Monday, September 19, 2005

Survey of Ancient and Modern Historians and Their Methods

This week we begin our discussion of famous historians. Please post your thought questions for class discussion here. Listen to the pod casts on the Ancient and Medieval Historians channel, This was originally the Historian's fallacies channel. I will be bringing some text materials to load onto your ipods using the notes function. Please bring your iPod to class starting this evening every week.


At 12:24 AM, Blogger Ansley said...

Bede's name has appeared as Baeda on manuscripts and in the Middle Ages he was Beda, but English-speaking people know him as Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People wasn't Bede's only history. He also wrote History of the Abbots; it is possible that he was the author of Life of Ceolfrith. After learning about Bede, what do you think his greatest legacy is? How do you think his work has affected our modern-day method of historiography? Do you think our approach would be very similar to the way it is now without Bede; do you think Bede made a largely significant difference for us or would our approach be very much the same since Bede DID ponder the miraculous--ALWAYS the ecclesiastical? What aspect of Bede's character impresses you most and why?
Do you think that Bede deserves his rank among English authors?

At 12:26 AM, Blogger Ansley said...

For those interested: Here is one of Wordsworth's "The Ecclesiastical Sonnets." It's clear that Wordsworth admired his fellow Englishman.

But what if One, through grove or flowery mead
Indulging thus at will the creeping feet
Of a voluptuous indolence, should meet
Thy hovering shade, O venerable Bede!
The saint, the scholar, from a circle freed
Of toil stupendous, in a hallowed seat,
Of learning, where thou heard'st the billows beat
On a wild coast, rough monitors to feed
Perpetual industry. Sublime Recluse!
The recreant soul, that dares to shun the debt
Imposed on human kind, must first forget
Thy diligence, thy unrelaxing use
Of a long life; and, in the hour of death,
The last dear service of the passing breath!

At 7:45 PM, Blogger Kathleen said...

I thought your presentation was wonderful! I found Bede's humility and devotion to his craft quite inspiring. Your presentation was so interesting I plan to do some research on Bede myself.

At 2:16 AM, Blogger colin said...

I found the both presentations to be very interesting. Our view of history has changed a great deal over the past several thousand years. Also the historian's craft has been continually refined and is probably still in the refining process. Though our work in history today might be less subjective than those of antiquity (most of the time but not always) we cannot escape the human element of it. As people with an unending quest for the 'truth' of the matter, this fact can be maddening. I feel that the we must treat history like an art that requires a high degree of skill and training. There are methods for piecing together information about the past, but history is not a science. That is the view that I have researched this week as I studied Hegel. Like many others, he has tried to combine disciplines and pass it off as history. Unfortunately this thinking may best be labeled as psychology or sociology. This brought up several questions in my mind. Is there one method we should all use for studying and researching history? And do we need to understand human behavior, nature, and cultural patterns to make significant historical claims?

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Kathleen said...

I forgot to answer Ansley's questions. I think Bede's legacy is as an educator and as a scholar. Bede's dedication to scholarship and education are a positive example to all ages. I also believe Bede's humility should be a lasting legacy to educators. Too often educators lose their humility and distinguish rather than encourage scholarly pursuits with their sarcasm.

At 2:21 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

I agree, Kathleen. When I think of Bede, I think of his dedication to: his students, his work, and his service to his church. If Bede had not become a priest, there's a chance he might've lived his life much as those around him lived theirs. (I know this seems like I'm setting myself up for one of the fallacies of question-framing or what I'd call the What If fallacy), but if we consider the importance of Bede's contributions, we become all the more grateful to that scholar. As Bede intended to serve God with his records of ecclesiastical matters, he also helped historians out a great deal. Bede's English history deserves all accolades it gets because of how invaluable it was and is. Things would be significantly different without that work of scholarship especially.
Colin, I'm eager to hear your presenation on Hegel. I think we can use the fundamentals of the scientific approach or method in our research, but I think it's our task to refine and BETTER that method by always taking extra steps of inquiry and analysis in our research and writing. And your next question: I think historians have an extreme responsibility, b/c if they're to be really GOOD historians, they must know of several other disciplines as well as the criteria you mention: human behavior, nature, cultural patterns. I think it's naive to expect ALL historians to be learned in all those areas, but it certainly doesn't HURT for an historian to excel in these matters.

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Joey said...

