Introduction to the Study of History
by Charles V. Langlois
1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse













It is a pleasure to recommend this useful and well-written little book to English readers. It will both interest and help. There are, for instance, a few pages devoted to the question of evidence that will be an aid to every one desirous of getting at the truth respecting any series of facts, as well as to the student of history. No one can read it without finding out that to the historian history is not merely a pretty but rather difficult branch of literature, and that a history book is not necessarily good if it appears to the literary critic 'readable and interesting,' nor bad because it seems to him 'hard or heavy reading.' The literary critic, in fact, is beginning to find out that he reads a history as he might read a treatise on mathematics or linguistics, at his peril, and that he is no judge of its value or lack of value. Only the expert can judge that. It will probably surprise some people to find that in the opinion of our authors (who agree with Mr. Morse Stephens and with the majority of scholars here) the formation and expression of ethical judgments, the approval or condemnation of Caius Julius Caesar, or of Caesar Borgia, is not a thing within the historian's province. His business is to find out what can be known about the characters and situations with which he is engaged, to put what he can ascertain before his readers in a clear form, and lastly to consider and attempt to ascertain what scientific use can be made of these facts he has ascertained. Ethic on its didactic side is outside his business altogether. In fact MM. Langlois and Seignobos write for those "who propose to deal with documents [especially written documents] with a view to preparing or accomplishing historic work in a scientific way." They have the temerity to view history as a scientific pursuit, and they are endeavouring to explain to the student who intends to pursue this branch of anthropologic science the best and safest methods of observation open to him, hence they modestly term their little book "an essay on the method of historic sciences." They are bold enough to look forward to a day, as not far distant, when a sensible or honest man will no more dare to write history unscientifically than he would to-day be willing to waste his time and that of others on observing the heavens unscientifically, and registering as trustworthy his unchecked and untimed observations.

Whether we like it or not, history has got to be scientifically studied, and it is not a question of style but of accuracy, of fulness of observation, and correctness of reasoning, that is before the student. Huxley and Darwin and Clifford have shown that a book may be good science and yet good reading. Truth has not always been found repulsive although she was not bedizened with rhetorical adornments; indeed, the very pursuit of her has long been recognised as arduous but extremely fascinating. Toute trouvaille, as our authors aptly remark, procure une jouissance.

It will be a positive gain to have the road cleared of a mass of rubbish, that has hindered the advance of knowledge. History must be worked at in a scientific spirit, as biology or chemistry is worked at. As M. Seignobos says, "On ne s'arrete plus guere aujourd'hui a discuter, sous sa forme theologique la theorie de la Providence dans l'Histoire. Mais la tendence a expliquer les faits historiques par les causes transcendantes persiste dans des theories plus modernes ou la metaphysique se deguise sous des formes scientifiques." We should certainly get rid in time of those curious Hegelianisms "under which in lay disguise lurks the old theologic theory of final causes"; or the pseudo-patriotic supposition of the "historic mission (Beruf) attributed to certain people or persons." The study of historic facts does not even make for the popular newspaper theory of the continuous and necessary progress of humanity, it shows only "partial and intermittent advances, and gives us no reason to attribute them to a permanent cause inherent in collective humanity rather than to a series of local accidents." But the historian's path is still like that of Bunyan's hero, bordered by pitfalls and haunted by hobgoblins, though certain of his giant adversaries are crippled and one or two slain. He has also his own faults to master, or at least to check, as MM. Langlois and Seignobos not infrequently hint, e.g. "Nearly all beginners have a vexatious tendency to go off into superfluous digressions, heaping up reflexion and information that have no bearing on the main subject. They will recognise, if they think over it, that the causes of this leaning are bad taste, a kind of naive vanity, sometimes a disordered mind." Again: "The faults of historic works intended for the general public ... are the results of the insufficient preparation of the bad literary training of the popularisers." What an admirable criticism there is too of that peculiarly German shortcoming (one not, however, unknown elsewhere), which results in men "whose learning is ample, whose monographs destined for scholars are highly praiseworthy, showing themselves capable, when they write for the public, of sinning heavily against scientific methods," so that, in their determination to stir their public, "they who are so scrupulous and particular when it is a question of dealing with minutiae, abandon themselves like the mass of mankind to their natural inclinations when they come to set forth general questions. They take sides, they blame, they praise, they colour, they embellish, they allow themselves to take account of personal, patriotic, ethical, or metaphysical considerations. Above all, they apply themselves with what talent has fallen to their lot to the task of creating a work of art, and, so applying themselves, those of them who lack talent become ridiculous, and the talent of those who possess it is spoilt by their anxiety for effect."

On the other hand, while the student is rejoicing at the smart raps bestowed upon the Teutonic offender, he is warned against the error of thinking that "provided he can make himself understood, the historian has the right to use a faulty, low, careless, or clogged style.... Seeing the extreme complexity of the phenomena he must endeavour to describe, he has not the privilege of writing badly. But he ought always to write well, and not to bedizen his prose with extra finery once a week."

Of course much that is said in this book has been said before, but I do not know any book wherein the student of history will find such an organised collection of practical and helpful instructions. There are several points on which one is unable to find oneself in agreement with MM. Langlois and Seignobos, but these occur mainly where they are dealing with theory; as far as practical work goes, one finds oneself in almost perfect concurrence with them. That they know little of the way in which history is taught and studied in England or Canada or the United States is not at all an hindrance to the use of their book. The student may enjoy the pleasure of making his own examples out of English books to the rules they lay down. He may compare their cautions against false reasoning and instances of fallacy with those set forth in that excellent and concise essay of Bentham's, which is apparently unknown to them. He will not fail to see that we in England have much to learn in this subject of history from the French. The French archives are not so fine as ours, but they take care to preserve their local and provincial documents, as well as their national and central records; they give their archivists a regular training, they calendar and make accessible all that time and fate have spared of pre-revolutionary documents. We have not got farther than the provision of a fine central Record Office furnished with very inadequate means for calendaring the masses of documents already stored and monthly accumulating there, though we have lately set up at Oxford, Cambridge, and London the regular courses of palaeography, diplomatic, and bibliography, that constitute the preliminary training of the archivist or historical researcher. We want more: we must have county archives, kept by trained archivists. We must have more trained archivists at the disposal of the Deputy Keeper of the Rolls, we must have such means as the Bibliotheque de l'Ecole des Chartes for full reports of special and minute investigations and discoveries, for hand-lists and the like, before we can be considered as doing as much for history as the heavily taxed French nation does cheerfully, and with a sound confidence that the money it spends wisely in science is in the truest sense money saved.

For those interested in the teaching of history, this book is one of the most suggestive helps that has yet appeared. With a blackboard, a text (such as are now cheap), or a text-book (such as Stubbs or Prothero or Gardiner), an atlas, and access to a decent public library and an average local museum, the teacher who has mastered its intent should never be at a loss for an interesting catechetical lecture or exposition to a class, whether of adults or of younger folk.

Not the least practical part of the work of MM. Langlois and Seignobos has been the consideration they have given to such every-day issues as the teacher is constantly called upon to face. History cannot safely be neglected in schools, though it is by no means necessary that the Universities should turn out large bodies of trained historians. It is possible indeed that the serious study of history might gain were there fewer external inducements at the Universities to lead to the popularity of the History Schools. But in this very popularity there lies a great opportunity for concerted efforts, not only to better the processes of study, but also to clear off the vast arrears of classification and examination of the erroneous historic material at our disposition in this country.

The historian has been (as our authors hint) too much the ally of the politician; he has used his knowledge as material for preaching democracy in the United States, absolutism in Prussia, Orleanist opposition in France, and so on (English readers will easily recall examples from their own countrymen's work): in the century to come he will have to ally himself with the students of physical science, with whose methods his own have so much in common. It is not patriotism, nor religion, nor art, but the attainment of truth that is and must be the historian's single aim.

But it is also to be borne in mind that history is an excellent instrument of culture, for, as our authors point out, "the practice and method of historic investigation is a pursuit extremely healthful for the mind, freeing it from the disease of credulity," and fortifying it in other ways as a discipline, though precisely how to best use history for this purpose is still in some ways uncertain, and after all it is a matter which concerns Paedagogic and Ethic more than the student of history, though it is plain that MM. Langlois and Seignobos have not neglected to consider it.

