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Historiography - The Rankian School of Thought

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One of the defining historiographical schools of thought established in the 19th Century became known as empiric, diplomatic or Rankian history, after its founder, Leopold von Ranke. Ranke is considered the founder of 'scientific' history, and has been monikered the 'father of the objective writing of history'.

During the 19th Century in England and Germany, Ranke and other empiricist historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay, rose to prominence. The empiricist and positivist schools of thought emphasised the importance of politics and great individuals, and saw history as a scientific discipline.

Ranke was born in 1795 and established the Rankian school of thought between 1824 and 1871. He argued that historians should disregard sources such as personal memoirs and texts written after the event they focus on, and base their findings solely on contemporary, or primary sources. These, he advocated, should be scrutinised and criticised so historians are in the best possible position to reconstruct historical events. He concerned himself with what has been immortalised in the phrase wie es eigentlich gewesen, which can be translated as 'what actually happened', but can be more accurately understood as meaning 'understanding the essence of the past'.

Despite Ranke's determination to show what actually happened, his version of history was influenced by his background as a Lutheran Protestant and a German conservative. Behind his work was the idea that all history was the working of God's will, and that God intended the German Empire to form in 1871. His nationalism influenced his viewpoint and his subject matter. Ranke has been accused of being a historicist1. He saw the past as a process that led up to the present time of his writing, a time during which the nations of Europe were growing and nationalism was reaching its height.

Ranke's historical writings have placed him in a position of authority among 19th Century historians. He produced 54 volumes of history, which he published in 1871, before going on to write a nine volume history in the decade before his death at the age of 91. During his career as a university lecturer he schooled future historians in the empirical school of thought, later to be known as Rankian history.

While Leopold von Ranke created an entirely new way of studying history, Thomas Babington Macaulay was the last of the great literary historians. This method of recording history was popular but one-sided. In Macaulay's work, history was seen as the continual progress of life, and justified Whig and Protestant ideals. In Macaulay's history the protagonists were Whigs and the antagonists were Tories, and he links Britain's success as a nation to the exclusion of Catholicism. In the mid-19th Century, Macaulay wrote of the history of Britain that:

'the history of our time during the last 160 years is eminently the history of physical, of moral and of intellectual improvement'.
Macaulay conforms to the Rankian ideals to an almost fanatical degree, and his historiographical approach is closer to positivism than pure empiricism.

Macaulay's literary style made him a popular writer, which in turn increased the popularity of history in itself and as a discipline. As a writer, only Walter Scott and Charles Dickens could rival his popularity. His History of England sold over 26,000 copies in ten weeks, and was translated into Bohemian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Persian, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Swedish. Michael Bentley says that:

'Macaulay turned history into a rival for the three-decker novel'2.
Macaulay's writings, although not unbiased, were well researched and contributed to the interest in the study of history.

The Rankian school of thought was revolutionary in its time, but has since fallen into disuse. It is useful to remember when reading histories written by empiricist historians, that the particular school of thought the author subscribed to influenced the sources he used and the viewpoint he had on the past.

1Someone who believes historical events are beyond human control or influence.2Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 1999), p31.

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