What is a Historian?

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,764
Portugal
"What is a Historian?"

In this time while at Historum, I noticed that many forum users have a concept of Historian different than mine. This issue was already mentioned and debated here, but probably never in a sole specific thread.

So, and in some way related with the thread “What is history?” (What is history?), I would like to hear the idea of the forum users about “What is a Historian?”, you can use your own words, or use quotes, as long as you support them.

I will begin with my own view on the subject:

A historian is the producer, the writer of knowledge, regarding history.

The one that systematically researches, writes and publishes History books, essays and articles. He is analysed, criticized, reviewed and accepted as such by his peers.
 
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johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
8,116
Cornwall
In this I seem to come across 2 levels of historian writers:

1) Those who read lots of stuff and write books, but without original research and really making no allowance for all the errors and fabrications and exagerrations that may have been fed in over the centuries and embellished, with considerable translation errors. Some of these authors have lazy proof-reading (fast production) but write a good tale - they tend to 'go with' the opinion of one of the former authors when relating an episode in Spanish history
2) More academic ones who strip everything back to original sources and add in new evidence - notably coinage, archeology, possibly writings that have come to light. The ones that do the hard work, basically. In my field classically people like Dozy, Levi-Provencal, Huici Miranda, more recently Garcia Moreno, Garcia Fitz and some others.

Dozy, back in the 19th century, was so frustrated by lazy and plain wrong translations that he learned a considerable number of languages and did it all himself! The production and workload of some of these latter is mind-boggling - and here am just reading a bit, working a bit and watching football and drinking vino tinto at weekends!
 
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Feb 2019
1,255
Serbia
I consider a historian to be someone who puts forward and publishes original research based on a critical examination of sources. Note that the works of said historian have to properly peer-reviewed and published by a proper publishing house, history teachers or people like us that technically write our own material in terms of forum posts do not count as historians.

Academic historians use their own research and examine primary sources, writing in a dry and factual manner aiming to accurately present the past. Popular historians may or may not have weaker research. They write in a way that is clearer and easier to understand but they also usually simplify historical events and sometimes even distort facts for the sake of appeal, they also generally sell more than academic historians.
 
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Offspring

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
8,979
România
I'll get this in before Gladiatrice: "historians are gossips who tease the dead" - Voltaire.

I divide historians in 3: pop historians, historians and academic historians. All 3 are important.

For me, a pop historian is a person who writes about history with the goal of making people interested in the subject. It reads like a story, things are easy to follow and the work isn't very rigorous. In The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, Barbara W. Tuchman has a chapter called "Neroism Is in the Air", in which she presents Germany, from 1890 to 1914, with the primary focus on Richard Strauss. If that chapter were written by a student, it wouldn't even get a pass. It's filled with declarative statements without anything to back them up, generalities, the author's personal opinions and all the things we are used to when it comes to pop history. Yet, it's beautiful and delightful. The basic idea is that Wagner was huge for the Germans, because it was the first time they were recognised as #1 in something important. Richard Strauss was hugely important, because he continued Wagner's legacy of having a German #1 in something and that made the Germans and the world feel like Wagner wasn't just an exception. This massively boosted their self-confidence. It's cool to think about Strauss like that and wonder what would have happened without someone like him. I'm glad that chapter exists and I wouldn't mind seeing more like them in the future.

Historians are usually academics who want to be read and who work towards that direction. They also understand what an editor is.

Academic historians are the boring ones that do all the hard work and get read by no one. While it's common to attack pop historians for not being sufficiently rigorous and sacrificing substance for style, it's odd that academic historians don't get attacked enough for not making their work more engaging for the general public.
 
Jul 2019
1,204
New Jersey
I'll get this in before Gladiatrice: "historians are gossips who tease the dead" - Voltaire.

I divide historians in 3: pop historians, historians and academic historians. All 3 are important.

For me, a pop historian is a person who writes about history with the goal of making people interested in the subject. It reads like a story, things are easy to follow and the work isn't very rigorous. In The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, Barbara W. Tuchman has a chapter called "Neroism Is in the Air", in which she presents Germany, from 1890 to 1914, with the primary focus on Richard Strauss. If that chapter were written by a student, it wouldn't even get a pass. It's filled with declarative statements without anything to back them up, generalities, the author's personal opinions and all the things we are used to when it comes to pop history. Yet, it's beautiful and delightful. The basic idea is that Wagner was huge for the Germans, because it was the first time they were recognised as #1 in something important. Richard Strauss was hugely important, because he continued Wagner's legacy of having a German #1 in something and that made the Germans and the world feel like Wagner wasn't just an exception. This massively boosted their self-confidence. It's cool to think about Strauss like that and wonder what would have happened without someone like him. I'm glad that chapter exists and I wouldn't mind seeing more like them in the future.

Historians are usually academics who want to be read and who work towards that direction. They also understand what an editor is.

