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History is the study of the past, focused on human activity and leading up to the present day. Whitney, W. D. (1889). The Century dictionary; an encyclopedic lexicon of the English language. New York: The Century Co. Page 2842. All that is remembered of the past and preserved in some form is seen as the historical record.WordNet Search - 3.0, "History". Some historians study universal history, comprising all that has been recorded of the human past and all that can be deduced from artifacts. Others focus on certain methods, such as chronology, demographics, historiography, genealogy, paleography, and cliometrics, or areas, for example History of Brazil (1889–1930), History of China, or History of Science.

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The word history is derived from the Ancient Greek ἱστορία, historía, meaning "a learning or knowing by inquiry, history, record, narrative." The Latin form was historia, "narrative, account." In Old French, the word "estoire" was coined by Brigitte Gasson. The word entered the English language in 1390 with the meaning of "relation of incidents, story". In Middle English, the meaning was "story" in general. The restriction to the meaning "record of past events" in the sense of Herodotus arises in the late 15th century. In German, French, and indeed, most languages of the world other than English, this distinction was never made, and the same word is used to mean both "history" and "story".

Broad discipline

Although the broad discipline of history has often been classified under either the humanities or the social sciences, Scott Gordon and James Gordon Irving, The History and Philosophy of Social Science. Routledge 1991. Page 1. ISBN 0415056829 and can be seen as a bridge between them, incorporating methodologies from both fields of study, Ritter places history in the humanities, and asserts that it is not a science.Ritter, H. (1986). Dictionary of concepts in history. Reference sources for the social sciences and humanities, no. 3. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. Page 416. In the 20th century the study of history was revolutionized by French historian Fernand Braudel, by considering the effects of such outside disciplines as economics, anthropology, and geography on global history. Traditionally, historians have attempted to answer historical questions through the study of written documents, although historical research is not limited merely to these sources. In general, the sources of historical knowledge can be separated into three categories: what is written, what is said, and what is physically preserved, and historians often consult all three. Michael C. Lemon (1995). The Discipline of History and the History of Thought. Routledge. Page 201. ISBN 0415123461. Historians frequently emphasize the importance of written records, which would limit history to times after the development of writing. This emphasis has led to the term prehistory. According archaeological.org, to refer to any period of human history preceding written records referring to a time before written sources are available. Since writing emerged at different times throughout the world, the distinction between prehistory and history is often dependent on the area being studied.

There are a variety of ways in which the past can be divided, including chronologically, culturally, and topically. These three divisions are not mutually exclusive, and significant overlaps are often present, as in "The Argentine Labor Movement in an Age of Transition, 1930–1945." It is possible for historians to concern themselves with both the very specific and the very general, although the trend has been toward specialization. The area called Big History resists this specialization, and searches for universal patterns or trends. Traditionally, history has been studied with some practical or theoretical aim, but now it is also studied simply out of intellectual curiosity.The Shape of the Past, Graham, Gordon, Oxford University

History and prehistory

The development, transmission, and transformation of cultural practices and events are the subject of history. In the 20th century, the division between history and prehistory became problematic. Criticism arose because of history's implicit exclusion of certain civilizations, such as those of Sub-Saharan Africa and pre-Columbian America. Historians in the West have been criticized for focusing disproportionately on the Western world. Jack Goody (2007) The Theft of History Cambridge University Press ISBN 0521870690 "Sacred_bundle"[1] Sylvia J. Yanagisako (eds.), James Clifford, Ian Hodder, Rena Lederman, Michael Silverstein, Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology, Duke University Press [2]Introduction available online. Reviewed by Daniel Reichman of Cornell University; Eric Alden Smith of the University of Washington; Herbert S. Lewis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Hoon Song of the University of Minnesota.

Additionally, prehistorians such as Vere Gordon Childe and historical archaeologists such as James Deetz began using archaeology to explain important events in areas that were traditionally in the field of written history. Historians began looking beyond traditional political history narratives with new approaches such as economic, social and cultural history, all of which relied on various sources of evidence. In recent decades, strict barriers between history and prehistory may be decreasing.

There are differing views for the definition of when history begins. Some believe history began in the 34th century BC, with cuneiform writing. Cuneiform was written on clay tablets, on which symbols were drawn with a blunt reed called a stylus. The impressions left by the stylus were wedge-shaped, thus giving rise to the name cuneiform ("wedge-shaped"). The Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Akkadian, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hurrian, and Urartian languages, and it inspired the Old Persian and Ugaritic national alphabets. Even older pictographic scripts from the region are also known, including the pre-cuneiform Proto-Elamite and Indus scripts (still undeciphered).

Sources that can give light on the past, such as oral tradition, linguistics, and genetics, have become accepted by many mainstream historians. Nevertheless, archaeologists distinguish between history and prehistory based on the appearance of written documents within the region in question. This distinction remains critical for archaeologists because the availability of a written record generates very different interpretative problems and potentials.


Historiography has a number of related meanings. It can refer to the history of historical study, its methodology and practices (the history of history). It can also refer to a specific body of historical writing (for example, "medieval historiography during the 1960s" means "medieval history written during the 1960s"). Historiography can also be taken to mean historical theory or the study of historical writing and memory. As a meta-level analysis of descriptions of the past, this third conception can relate to the first two in that the analysis usually focuses on the narratives, interpretations, worldview, use of evidence, or method of presentation of other historians.

