1. Divine universal histories

For millennia, macro-scale history was the rule rather than the exception when it came to thinking about the past. Accounts on past events mostly took the form of divine cosmologies that integrated the story of the local community into the genesis of humankind, the world, and the universe. The tails of the Sumerian gods Enlil and Enki involved the creation of humanity and the establishment of Sumerian kingship, but also had to do with the fertility of the local fields and the amount of fish that swam through the local streams. The Popol Vuh of the Quiché-Maya from Guatemala contained the origins of Earth and the creation of men, but also the foundation of the Quiché people, the construction of their cities, and the arrival of the Spaniards. The creation myth of the Yoruba told about how the deity Obatala created the lands and the first humans, but also established the city of Ife, in present-day Nigeria, and how the people there built their huts and made the city to expand. In these stories from a time in which humanity was scattered in isolated communities, the universal and the local were indistinguishable concepts. Historical accounts were not tone down in relation to a reality that lay beyond the geographical and cultural scope of the historical story and to which an entirely different story applied. The mythical accounts of origin and development reached from the dwellings of the people that told them all the way up to the heavens.

Such universal claims are absent in the writings of the classical historians that are the household names in contemporary canons of Western historiography. The Histories of Herodotus (c. 484-420 BCE) does not include the origins of the universe and humankind, nor does it seek to understand the faith of different peoples along the line of a singular direction of development.[1] There might be distinguished a silhouette of an overarching principle in the contrast between the worlds of freedom and despotism, materialized by the Greek poleis and the Persian Empire respectively, but this motif only is present in parts of the work. Herodotus rather wrote an ethnography in which he understood different peoples and cultures on their own right, without estimating them in accordance to a set of universal values or principles. The geographical and cultural reach of the work is as big as his knowledge of the different oral traditions – on which Herodotus relied – allowed him to be. And although Herodotus favoured the Greek, to which culture he belonged, he never dehumanized the Persian antagonists.

Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE) is renowned for his history of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.[2] Thucydides was Athenian and lived through the war himself, so his historical account was a contemporary report of events that he had experienced first-hand, or were experienced by people that he had communicated with eye-to-eye. He regarded this approach essential to the writing of history, as he sought to compose an account that was based on certainty. The Athenian was convinced that reliable history could only be contemporary history. Yet, Thucydides considered the relevance of his work to transcend the timeframe of the Peloponnesian War. He believed that due to the constant character of human nature, past events would at some time repeat themselves in the future. History therefore remained useful as a guide to deal with contemporary situations.

Herodotus and Thucydides often are honoured for being the first true historians, but they should not be seen as typical of historiography before the age of modern academic history departments. Thucydides’ dedication to small-scale and contemporary history in order to be able to rely on the accounts of eyewitnesses exactly is the outstanding feature that made the Athenian to be admired by later academic scholars. He is not canonized because he is typical for historians prior to the nineteenth century, but because he was different.[3] Generally, the writing of history did not lose its universal pretentions for many centuries, and notions of the divine remained the main cement to compose universal histories.

The French intellectual Jean Bodin (1530-1596) stated in his Method of the Easy Comprehension of History (1566) that universal history could be divided in parts and subparts, without losing the coherence of the whole. Human history, as Bodin saw it, stood into connection with the universe, as there was a divine plan that made all parts of reality to be interrelated.[4] One of the most famous universal histories from before the eighteenth century is the Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681), by Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704), bishop and servant of Louis XIV. Bossuet’s universal history was a combination of Biblical stories and classical mythology, supplemented with some historical accounts of Medieval France. Divine providence was the main principle that integrated the narrative.

Religion-based historical syntheses were not confined to the Christian West. The fourteenth-century Ottoman scholar Mustafa Ali (1541-1600) wrote a universal history that began in the days of Adam and proceeded into historical time. This way of looking to the past brought with it a sense of teleology. The instigating force that integrated the grand synthesis of time also propelled history into a certain direction. The Persian historian Rashid al-Din (1247-1318), author of the Jami al-tawarikh (“Compendium of Histories”), believed that history had been moving towards the Mongol conquest and the reign of his own patrons. He expected that under Mongol rule, Sunni Islam, the conviction he deemed to be the most righteous, would eventually gain prevalence over the false philosophies. The pattern that al-Din distinguished in the past could be extrapolated into the future.[5]

From prehistorical times up till early modernity in Europe, historiography for the most part corresponded to the same set of essential features. It was written from the perspective of one particular cultural or geographical centre, yet made universal claims. It was religious and teleological. Divine forces were believed to guide the course of historical events to an ultimate goal.

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[1] John Burrow, A History of Histories (London: Allen Lane-Penguin Books, 2007) 11-28.

[2] Burrow, A History of Histories, 29-51.

[3] The genre of universal history did also exist in the Greek classical age. Burrow describes Hellanicus of Lesbos, a contemporary of Herodotus and Thucydides, as the author of “a kind of early universal history”. See: Burrow, A History of Histories, 21.

Such a description understands ‘universal history’ as a genre that only emerged with the rise of personalized authorship, neglecting the universal features of the historical culture of humankind.

[4] Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)19.

[5] Pamela Kyle Crossley, What is Global History? (Cambridge [etc.]: Polity, 2008) 23.