One can hardly help thinking, too, that, in schools and places where the young are trained, something might be gained by treating such books as Plutarch's Lives not as history (for which they were never intended) but as text-books of ethic, as examples of conduct, public or private. The historian very properly furnishes the ethical student with material, though it is not right to reckon the ethical student's judgment upon the historian's facts as history in any sense. It is not an historian's question, for instance, whether Napoleon was right or wrong in his conduct at Jaffa, or Nelson in his behaviour at Naples; that is a matter for the student of ethic or the religious dogmatist to decide: all that the historian has to do is to get what conclusion he can out of the conflict of evidence, and to decide whether Napoleon or Nelson actually did that of which their enemies accused them, or, if he cannot arrive at fact, to state probability, and the reasons that incline him to lean to the affirmative or negative.

As to the possibility of a "philosophy of history," a real one, not the mockeries that have long been discredited by scientific students, the reader will find some pregnant remarks here in the epilogue and the chapters that precede it. There is an absence of unreasonable optimism in our authors' views. "It is probable that hereditary differences have contributed to determine events; so that in part historic evolution is produced by physiological and anthropologic causes. But history furnishes no trustworthy process by which it may be possible to determine the action of those hereditary differences between man and man," i.e. she starts with races 'endowed' each with peculiarities that make them 'disposed to act' somewhat differently under similar pressure. "History is only able to grasp the conditions of their existence." And what M. Seignobos calls the final problem—Is evolution produced merely by changed conditions?—must according to him remain insoluble by the legitimate processes of history. The student may accept or reject this view as his notions of evidence prompt him to do. M. Seignobos has at all events laid down a basis for discussion in sufficiently clear terms.

As to the composition of the joint work we are told that M. Seignobos has been especially concerned with the chapters that touch theory, and M. Langlois with those that deal with practice. Both authors have already proved their competence—M. Seignobos' labours on Modern History have been widely appreciated, while M. Langlois' "Hand-book of Historic Bibliography" is already a standard text-book, and bids fair to remain so. We are grateful to both of them for the pains they have taken to be clear and definite, and for their determination to shirk none of the difficulties that have met them. They have produced a hand-book that students will use and value in proportion to their use of it, a book that will save much muddle of thought and much loss of time, a book written in the right spirit to inspire its readers. We are not bound to agree with all M. Seignobos' dogmas, and can hardly accept, for instance, M. Langlois' apology for the brutal methods of controversy that are an evil legacy from the theologian and the grammarian, and are apt to darken truth and to cripple the powers of those who engage in them. For though it is possible that the secondary effect of these barbarous scuffles may sometimes have been salutary in deterring impostors from 'taking up' history, I am not aware of any positive examples to justify this opinion. There is this, however, to be said, that fully conscious of their own fallibility, M. Langlois and his excellent collaborator have supplied in their canons of criticism and maxims the best corrections of any mistakes into which they may have fallen by the way. Is not the House of Fame, as the poet tells us, a more wonderful and quaintly wrought habitation than Domus Dedali itself? And may not honest historians be pardoned if they are sometimes confused for a brief moment by the never-ending noise and marvellous motion of that deceptive mint and treasury, and fatigued by the continual trial and examination of the material that issues therefrom? The student will, at least, learn from MM. Langlois and Seignobos to have no mercy on his own shortcomings, to spare no pains, to grudge no expenditure of time or energy in the investigation of a carefully chosen and important historical problem, to aim at doing the bit of work in hand so thoroughly that it will not need to be done again.

It would be unjust to omit here to mention Dr. Bernheim's "Exposition of Historic Method," or Lehrbuch der historischen Methode, so justly praised and used by our authors, but I believe that as an introduction to the subject, intended for the use of English or North American students, this little volume will be found the handier and more practical work. Of its value to English workers I can speak from experience, and I know many teachers to whom it will be welcome in its present form.

It would have been easy to 'adapt' this book by altering its examples, by modifying its excellent plan, by cutting here and carving there to the supposed convenience of an imaginary public, but the better part has been chosen of giving English readers this manual precisely as it appeared in French. And surely one would rather read what M. Langlois, an experienced teacher and a tried scholar, thought on a moot point, than be presented with the views of some English 'adaptor' who had read his book, as to what he would have said had he been an Englishman lecturing to English students. That the present translator has taken much pains to faithfully report his authors, I know (though I have not compared English and French throughout every page), so that I can commend his honest work to the reader as I have already commended the excellent matter that he has been concerned in preparing for a wider public than the French original could command.







What this work is not meant to be—Works on the Philosophy of History 1

What it is meant to be 2

Existing works on Historical Methods—Droysen, Freeman, Daunou, &c. 3

Reasons why the study of method is useful 7

Bernheim's Lehrbuch—In what way it leaves room for another book 10

Need of warning to students 11

The general public 13

Distribution of the work between the two authors 13





Documents: their nature, use, necessity 17

Utility of Heuristic, or the art of discovering documents 18

The difficulties of Heuristic—Ancient times—H. H. Bancroft—State of things at the Renaissance 19

Growth of libraries—Collectors—Effects of revolutionary confiscation in promoting the concentration and the accessibility of documents 20

Possible future progress—Need for the cataloguing and indexing of documents 27

Students and bibliographical knowledge—Effect of present conditions in deterring men from historical work 32

The remedies—Official cataloguing of libraries—Activity of learned societies—of governments 34

Different kinds of bibliographical works needed by students 37

Different degrees of difficulty of Heuristic in different parts of History—to be kept in view when choosing a subject of research 38



Documents are raw material, and need a preliminary elaboration 42

Obsolete views on the historian's apprenticeship—Mably, Daunou 43

Commonplace and exaggeration on this subject—Freeman—Various futilities 45

The scientific conception of the historian's apprenticeship—Palaeography—Epigraphy—Philology—Diplomatic 48

History of Literature—Archaeology 51

Criticism of phrase "auxiliary sciences"—The subjects not all sciences—None of them auxiliary to the whole of History 52

This scientific conception is of recent growth—The Ecole des Chartes—Modern manuals of Palaeography, Epigraphy, &c.—List of the chief of them 55





Direct and indirect knowledge of facts 63

History not a science of direct observation—Its data obtained by chains of reasoning 64

Twofold division of Historical Criticism: External, investigating the transmission and origin of documents and the statements in them; Internal, dealing with the content of the statements and their probability 66

Complexity of Historical Criticism 67

Necessity of Criticism—The human mind naturally uncritical 68




Errors in the reproduction of documents: their frequency under the most favourable conditions—Mistakes of copyists—"Sound" and "corrupt" texts 71

Necessity of emendation—The method subject to fixed rules 73

Methods of textual criticism: (a) original preserved; (b) a single copy preserved, conjectural emendation; (c) several copies preserved, comparison of errors, families of manuscripts 75

Different degrees of difficulty of textual criticism: its results negative—The "emendation game"—What still remains to be done 83


CRITICAL INVESTIGATION OF AUTHORSHIP PAGE Natural tendency to accept indications of authorship—Examples of false attributions—Necessity of verification—Application of internal criticism 87

Interpolations and continuations—Evidence of style 92

Plagiarism and borrowings by authors from each other—The filiation of statements—The investigation of sources 93

Importance of investigations of authorship—The extreme of distrust to be avoided—Criticism only a means to an end 98



Importance of classification—The first impulse wrong—The note-book system not the best—Nor the ledger-system—Nor the "system" of trusting the memory 101

The system of slips the best—Its drawbacks—Means of obviating them—The advantage of good "private librarianship" 103

Methods of work vary according to the object aimed at—The compiling of Regesta or of a Corpus—Classification by time, place, species, and form 105

Chronological arrangement to be used when possible—Geographical arrangement best for inscriptions—When these fail, alphabetical order of "incipit"—Logical order useful for some special purposes—Not for a Corpus or for Regesta 107



Different opinions on the importance and dignity of external criticism—It is justified by its necessity—But is only preliminary to the higher part of historical work 112

Distinction between "historians" and "critical scholars" [Fr. "erudite"]—Expediency, within limits, of the division of labour in this respect—The exceptional skill acquired by specialists—Difference of work the corollary of difference of natural aptitudes 115

The natural aptitudes required for external criticism—Fondness for the work, which is distasteful to the creative genius—The puzzle-solving instinct—Accuracy and its opposite—"Froude's Disease"—Patience, order, perseverance 121

