scholar who deals with the exploration and presentation of history

A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it.


The treatment of the period of Reconstruction reflects small credit upon American historians as scientists. We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans. ~ W. E. B. Du Bois
[H]istorians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to the heroin-addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market. Nations without a past are contradictions in terms. What makes a nation is the past, what justifies one nation against others is the past, and historians are the people who produce it. So my profession, which has always been mixed up in politics, becomes an essential component of nationalism. ~ Eric Hobsbawm
Classical historians take as their subject the conflict between great political powers, for example, Greece and Persia (Herodotus), Athens and Sparta (Thucydides), Rome and Carthage (Livy), Rome and Greece (Polybius), or the struggle for power within a particular state, for example, Athens (Thucydides), republican Rome (Sallust), imperial Rome (Tacitus). ~ Isabel Rivers
  • History presents an historian with the task of producing a dialogue between the past and the present. But as these temporal co-ordinates cannot be fixed, history becomes a continuous interaction between the historian and the past.
    • Dana Arnold, Reading Architectural History (2002), Ch. 1 : Reading the past : What is architectural history?
  • The choice of narrative is an important way of making the facts speak. But this was rarely recognised by nineteenth-century historians, many of whom were oblivious to the nature and consequences of the narrative choices available to them. They believed, instead, that at some point all facts would be known and thus to provide an archival truth. There are traces of this today where narrative choices, centred for instance on biography, style or social history, stem from the belief that an empirical reiteration of the facts presents reality.
    • Dana Arnold, Reading Architectural History (2002), Ch. 1 : Reading the past : What is architectural history?
  • What really happens is that the author discards the human persona but replaces it by an 'objective¿ one; the authorial subject is as evident as ever, but it has become an objective subject … At the level of discourse objectivity, or the absence of any clues to the narrator, turns out to be particular form of fiction, where the historian tries to give the impression that the referent is speaking for itself.
    • Roland Barthes, ‘Le discours de l’histoire’ trans. as ‘Historical Discourse’ in M. Lane (ed.) Structuralism: A reader, London, Jonathan Cape, 1970, pp. 149–154.
  • Take one of Voltaire's swift shining shafts of wit: "History is after all only a pack of tricks we play on the dead." Ah, yes, how true it is, we say; and we are astonished that Voltaire could have been so profound. Then we realize that he did not really mean it. To him it was a witticism intended to brand dishonest historians, whereas we perceive that it formulated, in the neatest possible way, a profound truth — the truth that all historical writing, even the most honest, is unconsciously subjective, since every age is bound, in spite of itself, to make the dead perform whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.
    • Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932), Ch. II. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971, pp. 43–4.
  • HISTORIAN, n. A broad-gauge gossip.
    • Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic's Dictionary (1906); republished as The Devil's Dictionary (1911).
  • Histories are as perfect as the Historian is wise, and is gifted with an eye and a soul.
    • Thomas Carlyle, Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, Introduction, Chapter I.
  • In a certain sense all men are historians.
  • Historians . . . proceed inferentially. They investigate evidence much as lawyers cross-question witnesses in a court of law, extracting from that evidence information which it does not explicitly contain.
    • Paul Connerton, “How Societies Remember” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 13. as quoted on Thomas R. Kearns (August 2002). History, Memory, and the Law. University of Michigan Press.as quoted in p.3 Footnote 7
  • For her class of people, a “professional historian” is a historian with academic status. They are very status-conscious and constantly pull rank, especially when faced with informed arguments. For a scholar, this is weak, but for sophomores, it is uppermost in their minds: climbing the status ladder. When you know the academic circles, you become far less inclined to be over-awed by academic status: many professors have obvious ideological prejudices and bend their findings to suit their presuppositions. Moreover, in many countries to some extent, and certainly in India, scholars in the humanities are selected for ideological conformity with the dominant school. After nearly half a century, this has led to a situation where a post of “eminence” is simply equivalent with ideological conformity, at least passively (not raising your head), often actively (furthering the dominant paradigm).
    • Elst, Koenraad. Forever Ayodhya (2023).
  • The good historian is not for any time or any country: while he loves his fatherland, he never flatters it in anything.
    • François Fénelon Lettre sur les Occupations de l'Académie Française, sect. 8, cited from Œuvres de Fénelon (Paris: Lefèvre, 1835) vol. 3, p. 240; translation by Patrick Riley, from Hans Blom et al. (eds.) Monarchisms in the Age of Enlightenment (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007) p. 86.
