In defence of Historiography

Always hesitant, always cryptic

This quotation is taken from Book 1 of Tacitus’s Annals, a biting yet highly perceptive work from the 2nd century AD on the governance and vices of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Tacitus, an author distinguished by his irony and cynicism, is referring to the enigmatic temperament of the emperor Tiberius, one of a number of rulers and individuals brought to life in the Annals. But it could also refer to popular attitudes towards the Prelim paper 4 option ‘Historiography’ because, as Oxford’s traditions and conventions come under increasing scrutiny, undergraduates and tutors alike are asking whether the Historiography paper is still relevant.

Having taken this module for the prescribed two terms and agonised over everything from ‘anacyclosis’ (Machiavelli, The Discourses) to ‘the sublime wisdom of the Areopagitica’ (Macaulay, Milton), concepts which will certainly continue to haunt me until the Prelim in June, my answer is a resounding yes. It is always refreshing to hear your tutor cast a critical eye over the Oxford History curriculum, but his revelation back in December that many want to ‘see the back’ of Historiography surprised me. Whilst the focus of this module on renowned historians from c. 118-c. 1905 might seem antiquated to some, it is in fact highly relevant to any undergraduate seeking to make the most of their History degree.

A statue of Tacitus - a key writer on the historiography reading list.
A modern statute of Tacitus (c. AD 56 – c. 120) outside the Austrian Parliament Building

From the outside, the position of the Historiography paper seems strong. Across the last 4 years, between 88 and 102 first-years have taken it, compared to 54-61 for Quantification and the foreign language options and 143-151 for Approaches. According to the Oxford website, Historiography focuses on the ‘history of history’ and ‘classic texts’ by Tacitus, Augustine, Machiavelli, Gibbon, Macaulay, Ranke and Weber (colleges generally select 4). This method of learning History reflects classical education, a form of text-based learning that would not have been out of place at Oxford or any British grammar school before the early-20th century. Therefore, its persistence on the curriculum of a university which is seeking to decolonise the syllabus and move away from ‘sexist’ exam answers may seem anachronistic.    

But this anachronism should not put students off. Even if the module offers a slightly antiquated way of approaching History, a central part of this degree is studying and critiquing aspects of the past, even if they are out of step with contemporary ideas. Therefore, the archaic connotations of poring over the ‘classic texts’ should not be a turn-off but an attraction. By focusing on the texts that dominated the degrees of their predecessors across the centuries, today’s undergraduates are reminded of the history of their university. And though this history may be imperfect, we can only understand the academic priorities of our forerunners through preservation and careful analysis.

Niccolo Machiavelli, a key writer on the historiography reading list.
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)

Beyond links to the past, Historiography is also invaluable when it comes to understanding your degree. Though the authors are often partisan at best and cringeworthy at worst, the records of their prejudices immortalise the thoughts and attitudes which are central to history. No discussion of the avarice and corruption of the Roman emperors is complete without reading Tacitus, just as Augustine’s City of God epitomises responses to the imperial city’s decline. ‘Machiavellian’ might be the most pseudish and misused adjective under the sun, but studying his work gives students an insight into the astute (and sometimes ludicrous) theories which have influenced statecraft. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall certainly deserves its status as the first modern work of history, even if his rambling prose renders entire chapters somewhat unreadable. British exceptionalism and Whiggish myths pertaining to our nation’s history can only be understood by reading Macaulay and though Ranke and Weber offer questionable ideas at times, their methodological approaches are still highly relevant. To sum up, even if students are hesitant about choosing a paper 4 option which seems outdated compared to Approaches and the set texts are cryptic at times, Historiography is an exceptionally useful module and its appeal is in its antiquity. First-year historians at Oxford are going to feel engulfed by the past at times (I write this with a term until Prelims), and they might as well choose an option which gives them the skills to navigate this experience.