The mental defects produced by devotion to external criticism—Its paralysing effect on the over-scrupulous—Hypercriticism—Dilettantism 128

The "organisation of scientific labour" 135

The harshness of judgment attributed to scholars, not always rightly—Much of it a proper jealousy for historic truth—Bad work nowadays soon detected 136




Internal criticism deals with the mental operations which begin with the observation of a fact and end with the writing of words in a document—It is divided into two stages: the first concerned with what the author meant, the second with the value of his statements 141

Necessity of separating the two operations—Danger of reading opinions into a text 143

The analysis of documents—The method of slips—Completeness necessary 145

Necessity of linguistic study—General knowledge of a language not enough—Particular variety of a language as used at a given time, in a given country, by a given author—The rule of context 146

Different degrees of difficulty in interpretation 149

Oblique senses: allegory, metaphor, &c.—How to detect them—Former tendency to find symbolism everywhere—Modern tendency to find allusion everywhere 151

Results of interpretation—Subjective inquiries 153



Natural tendency to trust documents—Criticism originally due to contradictions—The rule of methodical doubt—Defective modes of criticism 155

Documents to be analysed, and the irreducible elements criticised separately 159

The "accent of sincerity"—No trust to be placed in impressions produced by the form of statements 161

Criticism examines the conditions affecting (1) the composition of the document as a whole; (2) the making of each particular statement—In both cases using a previously made list of possible reasons for distrust or confidence 162

Reasons for doubting good faith: (1) the author's interest; (2) the force of circumstances, official reports; (3) sympathy and antipathy; (4) vanity; (5) deference to public opinion; (6) literary distortion 166

Reasons for doubting accuracy: (1) the author a bad observer, hallucinations, illusions, prejudices; (2) the author not well situated for observing; (3) negligence and indifference; (4) fact not of nature to be directly observed 172

Cases where the author is not the original observer of the fact—Tradition, written and oral—Legend—Anecdotes—Anonymous statements 177

Special reasons without which anonymous statements are not to be accepted: (1) falsehood improbable because (a) the fact is opposed to interest or vanity of author, (b) the fact was generally known, (c) the fact was indifferent to the author; (2) error improbable because the fact was too big to mistake; (3) the fact seemed improbable or unintelligible to the author 185

How critical operations are shortened in practice 189



The conceptions of authors, whether well or ill founded, are the subject-matter of certain studies—They necessarily contain elements of truth, which, under certain restrictions, may sometimes be inferred from them 191

The statements of authors, taken singly, do not rise above probability—The only sure results of criticism are negative—To establish facts it is necessary to compare different statements 194

Contradictions between statements, real and apparent 198

Agreement of statements—Necessity of proving them to be independent—Perfect agreement not so conclusive as occasional coincidence—Cases where different observations of the same fact are not independent—General facts the easiest to prove 199

Different facts, each imperfectly proved, corroborate each other when they harmonise 204

Disagreement between documents and other sources of knowledge—Improbable statements—Miracles—When science and history conflict, history should give way 205





The materials of Historical Construction are isolated facts, of very different kinds, of very different degrees of generality, each belonging to a definite time and place, of different degrees of certainty 211

Subjectivity of History 214

The facts learnt from documents relate to (1) living beings and material objects; (2) actions, individual and collective; (3) motives and conceptions 217

The facts of the past must be imagined on the model of those of the present—Danger of error especially in regard to mental facts 219

Some of the conditions of human life are permanent—The study of these provides a framework into which details taken from documents are to be fitted—For this purpose systematic lists of questions are to be used, drawn up beforehand, and relating to the universal conditions of life 224

Outline of Historical Construction—The division of labour—Historians must use the works of their colleagues and predecessors, but not without critical precautions 228



Historical facts may be classified and arranged either according to their time and place, or according to their nature—Scheme for the logical classification of general historical facts 232

The selection of facts for treatment—The history of civilisation and "battle-history"—Both needed 236

The determination of groups of men—Precautions to be observed—The notion of "race" 238

The study of institutions—Danger of being misled by metaphors—The questions which should be asked 241

Evolutions: operations involved in the study of them—The place of particular facts (events) in evolution—Important and unimportant facts 244

Periods—How they should be defined 249



Incompleteness of the facts yielded by documents—Cautions to be observed in filling up the gaps by reasoning 252

The argument from silence—When admissible 254

Positive reasoning based on documents—The general principles employed must enter into details, and the particular facts to which they are applied must not be taken in isolation 256



History, like every science, needs formulae by which the facts acquired may be condensed into manageable form 262

Descriptive formulae—Should retain characteristic features—Should be as concrete as possible 264

Formulae describing general facts—How constructed—Conventional forms and realities—Mode of formulating an evolution 266

Formulae describing unique facts—Principle of choice—"Character" of persons—Precautions in formulating them—Formulae describing events 270

Quantitative formulae—Operations by which they may be obtained: measurement, enumeration, valuation, sampling, generalisation—Precautions to be observed in generalising 274

Formulae expressing relations—General conclusions—Estimation of the extent and value of the knowledge acquired—Imperfection of data not to be forgotten in construction 279

Groups and their classification 282

The "solidarity" of social phenomena—Necessity of studying causes—Metaphysical hypothesis—Providence—Conception of events as "rational"—The Hegelian "ideas"—The historical "mission"—The theory of the general progress of humanity 285

The conception of society as an organism—The comparative method—Statistics—Causes cannot be investigated directly, as in other sciences—Causation as exhibited in the sequence of particular events 288

The study of the causes of social evolution must look beyond abstractions to the concrete, acting and thinking men—The place of hereditary characteristics in determining evolution 292



Former conceptions of history-writing—The ancient and mediaeval ideal—The "history of civilisation"—The modern historical "manual"—The romantic ideal at the beginning of the century—History regarded as a branch of literature up to 1850 296

The modern scientific ideal—Monographs—Right choice of subject—References—Chronological order—Unambiguous titles—Economy of erudition 303

General works—A. meant for students and specialists—Works of reference or "repertories" and scientific manuals of special branches of history—Their form and style—Collaboration in their production—Scientific general histories 307

B. Works intended for the public—The best kind of popularisation—The inferior kind—Specialists who lower their standard when they write for the public—The literary style suitable for history 311


Summary description of the methods of history—The future of history 316

The utility of history—Not directly applicable to present conditions—Affords an explanation of the present—Helps (and is helped by) the social sciences—A means of intellectual culture 319



Late introduction of history as a subject of secondary instruction—Defective methods employed up to the end of the Second Empire 325

The reform movement—Questions involved relating to general organisation—Choice of subjects—Order of teaching—Methods of instruction—These questions to be answered in the way that will make history most useful as a means of social culture 328

Material aids—Engravings—Books—Methods of teaching 332



The different institutions—The College de France—The Faculties of Letters—The Ecole Normale—The Ecole des Chartes—The Ecole pratique des hautes Etudes 335

Reform of the Faculties—Preparation for degrees—The Examination question—Principles on which it is to be solved—The Diplome d'etudes superieures 340

Influence of the movement on the other institutions—Co-operation of the institutions 345



The title of this work is clear. However, it is necessary to state succinctly both what our intention has, and what it has not been; for under this same title, "Introduction to the Study of History," very different books have already been published.

It has not been our intention to give, as Mr. W. B. Boyce[1] has done, a summary of universal history for the use of beginners and readers of scanty leisure.

Nor has it been our intention to add a new item to the abundant literature of what is ordinarily called the "Philosophy of History." Thinkers, for the most part not professed historians, have made history the subject of their meditations; they have sought for its "analogies" and its "laws." Some have supposed themselves to have discovered "the laws which have governed the development of humanity," and thus to have "raised history to the rank of a positive science."[2] These vast abstract constructions inspire with an invincible a priori mistrust, not the general public only, but superior minds as well. Fustel de Coulanges, as his latest biographer tells us, was severe on the Philosophy of History; these systems were as repugnant to him as metaphysics to the positivists. Rightly or wrongly (without doubt wrongly), the Philosophy of History, not having been cultivated exclusively by well-informed, cautious men of vigorous and sound judgment, has fallen into disrepute. The reader will be reassured—or disappointed, as the case may be—to learn that this subject will find no place in the present work.[3]

We propose to examine the conditions and the methods, to indicate the character and the limits, of historical knowledge. How do we ascertain, in respect of the past, what part of it it is possible, what part of it it is important, to know? What is a document? How are documents to be treated with a view to historical work? What are historical facts? How are they to be grouped to make history? Whoever occupies himself with history performs, more or less unconsciously, complicated operations of criticism and construction, of analysis and synthesis. But beginners, and the majority of those who have never reflected on the principles of historical methodology, make use, in the performance of these operations, of instinctive methods which, not being, in general, rational methods, do not usually lead to scientific truth. It is, therefore, useful to make known and logically justify the theory of the truly rational methods—a theory which is now settled in some parts, though still incomplete in some points of capital importance.