I found both the presentations of Suetonius and the Venerable Bede to be very engaging as well as enlightening. I felt that I learned more about my methodology as a historian after hearing the ways in which both of these ancient scholars viewed and practiced the study of history. I had read Bede’s Ecclesiastical History in a previous class concerning early English history and was amazed at the familiarity I had with the text with which I was reading. It was shocking to me that an ancient text could be read today with little or no difficulty (of course I was reading a modern translation). Bede’s work represented a pivotal part of English scholarship in the early period of both English as well as European history. Suetonius, who before last week I had not had the pleasure of meeting, was an interesting historian who viewed history like many popular cultures view history today. Publishers today publish popular histories often based on their “shock appeal,” the ability to wow or stun the audience. I felt Suetonius wrote in the same thread, often applying his own narrative where the facts left off. Overall, I really did find last week’s discussions one of our most important and thoughtful sessions thus far.

At 11:51 PM, Blogger colin said...

I'm not sure if ive been studying Hegel too much lately or if this was actually the case but I felt that Dr. Fischer was quite Hegelian in some of his comments. Specifically when discussing freedom as an idea moving throughout U.S. history. If i understood him correctly, he described the ideas of liberty and freedom as continually going through a process of refinement. He claimed that there would be competing definitions of with a period of 'unrest', resulting in a better idea of the terms. Im just interested in what everyone else thought because this idea appeared very Hegelian to me. Not only was he discussing Hegel's main interest (the idea of freedom), but his observation sounded very much like Hegel's dialectic. The idea of freedom or liberty (hypothesis). Two competing views (antithesis), and an improvement of the situation (synthesis). Just something I picked up on but like i said maybe its just me.

At 10:39 PM, Blogger donna said...


I, too, thought about your presentation when I was listening to Dr. Fischer. His discription of how the concept/idea of freedom is moving across cultures throughout the world was very much in keeping with Dr. Vess' comments. As Dr. Fischer described the symbols for freedom found in other cultures, for a moment I thought...perhaps we really could all evolve into this higher order concept called freedom...blending individual concepts and changing the original into something more as we all evolve...

I thought that the setting was perfect for the presentation, also.

At 10:46 PM, Blogger donna said...

OOPs! Make that "his description" in line is very late.

At 10:55 PM, Blogger Dr. Deborah Vess said...

Colin, you have some interesting points about the Fischer presentation. I am glad you were making some connections. I do wonder, though, whether Fischer would see the march of freedom as an inexoriable example of progress. It is hard to say, especially given his remarks on Iraq. Thanks for getting this discussion going. I also found it interesting how he commented on the use of ancient symbols by more modern cultures, or blending of various symbols by America. I wondered what everyone thought about this. Does the fact that Iraq under Hussein used a Sumerian symbol really represent continuity? Can one and the same symbol mean wildly different things in various contexts?

At 10:09 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Dr. Vess, I think the same symbol used in different times and circumstances can mean and represent wildly different things. And I don't think that Iraq's use of a Sumerian symbol under Hussein necessarily represents continuity in a progressive sense. As the Sumerians were rather culturally, intellectually, and technologically advanced for their age, I'd like to see the actual Sumerian symbol, but it's very likely that the symbol has no real connection to anything of Iraq today; it might only be relative to Sumer. As Fischer was discussing this image question in light of its being applicable to other cultures, I would not think of questioning his thesis; however, the image issue might be relative to America and maybe other countries too but not all countries. That is a possibility at least.
Donna, will blending of several things make something original at all or only something different than before? Or is it better to progress without blending and borrowing others' ideas and concepts? I think that the most positive aspects of others' ideas can become ours too and vice versa if we're careful to monitor this process.
Colin, if the period of "unrest" results in a better understanding of the terms, is that worthwhile? Maybe the question is too metaphysical or not relative at all, but I'm just wondering as well. I agree that there were some Hegelian comments. I see that now that you point it out. Also, in answer to my own question, I think it depends on the level of unrest.

At 11:17 PM, Blogger donna said...


Those are very interesting questions...In my opinion, whenever individuals blend ideas the result is something original because I think that we all have unique interpretations of concepts. And,as we each contribute our unique spin to the mix, the result is a new interpretation or idea or approach which is both different and original because we are all different and original beings.

Do you think that we can progress without borrowing others' ideas and concepts? I think of progressing as a developmental undertaking--built on the best past knowledge and experience, with a shared vision of the kind of world in which we might want to live.

At 12:38 AM, Blogger donna said...

On Tuesday, I will be talking about Arnold Joseph Toynbee. Below, you will find a very brief summary and the podcast is posted. I will bring copies of the summary and bibliography to class for the presentation. I look forward to discussing Toynbee's work with you.


Arnold Joseph Toynbee is celebrated as one of the most influential historians of the 20th Century. He was born in England in 1889, the namesake and nephew of British economic historian Arnold Toynbee.

As part of a wealthy, competitive family, Toynbee was ‘expected’ to excel in his studies and career. He studied the classics at Winchester and Oxford, winning prestigious academic awards for his efforts. Toynbee spoke several languages and developed exceptional skills in writing and research. Even as an undergraduate, he knew that he wanted to write a comprehensive book on world history.

