Shop now Shop now Shop now Cloud Drive Photos Shop now Learn More Shop now Shop now Shop Fire Shop Kindle Shop now Shop now

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
11
3.8 out of 5 stars
Your rating(Clear)Rate this item


There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.

TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 January 2008
This splendid book gives us the flavour of Western historians from the Ancient Greeks to the Twentieth Century. Burrow does not neglect the Philosophy of History, but that is not his main concern: rather does he bring out the personality of the historians through their writings and how their books have been shaped by their own times and their own experiences. Plentiful quotations from their works illustrate the book; they are beautifully chosen, and a pleasure to read in themselves.

Burrow is very good on tracing the influence of the historians of Greece and Rome on the historians of much later centuries - of Tacitus on Gibbon, to give just one example. About a third of the book is rightly devoted to Antiquity. We are reminded how deservedly Antiquity is regarded, in this field also, as one of the cradles of European thought, and how extraordinarily relevant the experiences of the Ancient World are to our own. This was known among the educated classes in the days when Herodotus and Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus were a staple of education: they found these classics an inexhaustible fund of enlightenment and understanding of political processes, providing models as well as warnings

Certainly there is a sad falling off after the classical period. The early Christian historians abandoned the aim of being impartial, relentlessly promoted orthodox Christianity and implacably blackened the unorthodox. Where historians like Eusebius and Bede did have a philosophy to guide them, they traced what they saw as God's plan in history; but a lesser man, like the 6th century Bishop Gregory of Tours, to whom Burrow devotes an amusing chapter (he calls him `Trollope with bloodshed'), seems to show, in his mistitled History of the Franks, nothing at all of what we could recognize as philosophical reflections - though with or without such reflections, we can of course learn much about the ways of life and preoccupations that he depicts.

The same is broadly true of the medieval annals and chronicles to which Burrow devotes a solid chunk of his book. In Froissart's Chronicles we learn much about the code of chivalry between knights (though the code does not apply to the treatment of commoners). Burrow extracts some vivid or entertaining material from them, and he is often a witty and entertaining commentator himself. He remarks that we should not expect narrative or thematic connections in annals: `we should think instead of a newspaper whose time scale is the year, not the day. We are ourselves unperturbed by the most diverse news stories appearing in juxtaposition, ...' The scurrilous 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris reminds Burrow `of a modern tabloid editor: disrespectful, populist, xenophobic, and anti-intellectual', and an attempt to bowdlerize him would be `like trying to de-vein Gorgonzola'.

However, Renaissance historians, like Bruni, Machiavelli and Guiccardini, modelled themselves once again on the histories of ancient Rome and Greece. Like them, they were fine stylists and sometimes invented speeches; looked for lessons that history could teach; saw patterns of order degenerating into disorder until order was reestablished; lamented the decline of the republican virtues and the decline of freedom; were cynical (realistic?) about how rulers maintain themselves in power; and were interested in the intricate relationships between neighbouring and competing states.

During the Renaissance also we first find an interest in Antiquarianism, research not only into the sources of Roman Law, but also into the Customary Law of the `barbarians' which Roman Law replaced or absorbed. The discovery of these more ancient sources and of the `immemorial rights' of subjects will play a part in the struggle against absolutism in the 16th century France and 17th century England, and, in the hands of William Stubbs in the 19th century, in the progression of English liberties down to his own time.

As the book moves into the discussions of historians in the 17th and 18th century, it becomes slightly heavier going and is not lit up as often by shafts of Burrow's wit, though one of these historians, Edward Gibbon, compensates for this with his own, thankfully mined by Burrow.

For the 19th century we have two superlative sections contrasting Macaulay and Carlyle - all they have in common is that they both `stand at the apex of a long movement, before austere professionalism spoiled the game, to render history for the reader in its full sensuous and emotional immediacy and circumstantiality'.

These sections are followed by one brilliantly contrasting 19th century French historians, notably Michelet and Taine, showing how the French Revolution continued to be subject to different and passionate interpretations.

Another section also deals beautifully with contrasts, this time between the sober way in which Bernal Diaz describes the conquest of Mexico in which he had himself taken part and the more Gibbonesque version of the subject by W.H.Prescott in the mid-19th century. Another American historian whom Burrow describes with infectious sympathy is Francis Parkman, the evocative 19th century chronicler of the American Indians' 17th century encounters with the French (who sometimes went native) and the British (whose victory over the French was a disaster for the Indians).

Burrow's last two chapters deal with the professionalization of history: its introduction into the universities as independent faculties; its consequent bureaucratization; its aim in the late 19th century, under German influence, to be like a science; and, in the 20th century, in its conscious obedience to rival philosophies of history and the influence that other disciplines exert on it. It became more technical and more specialized. Analysis of structure became more fashionable than narrative. There was an explosion in the number of historians and in the areas of life that are of interest to them. These chapters are worthy rather than inspiring - possibly Burrow himself is less inspired by that kind of history: he treats no individual work of history with the expansiveness which he had bestowed on earlier works.