The present "Introduction to the Study of History" is thus intended, not as a summary of ascertained facts or a system of general ideas on universal history, but as an essay on the method of the historical sciences.

We proceed to state the reasons why we have thought such a work opportune, and to explain the spirit in which we have undertaken to write it.


The books which treat of the methodology of the historical sciences are scarcely less numerous, and at the same time not in much better favour, than the books on the Philosophy of History. Specialists despise them. A widespread opinion is expressed in the words attributed to a certain scholar: "You wish to write a book on philology; you will do much better to produce a book with some good philology in it. When I am asked to define philology, I always answer that it is what I work at."[4] Again, in reference to J. G. Droysen's Precis of the Science of History, a certain critic expressed an opinion which was meant to be, and was, a commonplace: "Generally speaking, treatises of this kind are of necessity both obscure and useless: obscure, because there is nothing more vague than their object; useless, because it is possible to be an historian without troubling oneself about the principles of historical methodology which they claim to exhibit."[5] The arguments used by these despisers of methodology are strong enough in all appearance. They reduce to the following. As a matter of fact, there are men who manifestly follow good methods, and are universally recognised as scholars or historians of the first order, without having ever studied the principles of method; conversely, it does not appear that those who have written on historical method from the logical point of view have in consequence attained any marked superiority as scholars or historians: some, indeed, have been known for their incompetence or mediocrity in these capacities. In this there is nothing that need surprise us. Who would think of postponing original research in chemistry, mathematics, the sciences proper, until he had studied the methods employed in those sciences? Historical criticism! Yes, but the best way to learn it is to apply it; practice teaches all that is wanted.[6] Take, too, the extant works on historical method, even the most recent of them, those of J. G. Droysen, E. A. Freeman, A. Tardif, U. Chevalier, and others; the utmost diligence will extract from them nothing in the way of clear ideas beyond the most obvious and commonplace truisms.[7]

We willingly recognise that this manner of thinking is not entirely wrong. The great majority of works on the method of pursuing historical investigations and of writing history—what is called Historic in Germany and England—are superficial, insipid, unreadable, sometimes ridiculous.[8] To begin with, those prior to the nineteenth century, a full analysis of which is given by P. C. F. Daunou in the seventh volume of his Cours d'etudes historiques,[9] are nearly all of them mere treatises on rhetoric, in which the rhetoric is antiquated, and the problems discussed are the oddest imaginable.[10] Daunou makes merry over them, but he himself has shown good sense and nothing more in his monumental work, which at the present time seems little better, and certainly not more useful, than the earlier treatises.[11] As to the modern ones, it is true that not all have been able to escape the two dangers to which works of this character are exposed—that of being obscure on the one hand, or commonplace on the other. J. G. Droysen's Grundriss der Historik is heavy, pedantic, and confused beyond all imagination.[12] Freeman, Tardif, and Chevalier tell us nothing but what is elementary and obvious. Their followers may still be observed discussing at interminable length idle questions, such as: whether history is a science or an art; what are the duties of history; what is the use of history; and so on. On the other hand, there is incontestable truth in the remark that nearly all the specialists and historians of to-day are, as far as method goes, self-taught, with no training except what they have gained by practice, or by imitating and associating with the older masters of the craft.

But though many works on the principles of method justify the distrust with which such works are generally regarded, and though most professed historians have been able, apparently with no ill results, to dispense with reflection upon historical method, it would, in our opinion, be a strained inference to conclude that specialists and historians (especially those of the future) have no need to make themselves acquainted with the processes of historical work. The literature of methodology is, in fact, not without its value: gradually there has been formed a treasury of subtle observations and precise rules, suggested by experience, which are something more than mere common sense.[13] And, admitting the existence of those who, without having ever learnt to reason, always reason well, by a gift of nature, it would be easy to set against these exceptions innumerable cases in which ignorance of logic, the use of irrational methods, want of reflection on the conditions of historical analysis and synthesis, have robbed the work of specialists and historians of much of its value.

The truth is, that, of all branches of study, history is without a doubt the one in which it is most necessary for students to have a clear consciousness of the methods they use. The reason is, that in history instinctive methods are, as we cannot too often repeat, irrational methods; some preparation is therefore required to counteract the first impulse. Besides, the rational methods of obtaining historical knowledge differ so widely from the methods of all other sciences, that some perception of their distinctive features is necessary to avoid the temptation of applying to history the methods of those sciences which have already been systematised. This explains why mathematicians and chemists can, more easily than historians, dispense with an "introduction" to their subject. There is no need to insist at greater length on the utility of historical methodology, for there is evidently nothing very serious in the attacks which have been made on it. But it behooves us to explain the reasons which have led to the composition of the present work. For the last fifty years a great number of intelligent and open-minded men have meditated on the methods of the historical sciences. Naturally we find among them many historians, university professors, whose position enables them to understand better than others the intellectual needs of the young; but at the same time professed logicians, and even novelists. In this connection, Fustel de Coulanges left a tradition behind him at the University of Paris. "He endeavoured," we are told,[14] "to reduce the rules of method to very precise formulae ...; in his view no task was more urgent than that of teaching students how to attain truth." Among these men, some, like Renan,[15] have been content to insert scattered observations in their general works or their occasional writings;[16] others, as Fustel de Coulanges, Freeman, Droysen, Laurence, Stubbs, De Smedt, Von Pflugk-Harttung, and so on, have taken the trouble to express their thoughts on the subject in special treatises. There are many books, "inaugural lectures," "academic orations," and review-articles, published in all countries, but especially in France, Germany, England, the United States, and Italy, both on the whole subject of methodology and on the different parts of it. It will occur to the reader that it would be a far from useless labour to collect and arrange the observations which are scattered, and, one might say, lost, in these numerous books and minor writings. But it is too late to undertake this pleasant task; it has been recently performed, and in the most painstaking manner. Professor Ernst Bernheim, of the University of Greifswald, has worked through nearly all the modern works on historical method, and the fruit of his labours is an arrangement under appropriate headings, most of them invented by himself, of a great number of reflections and selected references. His Lehrbuch der historischen Methode[17] (Leipzig, 1894, 8vo) condenses, in the manner of German Lehrbuecher, the special literature of the subject of which it treats. It is not our intention to do over again what has already been done so well. But we are of opinion that even after this laborious and well-planned compilation something still remains to be said. In the first place, Professor Bernheim deals largely with metaphysical problems which we consider devoid of interest; while, conversely, he entirely ignores certain considerations which appear to us to be, both theoretically and practically, of the greatest importance. In the second place, the teaching of the Lehrbuch is sound enough, but lacks vigour and originality. Lastly, the Lehrbuch is not addressed to the general public; both the language in which it is written and the form in which it is composed render it inaccessible to the great majority of French readers. This is enough to justify our undertaking to write a book of our own, instead of simply recommending the book of Professor Bernheim.[18]


This "Introduction to the Study of History" does not claim, like the Lehrbuch der historischen Methode, to be a treatise on historical methodology.[19] It is a sketch in outline. We undertook its composition, at the beginning of the scholastic year 1896-97, in order that the new students at the Sorbonne might be warned what the study of history is and ought to be.

Long experience has taught us the necessity of such warnings. The greater part of those who enter upon a career of historical study do so, as a matter of fact, without knowing why, without having ever asked themselves whether they are fitted for historical work, of the true nature of which they are often ignorant. Generally their motives for choosing an historical career are of the most futile character. One has been successful in history at college;[20] another feels himself drawn towards the past by the same kind of romantic attraction which, we are told, determined the vocation of Augustin Thierry; some are misled by the fancy that history is a comparatively easy subject. It is certainly important that these irrational votaries should be enlightened and put to the test as soon as possible.

