The birth of English history

The History Man

‘What Is History?’ E. H. Carr asked in the title of his famous book. Nothing objective, he argued, saying, “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.” Several decades later, Richard J. Evans responded with ‘In Defence of History’ and argued the opposite.

It’s not taking sides in this ongoing debate to say that once upon a time, what we now know as history – a lineal narrative of cause and consequence consequence – didn’t exist. When Thucydides sat down about 400 years before the birth of Christ to write his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’, his chronological ordering of events was a radical break with what had gone before. There was a city called Troy and there was certainly some fighting around it but the account of the Trojan War given by Homer in ‘The Iliad’ was mostly myth. Even the ‘Histories’ of Herodotus, written about 40 years before Thucydides put quill to parchment, have a confusing, scattergun approach with chronology largely absent. Quite simply, Thucydides marked a quantum leap in the documentation of experience: the birth of history.

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