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Working Around the Limitations of Biography

Essay by   •  February 29, 2012  •  Essay  •  1,019 Words (5 Pages)  •  1,364 Views

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Working Around the Limitations of Biography

There are many methods on how to research and record history, and historians worldwide will most likely never agree on one approach. Empiricism for instance, the historical school of thought that has been used by historians for almost 200 years, is both a theory of knowledge, an epistemology, as well as a method of historical enquiry.1 The theory's followers argued that historians should only use primary sources, those that are created at the particular time of the event, and stressed the importance of remaining unbiased in research. But how undeniable and factual is the information found in original sources? And how can one truly remain objective? The reality is that forgeries are not confined to the medieval world and historical events are open to a multiplicity of interpretations.2 Another problem with empiricism is that its focus is primarily on the individual and the politics of a specific time and region. Writing history in the form of a biography as such tends to lean towards the "Great Man" theory, emphasizing the role of a single person over broader socio-economic forces. Other historical schools of thought however have made it clear that the biography as a historic genre needs to seek out the individual as part of a social, economic, and ideological environment. But what if historians have to work around limitations encountered while writing a biography and emerge themselves in other sciences to support their case? When does it become acceptable to go beyond the traditional parameters of what is considered a historical source?

The Annales school of thought was named after the 1929 scholarly journal Annales d'histoire economique et sociale which was published by Mark Bloch and Lucien Febvre. Their intent was to promote a new approach to history by rejecting the traditional study of history, empiricism that is only concerned with politics and individuals, and instead broaden the world's focus with social and economic history. The historians of the first generation Annales were concentrated on social groupings, collective mindsets, and, unlike the empiricists who only relied on primary documents, used a variety of sources which included folklore, literature, and even maps. Among the school's greatest accomplishments was the rejection of traditional biography which isolated the individual, the end of the taboo surrounding unwritten evidence, and the enforcement of a dialogue with the sister disciplines in the human sciences.3 The founders of this theory pursued the idea of a total history which, when all facets of a society were combined, created a historical reality. They made a serious attempt to combine scientific history and historicism.4 Regardless whether some critics believe that their ideas were and never can be materialized, the fact remains that the Annales' historians have greatly expanded the topics of historical thought and have provided many historians with new ideas on how to recreate history.

Which leads us to an interesting essay by Robin Fleming. Fleming discusses the limitations of writing a biography about a person who lived in early medieval Britain. This endeavor not only becomes a difficult task because of a lack of primary sources, but also

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