Having given a course of lectures, to novices, by way of "Introduction to the Study of History," we thought that, with a little revision, these lectures might be made useful to others besides novices. Scholars and professed historians will doubtless have nothing to learn from this work; but if they should find in it a stimulus to personal reflection on the craft which some of them practise in a mechanical fashion, that would be something gained. As for the public, which reads the works of historians, is it not desirable that it should know how these works are produced, in order to be able to judge them better?

We do not, therefore, like Professor Bernheim, write exclusively for present and future specialists, but also for the public interested in history. We thus lay ourselves under an obligation to be as concise, as clear, and as little technical as possible. But to be concise and clear on subjects of this kind often means to appear superficial. Commonplace on the one hand, obscurity on the other: these, as we have already seen, are the evils between which we have the sorry privilege of choosing. We admit the difficulty. But we do not think it insurmountable, and our endeavour has been to say what we had to say in the clearest possible manner.

The first half of the book has been written by M. Langlois, the second by M. Seignobos; but the two collaborators have constantly aided, consulted, and checked each other.[21]

PARIS, August 1897.






The historian works with documents. Documents are the traces which have been left by the thoughts and actions of men of former times. Of these thoughts and actions, however, very few leave any visible traces, and these traces, when there are any, are seldom durable; an accident is enough to efface them. Now every thought and every action that has left no visible traces, or none but what have since disappeared, is lost for history; is as though it had never been. For want of documents the history of immense periods in the past of humanity is destined to remain for ever unknown. For there is no substitute for documents: no documents, no history.

In order to draw legitimate inferences from a document to the fact of which it is the trace, numerous precautions are requisite which will be indicated in the sequel. But it is clear that, prior to any critical examination or interpretation of documents, the question presents itself whether there are any documents at all, how many there are, and where they are. If I undertake to deal with a point of history,[22] of whatever nature, my first step will be to ascertain the place or places where the documents necessary for its treatment, if any such exist, are to be found. The search for and the collection of documents is thus a part, logically the first and most important part, of the historian's craft. In Germany it has received the convenient, because short, name of Heuristik. Is there any need to prove the capital importance of Heuristic? Assuredly not. It is obvious that if it is neglected, if the student does not, before he sets to work on a point of history, place himself in a position to command all accessible sources of information, his risk (no small one at the best) of working upon insufficient data is quite unnecessarily increased: works of erudition or history constructed in accordance with the rules of the most exact method have been vitiated, or even rendered worthless, by the accidental circumstance that the author was unacquainted with the documents by which those which he had within reach, and with which he was content, might have been illustrated, supplemented, or discredited. The scholars and historians of to-day, standing, as they do, in other respects on an equality with their predecessors of the last few centuries, are only enabled to surpass them by their possession of more abundant means of information.[23] Heuristic is, in fact, easier to-day than it used to be, although the honest Wagner has still good grounds for saying:

"Wie schwer sind nicht die Mittel zu erwerben, Durch die man zu den Quellen steigt!"[24]

Let us endeavour to explain why the collection of documents, once so laborious, is still no easy matter, in spite of the progress made in the last century; and how this essential operation may, in the course of continued progress, be still further simplified.

I. Those who first endeavoured to write history from the sources found themselves in an embarrassing situation. Were the events they proposed to relate recent, so that all the witnesses of them were not yet dead? They had the resource of interviewing the witnesses who survived. Thucydides, Froissart, and many others have followed this procedure. When Mr. H. H. Bancroft, the historian of the Pacific Coast of California, resolved to collect materials for the history of events many of the actors in which were still alive, he mobilised a whole army of reporters charged to extract conversations from them.[25] But when the events to be related were ancient, so that no man then living could have witnessed them, and no account of them had been preserved by oral tradition, what then? Nothing was left but to collect documents of every kind, principally written ones, relating to the distant past which was to be studied. This was a difficult task at a time when libraries were rare, archives secret, and documents scattered. About the year 1860, Mr. Bancroft, in California, was in a situation analogous to that of the earlier researchers in our part of the world. His plan was as follows: He was rich; he cleared the market of all documents, printed or manuscript; he negotiated with financially embarrassed families and corporations for the purchase of their archives, or the permission to have them copied by his paid agents. This done, he housed his collection in premises built for the purpose, and classified it. Theoretically there could not be a more rational procedure. But this rapid, American method has only once been employed with sufficient resources and sufficient consistency to ensure its success; at any other time, and in any other place, it would have been out of the question. Nowhere else have the circumstances been so favourable for it.

At the epoch of the Renaissance the documents of ancient and modern history were scattered in innumerable private libraries and in innumerable depositories of archives, almost all of them inaccessible, not to mention those which lay hidden beneath the soil, their very existence as yet unsuspected. It was at that time a physical impossibility to procure a list of all the documents serving for the elucidation of a question (for example, a list of all the manuscripts still preserved of an ancient work); and if, by a miracle, such a list was to be had, it was another impossibility to consult all these documents except at the cost of journeys, expenses, and negotiations without end. Consequences easy to foresee did, as a matter of fact, ensue. Firstly, the difficulties of Heuristic being insurmountable, the earliest scholars and historians—employing, as they did, not all the documents, nor the best documents, but those documents on which they could lay their hands—were nearly always ill-informed; and their works are now without interest except so far as they are founded on documents which have since been lost. Secondly, the first scholars and historians to be relatively well-informed were those who, in virtue of their profession, had access to rich storehouses of documents—librarians, keepers of archives, monks, magistrates, whose order or whose corporation possessed libraries or archives of considerable extent.[26]

It is true that collectors soon arose who, by money payments, or by more questionable expedients, such as theft, formed, with more or less regard for the interests of scientific study, "cabinets" of collections of original documents, and of copies. But these European collectors, of whom there has been a great number since the fifteenth century, differ very noticeably from Mr. Bancroft. The Californian, in fact, only collected documents relating to a particular subject (the history of certain Pacific states), and his ambition was to make his collection complete; most European collectors have acquired waifs and strays and fragments of every description, forming, when combined, totals which appear insignificant by the side of the huge mass of historical documents which existed at the time. Besides, it was not, in general, with any purpose of making them generally accessible that collectors like Peiresc, Gaignieres, Clairambault, Colbert, and many others, withdrew from circulation documents which were in danger of being lost; they were content (and it was creditable to do as much as this) to share them, more or less freely, with their friends. But collectors (and their heirs) are fickle people, and sometimes eccentric in their notions. Certainly it is better that documents should be preserved in private collections, than that they should be entirely unprotected and absolutely inaccessible to the scientific worker; but in order that Heuristic should be made really easier, the first condition is that all collections of documents should be public.[27]

Now the finest private collections of documents—libraries and museums combined—were naturally, in the Europe of the Renaissance, those possessed by kings. And while other private collections were often dispersed upon the death of their founders, these, on the contrary, never ceased to grow; they were enriched, indeed, by the wreckage of all the others. The Cabinet des manuscrits de France, for example, formed by the French kings, and by them thrown open to the public, had, at the end of the eighteenth century, absorbed the best part of the collections which had been the personal work of the amateurs and scholars of the two preceding centuries.[28] Similarly in other countries. The concentration of a great number of historical documents in vast public (or semi-public) establishments was the fortunate result of this spontaneous evolution.

The arbitrary proceedings of the Revolution were still more favourable, and still more effective in securing the amelioration of the material conditions of historical research. The Revolution of 1789 in France, analogous movements in other countries, led to the violent confiscation, for the profit of the state (that is, of everybody), of a host of private archives and collections—the archives, libraries, and museums of the crown, the archives and libraries of monasteries and suppressed corporations, and so on. In France, in 1790, the Constituent Assembly thus placed the state in possession of a great number of depositories of historical documents, previously scattered, and guarded more or less jealously from the curiosity of scholars; these treasures have since been divided among four different national institutions. The same phenomenon has been more recently observed, on a smaller scale, in Germany, Spain, and Italy.

