and he was not an unbiased writer. Most historians also find fault with his tendency to include himself in the historical narrative even when he is writing about Louis IX.

However, these self-references were never made in such a manner that gave the reader the impression that he somehow thought of himself as someone greater or more knowledgeable than Louis IX. If historians were to agree on one thing regarding his biography of Louis IX, it would be on the sincerity in which he chronicled the life of Louis IX. When there were deeds and actions by Louis IX that he himself did not witness, he was quick to express reservations or to give credit to his external sources. Because of his close kinship with the subject, The Life of St. Louis is filled with his admiration for Louis IX and is most certainly tinged with a personal bias.



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[1] Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method. Alfred A. Knopf, 1963: 41.

[2] Gilbert J. Garraghan. A Guide to Historical Method. Jean Delanglez, ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1946): 4.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Barbara W. Tuchman, Practicing History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981): 264.

[5] Robert Jones Shafer, ed., A Guide to Historical Method (Homewood: The Dorsey Press, 1974): 3.

[6] John Lewis Gaddis. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 136.

[7] Anthony Brundage. Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing, 3rd ed. (Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 2002): 48.

[8] Gottschalk, Understanding History, 102.

[9] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob. Telling the Truth about History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company): 11.

[10] Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, 11.

[11] Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001): 4.

[12] Egbert J. Bakker, Irene J.F. de Jong, and Hans van Wees, Brill’s Companion to Herodotus (Brill: Leiden, 2002): 183-184.

[13] Howell and Prevenier, From Reliable Sources, 4.

[14] John Lukacs, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004): 11.

[15] Harry Elmer Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, revised 2nd ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1962): 30.

[16] Charles Norris Cochrane, Thucydides and the Science of History (London: Oxford University Press, 1929): 25.

[17] G. R. Elton. The Practice of History (Glasgow: Collins/Fontana, 1978): 24.

[18] Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, 30-31.

[19] Ibid, 31.

[20] Gottschalk, Understanding History, 51.

[21] Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, 34-35.

[22] Howell and Prevenier, From Reliable Sources, 4-5, 123.

[23] Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, 33-34.

[24] T. J. Luce, The Greek Historians (London: Routledge, 1997): 133-135.

[25] Frank W. Walbark, Polybius, Rome and the Hellenistic World: Essays and Reflections (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 206, 269.

[26] Howell and Prevenier, From Reliable Sources, 5.

[27] Ronald Mellor, The Roman Historians (London: Routledge, 1999): 51, 62, 64, 67, 128, 190, 191.

[28] Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, 37.

[29] Ronald Mellor, The Roman Historians, 35-38.

[30] Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, 37.

[31] Mellor, The Roman Historians, 90.

[32] Ibid, 88-89, 93-94.

[33] Howell and Prevenier, From Reliable Sources, 5-6.

[34] Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, 241.

[35] Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, 42-43.

[36] Ibid, 42.

[37] Howell and Prevenier, From Reliable Sources, 5.

[38] Vernon J. Bourke, “The City of God and History,” The City of God: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1995), Dorothy F. Donnely, ed.: 294-295.

[39] James Thomson Westfall and Bernard J. Holm, A History of Historical Writing (New York: MacMillan, 1942): 136.

[40] Ibid, 465.

[41] Ibid, A History of Historical Writing, 196-197.

[42] Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, 84.

[43] Ibid, 84-85.

[44] Ibid, 72.

[45] Ibid, 72.

[46] Ibid, 60.

[47] Ibid, 60-61.

[48] Arthur Lyon Cross, A Shorter History of England and Greater Britain (New York: MacMillan, 1920): 26.

[49] Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, 61-62.

[50] Ibid, 61.

[51] Beryl Smalley, Historians in the Middle Ages (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974): 136.

[52] Ibid, 141.

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