How have the perspectives on the meaning of history changed over time?








“However much they might have agreed on the need for accuracy and truthfulness, historians down the ages have held widely different views on the purposes to which these things were to be put and the way in which the facts they presented were to be explained…” (Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History) Although historians strive to record history to be as true and accurate as possible, it is how they perceive a certain event or situation which divides there opinion on the meaning of history.


The meaning of history has continuously changed over time, because different historians have reflected their own time and the values which are important within their society. From the birth of historiography to today’s view of recording history, it is apparent that over time a variety of factors have had major influences on the way each historian has perceived history. For example, the British Marxist historians held a view on history that was highly influenced by Marxist historiography but at the same time they were also influenced by the carnage of the Second World War. The Venerable Bede (673 – 735AD) was highly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church and therefore his meaning of history is highly configured by Catholicism. Throughout history historians have claimed to write without biasness and aimed to be truthful and accurate, but it is each owns personal perspective on the meaning of history which shapes their approach to interpreting and writing history.


Perspectives on the meaning of history are constantly influenced by prominent historians from the past; this gives way for the following historian to be influenced by the historian before him. For example, Leopold Von Ranke was a leading historian in the 18th Century and had an impact on both Butterfield and Namier. This can be seen in their British Historiography there are tendencies to Rankean empiricist. However, there is an exception for the ancient historian Herodotus who over the years was given the title the ‘Father of History,’ this is often said because when Herodotus wrote Histories he had no predecessor; this gave way for Herodotus to lay the foundations for other historians to follow such as Thucydides.


To Herodotus he believed that ‘ his Researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict.’ Herodotus was primarily concerned with military conflict due to the impact of the Greco – Persian Wars that were significant during his time; it is apparent that Herodotus defines this in his meaning of history, ‘and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict,’ But furthermore, in Herodotus’s writings he does more than deal with political and military history, he offers insight into the mentalities of a Greek of his class through his description of manners, customs, myth and geography. Herodotus was the first to establish several aspects of historical interpretation that have developed to history today. These being; one should research what actually happened by distinguishing between myth and what we call history, Herodotus did this by investigating his sources thoroughly to make sure they were accurate. Herodotus furthermore established the view that history should not favour one side or the other, since this would obscure the truth. Prior to Herodotus these ideas were not considered in historical interpretation and writing, history’s meaning was seemingly seen as a recount that was openly bias.


From the Classical period to the Modern Period that begins with Leopold Von Ranke (1795 – 1886) the perspective on the meaning of history changes considerably, largely as a result of the Enlightenment. Due to changing contexts and influential people, the mentality of thought changes or develops that leads to a broader collection of history and historians. This in turn produces different ideas and perspectives on the meaning of history, creating a further intricate line of history.


The modern period begins with Ranke, following the enlightenment. Ranke rejects any thought linked to the enlightenment period because of his conservativeness. Ranke sternly believed that ‘To history has been given the function of judging the past, of instructing men for the profit of future years.