You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell it as it actually was.

- Leopold von Ranke

German historian (1795-1886). One of the principal founders of History as a modern academic discipline, von Ranke helped codify a rigorous historical research methodology that would endure for generations. Von Ranke's insistence upon total objectivity in conducting historical research (and by extention, the very idea, now hotly contested, that a historian can be truly objective) found lasting appeal among historians of the western world, and profoundly shaped historical discourse in the 20th century. Contemporary historians, at least insofar as they debate the possibility of historical objectivity and promote rigorous research standards, still work in von Ranke's long shadow. A phenominally prolific writer and scholar, von Ranke's two most famous works are History of the Popes (1834-1836) and History of Reformation Germany (1839-1847).

As referred to in Mauler’s earlier write-up, perhaps Ranke’s greatest contribution to modern historiography. Ranke put it best himself: “I see the time coming when we shall no longer have to found modern history on the reports even of contemporary historians… but on… the genuine and original documents”. But how, and why, did he have these aims?

If we are to appreciate why Ranke put such an emphasis on empiricism, then we should perhaps consider the context of this statement. While Ranke was undoubtedly a scholar of the modern world, it is his background in classics which provide much of his methodology and motivation. Not only had he been educated in the classical tradition, but he had himself taught the subject. He had a continued admiration for the achievements of antiquity, and in particular its ideas about the nature of knowledge: “I must confess for me the most ancient of philosophy, as found in Plato and Aristotle, is sufficient”1. In many ways, such philosophers were interested in much the same thing that he was: irrefutable truth. He was at least conscious of Plato when he declared that “From the particular, one can carefully and boldly move up to the general; from general theories, there is no way of looking at the particular”. In this case, he is applying Plato’s concept of “forms” and “classes” to a historical model of analysis. Yet, the historical study of antiquity itself must have been a great frustration to Ranke. Forced to rely upon the contemporary accounts of historians, Ranke acknowledged that no other method could be applied to the study of the distant past; we could only understand ancient history through its scholars. Yet Ranke was optimistic that this not always need be the case.

If Weber felt that the Protestant Reformation acted as the threshold that stood between the medieval and modern worlds, then we too can engage in some empirical reasoning. Ranke is conscious of a plethora of reasons why the Reformation may have come about. He notes the Church dominance over scientific, technological and artistic thought; “…the whole intellectual energy of the age flowed in the channels marked out by the church”2. What tool can we equate to this fight against the Catholic hegemony of ideas? The arrival of moving type into Europe during the 15th century was historically crucial therefore in two ways. Firstly, it helped catalyse the transition from the medieval to modern Europe through the acceleration and spread of new principles and ideas. The “95 Theses” may have been nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, but without the benefit of publication, it is questionable as whether that bold statement would have possessed the resultant impact. Perhaps more crucially, so far as Ranke was concerned, was the sudden abundance of information being recorded for posterity. More to the point, it was the variety of information, of an extent to which not before seen. I do not wish to fall into the trap of saying that suddenly the masses were given a voice; but many resultant developments, the ascendancy of the press in particular, contributed greatly to historical knowledge. Increasingly, it could be argued that history is no longer “based wholly on literature”3, as Ranke argued, but upon journalism as well.

Ranke was being poetic when he declared: “By this archival route, I might not become the Columbus, but perhaps the Captain Cook of many beautiful, unexplored islands of history”. Yet, we should note a telling subtext. For Ranke, history is, in a sense, obscured by the past; let us not forget that they are two very different things: “The business of history is to perceive the existence of this life, which cannot be described through thought or word”4. Our distance from the past, and therefore our inherently flawed understanding, means that our only true connection with it comes from archival evidence. To understand the past without the use of sources is, for Ranke, hardly history at all. He places far more emphasis on the role of the archivist, as opposed to, for example, the philosopher “who would be foolish enough to think that he could see God with his eyes”5. While he acknowledges the historians goal of understanding the universal, he believes strongly that the starting point for any historical argument should be in specific, proven fact. “To make a true historian, I think that two qualities are needed, the first of which is a participation and joy in the particular in and for itself”.

