The Oxford History of Historical Writing

The Oxford History of Historical Writing, Volume 4: 1800-1945. Edited by Stuart Macintyre, Juan Maiguashca, and Attila Pók. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

The Oxford History of Historical Writing, Volume 5: Historical Writing Since 1945. Edited by Axel Schneider and Daniel Woolf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

With almost 1400 pages in total, these two volumes are (in chronological coverage) the final installments of OUP’s ambitious five-volume history of historical writing. This is not simply a history of historiography, though the results certainly do have historiographical (and hermeneutical) insights to offer. Rather, the project aims to offer broad coverage of the practice of history writing from antiquity to the present.

These two volumes are particularly interesting for the study of the Bible. Why is that, one might ask? After all, they are both curiously bereft of any explicit reflection on religious history writing (on which more below). Arguably, though, the student of ancient Israel or early Christianity must be involved in a double quest for historical understanding: seeking historical understanding of the origins of the religion of Moses or Jesus, but also the historical origins of one’s own historical understanding. This means that the 19th century is often as determinative as the 1st century for understanding the New Testament. Academic disciplines are, among other things, sites of tradition in which one generation’s questions and answers are handed on to the next to be evaluated, tried on, and discarded or confirmed. This means that many of the questions we ask of an ancient text like the New Testament only make sense to us as questions because of the historical location in which we now find ourselves, heirs to the previous centuries of critical questioning (parenthetically, this is one reason for the gulf between the academy and the church or synagogue – competing processes of socialization with the concomitant traditioning). So to consider the development of modern historiography through tracing its practice since 1800 inevitably supplies resources for understanding the historiographical processes and contexts operative in people like Semler, Michaelis, Baur, Renan and Lightfoot.

Volume 4, perhaps the more significant of the two volumes for the perspective I have just enumerated, is “concerned with the establishment of history as an academic discipline throughout the world, with nationalism and modernization as its dominant concerns” (13). The concern with nationalism becomes explicit in the bulk of the volume’s contents: after Part I on ‘The Rise, Consolidation, and Crisis of European Traditions’, Parts II, III and IV are all organized by national traditions of history writing. There is much of interest in those three parts for considering broader traditions of history-writing, the debt of much of the world to European historiography, and the interesting examples of non-European historiography supplied in Part IV, but it is especially on Part I that I want to focus here.

Part I comprises seven essays that consider basic trajectories and impulses in mostly 19th century historical discourses. The emphasis on national traditions is ably traced by Stefan Berger to Romantic impulses. One thinks especially of J. G. Herder, and some of his most productive students, such as Leopold von Ranke. Fuelled also by a reaction against the French nationalism of Napoleon in the wake of the French Revolution, historians in various European countries, Berger argues, sought to discern the characteristic traits of their own nations and to write history in support of the national identity. While Berger does not mention this specifically, one can think of the ways in which a concern for the nation played out in biblical scholarship in Michaelis’s treatment of the nation of Israel (see Legaspi’s incisive description), or the way in which nationalism inflected many of the 19th century lives of Jesus (as Moxnes has recently suggested, whose work I hope to review subsequently).

Georg Iggers, the author of a fantastically readable introduction to the developments in 20th century historiography, offers a brief but pithy chapter on ‘The Intellectual Foundations of Nineteenth-Century ‘Scientific’ History: The German Model’. He discusses especially the rise of scientific history in Niebuhr and Ranke and its basis in Quellenkritik, together with the rise of historicism. He offers some notable cautions against the popular misportrayal of Ranke as a positivist historian simpliciter. He suggests that ‘Ranke is convinced that behind the particular events or facts there are transcendent ideas, reflecting the great forces operating in history, which reveal themselves ‘intuitively’….through immersion in the sources’. He goes on to argue that ‘It is [Ranke’s] belief in God, rooted in his lifelong adherence to Protestant Lutheran religiosity, which offers the foundation for his conviction that behind the chaos of history there is ultimately a moral order’.[1] This hint of the importance of religion and theology in the development of historiography is underplayed in these two volumes (a fault shared by the otherwise amazing book by F. Beiser, The German Historicist Tradition). Not only did the theological importance of history play a significant role in Schleiermacher’s input to the University of Berlin, but many philosophers of history (including of course Hegel) and historians were trained in theology. In fact, as Elizabeth Clark notes, “In the decades between 1830 and 1860, 30 percent of all university students in Germany pursued theology”[2] The public uproars caused by the appointment of theological professors or by the scandals surrounding Strauß, Baur, and the Tübingen school, should have been enough to suggest that the academic discipline of Theology once had a cultural impact that far outstripped its current one, and that this intellectual context is hugely important for understanding the reciprocal relationship between historiography and theological study (n.b., a two-way street). Anyone up for a volume addressing Ranke the Theologian?

