when does historical writing go from being historiography to history? — or in other words: when do we stop regarding a piece of historical work as a piece of academic writing on some historical event, and start regarding it instead as a primary source in itself?
The most straightforward way to think about this might be to consider Thucydides (widely regarded as one of the earliest historians in the canonical sense of ‘history’). Do we take his history of the Peloponnesian Wars as part of the historiographical canon on the topic — that is to say, do we place Thucydides (~410 B.C.) along with Hanson (2005), Bagnall (2006), Kagan (1989) etc.? Or do we take his history as a piece of literature, a source document on the wars themselves?
The question, I think, also applies more presently. There’s a wonderful history of British Malaya by an exceedingly erudite but spectacularly colonial historian who produced a scrupulous historical account riddled with the sorts of pronouncements that historians today would shudder at: “the leading characteristic of the native Malay is a disinclination to work”, to take one of many. It served as a seminal historical and informational reference for all colonial officials dispatched to Malaysia to serve in the administration, but it’s no longer quite something we would deal with in, say, surveying the historiographical literature on British Malaya today. It’s become a source document — a memoir of, rather than a history by, the colonial official in question.
There may be a third way, as there so often seems to be with resolving historical questions — a case for saying that a piece of historical writing can be both. An example suggested to me was Edward Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire. In such cases, distinguishing what is ‘outdatedly’ historical and what is ‘legitimately’ historiographical about the account seems a tricky endeavour, and the criteria by which this is achieved might merit more thought at a later date. But I’m interested in the transition from something being part of the historiography on a given historical event to becoming something historical in itself — a document of, rather than on, the past. History seems unique amongst other disciplines in this respect, because perhaps unlike scientific and medical literature, even outdated historical literature seems to have a certain value, albeit perhaps a rather different one from its original function as history.
I don’t know if I’ve made myself particularly clear here — it’s late, and I take responsibility for resultant incoherence. Meanwhile a post is brewing for Cliopatria, hot tepidly on the heels of my first post — watch this space.