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The History of History

7. The 20th Century

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In this module, we think about the development of the writing of history in the 20th century, focusing in particular on: (i) the kind of history that was being done at the beginning of the 20th century; (ii) the broadening out of the kind of people that were doing history and of the kinds of topics these people were interested in; (iii) the impact of the First World War in raising a whole series of questions about how the world worked, and the consequent growth of economic and social history; (iv) the group of historians known as the Annales School, who offered a much more expansive idea of the proper subjects of history – not just the events of the past, but the way people thought, the way society was structured, etc.; (v) the Annales School’s use of new kinds of sources (e.g. oral history) or traditional sources in new ways; (vi) Fernand Braudel’s history of the Mediterranean and the concept of the longue durée; and (vii) Alain Corbin’s history of the sense of smell.


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).

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APA style

Arnold, J. (2020, September 07). The History of History - The 20th Century [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Arnold, J. "The History of History – The 20th Century." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 07 Sep 2020,

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