- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008


By John Burrow

Knopf, $35, 517 pages

REVIEWED BY Stephen Goode

John Burrow’s “A History of Histories” surveys a big chunk of history — 2,500 years — beginning with the Ancient Greek, Herodotus, “the father of history,” onward to such innovative 20th-century figures as Fernand Braudel, Frances Yates and Thomas Kuhn.

It’s a daunting task, but it’s one that Mr. Burrow, who is professor of European Thought at Oxford University, handles with clarity and admirable dexterity.

Mr. Burrow focuses on the major historians of Europe and the United States. There’s nothing in “A History of Histories” about Asian, Arab, African or South American historians.

But he knows the many works and the biographies of the men and women he writes about thoroughly, and readers will admire his graceful prose and appreciate his erudition.

The author sees one overriding goal that unites historians throughout the centuries: “To all of them the past mattered: it was worth investigating and recording and keeping alive for future generations,” he writes.

Where they differ is in approach to history and above all in the lessons derived from it: A Thomas Carlyle (a Scot) or Jules Michelet (Frenchman), for example, can view the French Revolution as a great era bringing magnificent benefits to mankind, while a Hippolyte Taine (another Frenchman) sees it as a sickness from when France and Europe never truly recovered.

No clear heroes emerge from among the many historians Mr. Burrow writes about, though there are figures he admires: Herodotus, the Renaissance Florentine Francisco Guicciardini and William Hickling Prescott, a 19th-century American, among others.

Mr. Burrow sees no overall pattern in the development of history during the 2,500 years his book takes up.

But he does discuss themes shared by clusters of historians, and he writes eloquently about the two or three times when the writing of history experienced significant change.

Among the Ancient Romans, for example, one shared theme was the degeneracy of the age they lived in compared to past times.

Sallust, writing in the first century B.C. during the chaotic last years of the Republic, concluded that Rome’s greatness derived from the days when (in Mr. Burrow’s words) when “men burned to distinguish themselves and acquire glory in the service of the state.”

But in his own time, Sallust feared that the emergence of absolute rulers had put an end to genuine patriotic service by reducing all men to the rank of servants of a single powerful man.

A few decades later, the first century A.D. historian, Livy, came to similar conclusions. Livy condemned what he saw as Rome’s current “preference for all that is new and foreign in place of what is native and traditional.”

Against Rome’s decline, he saw history as an antidote: “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind,” he wrote.

Mr. Burrow quotes one of Livy’s most memorable examples of Rome’s degeneracy: The rise in the esteem in which society held cooks.

The cook, noted Livy, “who had been to the ancient Romans the least valuable of slaves and had been priced and treated accordingly, began to be highly valued, and what had been a mere service came to be regarded as an art.”

What Sallust and Livy longed for was a sterner, stoical Rome not ruined by softness and the pursuit of pleasure.

Both historians - and particularly Livy - were to have enormous influence, as Mr. Burrow shows, on Europe during the Renaissance and afterward, and on the American Founding Fathers.

Indeed, Mr. Burrow regards the love the Renaissance had for the Roman historians and other ancient writers as the source of one of the great changes in the writing of history.

The high esteem in which they regarded the ancients required that Renaissance humanists study language and its evolution closely in order to understand the old texts thoroughly, Mr. Burrow explains.

The close study of texts led to archival research among the records of earlier centuries as a “means of studying the past” and learning what had happened in earlier times, he writes.

As a result, “inquiries could be carried back beyond the memories of the historian, or of eyewitnesses, and freed from dependence on earlier historians and chroniclers. This was a great transformation,” he concludes.

It was a transformation that paved the way for modern historiography, which relies on all past records, from coins and pottery fragments to private journals, and the public and secret records of kings, to comprehend the past.

On occasion, Mr. Burrow offers flashes of insight that help readers see historians in a new light.

He compares Xenophon’s “The Persian Expedition,” an ancient book (fourth century B.C.) about Greek soldiers returning home after serving in Persia, with “The Conquest of New Spain,” by Bernal Diaz, who served with Cortez in Mexico in the 16th century A.D.

It’s an apt pairing, that sheds light on both works.

Similarly, Mr. Burrow draws a vivid parallel between the central role mobs play in Carlyle’s book on the French Revolution and the role the mobs play in films by Russian director Sergei Eisenstein about the Bolshevik Revolution.

To help humanize historians from the remote past who might seem very different from us, Mr. Burrow finds humorous quotes.

From Gregory of Tours’ “History of The Franks,” written in the sixth century, he cites Gregory’s exasperation when confronted with an astronomical omen he thought should portend something significant.

Ancient and Medieval historians, including Gregory, Mr. Burrow notes, filled their works with stories of omens and what those omens meant. But in this case Gregory is stumped. “I have no idea what it all meant,” he wrote.

Mr. Burrow is excellent on 19th-century American historians such as Francis Parkman and Henry Adams. He’s equally adept with European cultural historians of a very different variety: The Swiss Jacob Burckhardt and the Dutchman Johan Huizinga.

Mr. Burrow’s survey of 20th- century historians lacks the richness of his earlier discussions - except when it comes to describing the contributions made by French historians - Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, among others.

Their work may be among the most influential and enduring of the century, Mr. Burrow believes.

No doubt, Mr. Burrow will whet readers’ interest to reread favorite historians and turn to others they haven’t yet read. He makes the great historians seem like old friends whose wisdom we ignore at our own loss.

Stephen Goode is working on a novel about Renaissance Florence



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