The confiscations of the revolutionary period, as well as the collections of the period which preceded it, have both been productive of serious damage. The collector is, or rather often was, a barbarian who did not hesitate, when he saw a chance of adding to his collection of specimens and rare remains, to mutilate monuments, to dissect manuscripts, to break up whole archives, in order to possess himself of the fragments. On this score many acts of vandalism were perpetrated before the Revolution. Naturally, the revolutionary procedure of confiscation and transference was also productive of lamentable consequences; besides the destruction which was the result of negligence and that which was due to the mere pleasure of destroying, the unfortunate idea arose that collections might be systematically weeded, those documents only to be preserved which were "interesting" or "useful," the rest to be got rid of. The task of weeding was entrusted to well-meaning but incompetent and overworked men, who were thus led to commit irreparable havoc in our ancient archives. At the present day there are workers engaged in the task, one requiring an extraordinary amount of time, patience, and care, of restoring the dismembered collections, and replacing the fragments which were then isolated in so brutal a manner by these zealous but unreflecting manipulators of historical documents. It must be recognised, moreover, that the mutilations due to revolutionary activity and the pre-revolutionary collectors are insignificant in comparison with those which are the result of accident and the destructive work of time. But had they been ten times as serious, they would have been amply compensated by two advantages of the first importance, on which we cannot lay too much stress: (1) the concentration, in a relatively small number of depositories, of documents which were formerly scattered, and, as it were, lost, in a hundred different places; (2) the opening of these depositories to the public. The remnant of historical documents which has survived the destructive effects of accident and vandalism is now at last safely housed, classified, made accessible, and treated as public property.

Ancient historical documents are now, as we have seen, collected and preserved chiefly in those public institutions which are called archives, libraries, and museums. It is true that this does not apply to all existing documents; in spite of the unceasing acquisitions by purchase and gift which archives, libraries, and museums all over the world have been making every year for a long time past, there still exist private collections, dealers who supply them, and documents in circulation. But the exceptions, which in this case are negligeable, do not affect the general rule. Besides, all the ancient documents which, in limited quantity, still range at large, are destined sooner or later to find their way into the state institutions, whose doors are always open to let in, but never to let out.[29]

It is to be desired, as a matter of principle, that the depositories of documents (archives, libraries, and museums) should not be too numerous; and we have pointed out that, fortunately, they are now beyond comparison less numerous than they were a hundred years ago. Could not the centralisation of documents, with its evident advantages for researchers, be carried still further? Are there not still collections of documents of which it would be hard to justify the separate existence? Perhaps;[30] but the problem of the centralisation of documents is no longer urgent, now that the processes of reproduction have been perfected, especially as the inconveniences arising from a multitude of depositories are met by the expedient, now in general use, of allowing the documents to travel: it is now possible for the student to consult, without expense, in the public library of the city where he resides, documents belonging, say, to the libraries of St. Petersburg, Brussels, and Florence; we now rarely meet with institutions like the Archives Nationales at Paris, the British Museum at London, and the Mejanes Library at Aix-en-Provence, whose statutes absolutely prohibit all lending-out of their contents.[31]

II. It being granted that the majority of historical documents are now preserved in public institutions (archives, libraries, and museums), Heuristic would be very easy if only good descriptive catalogues had been drawn up of all the existing collections of documents, if these catalogues were furnished with indexes, or if general repertories (alphabetical, systematic, &c.) had been made relating to them; lastly, if there were some place where it was possible to consult the complete collection of all these catalogues and their indexes. But Heuristic is still difficult, because these conditions are, unfortunately, still very far from being adequately realised.

Firstly, there are depositories of documents (archives, libraries, and museums) whose contents have never been even partially catalogued, so that no one knows what is in them. The depositories of which we possess complete descriptive catalogues are rare; there are many collections preserved in celebrated institutions which have only been catalogued in part, and the bulk of which still remains to be described.[32] In the second place, what a variety there is among existing catalogues! There are some old ones which do not now correspond to the present classification of documents, and which cannot be used without reference-tables; there are new ones which are equally based on obsolete systems, too detailed or too summary; some are printed, others in manuscript, on registers or slips; some are carefully executed and clear, many are scamped, inadequate, and provisional. Taking printed catalogues alone, it requires a whole apprenticeship to learn to distinguish, in this enormous mass of confusion, between what is trustworthy and what is not; in other words, to make any use of them at all. Lastly, where are the existing catalogues to be consulted? Most of the great libraries only possess incomplete collections of them; there is no general guide to them anywhere.

This is a deplorable state of things. In fact, the documents contained in uncatalogued depositories and collections are practically non-existent for researchers who have no leisure to work through the whole of their contents for themselves. We have said before: no documents, no history. But to have no good descriptive catalogues of collections of documents means, in practice, to be unable to ascertain the existence of documents otherwise than by chance. We infer that the progress of history depends in great measure on the progress of the general catalogue of historical documents which is still fragmentary and imperfect. On this point there is general agreement. Pere Bernard de Montfaucon considered his Bibliotheca bibliothecarum manuscriptarum nova, a collection of library catalogues, as "the most useful and most interesting work he had produced in his whole life."[33] "In the present state of science," wrote Renan in 1848,[34] "nothing is wanted more urgently than a critical catalogue of the manuscripts in the different libraries ... a humble task to all appearance; ... and yet the researches of scholars are hampered and incomplete pending its definitive completion." "We should have better books on our ancient literature," says M. P. Meyer,[35] "if the predecessors of M. Delisle [in his capacity of administrator of the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris] had applied themselves with equal ardour and diligence to the cataloguing of the treasures committed to their care."

It will be well to indicate briefly the causes and state the exact consequences of a state of things which has been deplored as long as scholars have existed, and which is improving, though slowly. "I assure you," said Renan,[36] "that the few hundred thousand francs a Minister of Public Instruction might apply to the purpose [of preparing catalogues] would be better employed than three-quarters of the sum now devoted to literature." It is rare to find a minister, in France or elsewhere, convinced of this truth, and resolute enough to act accordingly. Besides, it has not always been true that, in order to obtain good catalogues, it is sufficient, as well as necessary, to make a pecuniary sacrifice: it is only recently that the best methods of describing documents have been authoritatively fixed; the task of recruiting competent workers—no great difficulty nowadays—would have been neither easy nor free from anxiety at an epoch when competent workers were rarer than they are now. So much for the material obstacles—want of money and want of men. A cause of another kind has not been without its influence. The functionaries charged with the administration of depositories of documents have not always displayed the zeal which they now display for making their collections accessible by means of accurate catalogues. To prepare a catalogue (in the exact and at the same time summary form which is now used) is a laborious task, a task without joy and without reward. It has often happened that such a functionary, living, in virtue of his office, in the midst of documents which he is at liberty to consult at any moment, and placed in a much more favourable position than the general public for utilising the collection without the aid of a catalogue, and making discoveries in the process, has preferred to work for himself rather than for others, and made the tedious construction of a catalogue a secondary matter compared with his personal researches.

Who are the persons that in our own day have discovered, published, and annotated the greatest number of documents? The functionaries attached to the depositories of documents. Without a doubt this circumstance has retarded the progress of the general catalogue of historical documents. The situation has been this: the persons who were the best able to dispense with catalogues were precisely the persons whose duty it was to make them.

The imperfection of descriptive catalogues has consequences which deserve our attention. On the one hand, we can never be sure that we have exhausted all the sources of information; who knows what may be held in reserve by the uncatalogued collections?[37] On the other hand, in order to obtain the maximum amount of information, it is necessary to be thoroughly acquainted with the resources furnished by the existing literature of Heuristic, and to devote a great deal of time to preliminary researches. In point of fact, every one who proposes to collect documents for the treatment of a point of history begins by consulting indexes and catalogues.[38] Novices set about this important operation so slowly, with so little skill, and with so much effort, as to move more experienced workers to mirth or pity, according to their disposition. Those who find amusement in watching novices stumble and strain and waste their time in the labyrinth of catalogues, neglecting those which are valuable, and thoroughly exploring those which are useless, remember that they also have passed through similar experiences: let every one have his turn. Those who observe with regret this waste of time and strength consider that, while inevitable up to a certain point, it serves no good purpose; they ask whether something might not be done to mitigate the severity of this apprenticeship to Heuristic, which at one time cost them so dear. Besides, is not research, in the present condition of its material aids, difficult enough whatever the experience of the researcher? There are scholars and historians who devote the best part of their powers to material searches. Certain branches of historical work, relating chiefly to mediaeval and modern subjects (the documents of ancient history are fewer, have been more studied, and are better catalogued than the others), imply not merely the assiduous use of catalogues, not all furnished with indexes, but also the personal inspection of the whole contents of immense collections which are either badly catalogued or not catalogued at all. Experience proves beyond a doubt that the prospect of these long searches, which must be performed before the more intellectual part of the work can be begun, has deterred, and continues to deter, men of excellent abilities from undertaking historical work. They are, in fact, confronted with a dilemma: either they must work on a supply of documents which is in all probability incomplete, or they must spend themselves in unlimited searches, often fruitless, the results of which seldom appear worth the time they have cost. It goes against the grain to spend a great part of one's life in turning over catalogues without indexes, or in passing under review, one after another, all the items which go to form accumulations of uncatalogued miscellanea, in order to obtain information (positive or negative) which might have been obtained easily and instantaneously if the collections had been catalogued and if the catalogues had been indexed. The most serious consequence of the present imperfection of the material aids to Heuristic is the discouragement which is sure to be felt by many able men who know their worth, and have some sense of the due proportion of effort and reward.[39]

