To Kill a Habsburg: An Explanation of Historiography

by James Rucker

Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered why people continue to write new history books about very old topics, and why libraries need to buy them? Once something happens, it doesn’t change, right? So why can’t we just read old books about it and be done with it? In today’s post, James explains how historiography–or the study of historical writing–has changed over time, and how various approaches to history differ. –Brittney Reed-Saltz

Like any trained professionals, historians have a history, and there are two watershed moments where we could start telling it. The first is in ancient Greece, with Herodotus. Renouncing the authority of myth and legend, he embarked on a self-critical pursuit of knowledge. When interviewing witnesses to the events, he did what any good attorney does to a witness in a court of law: He cross-examined them. He called his book Inquiries. (The ancient Greek word was ‘istoriai, the root of our modern word “history.” Modern translations just call the book Histories.) For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether Inquiries is entirely free of errors or assumptions; it quite obviously isn’t. What matters is it represents an undeniable and fundamental shift in the concept of historical truth: It is not something to be related, it is something to be discovered. This attitude has generally characterized historians ever since.

The history of history-writing (historiography) since the Inquiries has taken many forms.

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