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What History is In the Western World?

Writing History things, in varied ways, is a well-established technique, nowadays, in the western world, and even be a technique which had become to the monopole of the peoples in the academic institutions, like the colleges, Universites, etc. A swift reflexion, of the historical sort, about what History has been in Europe however is showing that History long had another form of definition and that the History -like being the feat of the academics- is a relatively new-comer

History Today, Like a Science

The scientific, rationalistic way of writing History -writing History, that is, according to a set of rules and techniques- did appear, in Europe, during the second half of the 19th century only. That emergence, further, was linked to the strong appearance of the concept of nation-coutries. The apparition of that scientific way of writing History, indeed, was established in the purpose of writing large and famed national histories of sort, which were in turn aiming to fortify the nationalistic feelings of the European countries of the time. The establishment of that type of contemporary History followed the following steps. Crews of scholars journeyed throughout the locations of the continent -often they were abbeys and monasteries- where the varied historical sources had been conserved, like the chronics, the annals, the life of the saints, miscellaneous papers stating rights or obligations for an institution, or letters. The scholars copied those documents and compiled them into large collections of those historical sources. Archive services, at the national, or the local level, on the other hand, were created as they gathered, sorted, and catalogued the historical sources they had at disposal. Archivists and paleographs -those latter ones being specialists of the ancients scripts- were trained to be part of the endeavour. Then just remained the historians, those able to write History. Those, as part of the move, just contributed by theorizing rational techniques for their skill. They stated the rules of how the history of the past is to be written, based on all those sources which the scholars and archivists had accumulated. The historians defined what the rational rules are of how using those documents of the past, like, for example, cross-checking the date of a source, how identifying it safely, or cross-checking the existence of a data, etc. Thus, on those well-determined basis, the historians of the time wrote large, national histories. That was the case with Ernest Lavisse, in France, who issued a vast series of books about the history of France. In Germany, that were the works written from the famed 'Monumenta Germaniae Historica' (MGH), that immense collection of all what was of German tradition or language, in terms of sources, throughout Europe. These large national series were mostly of the chronological, events-based type a they were describing the succession of the rulers and dynasties, along with the great events which had occurred, like the battles, the successions' quarrels, the great deeds of a government, etc., which had occurred under those rulers or dynasties. Those writings, on the other hand, did not dismiss however such other aspects of the past, as they spoke too -even if swiftly in most of the cases- about things like the intellectual life, and the economics, and the social organization of the past, with sections about the history of the ideologies, or how the production of goods were made, or what the social questions were

After that founding act, another contribution to the modern way of writing History emerged, later, in about the 1920's, as that update mostly was of a marxist origin, as this ideological view of the world was the ruler in the intellectual circles at the time. That school, in France, is named the 'Annales School' as its writings were found in a journal called 'The Annales'. Such a school of thought interested itself, in a deeper manner, to all the questions of the past as linked to the economics! Through more detailed view in the domain, those new historians came to complement the large, evenemential histories of the previous generation. Some sources, like the parish records, the prices' records, sources allowing to know how lands were cultivated, or documents pertaining to the world of the merchants, which had been neglected before, came to be used. Whence studies issued which were more detailed about the economic, and social feat of the past, like about the number of the populations and its evolutions, the cycles of the prices of the goods, the trade circuits, the agricultural techniques, etc. All those, later, brought to large, thematic synthesis, like, for France, for example, a History of France, as Far as the Cities are Concerned, or a History of France, as Far as the Countryside is Concerned, both directed by the historian-writer Georges Duby

More recently, at last, beginning in the 1970's based upon the appearance, since the 1960's, of the new ideological moves about the minorities -like the women, the gays, or the other minoritarian groups, etc.- the historians took on those domains and they studied, in a detailed way, those renewed social questions. That brought to works about women, gays, children, etc. in History

More recently, still, the development of influence of the U.S.A. came to further complicate those various trends in the manner of writing History, since the 1990's, as not any strong tendency still emerged, lately, from that move however

