Sunday, October 21, 2007

Steven Runciman on the writing of history

From the preface to volume one of his history of the Crusades:

It may seem unwise for one British pen to compete with the massed typewriters of the United States. But in fact there is no competition. A single author cannot speak with the high authority of a panel of experts, but he may succeed in giving to his work an integrated and even an epical quality that no composite volume can achieve. Homer as well as Herodotus was a Father of History, as Gibbon, the greatest of our historians, was aware; and it is difficult, in spite of certain critics, to believe that Homer was a panel. History today has passed into an Alexandrian age, where criticism has overpowered creation. Faced by the mountainous heap of the minutiae of knowledge and awed by the watchful severity of his colleagues, the modern historian too often takes refuge in learned articles or narrowly specialised dissertations, small fortresses that are easy to defend from attack. His work can be of the highest value; but it is not an end in itself. I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man. The writer rash enough to make the attempt should not be criticised for his ambition, however much he may deserve censure for the inadequacy of his equpiment or the inanity of his results.
I heartily agree. And if that makes me unfashionable, well, I just got my copy of Hardy Amies ABCs of Men's Fashion, so there's hope.

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