Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Historiography, Renaissance

  • Becky Green
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_583-1


As scholars and Humanists in the Renaissance were busy rediscovering Classical texts and deepening their awareness of ancient culture, they were also delving into the emerging nuances of historiography. Not only were intellectuals interested with preserving the events and memories of the past, but they were also interested in how this was performed. Ancient scholars, along with writers throughout the Middle Ages, certainly contributed to this discussion by placing a value on eye-witness accounts and facts based on human events (as opposed to mythological events).

The rediscovery of such texts by Renaissance intellectuals allowed this discussion of historical methodology to thrive and develop further. It was these scholars, devoted to rhetoric and its utility in creating didactic texts, who gave historiography a platform during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By definition, Historiography concerns itself with the study of history – not simply the works produced by historians, but the methodology of said historians as well. What is considered an acceptable source? What would adequate verification of that source look like? Does one use narrative, poetry, a speech or another form of writing to convey the historical subject matter they have in mind? These questions, among others, were tackled by multiple authors during the Renaissance.

This entry seeks to give the reader a general introduction to historiography, as well as the environment which so greatly fostered its development during the Renaissance.


Heritage and Rupture with Tradition

Historiography plays a very interesting role in the Renaissance and has recently enjoyed a fair amount of attention from scholars. At first glance, it may seem like a small sub-section of other higher-profile topics such as philosophy, literature, and history itself. A closer look, however, will show how it factored into some seminal debates within Renaissance scholarship.

By definition, historiography is the study of history. It examines the products of past scholars who have written about history and have recorded significant events over the years. More importantly, it examines their methodology and practices, their use of sources, and their ideology surrounding the works they produced. How did they define a reliable source of information regarding the past and why? How did they conceptualize past civilizations and how did they interact with the texts and information that came into their possession? What form did they consider optimal for conveying information about the past: narration, genealogies, texts with a universal focus or texts with a specific time period or region in mind? Additionally, what was the purpose for writing about history? In recent years, literary theorists and philosophers (as we will see below), have raised skepticisms regarding history as a whole, including epistemological concerns regarding what actually happened in the past versus what the text itself purports. Can we really have an accurate idea of what happened in the past and if so, how do we obtain it?

As a discipline, historiography found a congenial environment for growth and development during the Renaissance. The years between 1400 and 1600 were characterized by an obsessive interest with ancient thought, literature and philosophy since various works from ancient Greece and Rome were rediscovered after years of hiding during the Middle Ages. Given the value Renaissance thinkers placed on the works of Classical scholars, it will be helpful to begin our discussion with an examination of these sources.

While there are a myriad of Classical authors who influenced the Renaissance, we will focus on a handful who specifically shaped the field of history and prompted later Humanist scholars to expound upon their works. Herodotus (c. 484–425/413 BCE), for example, author of the Histories, is known as one of the forerunners of western historical writing, along with Thucydides. Thucydides (c. 460/455–399/398 BCE) wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War and was only a few years younger than Herodotus. Jeremy D. Popkin’s book provides a solid introduction not only to the field of historiography at large, but also to the ancient authors listed here and their early historical contributions (Popkin 2016). As Popkins highlights in his discussion, although Herodotus and Thucydides were only separated by a short period of time, their historical methodologies were quite different and provided a rich starting point for historiographical discussion. Herodotus, for example, did not hesitate to include stories concerning the deities or mythology within his writings about Greek society. Thucydides, on the other hand, focused on recording only the events of which he could be certain – events purported by eye-witnesses and nothing of mythology (Popkin 2016; see also Lloyd 2012 and Mark 2009 for brief introductions to Thucydides and Herodotus, respectively). Thereafter we have Polybius (c, 200–118 BC), know for his keen observations regarding the evolution of various political systems, and Livy (c. 59 BC – 17 AD) with his history of Rome, Ab urbe condita. Both of these intellectuals were extremely formative for numerous Renaissance scholars (especially Leonardo Bruni).