The volume continues with an interesting essay by Eckhardt Fuchs addressing ‘Contemporary Alternatives to German Historicism in the Nineteenth Century’, before turning to Gabriele Lingelbach’s ‘The Institutionalization and Professionalization of History in Europe and the United States’. Lingelbach considers the rise of seminars, departments, societies, extra-university research institutions, journals and other markers of institutionalization, and tracks a series of parallel paths of development in various countries (for various reasons which she mentions, the developments do not proceed identically in all places). Elizabeth Clark, in a book to which I have just referred, undertakes a similar evaluation for the development of patristic scholarship within the U.S. in the 19th century, and it would be a worthwhile experiment for someone to carry out comparative study of the institutionalization of biblical scholarship in Germany, the UK and the US (for example).

Volume 5 adopts a similar structure to Volume 4, with ten broad thematic essays followed by numerous essays on national traditions, and a short epilogue by Allan Megill, ‘On the Current and Future State of Historical Writing’. Perhaps the three most interesting essays for those interested in biblical studies are Chris Lorenz’s ‘History and Theory’, Alon Confino’s ‘History and Memory’ and Gyan Prakash’s ‘Postcolonial Criticism and History: Subaltern Studies’. These are useful orientating essays that will allow the reader quick access to a new field, and supply a sort of field map of an unfamiliar territory. Particularly Confino’s essay will be useful in supplying a sense of the broader historiographical interest in memory, an interest that has been productive in biblical studies recently as well. My complaint about the marginalization of religious history will need to be repeated here, where we find essays on world history, global economic history, women’s and gender history, the historiography of environmental history, the historiography of science and technology, and history and social science in the west, but the index reveals only three passing mentions (in a volume of over 700 pages) for ‘religion’ or ‘religious history’, two mentions of ‘Islam’, one each on ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Hinduism’ (though the reference is to the same paragraph!), and nothing on ‘Christianity’, ‘Judaism’, ‘Bible’, ‘Church’ or ‘Synagogue’. The secularization of history is apparently complete. Is this to fault these volumes for not being something they do not aspire to? In a sense, yes, though I would suggest that the eclipse of religion has as much to do with the social location of professional historians today than with any lack of religious motivations in historical writing over the past century.

There are other fascinating pieces I have not touched on here (e.g., Antoon De Bates’s two essays on ‘Censorship and History’ are brilliant). And of course those looking for reliable orientations to national traditions of historical writing will certainly want to begin with the essays in these volumes.

On the whole, then, I laud the success of these volumes, important as they are for making explicit the history of history, but also hope that we might one day see an ‘Oxford History of Theological [or Biblical? Or Church?] Historical Writing’, in dialogue with these volumes, but that would not neglect the foundational role theology has played in influencing the societies that produced the historians who undertook the writing of history.


[1] Here Iggers refers to J. Daniel Braw, ‘Leopold von Ranke and the Religious Foundations of Scientific History,’ D.Phil. Thesis, University College London, 2008. This sounds fascinating, though I can’t seem to find a published version of the thesis. An abstract on UCL’s site reads, ‘Despite the fact that there is little evidential support for it, the image of Leopold von Ranke as an aphilosophical proto-positivist historian has enjoyed a remarkable acceptance. In this dissertation, an attempt will be made to demonstrate the inaccuracy of this image. Ranke, it will be argued, was motivated by religious concerns in his historical enterprise; indeed, he said himself that ‘all our efforts derive from a higher, from a religious source’. The ambition is to thereby recover the historical identity of Ranke’s enterprise; in other words, to understand it ‘as it actually was’.

[2] Elizabeth A. Clark, Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 4.

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