I hope the success of this book will lead to a reprint of the author's book on Victorian historians.
22 comments| 54 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 19 May 2008
I was going to write more than just "excellent" but the previous review seems to cover all the points I wanted to make (and more!).
Just to say that as a person reading history for pleasure I found the book excellent and it has already led me to re-read some of the works mentioned.
0Comment| 15 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 November 2009
This splendid book gives us the flavour of Western historians from the Ancient Greeks to the Twentieth Century. Burrow does not neglect the Philosophy of History, but that is not his main concern: rather does he bring out the personality of the historians through their writings and how their books have been shaped by their own times and their own experiences. Plentiful quotations from their works illustrate the book; they are beautifully chosen, and a pleasure to read in themselves.

Burrow is very good on tracing the influence of the historians of Greece and Rome on the historians of much later centuries - of Tacitus on Gibbon, to give just one example. About a third of the book is rightly devoted to Antiquity. We are reminded how deservedly Antiquity is regarded, in this field also, as one of the cradles of European thought, and how extraordinarily relevant the experiences of the Ancient World are to our own. This was known among the educated classes in the days when Herodotus and Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus were a staple of education: they found these classics an inexhaustible fund of enlightenment and understanding of political processes, providing models as well as warnings

Certainly there is a sad falling off after the classical period. The early Christian historians abandoned the aim of being impartial, relentlessly promoted orthodox Christianity and implacably blackened the unorthodox. Where historians like Eusebius and Bede did have a philosophy to guide them, they traced what they saw as God's plan in history; but a lesser man, like the 6th century Bishop Gregory of Tours, to whom Burrow devotes an amusing chapter (he calls him `Trollope with bloodshed'), seems to show, in his mistitled History of the Franks, nothing at all of what we could recognize as philosophical reflections - though with or without such reflections, we can of course learn much about the ways of life and preoccupations that he depicts.
The same is broadly true of the medieval annals and chronicles to which Burrow devotes a solid chunk of his book. In Froissart's Chronicles we learn much about the code of chivalry between knights (though the code does not apply to the treatment of commoners). Burrow extracts some vivid or entertaining material from them, and he is often a witty and entertaining commentator himself. He remarks that we should not expect narrative or thematic connections in annals: `we should think instead of a newspaper whose time scale is the year, not the day. We are ourselves unperturbed by the most diverse news stories appearing in juxtaposition, ...' The scurrilous 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris reminds Burrow `of a modern tabloid editor: disrespectful, populist, xenophobic, and anti-intellectual', and an attempt to bowdlerize him would be `like trying to de-vein Gorgonzola'.

However, Renaissance historians, like Bruni, Machiavelli and Guiccardini, modelled themselves once again on the histories of ancient Rome and Greece. Like them, they were fine stylists and sometimes invented speeches; looked for lessons that history could teach; saw patterns of order degenerating into disorder until order was reestablished; lamented the decline of the republican virtues and the decline of freedom; were cynical (realistic?) about how rulers maintain themselves in power; and were interested in the intricate relationships between neighbouring and competing states.

During the Renaissance also we first find an interest in Antiquarianism, research not only into the sources of Roman Law, but also into the Customary Law of the `barbarians' which Roman Law replaced or absorbed. The discovery of these more ancient sources and of the `immemorial rights' of subjects will play a part in the struggle against absolutism in the 16th century France and 17th century England, and, in the hands of William Stubbs in the 19th century, in the progression of English liberties down to his own time.

As the book moves into the discussions of historians in the 17th and 18th century, it becomes slightly heavier going and is not lit up as often by shafts of Burrow's wit, though one of these historians, Edward Gibbon, compensates for this with his own, thankfully mined by Burrow.

For the 19th century we have two superlative sections contrasting Macaulay and Carlyle - all they have in common is that they both `stand at the apex of a long movement, before austere professionalism spoiled the game, to render history for the reader in its full sensuous and emotional immediacy and circumstantiality'.

These sections are followed by one brilliantly contrasting 19th century French historians, notably Michelet and Taine, showing how the French Revolution continued to be subject to different and passionate interpretations.

Another section also deals beautifully with contrasts, this time between the sober way in which Bernal Diaz describes the conquest of Mexico in which he had himself taken part and the more Gibbonesque version of the subject by W.H.Prescott in the mid-19th century. Another American historian whom Burrow describes with infectious sympathy is Francis Parkman, the evocative 19th century chronicler of the American Indians' 17th century encounters with the French (who sometimes went native) and the British (whose victory over the French was a disaster for the Indians).

Burrow's last two chapters deal with the professionalization of history: its introduction into the universities as independent faculties; its consequent bureaucratization; its aim in the late 19th century, under German influence, to be like a science; and, in the 20th century, in its conscious obedience to rival philosophies of history and the influence that other disciplines exert on it. It became more technical and more specialized. Analysis of structure became more fashionable than narrative. There was an explosion in the number of historians and in the areas of life that are of interest to them. These chapters are worthy rather than inspiring - possibly Burrow himself is less inspired by that kind of history: he treats no individual work of history with the expansiveness which he had bestowed on earlier works.

I hope the success of this book will lead to a reprint of the author's book on Victorian historians.
0Comment| 6 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 22 September 2009
This is not in itself a history book, but a book about history (or histories as the author prefers to call them). Burrow's is a retired academic, and it is said that he has ventured a bit outside his usual domain to write a history about how people wrote about history over the past 2,500 years.
I am not a particular fan of histories about precise periods or so-called famous people, but I do like books that try to paint a big picture - and this book truly tries to do just that.
The author has limited himself to Western historians (Europe and North America), and to those who wrote in English (or available in translation). I've seen a comment suggesting that ignoring Confucius or belittling Montesquieu weakens the overall objective of the book - possibly, but every book has to set limits to its coverage, and this book certainly covers an enormous amount of ground.
The first third of the book is dedicated to historians from ancient Greece and Rome (Herodotus and Thucydides), and clearly Burrow's is in his element. He claims that they set the standard against which historians must be measured (a focus on big political issues of public consequence, great deeds often in war, lessons of statecraft, and aiming at truth through first person experience). His text is lucid, easy to read, and dare I say it, for a history book positively interesting.
The second part of the book focuses on the humanist antiquarian (often living in considerable comfort) and their focus on the evolution of society through solid well documented research and the study of archaeological remains. Again this makes for an enjoyable read, but perhaps lacks the witty comments found in the early chapters.
The later part of the book runs rather rapidly (some would say hurried) through the Enlightenment and emergence of the modern professional historian, with his reliance on proof through trusted documentation, and his interest in the social and economic history of civil society.
Some reviewers have more or less aggressively claimed that the author has ignored one or other masterpiece or great writer. I don't think that it is possible to be really comprehensive in writing a book intended for the non-specialist reader. The author did not hide his anglo-focus, I accepted it on face value, and it leaves space for others to try to better his work.
No matter how you look at this book the result makes for an interesting and enjoyable read (even if at times the style is a little bit academic and possibly old fashioned - but for a history book this simply lends more charm to the text). You feel that the author has really read every last one of the many, many texts referenced in his book, and has re-drafted and re-drafted his proses to make it just right. As I said above, I found the latter part of the book a bit rushed, but this certainly did not detract significantly from my pleasure, and I turned the last page convinced that I will search out more regularly similar texts on the history of history.
0Comment| 6 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 27 March 2010
I studied history at school, and then at university. Some periods I found fascinating; others left me completely cold (and bored). But it was also very frustrating, in my first year at uni, to be asked questions like "What do you think of Lewis Namier's work on 18th century politics?" or "Do you agree with the Whig interpretation of history?" - when I had never heard of either. Historiography is a more abstract subject than history itself; indeed, it is what we might nowadays call "metahistory" - the history of writing history. And that is what John Burrow has set out to explain in this excellent and (mostly) very readable book. I only wish it had existed, and someone had given it to me, in my last year at school!

If you read "A History of Histories" from cover to cover, you will probably learn a great deal (unless you are already an expert on the subject). Its subject matter can be divided into three main areas: an overview of great swathes of history itself; an account of many of the greatest historians since the time of the ancient Greeks; and a comparative study of the different ways of writing history, and the reasons for doing so. But these three topics are not treated consecutively, but intertwined together. For instance, in one of the earliest chapters we see how Thucydides - one of the greatest of historians - retold and analysed the events of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. For Thucydides, according to Burrow, "the chief quality to be sought in writing history is certainty"; yet he, like all the ancient historians, was perfectly happy to write down long speeches which were no doubt pieced together from memory or even largely made up.

Even though the systematic study of primary and secondary sources was not to become established practice until the 19th century, it has always been possible to adopt a more or less rigorous attitude to objective truth when writing history. Others, like many of the Roman historians - and especially the Christian writers who followed them - were more concerned to inculcate right thinking and virtuous behaviour, not scrupling to invent whatever episodes seemed most suitable for that purpose. And even in the 20th century, ideologically motivated scholars such as the Marxists were still using history to argue their own particular points of view.

For my money, the early parts of this book are the best. The sections on Greek and Roman historians are superb, and answered many longstanding questions for me. Then, with the advent of the Dark Ages, history dipped into a trough of religious admonition and fanciful invention - culminating in the entertainingly fictional chronicles of writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth. I found the author's account of Renaissance historiography (in the chapter "From Civic Chronicle to Humanist History") to be the most indigestible part of the book, although that may be due to the intrinsic difficulty of the subject. Inevitably, as more and more people started writing history in different ways and for different reasons, the story of historiography becomes progressively more complicated and opaque. Much to his credit, the author maintains an even pace and a consistent treatment right up to the 20th century.
0Comment| 4 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 20 July 2016
I understand that this is meant to be a history of the recording of history and historians (which is an interesting idea), however it is no different to other history books in that it aims to provide an understanding of the past. Other history books might be on different subjects, for instance the combustion engine or neo-classical architecture etc, and in that way this book is nothing more than another history book.

However it ultimately provides a poor understanding of the subject matter. Having read a number of history books before this, I am familiar with more successful books in this genre. This is quite possibly the worst history book that I have ever read. The only reason I decided to finish it was because I had given my word to a colleague that I would read it.

Fundamentally its useless to 'non specialists' as it consistently makes references to historical people and works outside the subject area that is being discussed without detailing them further. This book is also fundamentally useless to those who are familiar with the references, as those people will find nothing additional in this book which they do not already know about.

This book does deserve at least 1 star as there are some interesting facts and observations to be had though the reader has to wade through the author's rambling, sanctimonious and ludicrously messy approach to grammar. For a person educated at an 'elite' university, this is a reprehensible standard of English, which at its highest level, should be concise and precise.

It's difficult to fathom why anyone would give this book 5 stars. I can only assume that they are not well read and are easily impressed by what is a genuine disservice to the study of history. Perhaps it takes a moron to enjoy a book written by an idiot. Fifty Shades of Grey has a host of 5 star reviews but this does not reflect its literary merit, and the same is true of this book.

I have found physics textbooks much more riveting and stimulating than this book. I would venture that, compared to this dreary book, the average dictionary would read like an Andy McNab novel, because a dictionary gets to the point faster and leaves you more informed with less effort. The author requires 8 pages to describe the difference between a 'record keeper' and a 'historian'. This is deplorable.

Too many tree's were unnecessarily sacrificed for this drivel.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 3 May 2010
I read this book whilst on summer vacation in 2009. I found it absolutely fascinating. For me it was one of those books that didn't necessarily flow effortlessly and I would not describe it as a `page-turner' by any stretch of the imagination. Yet I found it a very rich book that charts how the approach to writing and recording history over the centuries has evolved.

Over a period of nine or ten days, whilst cocooned in a rural part of a sun-kissed island, I found it a pleasure to read the book chapter by chapter, pausing after each one, to take a break from the wealth of information and reflect a little on what I had learned.

Burrow opens the book with chapters on Herodotus and Thyucides and their works on Ancient Greek history; he compares and contrasts their approaches to history, and how they set some basic approaches that all writers to some extent have followed since. Herodotus adopted an `eye-witness' investigational approach when he wrote about the invasion of Ancient Greece by Persia and his aim was to preserve an awareness of the `heroic' deeds of the protagonists for later generations. Thyucides by contrast set out a more `realist' appraisal of the `Peloponnesian War' and adopted an analytical approach to elucidate the causes and consequences of the war.

Following his examination of these two `giants' of the history pantheon, Burrow's turns to the rise of Rome and explores methods and approaches of writers that bore witness to it, such as Polybius, Sallust, Livy and Tacitus. The approach of the early writers of the Christian church history follows hard on the heels of Rome before Burrows moves swiftly to the Middle Ages and the use of annals and chronicles to record history. The writing in the age of chivalry, about Arthur's court and the `crusades' swiftly follow. The revolutions in England 17th Century England and 18th Century France are explored; in each time period the approach and methods of selected historians is explored and illustrated.

This process is adopted for selected writers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century's too. In the later chapters of the book, Burrows explores how the profession of history, as we understand it today, was born and through selected authors explores the approaches and topics that occupy current historians. Hence, the book covers a huge expanse of modern, western human history in a concise and accessible way. Through it one is able to learn how the approaches, perspectives and aims of the historian has changed with successive generations.
0Comment| 2 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 29 September 2015
A fascinating guide through the histories completed across history! Easy to read (though I am a history student so maybe I'm used to worse!) and a good price. Highly recommendable to all those interested in history.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 9 April 2009
I really want to like this book but the author's tendency to include, frequently, indeed almost regularly, a lot of, in my opinion, unnecessary commas and indeed, comments, in the middle of sentences is, somewhat, annoying.

The flow of the narrative is constantly interrupted by, what appear to be, provisos and, indeed, nuggets of information or, in fact, qualifications, becomes wearing!
66 comments| 13 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 31 December 2015
A great read
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse

Send us feedback

How can we make Amazon Customer Reviews better for you?
Let us know here.

Sponsored Links

  (What is this?)