Throughout the middle ages, we see a similar emphasis on eye-witness accounts as a result of the difficulty of relying solely on textual sources. Written sources, after all, were somewhat more scarce in the Middle Ages than they were in the Renaissance (and considerably more scarce than what we are accustomed to after the advent of the printing press and the internet). One interesting example is the Cronica of the Anonimo Romano, which includes a first chapter wherein the anonymous author states his reasons and methodologies for writing history, emphasizing that some of the events discussed in the work were witnessed first-hand either by himself or his contemporaries (Romano 1981). In addition, chronologies and annual records, often maintained in monasteries, were a common medieval form of writing history, which historians in the Renaissance consulted later on (Cochrane 1981). Many medieval historians also favored a “universal perspective” when composing their works; in other words, they attempted to create a comprehensive history starting from the Creation and working towards their own current position in time. As we will see, while this trend sometimes continued during the Renaissance, there was also a “municipal” aspect, if you will, during the Renaissance, with some histories focusing more on their city, as opposed to this “universal perspective.”

Building upon the scholarship before them, Renaissance intellectuals continued these historical debates and greatly added to the growth and development of historiography as a whole. And while their practice of history may still seem rudimentary and biased to the twenty-first century eye, their accomplishments should still be analyzed and appreciated within their Renaissance context, as we will see in the following paragraphs.

While there are numerous Renaissance historians to choose from across continental Europe and Britain, we will start with one in particular given the spatial limitations of the current project, especially since many scholars consider him a forerunner of historiographical methodology during the Renaissance, despite the methodological weaknesses that still remained in his works. Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444) was a statesman and a scholar in Florence just as the Renaissance was coming into full-swing. He was heavily influenced by classical authors such as Livy, Polybius and Thucydides, to name only a few. One of his more prominent works, the History of the Florentine People, was imminently well-received in Florence at the time and has provided a springboard for considerable debate regarding Renaissance historiography among modern scholars.

Innovative and Original Aspects

Both Gary Ianziti and Eric Cochrane point out the strengths and weaknesses of Bruni’s tactics. Some of the more important aspects that Bruni contributed to the historiographical considerations of his time were the fact that he preferred to explain consequential events via rationality – not with the divine or mythological influences of some historians who preceded him, as mentioned above – but in examining the “…intentions, desires, passions, and personal idiosyncrasies of the individual actors…” (Cochrane 1981, p. 4). Rationality was a foundational characteristic of history for Bruni (Ianziti 2012, p. 242).

Bruni also demonstrates a heightened conscientiousness in using his sources for his projects. He consulted Florence’s archives in addition to relying on multiple sources as opposed to just one in order to improve accuracy and lessen any one-sidedness (Cochrane 1981, p. 4–5). Nonetheless, weaknesses, according to modern standards, are still prevalent in his work. Bruni would often reproduce significant sections of sources and classical authors. Ianziti also points out, in conjunction with the works of Anna Maria Cabrini and Riccardo Fubini, that Bruni was not opposed to manipulating his sources “…to suit his pro-Florentine agenda.” (Ianziti 2012 pp. 7–9, 229–30; Cabrini 1990; Fubini 2003).

History for Bruni, was also useful. It was to be didactic, with utility, not only for policy makers within the Florentine Republic, but for readers in general. While this was not necessarily a new idea (as Cicero was known for proclaiming history as one of life’s “great teachers”) it was unique in the sense that Bruni was offering his historical production within an immediately political context in Florence, something Niccoló Macchiavelli (1469–1527) would share with him a generation later.

It is important to note here, that another popular element of historiography during the Renaissance were speeches – namely speeches given by the main characters within the text of the historical work itself. Many historians during this time considered speeches as a way of adding to the rhetorical element of their work. Not only was it a way to instill the work with pleasing text for the reader, thereby increasing the text’s efficacy with didacticism, but it was also a way to convey the reasons and explanations for which historical figures acted as they did, as Cochrane points out in his discussion on Bruni: “…most of the speeches contain what for Bruni was the most important ingredient of history as a distinct literary genre: the ratio, or causes, of the events recounted. […] the causes were most appropriately expounded in the very words that were, or that might have been, pronounced by the agent.” (Cochrane 1981, p. 4).

Interestingly enough, the inclusion of such speeches within historiographical works produced in the Renaissance was subject to much debate among Renaissance scholars themselves. Anthony Grafton provides an interesting discussion of this in his work What Was History? (Grafton 2007). In his first chapter, he describes a scholarly rivalry between Jacob Perizonius (1651–1715) and Jean Le-Clerc (1657–1736), where Perizonius heads up the school supporting a rhetorical approach to history, in which speeches were appreciated and respected as an effective tool for the historian. Le-Clerc, on the other hand, championed a more factually-based approach to history, not necessarily a blind-faith-reliance on classical authors, but an examination of one’s sources in order to produce an accurate explanation of the events that took place.