If it lay in the nature of things that the search for historical documents, in public depositories, must necessarily be as laborious as it still is, we might resign ourselves to the inconvenience: no one thinks of regretting the inevitable expenditure of time and labour which is demanded by archaeological research, whatever the results may prove to be. But the imperfection of the modern instruments of Heuristic is quite unnecessary. The state of things which existed for some centuries has now been reformed indifferently; there is no valid reason why it should not some day be reformed altogether. We are thus led, after treating of the causes and the effects, to say a few words about the remedies.

The instruments of Heuristic are being continually perfected, before our eyes, in two ways. Every year witnesses an increase in the number of descriptive catalogues of archives, libraries, and museums, prepared by the functionaries attached to these institutions. In addition to this, powerful learned societies employ experts to pass from one depository to another cataloguing the documents there, in order to pick out all the documents of a particular class, or relating to a special subject: thus the society of Bollandists caused a general catalogue of hagiographical documents to be prepared by its emissaries, and the Imperial Academy of Vienna catalogued in a similar manner the monuments of patristic literature. The society of the Monumenta Germanioe Historica has for a long time been conducting vast searches of the same kind; and it was by the same process of exploring the museums and libraries of the whole of Europe that the construction of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum was lately rendered possible. Lastly, several governments have taken the initiative in sending abroad persons charged to catalogue, on their behalf, documents in which they are interested: thus England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States, and other governments, grant regular subsidies to agents of theirs occupied in cataloguing and transcribing, in the great depositories of Europe, the documents which relate to the history of England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States, and the rest.[40] With what rapidity and with what perfection these useful labours can be conducted, provided that a competent staff, suitably directed, can be had as well as the money to pay it, is shown by the history of the general catalogue of the manuscripts in the public libraries of France. This excellent descriptive catalogue was begun in 1885, and now, in 1897, it extends to nearly fifty volumes, and will soon be completed. The Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum will have been produced in less than fifty years. The results obtained by the Bollandists and the Imperial Academy of Vienna are not less conclusive. Assuredly nothing is now lacking, except funds, to secure the speedy endowment of historical study with the indispensable instruments of research. The methods employed in the construction of these instruments are now permanently fixed, and it is an easy matter to recruit a trained staff. Such a staff must evidently be largely composed of keepers of archives and professional librarians, but it would also contain unattached workers with a decided vocation for the construction of catalogues and indexes. Such workers are more numerous than one would at first be inclined to think. Not that cataloguing is easy: it requires patience, the most scrupulous attention, and the most varied learning; but many minds are attracted by tasks which, like this, are at once determinate, capable of being definitely completed, and of manifest utility. In the large and heterogeneous family of those who labour to promote the progress of historical study, the makers of descriptive catalogues and indexes form a section to themselves. When they devote themselves exclusively to their art they acquire by practice, as one might expect, a high degree of dexterity.

While waiting for the fact to be clearly recognised that the time is opportune for pushing vigorously in every country the construction of a general catalogue of historical documents, we may indicate a palliative: it is important that scholars and historians, especially novices, should be accurately informed of the state of the instruments of research which are at their disposal, and be regularly apprised of any improvements that from time to time may be made in them. Experience and accident have been for a long time trusted to supply this information; but empirical knowledge, besides being costly, as we have already pointed out, is almost always imperfect. Recently the task has been undertaken of constructing catalogues of catalogues—critical and systematic lists of all the catalogues in existence. There can be no doubt that few bibliographical enterprises have possessed, in so great a degree, the character of general utility.

But scholars and historians often need, in respect of documents, information not usually supplied by descriptive catalogues; they wish, for example, to know whether such and such a document is known or not, whether it has already been critically dealt with, annotated, or utilised.[41] This information can only be found in the works of former scholars and historians. In order to become acquainted with these works, recourse must be had to those "bibliographical repertories," properly so called, of all kinds, compiled from very different points of view, which have already been published. Among the indispensable instruments of Heuristic must thus be reckoned bibliographical repertories of historical literature, as well as repertories of catalogues of original documents.

To supply the classified list of all those repertories (repertories of catalogues, bibliographical repertories, properly so called), together with other appropriate information, in order to save students from mistakes and waste of time, is the object of what we are at liberty to call the "science of repertories," or "historical bibliography." Professor Bernheim has published a preliminary sketch[42] of it, which we have endeavoured to expand.[43] The expanded sketch bears date April 1896: numerous additions, not to speak of revision, would already be necessary, for the bibliographical apparatus of the historical sciences is being renewed, at the present time, with astonishing rapidity. A book on the repertories for the use of scholars and historians is, as a general rule, out of date the day after it has been completed.

III. The knowledge of repertories is useful to all; the preliminary search for documents is laborious to all; but not in the same degree. Certain parts of history, which have been long cultivated, now enjoy the advantage of having all their documents described, collected, and classified in large publications devoted to the purpose, so that, in dealing with these subjects, the historian can do all that need be done at his desk. The study of local history does not generally require more than local search. Some important monographs are based on a small number of documents, all belonging to the same collection, and of such a nature that it would be superfluous to look for others elsewhere. On the other hand, a humble piece of work, such as a modest edition of a text of which the ancient copies are not rare, and are to be found scattered in several libraries of Europe, may have involved inquiries, negotiations, and journeys without end. Since the majority of the documents of mediaeval and modern history are still unedited, or badly edited, it may be laid down as a general principle that, in order to write a really new chapter of mediaeval or modern history, it is necessary to have long haunted the great depositories of original documents, and to have, if we may use the expression, worried their catalogues.

It is thus incumbent on every one to choose the subject of his labours with the greatest care, instead of leaving it to be determined by pure chance. There are some subjects which, in the present state of the instruments of research, cannot be treated except at the cost of enormous searches in which life and intellect are consumed without profit. These subjects are not necessarily more interesting than others, and some day, perhaps to-morrow, improvements in the aids to research will make them easily manageable. It is necessary for the student consciously and deliberately to make his choice between different historical subjects depend on the existence or non-existence of particular catalogues of documents and bibliographical repertories; on his relative inclination for desk work on the one hand, and the labour of exploring depositories on the other; even on the facilities he has for making use of particular collections. "Is it possible to do work in the provinces?" Renan asked at the congress of learned societies at the Sorbonne in 1889; and gave a very good answer to his own question: "At least half one's scientific work can be done at one's own desk ... Take comparative philology, for example: with an initial outlay of some thousands of francs, and subscriptions to three or four special publications, a student would command all the tools of his trade ... The same applies to universal philosophy ... Many branches of study can thus be prosecuted quite privately, and in the closest retirement."[44] Doubtless, but there are "rarities, specialities, researches which require the aid of powerful machinery." One half of historical work may now be done in private, with limited resources, but only half; the other half still presupposes the employment of such resources, in the way of repertories and documents, as can only be found in the great centres of study; often, indeed, it is necessary to visit several of these centres in succession. In short, the case stands with history much as it does with geography: in respect of some portions of the globe, we possess documents published in manageable form sufficiently complete and sufficiently well classified to enable us to reason about them to good purpose without leaving our fireside; while in the case of an unexplored or badly explored region, the slightest monograph implies a considerable expenditure of time and physical strength. It is dangerous to choose a subject of study, as many do, without having first realised the nature and extent of the preliminary researches which it demands; there are instances of men struggling for years with such researches, who might have been occupied to better advantage in work of another character. As precautions against this danger, which is the more formidable to novices the more active and zealous they are, an examination of the present conditions of Heuristic in general, and positive notions of Historical Bibliography, are certainly to be warmly recommended.



