History has a history, and historians rarely tire of quarreling over it. Yet for the past few centuries, historians have maintained an uneasy truce over the assumption that the search for “facts” should always take precedence over the more fractious difficulty of interpreting them. According to Arnaldo Momigliano, the great twentieth-century Italian scholar of ancient history, it was the Renaissance antiquarians who, though they did not write history, inadvertently made the modern historical profession possible by repudiating grand theory in order to establish cherished fact. The antiquarians collected remnants of the classical past, and understandably they needed to vouch for the reliability of their artifacts at a time when so many relics were wrongly sourced or outright fakes. Momigliano cited the nineteenth-century Oxford don Mark Pattison, who went so far as to remark about antiquarians—approvingly—that “thinking was not their profession.” It may remain the whispered credo required for admission to the guild.
More wary than anthropologists, literary critics or political scientists of speculative frameworks, historians generally have been most pleased with their ability simply to tell the truth—as if it were a secret to be uncovered through fact-finding rather than a riddle to be solved through interpretation. Anthony Grafton once honored Momigliano with the title “the man who saved history,” and it seems fair to say that the latter voiced the consensus of a profession that makes facts almost sacred and theories essentially secondary.
Even when historians started to think a little, they did so gingerly. If antiquarians merely paved the road for modern history, to proceed down it required doing more than displaying the hard-won truth. Momigliano reported that it took a while for our early modern intellectual ancestors to suspect that they could ever improve on the classical historians of Greece and Rome, thanks to the new facts that antiquarians had eked out. The true antiquarians simply stashed their goods and, Momigliano vividly wrote, shivered in “horror at the invasion of the holy precincts of history by a fanatic gang of philosophers who travelled very light.” But their heirs, like Edward Gibbon, author of the stupendous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, realized that storytellers would have to take on board speculation or “philosophy,” corralling facts within an intellectual scheme to lend them meaning. Facts alone were blind, just as theory was empty on its own. Yet Momigliano, sharing Pattison’s approval of the antiquarian origins of history, acknowledged the necessity of thinking almost regretfully, as if the results were an inevitably ramshackle edifice built on the bedrock of fact that it was the real job of historians to lay down. Theories could be stripped away, and stories renovated as fashion changed, but the facts on which the edifice was built would endure. The “ethics” of the profession, Momigliano testified, rested on the ability of historians to stay true to them.
In the early days of Gibbon’s Enlightenment, most of the frameworks on which historians relied were theories about the origins and progress of society; in the two centuries since, historians have been willing to have their facts consort with a wide variety of suitors, from nationalism to Marxism to postmodernism. The discipline has gone through so many self-styled theoretical “turns” that it is frankly hard to keep up. It is paradoxically because most historians have looked on theory with suspicion—as a lamentable necessity, at best, to allow the facts their day—that they have often been avid trend-watchers. Precisely because they are so fickle, opportunistic and superficial in their attitude to speculation, historians seem to change popular theories often, treating them not as foundations to be built on, but as seasonal outfits to clothe the facts they have so assiduously gathered.