Historiography, Forschungsgeschichte, and Geschichtsschreibung
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Historiography, Forschungsgeschichte, and Geschichtsschreibung

I am going to say a bad word: historiography. The problem with this word is that it can either mean “the writing of history” or “the history of writing about history.” Thus Roman historiography can be history written by Romans, but it can also be the things which people in the last few hundred years write about those Roman writers. Sometimes it even refers to the science of history, and to whether arguments obey the rules of logic and the rules of evidence, as when Karin Wulf writes:

And no, I don’t always read this way [intro, first and last pages of each chapter, conclusion, skim the footnotes, done]. For work that’s in my research area, and when I’m reading for the joy of reading history (which I try to do regularly), I read more deeply and thoroughly. But thinking historiographically, getting a sense of how evidence and argument are related within a book (or essay), and how those relate to other scholarship, I find pretty well served by this approach.

It is as if we had one word which covered novels, book reviews, and textbooks for would-be novelists, but not the words “novel” “book review” and “composition textbook” or “writer’s guide” (or if archaeology and museology were one word, so that sometimes you opened a book hoping for a casual read about Edwardian exhibitions of mummies and found yourself neck-deep in First Intermediate Period pottery chronology). When you see a book like Luke Pitcher’s Introduction to Classical Historiography on the shelf, you have to look closely to see whether it will talk about ancients like Xenophon and Sallust or moderns like Mommsen and Rostovtzeff.

Fortunately, in German we solved this problem a good long time ago. In German we have the two terms Geschichtsschreibung and Forschungsgeschichte. Geschichtsschreibung (“historical writing”) talks about the past, but Forschungsgeschichte (“research history”) talks about what people have said about the past and how they make a case for it. I find that this leads to less confusion.

English does have the term reception history which is the history of how people in general, without policing by a community of experts or commitment to particular professional standards, talk about the past. This can look a lot like the second kind of historiography, but it notices people outside a tiny academic circle. (This can be messier, because while historians usually cite the writers who influenced them, Gary Gygax did not feel the need to explain where he got his definition of a glaive-guissarme, and its hard to prove how much people’s ideas about Xerxes were shaped by seeing Xerxes played by a castrato in an opera). I don’t know why English borrowed this term but not the others, except that since the Second World War American academics have generally been more open to European literary theory than to the German-Dutch tradition of scientific history (although there are exceptions like Michael E. Smith).

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Further Reading: I would like to work through Anna Wierzbicka, Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language (Oxford University Press, 2013) which argues that the quirks of English shape many fields of academic research.

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1 thought on “Historiography, Forschungsgeschichte, and Geschichtsschreibung

  1. I am Re-Reading | Book and Sword says:

    […] I have said elsewhere, even the English word historiography covers far too much ground to be useful as an intellectual tool (it can mean writing about history, methods for understanding the past, or writing about how people […]

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