Toynbee is best remembered for his multivolume work,A Study of History. The series represented one of the first attempts by an English historian to present history from other than a Western perspective. In A Study of History, Toynbee attempted to present an empirical study of 21-30 civilizations that have existed throughout time. He placed Western Civilization, not as the central focus of world history, but as one of many civilizations to be studied. Another creative aspect to Toynbee’s work was his decision to write about ‘civilizations’ and not nation-states as was the traditional approach to historical research in his time. A Study of History was published a few volumes at a time from 1934-1961.

Toynbee enjoyed much acclaim from historians and the general public for his work when it was first published. Over the years, however, criticism of his methodology has emerged. Toynbee accepted the criticism in stride and continued his prolific writing until the time of his death in 1975.

QUESTIONS to consider for Tuesday:
Since most of us in the class plan to concentrate on American history, how will our "world view" of history impact our work? Can we understand American history without understanding the history of other cultures/countries/civilizations? What is our responsibility in moving the study of American history toward a "world view?"

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Donnie said...

I really enjoyed class Tuesday. Colin did a good job with a very difficult topic. Of the historians studied so far, with the exception of Carlyle, I find Hegel to be the most interesting. The concept of ideas being more important than events or even more important than the creator of the idea is very interesting. In a world where everything is a cause and effect, I find it very difficutlt to agree with Hegel, or to disagree for that manner. An idea would not exist without the person who thought the idea or without the events which spurred the thought process of the individual. However, the events which spurred the idea, were put in to effect by the ideas of those before it. The ideas before the event were influenced by prior events also. So how do you figure out which is more important or which came first. Maybe what truly matters is not the ideas or the events or the 'Great PEOPLE', but the interaction of all three.

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Lindsay said...

I enjoyed the presentations on Tuesday. I agree with you Donnie that the combination of the "great people", ideas, and events is what truly matters. You can't have the ideas without the people and the combination of ideas and the people precipitate events.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Donnie, I think that's such a valid and thought-provoking point about "the interaction of all three" that you mention. Donna, I respect Toynbee's decision to focus on a civilization rather than a nation-state, and he focused on certain civilizations that many would overlook. Toynbee seemed to conduct his research for his own beliefs about it--regardless of whether others would question his decision or not. I admire Toynbee for that. I think a "world view" of history is extremely important. I don't know if I'd say it's impossible to concentrate on American history without the world view, but it should be mandatory to know of a world perspective before even beginning to undertake an advanced or formal study of American history. A world view in mind will better one's view of an American aspect. It would help one see the smaller picture more clearly if one knows the big picture. Without an understanding of other cultures/countries/civilizations, one's view of American history will not be as in-depth; it will also lack the potential for a truly analytical and original thought to result. I especially appreciated Fischer's Conclusion. When he said that his book was addressed to the refinement of all the goals of history that he had previously written of, I think that the same determination can be put toward this refinement of a world view--as Toynbee would have wanted and did strive for. As Fischer said, although "reason" seems a "frail weapon;" when applied correctly as possible, success is feasible. Perhaps the best response and a first step would be to include the world view with great skill in our own work.

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Joey, to answer your questions on Marc Bloch:
Yes, I think history is BETTER when more disciplines are included. Maybe historians should be concerned with both causes and facts--maybe balancing the two out as if using a set of scales. I think it's important to know something's origin when studying its history, but I don't think it's absolutely necessary. And 4. Historians should judge or understand based on a. the time period he/she is studying, and b. the times he/she is actually in.

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Dr. Deborah Vess said...

I am nto sure I understand the point about origins vs. history. Could you explain more what you meant here, Ansley?

At 3:06 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

With the many different approaches that we've discussed so far (Seutonius's approach based on intrigue, Bede's based on Providence, Montesquieu's based upon philosophy, Carlyle's based on great men, Hegel's based on Ideas with a capital "I", Marx's based on classes, orders, and laws; Toynbee's based upon civilization, Voltaire's based on the Enlightenment and the individual; and Herodotus's based on astonishing and/or consequential events. And Marc Bloch and Emmanuel Ladurie, both being of the Annales school, focus on cultural, social, and intellectual aspects of history, as the Annales school doesn't primarily focus on such areas that exist today, i.e. economic history. It seems likely that a historian can either practice a similar approach, combine one or more of these, or create a new one.

At 3:11 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

The question was: How impotant is the origin of something to understanding its history?
I think that if someone were to study the history of basketball, then an explanation of HOW and WHEN basketball began to originate would be helpful and better than not having one at all. However, if that information is unattainable, I think it's possible to have a history of basketball nonetheless--based on what IS known and can be discovered through research.

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

I'm sorry. Correction: "how important"


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