The historians of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were interested only in those parts of the past from which they could draw moral lessons.

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The historians of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were interested only in those parts of the past from which they could draw moral lessons.

Were the historians of these periods selective in their area of study? If so why did they select those particular parts of history? Since the question of whether historians narrow down periods to study is undoubtedly yes, the question of why they select those parts is far more relevant. It is a far broader question than might initially appear, for it draws on the wide range of historiographical works, which ask why we study history at all. What methods or criteria do we have in narrowing down what to study? As E.H. Carr points out, ‘millions have crossed the Rubicon, but historians tell us that only Caesars crossing was significant’. We view history from our own present day perspective

The question of what constitutes a moral lesson also arises. This also is a matter of interpretation, as there are those who would say that morality extends beyond the purely theological realm. It is more than just a strict religious code but a standard of living for even the secular political world. If this is so, then a much larger part of history is included in this category. Also, if the historian draws no moral lesson from a part of history, is this to say that none can be drawn from it? It then becomes a contemporary and very much political question. History’s purpose therefore, is all a matter of the reader’s interpretation.

This essay title spans two very important and long periods of history. It extends from the beginning of the renaissance on the 14th century to the end of the enlightenment around the beginning of the 19th century. The renaissance was a time of renewed interest in the Greek and Roman literature and a renewal of rhetorical education that characterised intellectual life and had an effect on historical study. There appeared to be emerging a secular approach to political history, which some historians point to, yet we must remember that secular does not necessarily mean amoral. The Enlightenment saw this attitude becoming more popular, though “harbouring philosophical pretensions” Michael Bentley points out that a “new cynicism about the motivations and moral capacity of individuals” became more prevalent among historians of the time, while they elevated the “l’esprit humain to new levels of moral authority”. We can understand from this that a new moral code had been created, though the historians of the time would not have liked to admit that, since the word moral had always been associated with the church and religion. Human beings have always sought rules and morals to guide them. Man is essentially good and aspires to be more than he can be, the form in which this aspiration takes is not important. This brings us to E.H. Carr’s point that absolute objectivity is impossible. How we perceive, study and select history is always affected by our own prejudices and moral code.  

During the Renaissance we see some evidence of a shift away from a moral perspective of the study of history to a form of revisionism. Bentley highlights the examples of John Mair and Polydore Vergil of Urbino. The latter, a papal tax collector also, wrote a ‘history’ which dismissed the alleged Trojan origins of the Britons. John Mair, a contemporary of Polydore, rejected the assumption that Christianity had been introduced into Britain by Christ’s follower Joseph of Arithmathaea.

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On first glance it appears that this is a quite ordinary and amoral academic ‘clearing up’ of the facts. However if we think deeper we must ask whether this clearing up served a purpose at the time. It might not appear to have a moral purpose today, but the choice by these historians to analyse and revise this part of history could be a reflection of their own moral presuppositions. The revised history itself could serve this purpose. Who is to say also that revising history so that man may have a better understanding is not a belief worth categorising ...

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