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The History of History

6. The 19th Century

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In this module, we think about the development of the writing of history in the 19th century, focusing in particular on: (i) the figure of Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), his emphasis on documentary research and objective historical analysis, and his approach to the teaching of history; (ii) Lord Acton (1834-1902) and the idea of history as a science; (iii) the extent to which von Ranke’s ‘revolutionary’ approach to history had been anticipated by earlier historians; and (iv) von Ranke’s view that history should be about showing ‘what actually happened’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen) – or should that be ‘the essence of what happened’?


In this course, Professor John Arnold (University of Cambridge) explores the history of history – the ways in which the writing of history has changed from Herodotus (c. 484-25 BC) to Hayden White (1928-2018). In the first module, we think about the question ‘What is history?’, focusing in particular on some of fundamental challenges that historians of all ages have had to grapple with, as well as on the idea of the ‘purpose’ of history – why do we bother to study the past at all? In the following six modules, we think about the development of history in six key periods – the ancient world, the medieval world, post-Reformation Europe, post-Enlightenment Europe, the 19th century, and the 20th century. In the final two modules, we consider three approaches to history that have proved highly influential from the second half of the 20th century to the present day – Marxist history, Feminist history, and Postmodernism.


John Arnold studied at the University of York, gaining a BA in History, and a D.Phil. in Medieval Studies. He worked at the University of East Anglia, then moved to Birkbeck, University of London, in 2001, until his election to the professorship of medieval history at Cambridge in 2016. He has been lead editor of the journal Cultural and Social History, is on the editorial board of the journal Past & Present, and co-edits several publication series: Genders and Sexualities in History (Palgrave Macmillan), Heresy and Inquisition in the Middle Ages (York Medieval Press), and Oxford Studies in Medieval European History (OUP).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Arnold, J. (2020, September 07). The History of History - The 19th Century [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Arnold, J. "The History of History – The 19th Century." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 07 Sep 2020,

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