2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History

History is the study of human affairs through time. When used as the name of a field of study, history refers to the study and interpretation of past humans, families and societies as preserved primarily through written sources. History is thus usually distinguished from prehistory by the widespread adoption of writing in the area under study. Knowledge of history is often said to encompass both knowledge of past events and historical thinking skills.

Traditionally, the study of history has been considered a part of the humanities. However, in modern academia, history is increasingly classified as a social science, with subfields chronology and historiography.


Because history is such a broad subject, organization is vital. While several writers, such as H.G. Wells and Will and Ariel Durant, have written universal histories, most historians specialize.

There are several different ways of classifying:

  • Topical (by subject or topic)
  • Chronological (by date)
  • Geographical (by region)
  • National (by nation)
  • Ethnic (by ethnic group)

History and prehistory

Traditionally, the study of history was limited to the written and spoken word. However, the rise of academic professionalism and the creation of new scientific fields in the 19th and 20th centuries brought a flood of new information that challenged this notion. Archaeology, anthropology and other social sciences were providing new information and even theories about human history. Some traditional historians questioned whether these new studies were really history, since they were not limited to the written word. A new term, prehistory, was coined, to encompass the results of these new fields where they yielded information about times before the existence of written records.

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. Additionally, prehistorians such as Vere Gordon Childe and historical archaeologists like James Deetz began using archaeology to explain important events in areas that were traditionally in the field of 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. Cuneiforms were 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 (and Luwian), Hurrian (and Urartian) languages, and it inspired the Old Persian and Ugaritic national alphabets.

For others history has become a "general" term meaning the study of "everything" that is known about the human past (but even this barrier is being challenged by new fields such as Big History).

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.


The term history entered the English language in 1390 with the meaning of "relation of incidents, story" via the Old French histos, from the Latin historia "narrative, account." This itself was derived from the Ancient Greek ἱστορία, historía, meaning "a learning or knowing by inquiry, history, record, narrative," from the verb ἱστορεῖν, historeîn, "to inquire."

This, in turn, was derived from ἵστωρ, hístōr ("wise man," "witness," or "judge"). Early attestations of ἵστωρ are from the Homeric Hymns, Heraclitus, the Athenian ephebes' oath, and from Boiotic inscriptions (in a legal sense, either "judge" or "witness," or similar). The spirant is problematic, and not present in cognate Greek eídomai ("to appear").

ἵστωρ is ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *wid-tor-, from the root *weid- ("to know, to see"), also present in the English word wit, the Latin words vision and video, the Sanskrit word veda, and the Slavic word videti and vedati, as well as others. (The asterisk before a word indicates that it is a hypothetical construction, not an attested form.) 'ἱστορία, historía, is an Ionic derivation of the word, which with Ionic science and philosophy were spread first in Classical Greece and ultimately over all of Hellenism.

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". A sense of "systematic account" without a reference to time in particular was current in the 16th century, but is now obsolete. The adjective historical is attested from 1561, and historic from 1669. Historian in the sense of a "researcher of history" in a higher sense than that of an annalist or chronicler, who merely record events as they occur, is attested from 1531.


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.

Historical methods

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

Ibn Khaldun laid down the principles for the historical method in his book Muqaddimah. In short, he warns about the many ways that can induce historians into errors. He shared the same methods as modern historians, but also the idea of the past as strange and in need of interpretation. In respect to universal historiography he was the first to lay the foundation of the pragmatic method and make social evolution the object of historical research. Humphrey explains that Ibn Khaldun was also the first to argue that history was a true science based on philosophical principles (Humphreys, R.S., (1985), Muslim Historiography, in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Charles Scribners and Sons, New York, vol 6, pp 250-5.) As a historian, Ibn Khaldun said, must not trust plain historical information, as it is transmitted, but must also know clearly `the principles resulting from custom, the fundamental facts of politics, the nature of civilisation' and the `the conditions governing human social organisation'; and finally he must `evaluate remote or ancient material through comparison with near or contemporary material.' The originality of Ibn Khaldun was to see 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. For all of Ibn Khaldun's ability to be on the winning side in the many political vicissitudes that came his way, he strikes the reader as scrupulously honest in dealing with the past. History, according to him, involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, `subtle’ explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and a deep knowledge of the how and why of events. Historical knowledge, thus, is not the same as factual data about the past, but consists `of the principles of human society' which are elicited from these data in a complex process of induction and deduction.’ Mere piling up of facts is not the object of historical study if these facts cannot be determined correctly, there is no basis for historical knowledge in the true sense. And, following a long held Muslim tradition, and along with most Muslim historians, Ibn Khaldun agreed that facts depended on the authorities who had transmitted stories about the past, and that these transmitters should be men widely recognized for their erudition and probity. Ibn Khaldun advises that historians rely on the past for understanding the present, that they use their own experience to understand the underlying conditions of their society and the principles governing them. In studying the past, they must discover the underlying conditions of those times and decide whether and how far the apparent principles of their own age are applicable. The understanding of the past, thus, becoming the tool by which to evaluate the present. Ultimately, once they fully understand the laws of human society, they can apply them directly to any new body of historical information they confront, which exactly fits in with the opening statement made at the start of the essay by De Somogyi (De Somogyi, J. ( 1958), ‘The Development of Arab Historiography', in The Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol 3).

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.

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