Essays On Ottoman Historians And Historiography Schools


The following materials have been designed to help deliver Theory of Knowledge (TOK) in History at IB (International Baccalaureate) Level to my students at the International School of Toulouse.

As well as making regular reference to TOK issues within normal lessons, I also deliver three sessions of one hour each to all of Year 12 (whether or not they study history), and round the unit off by setting a relevant TOK essay title from the IB syllabus (these are provided annually in advance).

Session 1: Sources

[student worksheet | teacher notes]

Introduction: Why and How is History Produced?

  • "History" is not "What happened in the past" or even "The surviving evidence of what happened in the past".
  • It means "What historians choose to interpret from the surviving evidence of the past"
  • To reduce this to a formula, we might say:
  • Sources + Historians = Histories
  • So it is important to consider what the nature of the surviving evidence is, and how historians then choose to select and present it.
  • In these three TOK sessions, I therefore investigate three ways in which we gain a "knowledge" of History:
    • Session 1. The Sources: What are the limitations of the surviving evidence?
    • Session 2. The Historians: What are the limitations of the historians using that evidence?
    • Session 3. The Histories: What, therefore, are the limitations of the histories produced?

The Historians and their Sources

  • The first way in which we gain knowledge of the past is through historical evidence ("sources"). Two questions raise themselves:
    • How can we extract knowledge from the sources? (issues of quality and quantity)
    • How useful is the knowledge that we extract in this way? (issues of comprehensibility and the 'language gap')

This session makes use of the following two video clips which illustrate the problem of the 'language gap' when trying to interpret historical sources:

Session 2: Historians

[Student worksheet | Teacher notes]

  • Sources are incomplete, untypical and unreliable, as we found out in our last session. Historians therefore need to:
    • Select sources to use, based on what questions need answering;
    • Interpret those sources and make deductions from them;
    • Organise and present their main conclusions to the public.
  • Arguably, this process of selection and interpretation distorts our "knowledge" even further. All historians have their own views and interests, formed by upbringing, social background, and current affairs; this will determine the questions they choose to investigate, the sources they choose answer those questions, the interpretation which they put on those sources and even the words they use (“one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”).
  • In this session, we will therefore investigate the different approaches of historians to the way they choose to "package" the past. We will do this by looking at three main approaches:
    • To inform
    • To persuade
    • To entertain

This session makes use of the following two video clips, both of which demonstrate the danger of taking even 'documentary' evidence at face value:

Session 3: Histories

[Student worksheet | Teacher notes]

  • It has been said that "all history is contemporary history" (Croce) and “History tells us more about the person who wrote it than about the people being written about” (Carr).
  • In this sense, works of history themselves become sources for later generations of historians!
  • In this session, we will look at the three broad interpretations about the course of history that historians have formulated.
    • Whig School
    • Marxist School
    • Annales School

This session makes use of the following two video clips which demonstrate the ideas of accidentalism and determinism respectively.

Appendix: A revision summary grid of historiographical terms

Observations: Leopold von Ranke's Historicism movement in the late 19th Century laid the framework for modern historiography. From the scientific methods of source analysis it promoted, historians quickly moved from describing "what" happened and towards a consideration of "why". In the late 20th Century, however, the postmodernists argued that Historicism was fundamentally flawed: all historical sources were both biased and incomplete so it was impossible to reach any valid conclusions. This created "The Crisis of History" which has called into question the whole validity of the discipline.

[click here for a printable version]


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Panofsky 1965 expresses an early formulation, still often invoked not only in the visual arts that were Panofsky’s particular focus but also in broader historical research. His thesis holds that an essential feature of the Renaissance was an expression of historical anachronism, a sense that the past was both different and separate from the present. Struever 1970 develops this approach in the textual scholarship of particular figures. Burke 1969 agrees with Panofsky’s formulation but presents evidence especially from Renaissance writers of history. The authors in Kelley 1997 focus more particularly on historicist analysis or historical approaches as seen in the formation of other learned disciplines as they took shape during and after the Renaissance. The others here are concerned mainly with the writing of historical works: Findlen 2002 offers a general survey, the authors of Jones-Davies 1995 focus on particular issues in historical writing, and Grafton 2007 examines debates and developments in the nature of historical scholarship from the later Renaissance to the early 18th century. Reynolds 1955 offers a guide to primary sources. Ferguson 1948 surveys how the Renaissance itself has figured as the subject of historical inquiry from the Renaissance onward; the first sections deal with Renaissance-era historians.

  • Burke, Peter. The Renaissance Sense of the Past. London: Edward Arnold, 1969.

    E-mail Citation »

    This introductory work presents some of the features of Renaissance historical thought, including the criticism of documentary sources using the tools of the humanist movement, the criticism of myths as narrative accounts of the past, the interest in explanations and causes, and the sense of anachronism.

  • Ferguson, Wallace K. The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948.

    E-mail Citation »

    This classic study, still unsurpassed, surveys the historical understanding of the Renaissance from that period up to the mid-20th century.

  • Findlen, Paula. “Historical Thought in the Renaissance.” In A Companion to Western Historical Thought. Edited by Lloyd Kramer and Sarah Maza, 99–122. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470998748E-mail Citation »

    In this essay, part of a volume primarily devoted to more modern historical scholarship, Findlen traces the development of historical thought and writing from Petrarch through the 16th century, including topics such as the use of Latin versus vernacular languages, the history of women as an example of challenges to traditional history writing, and the new attention to historical methods.

  • Grafton, Anthony. What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this very readable series of lectures, the author traces the trajectory of humanist historical approaches from the Renaissance through the 18th century.

  • Jones-Davies, M. T., ed. L’histoire au temps de la Renaissance. Paris: Klincksieck, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    These conference papers by major scholars address a range of issues in the rise of historical scholarship in the Renaissance, especially but not exclusively in France.

  • Kelley, Donald R., ed. History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection of articles explores how the rise of historicism transformed other disciplinary classifications and scholarly methods in turn.

  • Panofsky, Erwin. Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art. 2d ed. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1965.

    E-mail Citation »

    First published in 1960, this set of lectures by the noted art historian articulates the now-classic argument that a sense of historical anachronism and a historical sensibility were defining features of the Renaissance.

  • Reynolds, Beatrice R. “Latin Historiography: A Survey, 1400–1600.” Studies in the Renaissance 2 (1955): 7–66.

    DOI: 10.2307/2856959E-mail Citation »

    Many of the sources described in this classic article are still untranslated; the bibliography is especially useful.

  • Struever, Nancy S. The Language of History in the Renaissance: Rhetoric and Historical Consciousness in Florentine Humanism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.

    E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, and Poggio Bracciolini, the author builds a case for the importance of rhetorical approaches to understanding a key feature of the Renaissance.


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