Historical Pairs

I’m re-reading Herodotus and it got me to thinking about historical pairs – that is pairs of historians – those who presented a particularly famous thesis and the most influential respondent to such. Which prompted a question in my head – who were/are the most influential of these pairs? There are a number of them.

To me (at least for the history of the “West” – however one wants to define that term) it is probably Edward Gibbon and Henri Pirenne. While a significant gap in time separates their careers, I can think of few more influential historians than they. Indeed, most of the mental images and framework we have for the classical and medieval world comes directly from their work. It even comes at us through popular media, such as in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

Now most people would not know Pirenne by name – but his description of the early medieval Europe as a place where the nadir of European history exists has a strong influence on the popular imagination (even though that is no longer how we think of the period). Indeed, his focus on the decline of the Mediterranean world as the locus of Europe is the lens through which the development of Europe following 476 CE is generally viewed; what is ignored in other words is the shift of that locus to other trading networks in northern Europe, etc.

Similarly Gibbon’s description of the Roman Empire in decline as the result of a loss of manliness, courage, martial values, etc. (much of it to be attributed to both luxury and Christianity according to Gibbon) can continually be seen in the last hundred years of movies, etc. about Rome. We have more plausible hypotheses these days, but the moralistic tale of corruption twined with Christian asceticism remains very popular in the public mind.

Also, as far as the methods and mechanics of telling history, both are hugely influential. Gibbon is a narrative story teller, with all that entails. It is a type of history writing that is still common today, though professional historians do not practice it as much. Whereas Pirenne straddles the world of history written through abstract social and economic forces as well as history as the result of individual decisions and individual will. The competition between these two ways of looking at the historical record remains the case today (though other competitors have arisen since the time of Pirenne).

Just my half sleepy thoughts.

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