Comparative History


History studies the past. But there is more than one past. Confining ourselves to one corner of the past misses the chance of seeing the larger picture. It also misses the chance of seeing the smaller picture whole. The pursuit of the larger picture is sometimes called Comparative History.


A Parable. If all you know is maple trees, your concept of "leaf" will be a maple leaf, a flat thing with a stem and pointy lobes. Then you meet an oak leaf. And you adjust your conception. A "leaf" in your mind is now a flat thing with lobes, not necessarily pointy. Then you encounter an elm leaf, and find that the lobes can be reduced to mere serrations. What about a willow leaf? A pine needle?

You do not know, repeat, you do not know, what a city-state is, or a law, or a revolution, or indirect sovereignty based on elite landholding, or divine kingship, until you have considered several specimens of the type. Studying possible cases of "the same" phenomenon, seeking their repeating elements, discovering their conditions of variation: this is comparative history. Comparative history is not currently in great shape. It was last heard from in 1950, trying to deal with the F-word. But in principle, comparative history is not only valid history, it is the only valid history.

History in one corner is already a lot of work. For history in more than one corner, cooperation will definitely be required. The prerequisite is that the representative from each corner should know enough of the rudiments of the other corners to be able to tell what the other person is talking about. And should be kind in turn to any stranger in the realm who want to establish a working acquaintance. This page used to be a portal for a set of what we called "Acquaintance Modules," designed to compress the elements of familiarity for several ancient societies into a small space. That work is now left to interested persons - and some equally interested colleague encountered in the cafeteria.

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5 Oct 2009 / Contact The Project / Exit to Home Page