Let us suppose that the preliminary searches, treated of in the preceding chapter, have been made methodically and successfully; the greater part, if not the whole, of the documents bearing on a given subject have been discovered and made available. Of two things one: either these documents have been already subjected to critical elaboration, or they are in the condition of raw material; this is a point which must be settled by "bibliographical" researches, which also, as we have already observed, form part of the inquiries which precede the logical part of the work. In the first case, where the documents have already gone through a process of elaboration, it is necessary to be in a position to verify the accuracy of the critical work; in the second case, where the documents are still raw material, the student must do the critical work himself. In both cases certain antecedent and auxiliary knowledge of a positive kind, Vor-und Huelfskenntnisse, as they are called, are every whit as indispensable as the habit of accurate reasoning; for if, in the course of critical work, it is possible to go wrong through reasoning badly, it is also possible to go wrong out of pure ignorance. The profession of a scholar or historian is, moreover, similar in this respect to all other professions; it is impossible to follow it without possessing a certain equipment of technical notions, whose absence neither natural aptitude nor even method can make good. In what, then, does the technical apprenticeship of the scholar or the historian consist? Or, to employ language which, though inappropriate, as we shall endeavour to show, is in more common use: what, in addition to the knowledge of repertories, are the "auxiliary sciences" of history?

Daunou, in his Cours d'etudes historiques,[45] has proposed a question of the same kind. "What studies," says he, "will the intending historian need to have gone through, what kinds of knowledge ought he to have acquired, in order to begin writing a work with any hope of success?" Before him, Mably, in his Traite de l'etude de l'histoire, had also recognised that "there are preparatory studies with which no historian can dispense." But on this subject Mably and Daunou entertained views which nowadays seem singular enough. It is instructive to mark the exact distance which separates their point of view from ours. "First of all," said Mably, "study the law of nature, public law, moral and political science." Daunou, a man of great judgment, permanent secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, writing about 1820, divides the studies which, in his opinion, constitute "the apprenticeship of the historian," into three classes—literary, philosophical, historical. On the "literary" studies he expatiates at great length: to begin with, the historian must "have read with attention the great models." Which great models? Daunou "does not hesitate" to place in the front rank "the masterpieces of epic poetry;" for "it is the poets who have created the art of narrative, and whoever has not learnt it from them cannot have more than an imperfect knowledge of it." He further recommends the reading of modern novels; "they will teach the method of giving an artistic pose to persons and events, of distributing details, of skilfully carrying on the thread of the narrative, of interrupting it, of resuming it, of sustaining the attention and provoking the curiosity of the reader." Finally, good historical works should be read: "Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, and Plutarch among the Greeks; Caesar, Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus among the Latins; and among the moderns, Macchiavelli, Guicciardini, Giannone, Hume, Robertson, Gibbon, the Cardinal de Retz, Vertot, Voltaire, Raynal, and Rulhiere. Not that I would exclude the others, but these will suffice to provide all the styles which are suitable for history; for a great diversity of form is to be met with in the works of these writers." In the second place come philosophical studies; a thorough mastery of "ideology, morals, and politics" is required. "As to the works from which knowledge of this kind is to be obtained, Daguesseau has instanced Aristotle, Cicero, Grotius: I should add the best ancient and modern moralists, treatises on political economy published since the middle of the last century, the writings on political science in general, and on its details and application, of Macchiavelli, Bodin, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Mably, and the most enlightened of their disciples and commentators." In the third place, before writing history, "it is evidently necessary to know it." "A writer will not give the world new information on a subject like this unless he begins by making himself master of what is already known of it." The future historian has already made the acquaintance of the best historical works, and studied them as models of style; "it will be to his advantage to read them a second time, but endeavouring more particularly to grasp all the facts which they contain, and to let them make so deep an impression on his mind that they may be permanently fixed in his memory."

These are the "positive" notions which, eighty years ago, were considered indispensable to the general historian. At the same time there was a confused idea that "in order to acquire a profound knowledge of particular subjects" there were yet other useful branches of study. "The subjects of which historians treat," says Daunou, "the details which they occasionally light upon, require very extensive and varied attainments." He goes on to particularise, observe in what terms: "very often a knowledge of several languages, sometimes too some notion of physics and mathematics." And he adds: "On these subjects, however, the general education which we may assume to be common to all men of letters is sufficient for the writer who devotes himself to historical composition...."

All the authors who, like Daunou, have attempted to enumerate the preliminary attainments, as well as the moral or intellectual aptitudes, necessary for "writing history," have either fallen into commonplace or pitched their requirements ridiculously high. According to Freeman, the historian ought to know everything—philosophy, law, finance, ethnography, geography, anthropology, natural science, and what not; is not an historian, in point of fact, likely enough in the course of his study of the past to meet with questions of philosophy, law, finance, and the rest of the series? And if financial science, for example, is necessary to a writer who treats of contemporary finance, is it less so to the writer who claims to express an opinion on the financial questions of the past? "The historian," Freeman declares, "may have incidentally to deal with any subject whatever, and the more branches of knowledge he is master of, the better prepared he is for his own work." True, all branches of human knowledge are not equally useful; some of them are only serviceable on rare occasions, and accidentally: "We could hardly make it even a counsel of perfection to the historian to make himself an accomplished chemist, on the chance of an occasion in which chemistry might be of use to him in his study;" but other special subjects are more closely related to history: "for example, geology and a whole group of sciences which have a close connection with geology.... The historian will clearly do his own regular work better for being master of them...."[46] The question has also been asked whether "history is one of those studies anciently called umbratiles, for which all that is wanted is a quiet mind and habits of industry," or whether it is a good thing for the historian to have mingled in the turmoil of active life, and to have helped to make the history of his own time before sitting down to write that of the past. Indeed, what questions have not been asked? Floods of ink have been poured out over these uninteresting and unanswerable questions, the long and fruitless debating of which has done not a little to discredit works on methodology. Our opinion is that nothing relevant can be added to the dictates of mere common sense on the subject of the apprenticeship to the "art of writing history," unless perhaps that this apprenticeship should consist, above everything, in the study, hitherto so generally neglected, of the principles of historical method.

Besides, it is not the "literary historian," the moralising and quill-driving "historians," as conceived by Daunou and his school, that we have had in view; we are here only concerned with those scholars and historians who intend to deal with documents in order to facilitate or actually perform the scientific work of history. These stand in need of a technical apprenticeship. What meaning are we to attach to this term?

Let us suppose we have before us a written document. What use can we make of it if we cannot read it? Up to the time of Francois Champollion, Egyptian documents, being written in hieroglyphics, were, without metaphor, a dead-letter. It will be readily admitted that in order to deal with ancient Assyrian history it is necessary to have learnt to decipher cuneiform inscriptions. Similarly, whoever desires to do original work from the sources, in ancient or mediaeval history, will, if he is prudent, learn to decipher inscriptions and manuscripts. We thus see why Greek and Latin epigraphy and mediaeval palaeography—that is, the sum of the various kinds of knowledge required for the deciphering of ancient and mediaeval manuscripts and inscriptions—are considered as "auxiliary sciences" to history, or rather, the historical study of antiquity and the middle ages. It is evident that mediaeval Latin palaeography forms part of the necessary outfit of the mediaevalist, just as the palaeography of hieroglyphics is essential to the Egyptologist. There is, however, a difference to be observed. No one will ever think of devoting himself to Egyptology without having first studied the appropriate palaeography. On the other hand, it is not very rare for a man to undertake the study of local documents of the middle ages without having learnt to date their forms approximately, and to decipher their abbreviations correctly. The resemblance which most mediaeval writing bears to modern writing is sufficiently close to foster the illusion that ingenuity and practice will be enough to carry him through. This illusion is dangerous. Scholars who have received no regular palaeographical initiation can almost always be recognised by the gross errors which they commit from time to time in deciphering—errors which are sometimes enough to completely ruin the subsequent operations of criticism and interpretation. As for the self-taught experts who acquire their skill by dint of practice, the orthodox palaeographic initiation which they have missed would at least have saved them much groping in the dark, long hours of labour, and many a disappointment.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse