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A History of Histories

This is narrow account of historiography which ignores both the non-West and public engagement with history, says Jeremy Black

Published: August 7, 2009 at 9:43 am

Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: John Burrow
Publisher: Penguin
Price (RRP): £12.99


A paperback edition of a work first published in 2007, this is a somewhat conventional account of historiography. The focus is western, and very traditional at that. Thus we have the Classics and the Bible, before moving on – via a conventional cast including Bede – to Machiavelli, Macaulay and a brief account of a few 20th-century themes. It’s an unimpressive selection with no real attempt to engage with the non-western world, even if only for the parochial motive of throwing comparative light on the west. The neglect of China is particularly unfortunate.

In addition, the political thought and historical views of political actors are downplayed in favour of those of self-consciously intellectual historians. This is a mistake, but one seen with the entire field in Britain. Moreover, Burrow’s account of the west is very much that of an intellectual historian, and there is scant attempt to incorporate the dynamics of public interest in history which, in fact, have played a much greater role in the development of the subject than academics generally allow.


While reading this book, I was working in the Manuscript Room at the British Library, and came across a letter of Sir Robert Peel, written in 1829 when he was home secretary, in which he doubted the wisdom of allowing American students access to the State Papers as their study might exacerbate anti-British feeling. Such is the kind of issue ignored by leading writers. Indeed, the many uses of history both in the past and in the modern world do not match the constraints of conventional historiography, and it would help if the latter could be transformed to take note of this.


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