Thus, it's all that -the national works, the History as seen from an economical point of view, the history of the societal behaviors- which are constituting the contemporary ways of writing History. The contemporary historian has to account, in the most accurate way, and in an academic and rationalistic way, of the things of the past! The purpose which History, today, is aiming remains unclear however as it's difficult, nowadays, to determine what the purpose of the profession of historian-writer is, or how useful writing about the past is. What is certain, is that, until the 1980's, when the marxism was the major ideology among the intellectual circles -and thus its opponents in the 'free world'- writing History then mostly was an ideological, activist work. One wrote about the past, often, to legitimate such or such contemporary stance, and, often, another faction was revisiting that work and proposed a more balanced view. Since the fall of the USSR, in 1990's all that blurred and, on the left side of the political life, the stress being about an economical realism in what remains of the communism worldwide, like in China, or in some provinces of the former USSR, the intellectual activism, which was the usual fortress of the marxist stance in the western world, likely is of a lesser importance. All in all, since the founding step of the national History by the second half of the 19th century, mostly was, in the contemporary era, an ideological endeavour. First, by settling the rationalistic and academical rules of how one writes History, one distanciated the societies in which that new way of writing History was working, from their past, as that past, often, had been fighted by those societies selves since the era of the varied liberal revolutions, by the end of the 17th century. That was the role of the national historical works, as evoked above, as they came to put the past of their nations to the service of what those nations were worrying about during in the 19th century. The marxist influence, then, in the 20th century, vastly dominated the European intellectual life; in terms of History-writing it still further pushed towards dessicated historical works, which were few attractive and more distanciated, still as such works became more still the domain of specialists. The late 20th century, at last, followed up, as it blurred further too the links between the present and the past in the frame of the history of the behaviors and stances, as those works too were further reserved to specialists in the universities. The History, contemporarily, thus, largely may be qualified ideological, as, since the 19th century, historians wrote History in the purpose of serving the aims of the societies where they wrote

History Yesterday, Like a Unity

Back into the past, now! To write History, in the past, in the western part of the former Roman empire, absolutely was not in that line of History like an ideology, and writtern by academics and scholars. One may state that, in Western Europe, in the past, History -so to keep the term- had a triple function, as it kept the trace of the time passing, it was making memory of great men -mostly clerics, sometimes laymen- and it was keeping a trace of the rights and pflights of institutions. Such functions were mostly the feat of the 'intellectual' communities, thus of the clerics. A form of History too was extent among the smaller communities of inhabitants which consisted of the people of such or such town, or village, for example, as the role of History there was to keep in memory data and elements which were useful to the community

How did they kept the trace of time passing? As Europe mostly was Roman Catholic, it had, first, to keep track of time passing at the effect that the liturgy might keep pace yearly. They had to know when the great feasts of Christendom had to be celebrated, or how to say that that day was a Sunday and not an ordinary day. From a more large point of view, the annals, which were written in some abbeys and monasteries, were keeping a track of those years which were elapsing and they kept trace of varied events which had looked important, as they further gave a pace to the daily, and yearly unfolding of the time! Writing about the events of the past, secondly, served too to make memory of the great people. Most of the time those were clerics, as they might too be laymen. To write about the life and feats of a saint, or of a ruler, allowed, first, to make hommage to his memory, as, too, it allowed to display an exemple for the recentest generations. The reference we give in our section 'Texts From the Carolingian Times', or the lifes of Charlemagne, are such good examples. The souvenirs of the one who wrote about the great people, or the witnessing of the ones who had known him were, mostly, the mere source for the work. Third, in the abbeys or the royal chancelleries, at last, they wrote too to keep a record of papers which were describing, instituting, or modifying some rights or duties as far as such or such institutions were concerned. The uncertainty of the times already were such that they were well inspired to keep those records as that allowed that the rights not be contested in the following times. With the Middle Ages unfolding further, some additional forms of historical works appeared, like the chroniques. They kept being mostly ways of reclling some great feat, or some series of great feat however. The Renaissance, in the 16th century, had the 'memoirs' emerging as someone was recalling his life. Such works were often more with prejudices as their author mostly tended to defend the memory of the way he had acted in such or such occasions. Those newer eras saw too the development of scholarly works, or of a scientific interest, like some Roman Catholic encyclopedias or the works of the French Maurists, those Benedictine monks, as all those, as they were ressembling the large works of Isidore of Seville, or Raban Maur -with a general view of all the fields of knowledge- just took act of the increase in knowledges which had occurred since the time