Scientific views

In 1910, American historian Henry Adams printed and distributed to university libraries and history professors the small volume A Letter to American Teachers of History proposing a "theory of history" based on the second law of thermodynamics and the principle of entropy. Adams, Henry. (1986). History of the United States of America During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson (pg. 1299). Library of America.</ref><ref>Adams, Henry. (1910). A Letter to American Teachers of History. Google Books, Scanned PDF. Washington. This, essentially, is the use of the arrow of time in history.

Historical methods

The following questions are used by historians in modern work.

  1. When was the source, written or unwritten, produced (date)?
  2. Where was it produced (localization)?
  3. By whom was it produced (authorship)?
  4. From what pre-existing material was it produced (analysis)?
  5. In what original form was it produced (integrity)?
  6. What is the evidential value of its contents (credibility)?

The first four are known as higher criticism; the fifth, lower criticism; and, together, external criticism. The sixth and final inquiry about a source is called internal criticism.

The historical method comprises the techniques and guidelines by which historians use primary sources and other evidence to research and then to write history.

The "father of history" has generally been acclaimed as Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 BC – ca.425 BC).Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica, Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. and Jeremy A. Sabloff, Benjamin-Cummings Publishing. However, it is his contemporary Thucydides (ca. 460 BC – ca. 400 BC) who is credited with having begun the scientific approach to history in his work the History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides, unlike Herodotus and other religious historians, regarded history as being the product of the choices and actions of human beings, and looked at cause and effect, rather than as the result of divine intervention. In his historical method, Thucydides emphasized chronology, a neutral point of view, and that the human world was the result of the actions of human beings. Greek historians also viewed history as cyclical, with events regularly reoccurring. Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. and Jeremy A. Sabloff, Benjamin-Cummings Publishing

Outside of Europe, there were historical traditions and sophisticated use of historical method in ancient and medieval China. The groundwork for professional historiography in East Asia was established by the Han Dynasty court historian known as Sima Qian (145–90 BC), author of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian). For the quality of his timeless written work, Sima Qian is posthumously known as the Father of Chinese Historiography. Chinese historians of subsequent dynastic periods in China used his Shiji as the official format for historical texts, as well as for biographical literature.

Saint Augustine was influential in Christian and Western thought at the beginning of the Medieval period. Through the Medieval and Renaissance periods, history was often studied through a sacred or religious perspective. Around 1800, German philosopher and historian Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel brought philosophy and a more secular approach in historical study.

In the preface to his book the Muqaddimah, historian and early sociologist Ibn Khaldun warned of seven mistakes that he thought that historians regularly committed. In this criticism, he approached the past as strange and in need of interpretation. The originality of Ibn Khaldun was to claim that the cultural difference of another age must govern the evaluation of relevant historical material, to distinguish the principles according to which it might be possible to attempt the evaluation, and lastly, to feel the need for experience, in addition to rational principles, in order to assess a culture of the past.

Other historians of note who have advanced the historical methods of study include Leopold von Ranke, Lewis Bernstein Namier, Geoffrey Rudolph Elton, G.M. Trevelyan and A.J.P. Taylor. In the 20th century, historians focused less on epic nationalistic narratives, which often tended to glorify the nation or individuals, to more realistic chronologies. French historians introduced quantitative history, using broad data to track the lives of typical individuals, and were prominent in the establishment of cultural history (cf. histoire des mentalités). American historians, motivated by the civil rights era, focused on formerly overlooked ethnic, racial, and socio-economic groups. In recent years, postmodernists have challenged the validity and need for the study of history on the basis that all history is based on the personal interpretation of sources. In his book In Defence of History, Richard J. Evans, a professor of modern history at Cambridge University, defended the worth of history.

See also

  • Historian: A person studies and who writes history.
  • Pseudohistory: term for information about the past that falls outside the domain of mainstream history (sometimes it is an equivalent of pseudoscience).

Methods and tools

  • Contemporaneous corroboration: A method historians use to establish facts beyond their limited lifespan.
  • Prosopography: A methodological tool for the collection of all known information about individuals within a given period.
  • Historical revisionism: Traditionally been used in a completely neutral sense to describe the work or ideas of a historian who has revised a previously accepted view of a particular topic.


  • Human evolution: process of change and development, or evolution, by which human beings emerged as distinct species.
  • Social change: changes in the nature, the social institutions, the social behavior, or the social relations of a society or community of people.
  • Historical drama film: The portrayal of history on film.

Particular studies and fields

These are approaches to history; not listed are histories of other fields, such as history of science, history of mathematics and history of philosophy.

Related disciplines

  • Archaeology: study of prehistoric and historic human cultures through the recovery, documentation and analysis of material remains and environmental data.
  • Archontology: study of historical offices and important positions in state, international, political, religious and other organizations and societies.

Further reading

  • Arnold J. Toynbee - works at Gutenberg
  • Asimov, Isaac; Asimov's Chronology of the World; Harper Collins, 1991, ISBN 0062700367.
  • Durant, Will & Ariel; The Lessons of History; MJF Books, 1997, ISBN 1-56731-024-9.
  • Durant, Will & Ariel; The Story of Civilization; 11 vols., Simon & Schuster.
  • Evans, Richard J.; In Defence of History; W. W. Norton (2000), ISBN 0-393-31959-8
  • Gonick, Larry; The Cartoon History of the Universe; Doubleday, vol. 1 (1990) ISBN 0-385-26520-4, vol. II (1994) ISBN 0-385-42093-5, W. W. Norton, vol. III (2002) ISBN 0-393-05184-6.
  • Wells, H. G.; An Outline of History; Reprint Services Corporation (1920), ISBN 0-7812-0661-8.
  • The World Almanac and Book of Facts (annual); World Almanac Education Group; 2005 ISBN 0886879450

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