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- "History is the version of the past events that people have decided to agree upon."
- –Napoleon Bonaparte
- "I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."
- –Mark Twain
Historical Context Edit
Understanding the past appears to be yet another basic human need, and the recording of history emerged independently in civilizations throughout ancient history. The earliest simple chronologies date back to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. But the first actual factual (more-or-less) history that wasn’t just carved into tombs and temples was the “Twenty-Four Histories” of China, the official accounts of the dynasties there from C. 3000 BC through the Ming dynasty of the 17th Century AD. Starting with the Tang, each dynasty established an official post to write the history of its predecessor using court records; eventually this amounted to 3213 volumes (of sometimes dubious worth).
In Western civilization, Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 450 BC) is generally acclaimed as the “Father of History” although it was his contemporary Thucydides who actually approached history as a methodical account of true events. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides regarded history as the product of choices made by human beings, a matter of cause and effect rather than divine intervention as Herodotus (and later a whole bunch of Christian scholars) did. Through the Medieval and Renaissance periods, events were seen (and recorded) through the lens of religion. It was left to the German Georg Friedrich Hegel to return to a secular approach to history; Hegel himself was simply refining the approach of the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who argued that the past was a strange landscape and in need of interpretation.
The apex of Enlightenment history was reached with Edward Gibbon’s monumental six-volume work on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776. With its stress on objectivity and the use of primary sources, it made Gibbons the first “modern historian.” A claim also made about Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who focused on archival research and the analysis of historical documents with an emphasis on narrative history. By the time the French Annales School and Marxist-Leninist approaches looked to interpret history in new ways, history was no longer just a factual account but offered insights into how … and why … civilization came to be like it is.