To refer to the past, to write about things past, in the Middle Ages, or Modern Era Europe, thus, was not to take a distanciated stance towards about what one wrote, but, instead, to write something which got inserted into the present of the time! They were taking track of the time passing, like a way to give a structure to time elapsing currently. One was recalling the life of great people, like a way to pay them hommage and to give an example to the current, new generations. They kept a record of the charters, like a way to be able to defend one's rights and duties against the possible troubles of the following time. That, thus, is hinting to an unity, then, between their present and their past, and likely to an absence of History, in the sense of today. That was true too for the lower classes of the people, where one called the ancients into service! The most aged in the community, were the wardens of the memory of sort, for their urban, or rural communities. Thus no question could be set, during the parish meetings, on Sunday, after the Mass, or in one of the basic jurisdictions of the Carolingian era, for example, without that, often, one asked the counsel of the ancients there. It were the ancients who could recall when a cross had been erected, to landmark a borderline, or to what village such or such part of a forest was belonging. The most aged people of the communities, further, outside even that formal frame as just described, were the wardens too for the customs and 'mores', more generally. It was them who, in a dialectical motion with newer ideas, or agricultural techniques, for example, which could emerge, by intervals, who were recalling what the practices, the habits or usages of the community were

The great stride which occurred between the liberalism of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the current acception of the idea of History, mainly was done in the sense that the techniques of how to write History became, since the 19th century, part of sets of techniques and know-hows, and, on another hand, History tended to become a tool of the ideologies. One often re-wrote the past function of the ideological worries of the moment. The people of the Middle Ages were few conscious that to track the events from one year to another, to keep a record of the charters, or to recall the life of a great man, was History. They just recalled, at the opposite, the life of a saint abott, whom one had liked and the life of whom had been remarkable; they recorded their rights and pflights; or they noted all what allowed to get time landmarks as the years were passing

Let's be exhaustive, at last, as we'll conclude by asking what that relation to the elapsing of time, to the great lifes, to the rights and duties, or even if a collective memory throught the aged existed among the civilizations which were extent outside Western Europe, like the great empires (Byzantines, China, the Arab Caliphate), or the lesser areas (Africa, Oceania, or precolombian Americas). What was that function of the memory of the past, of that relationship to the past, in those world, compared to what they were in Europe?

Christian Europe, Modernity, and Post-Modernity

The most recent debate in terms of what history is related to the one concerning the medieval, modern, and post-modern approaches of reality. According to such views, time, in medieval, Christian Europe, was considered static and discontinuous as past and present were ill-differentiated and time not really considered a succession of events. Interpretative generalisations of typological paradigms instead were the norm. A fair French king, for example, was not merely seen like the number such item in the list of kings but in relation with a model in the past, like Charlemagne. Thought at the time was a one of the identifiable, difference and incompatability, or the individual and not continuity in time, or relationships in space. Then, from the Renaissance onwards, that paradign shifted and the 'modernism' appeared, which might even be owed to the invention of the perspective in art. Individuality left room to interconnection! In terms of history-making, that translated into the advent of time, like the enveloppe of events as peoples of the past became interconnectedly source of information and giving a sense to history. In terms of civilization that brought to the advent of space, scientific laws and generalisations, or the creation of realistic art and literature. Thinkers then go to see the contemporary world like the result of what occurred by the early 20th century when modernism in turn was challenged by artists -like Picasso or Breton-, scientists like Einstein, writers and philosophers who, through surrealism, relativity theory, or quantum mechanics, invented the 'post-modernism.' Modernism had erased individuality, post-modernism erased interconnectivity and forced any sequence in time into just a succession of events depending upon the observer! Space and time do not provide to any commonality anymore as gaps and irreconcilable comprehensions of the real forbid any 'real,' 'objective' world outside of the observer. Post-modernism mostly is the deed of Ferdinand de Saussure’s radically new theory of language. Language, may it be verbal or non-verbal is mostly a system of codes, consciousness and knowledge as meaning may not be said associated with the world described. The current society mainly is a discourse about itself as history is one of such languages only and applied to people and facts of the past considered like events outside time. History just turns into a coded possibility of enunciation, forced to cross-disciplinary work and to a multiplicity approach of the past as new tools adapted to that view are still to be invented

Through the concept of metanarrative as exposed by philosopher Lyotard in the 1980's, postmodernism questioned the way they wrote history during the Modern Times, which was a tendency to built theoretical views including a universal truth and inserted into a specific culture as that was masking the world's natural chaos and power of individual events, and ignoring heterogeneity of human existence. Postmodernism, at the opposite, is favoring "petits récits,' which are a more localized focused upon a well defined event. Local contexts and human experience's diversity thus are constituting a multiplicity of theoretical views remaining such and not included into the conceptualizing and ideological synthesis of metanarratives. Postmodern thinkers, like Habermas, for example, blame that critic for itself being a metanarrative, the one of the metanarratives' critic

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