A History of Histories, By John Burrow

Lessons from the history boys

Reviewed,Paul Cartledge
Friday 07 December 2007 01:00 GMT

The past what actually happened, how it actually was is one thing. History what historians and others have made of the past, or their pasts is quite another. Often enough, the latter involves a hazardous excursion into a desperately foreign country of the mind. Historiography the study of how as well as what historians have written is another thing again. This is the special terrain of John Burrow, latterly a distinguished professor at Sussex and Oxford. He reconnoitres and surveys it with the eye of an experienced tracker, and the pen of a born littrateur.

Though chiefly a specialist in the late 18th century (Edward Gibbon) through to the early 20th (his 1981 book, A Liberal Descent: Victorian historians and the English past, won the Wolfson Prize), here he takes his compass and rod to pretty much the whole swathe of extant Western history-writing from Herodotus to near the present day. The qualification "Western" is crucial, though. Burrow explicitly absolves himself from tackling either Chinese or Islamic historiography on the grounds of inexpertise.

But there are also some marked preferences in A History of Histories and still more marked, not least in the later 20th century some notable gaps, even within his terrain of choice. Self-deprecatingly, and not for the first time recalling Dr Johnson, in his peroration he refers to himself as a historiographer as "a marginal figure at best". But there is a case, theoretical no less than practical, for claiming that far from being a harmless drudge, the historiographer is the silent hero of Clio's epic. All historians, to be worthy of the name, must be, to some degree, historiographers first and foremost.

At a cursory glance, Burrow's distribution of his material between (crudely) Ancient, Medieval and Modern must seem heavily lopsided. Herodotus and Thucydides are each awarded a chapter just like the 20th century. Admittedly, at just over 50 pages, the 20th-century chapter is the longest in the book, but still it adds up in space to little or no more than that allocated to the two ancient Greek pioneers combined.

There is, happily, a huge benefit to this. The chapters on Herodotus and Thucydides indeed, all those given over to Antiquity, from Thucydides's immediate successors and Polybius down to "the last pagan historian", Ammianus Marcellinus are of the highest quality. They are extraordinarily good for a non-specialist, even one who remembers his schoolboy study of Livy and Tacitus.

But there is also a huge cost, or costs, attached. Postmodernism, for example, gets just the one, glancing and dismissive, mention. No doubt silence is the measure of Burrow's disagreement or contempt, perhaps justifiably so, though it does mean ignoring the salutary effect that the postmodern bubble had in provoking reasoned and reflective counter-pricks. Harder to explain or excuse, surely, is the omission of the post-war German Historikerstreit: the historians' dispute over interpretations of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, with its outliers such as the David Irving affair. That conflict focused on the historicity of the deepest human issues of fact, value and remembrance, the impact and resonance of which continue to affect many millions of persons.

Then again, one will look in vain for a discussion, or even mention, of Reinhard Koselleck's history of concepts, Begriffsgeschichte, or WG Runciman's methodological treatise on applied social (including historical) theory. Burrow's genius veers very firmly to the side of the pragmatic and towards the (relatively uncontroversial) narrative of events and the actions of individuals, rather than the theorising of structures, processes, groups and forces. One exception is made, very properly, for Marxism but the error of labelling the ancient historian Moses Finley a Marxist historian (at most, he was an anti-anti-Marxist) indicates an uncertainty of conceptual touch.

Of course, no historiographer could be expected to cover everything relevant to his general rubric, and Burrow is entirely justified in excusing himself from that unreasonable burden. For instance, a recent account of 19th- and 20th-century currents just in French historiography had no trouble in filling well over 700 pages, whereas Burrow can allow himself no more than 30 or so. Leaving aside a bias against theory and the inevitable space constraints, however, his bare mention of the histories of slavery and democracy, and the entire overlooking of any kind of women's history, do seem fairly culpable omissions.

Above all, they seem to me to weaken the persuasive power of what is otherwise, taken on its own terms, a tour de force of elegant, witty and readable exposition. Particular high spots include, predictably, his accounts of British Enlightenment and Victorian historiography. But Burrow is no less entertaining and instructive on the venomous (yes, really, as regards the Britons) Venerable Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth (medieval purveyor of "pseudo-history") and the prolix but vivid Restoration portraitist Clarendon. Just as impressive are the unobtrusively skilful ways in which he deploys the Plutarchan technique of comparison Thucydides versus Herodotus, Prescott versus Diaz, Acton versus Stubbs and Burckhardt and, not least, manages the narrative transitions between ages and topics in a manner that would not have shamed Macaulay.

Quintilian, the first established professor of rhetoric at Rome, declared that he would not shrink from comparing Sallust to Thucydides. John Burrow, doyen of European written intellectual-cultural history, more than stands comparison with any number of his subjects. He deserves his place on the practising historian's shelf alongside such luminous historiographers as John Clive, Tony Grafton, Arnaldo Momigliano and Fritz Stern.

Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history at Cambridge University; his most recent book is 'Thermopylae' (Pan)

Allen Lane 25 (553pp) 22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in