It is interesting to note that this discussion of historiographical methodology mirrored a more general discussion that also took place among Renaissance scholars regarding Latin literature, including the Latin language itself, and the extent to which it should be mirrored in the original productions of their generations. Some Renaissance scholars argued that fully adopting a classical style with their Latin (more often based on Ciceronian Latin), would be the pinnacle of scholarly achievement, replicating the reason and elegance of the ancient thinkers they so appreciated. Others vouched for a more moderate approach. Others still (as we saw above in Grafton’s discussion of Le-Clerc) advocated a “modern approach” – moving away from imitation and on towards investigation and innovation. Thus, an important aspect to remember about Renaissance historiography is the varied context in which it evolved. On the one hand, there was an almost obsessive reliance and reverence for classical authors; including their writings (if not completely reproducing them) in one’s work was often favored. On the other, there was a growing pull for a more factually-oriented product.

Impact and Legacy

There were, of course, numerous other Renaissance scholars who participated in these discussions: Niccoló Machiavelli (1469–1527), Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540), and Jean Bodin (1529/30–1596), to name only a few. We focused on Leonardo Bruni here in order to provide a survey of the methodological characteristics present within a renowned Renaissance historian.

It is important to note some of the thought and innovation which has recently occurred in historiographical research, as this will greatly effect anyone embarking on research regarding Renaissance historiography – or historiography of any period, for that matter. Towards the middle of the twentieth century, historiographers such as Hayden White (b. 1928–) and Quentin Skinner (b. 1940–) have contributed to what is known as the “Linguistic Turn” – a movement within the discipline of historiography (as well as philosophy, literary theory, etc) where the authority of a historical text is no longer taken for granted, but questioned. The Linguistic Turn has its roots in analytic philosophy, specifically in the first half of the twentieth century, when philosophers such as Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970) and Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) (among others including Wittgenstein (1889–1951) and Russell (1872–1970) before them) noted that the language with which we communicate information is very imperfect and susceptible to many weaknesses (Beaney 2014). In other words, these philosophers were questioning the accuracy, efficacy and authority of language in communicating concepts. A similar distrust of language and the texts with which concepts were communicated manifested itself in the field of Historiography a few decades later with Hayden White’s work entitled Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Popkin 2016). Popkin discusses the Linguistic Turn and its influence within the field of Historiography – specifically White’s critique that historical works are more accurately described as narratives – inseparable from the author’s subjective perspective – as opposed to a treatise relying on objective evidence (Popkin 2016). As Popkin mentions, while Metahistory received its fair share of criticism, “White’s emphasis on the literary character of historical narrative and his insistence that historians represent events rather than simply letting the facts speak for themselves has made members of the discipline more self-conscious about how they use language and shape their accounts.” (Popkin 2016, p. 136).

As Cochrane and Ianziti showed with Leonardo Bruni, works of history, even by the most respected authors in our western tradition, are susceptible to subjective influences. Facts can be distorted; biases can be taken. Similarly, the Linguistic Turn pointed out how much of the evidence and production of historians relies on information communicated via language – a medium highly susceptible to the biases and (sub)conscious influences of its authors and the societies in which they live. Peter Burke’s recent article about the influence of Hayden White’s Metahistory provides an insightful evaluation of the effect White’s work has had and its recent reception among current scholars (Burke 2013). Gabrielle Spiegel’s work also provides an examination of medieval historiography (particularly that of France) in the light of these advances in historical scholarship since the Linguistic Turn.

In closing, historiography during the Renaissance was the subject of much debate, development and conscientious improvement, yet simultaneously prone to carrying on certain traditions, which, to the modern eye, should no longer constitute sound, historical methodology. Similarly, the field of history is under more theoretical scrutiny than it has been in the past, putting one of the main vehicles of recording history, the text itself, to thorough examination. For further readings and information on the Linguistic Turn, please see the following sources: The Institute of Historical Research (2008), Spiegel (1993), Spiegel (1997), White (1973).



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Becky Green
    • 1
  1. 1.Independent ScholarEagleUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Teodoro Katinis
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Literary StudiesGhent UniversityGhentBelgium