The Generic History Methods Manual

Just when I think I have heard of every history methods manual written in the past eighty years, I come across a new one. Today, I receive in the mail D.M. Sturley’s The Study of History (London: Longman, 1969).

This volume probably qualifies as the most generic history methods manual ever written. Indeed, if I were a structuralist, I would identify it has having most or all of the core components of what defines the standard historical methods book.

Three times out of four, the generic history methods manual begins by by defining history. It tells its readers that history is different from the past, that there are things like “history-as-record” and “history-as-memory.” Many of them will also tell you that the word “history” comes from the Greek for “enquiry.” I am not sure how or why this is relevant, but it’s there nonetheless.

The generic history methods manual is then structured in the following way.

First, it begins with critical historical methods. Basically, this section is about routing out false sources, knowing what to trust, and how to think skeptically. The original methods manuals from the late 19th century, those by the German Bernheim or the French historians Langlois and Seignobos were primarily concerned with this type of critical historical sense, to the extent that they tried to make it an organized science. Historical source criticism is gradually fading from methods books over the years. This is probably because the information is a combination of the obvious and the boring. Nobody learns how to be a critical historians by being told to be creative. They either learn it on their own, or they are shown how from the examples of others.

Next, the generic history methods manual will include a section on analytical philosophy of history, always with a focus on epistemology, then perhaps with a bit about “covering laws” and the difference between history and the social sciences. Usually, the book will misrepresent Ranke, call the historians of the past hopelessly naive in their belief in objective history, and position modern historians as more enlightened. Readers gain from this section a good dose of presentism.

Generally, the generic history methods manual will then list various philosophies and philosophers of history. This almost always includes Vico, Marx, Croce, and Collingwood, with perhaps a few Germans like Buckle and Dilthey thrown in. Sometimes this section is organized by historical thinkers, sometimes it is organized by themes like “idealism” and “positivism.”  It  never contributes much unique thought.

Often, generic history methods manuals will then include a section on research, with advice on note-taking, visiting archives, and writing history. Few of these advice sections are any good because they are too specific to the historian’s interests.  The generic history methods manual of the British variety, for example, has a section here that is useful only for medievalists working in archives in the 1930s.

Generic history methods manuals used to focus a bit on the “auxilliary sciences” which means things like numismatics and epigraphy, again, topics useful for a very small set of historians writing about the ancient world. From the 1960s forwards, these sections came to include more on quantitative history, psychological history (only from 1970 to say 1985), and modern cultural history methods.

The generic history methods manual quotes liberally from other, better works on history, typically from authors like E.H. Carr, Michael Oakeshott, R.G. Collingwood, and Carl Becker.

Finally, each chapter (or the end of the book) will have an extensive historiographical list, which is typically included to demonstrate the wide learning of the author but is seldom consulted by the reader.




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