Academic historians are the boring ones that do all the hard work and get read by no one. While it's common to attack pop historians for not being sufficiently rigorous and sacrificing substance for style, it's odd that academic historians don't get attacked enough for not making their work more engaging for the general public.
I strongly concur with this post, and I'm going to simply add several thoughts of my own.

1) There is a lot of snobbery among the academic crowd for historians who are outside the ivory tower. They aren't "real historians". They don't necessarily have degrees in history - as a matter of fact they don't necessarily have degrees at all. They don't necessarily use all the new and faddish jargon. They aren't part of the club, in other words, they haven't followed the guild's rules for induction. That makes members of the said guild quite irritated. But that doesn't change the fact that those historians and their work are just as legitimate as their university tenured colleagues. Shoddy scholarship should disqualify a historian's work, not lack of membership in an exclusive club.

2) Regarding the definition of "historian" that many have put forth above, requiring that one do original research to qualify as a historian, I respectfully disagree. Rather, I would classify historians into two groups, researchers and compilers. The researchers are generally the academic historians who write highly technical papers and monographs, generally conducting an extensive amount of original research. They are the ones who uncover new sources and publish in academic journals to share their findings.

Then there are the compilers. The compilers don't necessarily do original research of their own, rather, they go through a number of primary and secondary sources, and then synthesize the copious amount of data into a coherent narrative. Granted, they may not speak the original languages or dive too deeply in the more obscure primary sources - but they don't need to. Assuming the competence of the researchers, the compilers will have an adequate pool of knowledge from which to build their works.

3) History is very far from a science in the sense that chemistry or botany are sciences, and its practitioners would be wise to recall that. The more "exuberant" historical work, such as that cited by Offspring, is just as much a part of the historical consciousness as the more rigorous work of their researcher colleagues, so long as it doesn't come into conflict with the facts. While you can't just make things up, you can be a little creative in your interpretation or presentation.

4) Most people find academic histories boring as hell. I am one of those extremely rare individuals who don't. It doesn't need to be that way, and the failure of most of the academic community to engage the general public has, in my opinion, done more harm to the public's knowledge of history than any pop historian with sloppy dating or numbers ever has.
 
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Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,764
Portugal
So we all agree Tulius. Next thread please :lol:

The ones who read you will think that I am a thread starter nuts!!! :D

By the way, loved you comment on Dozy!

Well, I won’t fully comment now the good posts we have here, not much time, but I will come back here to comment as soon as possible.

Nit picking, we aren’t all agreeing 100%. And maybe the ones who really disagree didn’t show up yet.

Offspring’s classification in three is quite on spot!

Anyway, for now, we all seemed to agree that the Historian needs to write. Abraham95 made an interesting distinction between those who are more directed to field research and write monographies (researchers) and the ones that write synthesis (compilers), even if I think often both aspects can be the present in the same historian, so I think I am more used to see that distinction in the works than in the authors.

And I would like to introduce here another question, albeit related, but that wasn’t really touched here: What is a “amateur” historian?


***

Apparently the US Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the “profession”:

“Historians research, analyze, interpret, and write about the past by studying historical documents and sources.”

Historians : Occupational Outlook Handbook: : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Or we can go to our omnipresent Wikipedia (Historian - Wikipedia):

“A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it.” In a direct quote from: WordNet Search - 3.1

***

EDIT:

By the way, I think this was the closest thread that we had here, a few years ago: Non-Historians Writing Biographies
 

Offspring

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
8,979
România
What is a “amateur” historian?
An "amateur" historian looks at this and smugly smirks, because he knows that Pierre Cambronne said he never said those words.



A historian understands that the important thing is that people believed someone said "the Guard dies and it does not surrender" and uses that to describe the prestige the Old Guard had and how honour was viewed in France at the time. "Was it said?" and "who said it?" aren't as important as understanding why those words mattered so much.
 
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Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,964
Blachernai
I generally agree with @Offspring and @Abraham95 here, although I would quibble with a few minor points. It's definitely true, but I generally feel that unless a popular historian writes something particularly egregious they tend to be ignored. The real vitriol tends to be reserved for fellow academic historians who cross that line and write a dubious work aimed at a popular or audience like Stephen Greenblatt.

I also don't think it's entirely historians to blame for most academic works being boring. The publishing model in the Germano-Anglophone world needs to get some blame here. If the academic book is going to cost $200 and only a small number of libraries are going to buy it, why go to the trouble of making it readable or accessible? At least at this point, I write for my peers. I suspect a broader audience might be interested in some of what I have to say, but that'll have to wait until I have a more secure position in life.
 
Jul 2019
1,204
New Jersey
@Tulius

I would say a professional historian fills both of these requirements:

1) He engages with history (whether teaching, writing, or researching) as his primary profession.

2) He generally follows the conventions used in the field.

If someone fills one or none of those requirements, but is nonetheless very engaged with history, I would call him an amateur historian.
 
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