Ranke is also wary of what he deems “leading ideas”. For example, he is analytically critical of the dialecticism Hegelian methodology. “Philosophers, especially those of the Hegelian school, have advanced the idea that the history of mankind proceeds like a logical process”6. He is profoundly sceptical of the validity of such all encompassing paradigms. As he puts it “life becomes lost in paradigms”. For this reason, each historical event should be considered upon its own unique grounds, and in the context of those events that precede it. Therefore, Ranke’s rejection of such philosophical history does not suggest that he rejects historical understanding; rather that such understanding must be on a case-by-case basis: “The historian must unravel the great tendencies of the centuries and unroll the history of mankind”.

It is perhaps a surprisingly realisation that such a prolific author of modern history was quite dismissive of the value of writers of “contemporary history”. He was particularly critical of renaissance historians, such as Machiavelli, who were engaged with recording the events going on around them. To Ranke, this could not be considered objective history in the way that archival evidence was. Those very archives, it is true, were created in the context of their time, but there exists a crucial difference. That evidence was not created for purposes of history; rather, it served a self justifying function at the time. The Domesday Book, for example, might be a tremendous academic resource, but that is by no means the purpose for which it was created. To Ranke, this was the type of data which could truly be considered objective, as opposed to those sources which were self-consciously historical. This is an interesting argument. Historians (and the accusation has certainly been levelled at Ranke himself) are often suspected of self-serving motivations. Machiavelli, because of his political connections, was particularly susceptible to such criticism. This tends to ignore two crucial factors. Firstly, the accounts of contemporary scholars are occasionally the only true access we have to the history at hand. Are we to dismiss Tacitus completely because of his “contemporary” history, and if so, how far does this set back our understanding of ancient Rome. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it puts faith in the objectivity of non-historical sources. I do not wish to suggest that Ranke blindly trusted all sources put before him. He was fiercely analytical of all the sources he employed. Yet, these primary sources from the distant past are just as hard the verify as he secondary ones. To return to the Domesday example; it is undoubtedly an invaluable asset, but hardly a scientific one. Its methodologically cannot be properly tested to empirical standards. Ranke was of course aware of this, he did not approach all sources equally. His first (and most eminently reasonable) question was “Is this accurate or not?”.

For Ranke, this modern mode of historical thinking was brought about by “the first great author of the modern opposition, the champion of the modern views- a low German, Erasmus of Rotterdam7 (although of course this a rather contentious statement; Erasmus was a Dutchman). As a response to what Ranke saw as a “crisis in historical letters”, Erasmus offered a “a new method of study”. As alluded to earlier in the discussion of printing, the period in which Erasmus lived was one that Ranke considered to be of critical importance to European history. Erasmus represents both the dying of one age, and the cusp of a new one. A man who had been initiated into the priesthood and monastic life, and lifelong believer in social order and stability, in some ways he is a representative of medieval scholasticism. He was, however, one of its greatest critics. Attacking scholarly formalism and dialectical thought, he was profoundly critical of church institutions and power. It is for him challenge to intellectual orthodoxy that Ranke so admires Erasmus. While the latter principally applied his critic to Catholic theology, the former took the same approach with history. It was, for Ranke, a field ridden with formalist thinking; his contempt for theoretical history, and particularly the determinism which characterises Hegelian history, was profound:

“If we exclude any law of geographical, evolutionary determinism, and assume, on the other hand, as history teaches us, that peoples can go into decline, as developments once begun do not continue, we shall come to know better in what the continuous movement of mankind really exists”8.

Therefore, it is the lessons of empirical history, not historical rumination, that will lead us ultimately toward the correct conclusion. The abstractions that many historians rely upon to make their arguments are, for Ranke, only one part of academic discourse. Theoretical and “hard” history are interdependent: “…considerations of particular individuals will show him the course which the development of the whole has taken. This development is related, not to the universal ideas which have ruled in one or another period, but to something completely different”9. For Ranke it is not the devil which is in the detail, but the universal truth.

1. Ranke, Secret Of World History (P.163)
2. Ranke, Reformation In Germany (P. 118)
3. Ranke, SWH (P.114)
4. Ranke, SWH (P.104)
5. Ranke, SWH (P.110)
6. Ranke, SWH (P.160)
7. Ranke, Reformation In Germany (P.130)
8. Ranke, SWH (P. 159)
9. Ranke, SWH (P.103)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.