The Magazine

Keeping Score

History is made, then recorded, and recorded again.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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Second, historians have always taken issue with each other and adopted rival explanations of events. Dispute is built into the fabric of history. And why shouldn't it be? After all, history is a branch of human thought, and historians are humans. Expecting historians to agree and make nice with each other more than other humans do is like expecting the lion to suckle the lamb.

Third, since history is evidence-based, and since new evidence is always being unearthed, we are all revisionists now, as the noted historian of Ireland Roy Foster once said. We are all forced somehow to integrate into our knowledge and understanding facts that surprise us, that don't fit easily with what we thought we knew. Whether we like revisionism or not, the growing stock of historical evidence, and the advance of ways to think about it, won't let us be anything but revisionists.

It would be a mistake to conclude from all this that Burrow's work is only for the philosophically inclined, or only for those who want their reading on the heavy side. Burrow is light when appropriate, broad-ranging always. Of Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks he writes that it is "Trollope with bloodshed." Carlyle's French Revolution reminds him of Sergei Eisenstein's handling of crowd scenes, "with the camera panning in and out from the most highly individualized close-up moments to the widest perspectives." Nor is Burrow beyond entering his own convictions on the record. But overall, he lets other historians speak in their own voices through apt quotation.

It would be hard to conceive of a work that better reveals its author's modesty, his command of the literature, his stylistic flair, and his penetrating reflections than this readable, fascinating, learned history of some of the greatest histories the world has known.

James M. Banner Jr. is a historian in Washington and cofounder of the National History Center.