  • Do you really believe ... that everything historians tell us about men – or about women – is actually true? You ought to consider the fact that these histories have been written by men, who never tell the truth except by accident.”
    • Moderata Fonte, The Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men, p.76
  • The historian must have...some conception of how men who are not historians behave. Otherwise he will move in a world of the dead.
  • Though I cannot claim to be an authority on the subject, I myself have been horrified at the way in which reputable historians have accepted as evidence isolated statements by one peasant extracted under interrogation and torture.
  • The long historian of my country's woes.
    • Homer, The Odyssey, Book III, line 142. Pope's translation.
  • The historian’s task is to present what actually happened. The more purely and completely he achieves this, the more perfectly has he solved this problem. A simple presentation is at the same time the primary indispensable condition of his work and the highest achievement he will be able to attain. Regarded in this way, he seems to be merely receptive and productive, not active and creative.
  • There can be no one historical narrative that renders perfect justice (just as perhaps there is no judicial outcome that can capture the complexity of history)…. [T]he historian would like to do justice; the judge must establish some version of history . . . . If good judges and historians shun the tasks, they will be taken on by prejudiced or triumphalist ones.
  • This world tendency to make history the vehicle of certain definite political, social and economic ideas, which reign supreme in each country for the time being, is like a cloud, at present no bigger than a man’s hand, but which may soon grow in volume, and overcast the sky, covering the light of the world by an impenetrable gloom. The question is therefore of paramount importance, and it is the bounden duty of every historian to guard himself against the tendency, and fight it by the only weapon available to him, namely by holding fast to truth in all his writings irrespective of all consequences. A historian should not trim his sail according to the prevailing wind, but ever go straight, keeping in view the only goal of his voyage—the discovery of truth. (p. xxx)
    • R. C. Majumdar, Volume 6: The Delhi Sultanate [1300-1526]
  • Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. [...] The unending quest of historians for understanding the past — that is, "revisionism" — is what makes history vital and meaningful.
  • I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting; it destroys. I could tell most of the secretaries in the church office building that they are ugly and fat. That would be the truth, but it would hurt and destroy them. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting.
    • Boyd K. Packer Quinn (ed), Faithful History: Essays On Writing Mormon History, p 103, fn 22
  • All historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner, but making this the beginning and end of their labour, have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of History, and that surest and indeed the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others.
  • The forensic historian . . . searches the past for material applicable to a current issue. The purpose of the advocate . . . is to use the past for the elucidation of the present, to solve some contemporary problem or, most often, to carry an argument. It is the past put in the service of winning the case at bar.
    • John Philip Reid, “The Jurisprude of Liberty: The Ancient Constitution in the Legal Histiography of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries”, in “the Roots of Liberty: Magna Carta, Ancient Constitutions, and the Anglo-American Tradition of Rule of Law”, ed. Ellis Sandox (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 167. as quoted on Thomas R. Kearns (August 2002). History, Memory, and the Law. University of Michigan Press. p.3
  • Der Historiker ist ein rückwärts gekehrter Prophet.
    • The historian is a prophet facing backwards.
    • August Wilhelm Schlegel, Anthenaem Fragments (Poetic Fragments fragment 80) 27, in Friedrich Schlegel's "Lucinde" and the Fragments (1971) ed. & Tr. Peter Edgerly Firchow, p. 170.
  • I would not care whether truth is pleasant or unpleasant, and in consonance with or opposed to current views. I would not mind in the least whether truth is, or is not, a blow to the glory of my country. If necessary, I shall bear in patience the ridicule and slander of friends and society for the sake of preaching truth. But still I shall seek truth, understand truth, and accept truth. This should be the firm resolve of a historian.
    • Sir Jadunath Sarkar, quoted in Meenakshi Jain, "Flawed Narratives – History in the old NCERT Textbooks" (2001) [1], and quoted in R.C. Majumdar, The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol. 7, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1984, pp. xiii (quoted from a Presidential speech given at a historical conference in Bengal, 1915).
  • “I have looked at Nauvoo as a writer, not as a historian. There is a difference. A writer lives by ideas, while a historian isn’t allowed to have one.
  • Every historian loves the past or should do. If not, he has mistaken his vocation; but it is a short step from loving the past to regretting that it has ever changed. Conservatism is our greatest trade-risk; and we run psychoanalysts close in the belief that the only "normal" people are those who cause no trouble either to themselves or anybody else.

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