Historiography: An Introductory Guide

February 28, 2013

Author: Eileen Ka-May Cheng
Publisher: Bloomsbury Continuum
Edition: First
Pages: 256
Price: £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN: 9781441109668 and 77674

“Historiography” has multiple meanings and studies of it can be taken in different directions. Eileen Ka-May Cheng plumps for the most obvious and offers a concise overview of the development of historical writing from the Renaissance to the present day. She resists the temptation to indulge in a linear interpretation of the subject, viewing past efforts at historical practice as unsuccessful or incomplete attempts to achieve later crowning glories. Students reading this book will be left in no doubt that past histories need to be assessed on their own terms and in the light of their own contexts. And they will quickly pick up the message that Cheng views historiography not as an optional extra to historical studies but as an important, illuminating and integral strand.

Of course, a book this concise allows only an outline sketch of an enormous subject, but the generalisations are exemplified in helpful case studies of individual historians in which ample quotation gives something of the flavour of their theory and practice of the subject. A look at the French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-85) is particularly illuminating and makes clear how his distinctive interpretation of the operation of time in its different levels was shaped by his lengthy imprisonment by the Nazis. Arguably, in this largely secular survey, Cheng underplays both the immediate impact and long-term significance of the Reformation, and this is perhaps not altogether surprising from an author who, on page 67, appears to confirm the extraordinary notion “that Christians were supposed to worship the Bible”. And when she reaches modern times her selection of themes for consideration - the linguistic turn, the revival of narrative and global history - begins to look like personal favouritism. There are a few odd definitions; social history is undoubtedly far more than “the history of ordinary people and everyday life”. Women are unwittingly confirmed in a very subordinate position in the story. Only one of the many case studies focuses on a woman, Merci Otis Warren.

A notable feature of this volume is that it embraces US as well as European historiography, and outward glances at times take the reader as far as modern China. Six well-organised chapters and an appendix listing the principal historians and their major works are rounded off with a guide to further reading and a good bibliography.

In sum this is a useful, although unexciting, book. The writing lacks panache. This author’s style, sadly, rarely rises above the awkwardly pedestrian.

Who is it for?
History undergraduates.

Well-structured text.

Would you recommend it?
Although students are unlikely to be bowled over by it, they will certainly profit from a careful reading of this text.

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