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For other uses, see History (disambiguation).

History is a term that refers to information about the past. When used as the name of a field of study, history refers to the study and interpretation of the record of human people, families, and societies. Knowledge of history is often said to encompass both knowledge of past events and historical thinking skills.

Traditionally, the study of history has been considered a part of the humanities. However, in modern academia, history is increasingly classified as a social science, especially when chronology is the focus.

Historians limit their study to events that have been recorded since the introduction of the earliest known written and historical records, notably the Narmer Palette of circa 3200 BC. Events before then are called prehistory, a period informed by the fields of palaeontology and archaeology. In cultures where written records did not appear until more recent times, oral tradition is used, and even in cultures where written records are common, many historians supplement the written records with oral history.



Main article: Historical classification

Because history is such a large subject, organization is crucial. While several writers, such as H.G. Wells and Will Durant & Ariel Durant, have written universal histories, most historians specialize.

There are several different ways of classifying historical information:

  • Chronological (by date)
  • Geographical (by region)
  • National (by nation)
  • Ethnic (by ethnic group)
  • Topical (by subject or topic)

Some people have criticized historical study, saying that it tends to be too narrowly focused on political events, armed conflicts, and famous people and that deeper and more significant changes in terms of ideas, technology, family life and culture warrant more attention. Recent developments in the practice of history have sought to address this.

Historical records

Historians obtain information about the past from various kinds of sources, including written or printed records, coins or other artifacts, buildings and monuments, and interviews (oral history). For modern history, primary sources may include photographs, motion pictures, and audio and video recordings. Different approaches may be more common in the study of some periods than in others, and perspectives of history (historiography) vary widely.

Historical records have been maintained for a variety of reasons, including administrative (such as censuses, tax records, commercial records), political (glorification or criticism of leaders and notable figures), religious, artistic, sporting (notably the Olympics), genealogical, personal (letters), and entertainment.


Look up History on Wiktionary, the free dictionary

The term history entered the English language in 1390 with the meaning of "relation of incidents, story" via the Old French historie, from the Latin historia "narrative, account." This itself was derived from the Ancient Greek ἱστορία, historía, meaning "a learning or knowing by inquiry, history, record, narrative," from the verb ἱστορεῖν, historeîn, "to inquire."

This, in turn, was derived from ἵστωρ, hístōr ("wise man," "witness," or "judge"). Early attestations of ἵστωρ are from the Homeric Hymns, Heraclitus, the Athenian ephebes' oath, and from Boiotic inscriptions (in a legal sense, either "judge" or "witness," or similar). The spirant is problematic, and not present in cognate Greek eídomai ("to appear").

ἵστωρ is ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *wid-tor-, from the root *weid- ("to know, to see"), also present in the English word wit, the Latin words vision and video, the Sanskrit word veda the Welsh word gwynn, and the Slavic word videti, as well as others. (The asterisk before a word indicates that it is a hypothetical construction, not an attested form.) 'ἱστορία, historía, is an Ionic derivation of the word, which with Ionic science and philosophy were spread first in Classical Greece and ultimately over all of Hellenism.

In Middle English, the meaning was "story" in general. The restriction to the meaning "record of past events" in the sense of Herodotus arises in the late 15th century (interestingly, in German, this distinction was never made, and the modern German word "Geschichte" means both history and story, just like the word "storia" in Italian). A sense of "systematic account" without a reference to time in particular was current in the 16th century, but is now obsolete. The adjective historical is attested from 1561, and historic from 1669. Historian in the sense of a "researcher of history" in a higher sense than that of an annalist or chronicler, who merely record events as they occur, is attested from 1531.


See full article: Historiography

Historiography is the study and analysis of history through a belief system or philosophy. Although there is arguably some intrinsic bias in historical studies (with national bias perhaps being the most significant), history can also be studied from ideological perspectives, such as Marxist historiography.

A form of historical speculation known commonly as virtual history ("counterfactual history") has also been adopted by some historians as a means of assessing and exploring the possible outcomes if certain events had not occurred or had occurred in a different way. This is somewhat similar to the alternative history genre of fiction.

Historical methods

Historians of note who have advanced the historical methods of study include Leopold von Ranke, Lewis Bernstein Namier, Geoffrey Rudolph Elton, G.M. Trevelyan and A.J.P. Taylor. In recent years, postmodernists have challenged the validity and need for the study of history on the basis that all history is based on the personal interpretation of sources. In his book In Defence of History, Richard J. Evans, a professor of modern history at Cambridge University, defended the worth of history.

The lessons of history

In addition to being an interesting topic of study in its own right, historians often claim that the study of history teaches valuable lessons with regard to past successes and failures of leaders, economic systems, forms of government, and other recurring themes in the human story. From history we may learn factors that result in the rise and fall of nation-states or civilizations, motivations for political actions, the effects of social philosophies, and perspectives on culture and technology.

A collage of historic images taken during the 20th century, and the subsequent 5 years. (Click to expand)
A collage of historic images taken during the 20th century, and the subsequent 5 years. (Click to expand)

One of the most famous quotations about history and the value of studying history by Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, reads: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The German Philosopher. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel remarked in his Philosophy of history that: "What history and experience teach us is this: that people and government never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it." This was famously paraphrased by the British stateman, Winston Churchill into: "The one thing we have learned from history is that we don't learn from history."

Winston Churchill alluded to another philosophy of history when he quipped, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." Churchill's joking comment is a variant of the famous: "History is written by the victors." In this view, the winners in human conflicts get to put their own spin on historic events.

An alternative view is that the forces of history are too great to be changed by human deliberation, or that, even if people do change the course of history, the movers and shakers of this world are usually too self-involved to stop to look at the big picture.

Another view is that history does not repeat itself because of the uniqueness of any given historical event. In this view, the specific combination of factors at any moment in time can never be repeated, and so knowledge about events in the past can not be directly and beneficially applied to the present. This approach is challenged in less meta-historical terms with the notion that historical lessons can and should be drawn from events, and that careful generalizations of unique events is useful. For example, emergency response to natural disasters can be improved, even though each individual disaster is, in itself, absolutely unique.

See also

  • Historian: A person who studies history.
  • Pseudohistory: term for information about the past that falls outside the domain of mainstream history (sometimes it is an equivalent of pseudoscience).

Methods and tools

  • Contemporaneous corroboration: A method historians use to establish facts beyond their limited lifespan.
  • Prosopography: A methodological tool for the collection of all known information about individuals within a given period.
  • Historical revisionism: Traditionally been used in a completely neutral sense to describe the work or ideas of a historian who has revised a previously accepted view of a particular topic.

Particular studies and fields

  • Archaeology: study of prehistoric and historic human cultures through the recovery, documentation and analysis of material remains and environmental data.
  • Archontology: study of historical offices and important positions in state, international, political, religious and other organizations and societies.
  • Futurology: study of the future: researches the medium to long-term future of societies and of the physical world.
  • History painter: painters of historical motifs and particularly the great events.
  • Paleography: study of ancient texts.
  • Psychohistory: study of the psychological motivations of historical events.
  • Military History: The study of warfare and wars in history


  • Changelog: log or record of changes made to a project, such as a website or software project.
  • Human evolution: process of change and development, or evolution, by which human beings emerged as distinct species.
  • Social change: changes in the nature, the social institutions, the social behavior, or the social relations of a society or community of people.


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