1902 Encyclopedia > History > Definition of History. History vs Myth. History vs Chronology.

(Part 1)

Definition of History. History vs Myth. History vs Chronology.

HISTORY, in the most correct use if the word, means the prose narrative of past events, as probably true as the fallibility of human testimony will allow. This definition takes no account of chronicles in verse which were not uncommon in the Middle Ages. With this exception the definition is fairly exact, both in what it comprehends and what it excludes. Obviously prose narrative is not history when it deals with fictitious events, as in the case of the novel; and verse narrative, even when it deals with true events (as in the account of the battle of Salamis in the Persae of Aeschylus, or Guillaume le Breton’s metrical chronicle of the reign of Philip Augustus), is either more or less than history, and in any case a sub-species by itself.

In practice, the line between history and mythus is often not easy to draw; but the theoretical distribution is plain. History reposes, however remotely, on contemporary witness to the fact related. Written records are not absolutely indispensable, as tradition may supply their place and represent authentic contemporary testimony. But tradition is very insecure and apt to be equally inventive and oblivious. It is in the half light of tradition that mythus is born of the creative fancy of man, and the difficulty of separating fact from fiction in this border-land of mingled fable and reality very often amounts to impossibility.

But even authentic facts alone are not sufficient to constitute history. Many facts and dates are recorded with reference to China, Egypt, and Assyria in olden times, which in all probability are true; but these facts and dates are not enough to give those countries a history. The bare fact that a certain king reigned in a certain year, and conquered or was defeated in battle with a neighbour, is perhaps chronologically valuable, but it is not history. History only attains its full stature when it not only records but describes in considerable fulness social events and evolution, when it marks change and growth, the movement of society from one phase to another.

The field of history is in consequence very limited, both in time and space, in proportion to the length of human existence and the area of the earth’s surface occupied by man. Primitive and savage man has no history, because the struggle for existence consumes all his energies, and he has neither time nor faculty to think of himself as a social being, much less to make record of social events. But even when partially civilized, mankind is often incapable, not only of writing history, but to furnishing the materials of it. Under a system of caste, or conservative theocracy, or oppressive tradition, as in India, Egypt, and China respectively, the social evolution is so slow that it hardly seems to move at all. The grandson lives among conditions hardly differing from those of the grandfather. In such a state of things the very subject-matter of history is wanting. Nothing attracts less notice than immobility, and large populations have often lived under conditions which for whole generations did not seem to vary. The vast and vacant annals of the East show that the arts of peace and war mat attain considerable development without history of its materials being produced in consequence.

If these views be correct we can only allow a period of about 4000 years as the limit of genuine history in point of time. The beginning would be with the historical books of the Old Testament. Before the Jewish records fails us the Greek have begun. The Romans follow in immediate succession, and the historical thread has never been broken since, though thicker and stronger in some epochs than in others. As regards area, history long dwelt exclusively on the shores of that inland sea which, if not the birthplace of the human race, have at least been the chief training-ground of its early youth and vigorous manhood. Civilization subsequently spread from the Mediterranean to remote islands and continents unknown to the ancients, and history has followed it. No doubt in time both will be coextensive with the globe; but that time has not yet come. It is still useful to remember that the materials of history now rapidly accumulating in the Far West, the far South and even the far East, owe their origin to that antiquity of rise in those ever memorable centres named Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem.

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