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John Lubbock later subdivided the Stone Age into old and new, Paleolithic and Neolithic, the latter associated with the agricultural revolution.

The return of sacred history

Ethnologists such as Lewis Henry Morgan found the long chronology wonderfully liberating and took to it with great enthusiasm. The stages of the discovery of deep time are well known to historians of science, and figure in the standard disciplinary narratives of the great historical sciences. But what were historians doing as the understanding of time was transformed in the second half of the nineteenth century?

Yet despite the magnitude and implications of the revolution, the question of how historians accommodated deep time had not been seriously addressed until recently. The later nineteenth and early twentieth century was the great age for patriotic histories of particular nations. In this climate, the urge to write universal histories was partially eclipsed. Even so, a good many works of general history circulated in the United States in the decades following the time revolution of the s, including works imported from Europe as well as home-grown products.

Others—a growing number—were explicitly designed for use in the classroom. Out of this pool of ideas and threads eventually emerged the narrative forms that would take shape as Western Civ textbooks, first published in the early decades of the twentieth century.

In all these sources we can find clues revealing how some historians reacted to the challenge of deep time. In an age when so eminent a figure as the geologist Louis Agassiz could persist in his adherence to the idea of divine creation, it would be surprising if all historians accepted the long chronology without demur. On the other hand, the Oxford historians Edward Freeman and J.

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Green were remarkable for their cautious but sincere and early acceptance of the long chronology. Rather than assessing nineteenth-century historians according to the litmus test of belief, however, it behooves us to ask whether the long chronology made any difference to the framing of history. Daniel Segal has argued that few late-nineteenth-century historians made a serious effort to build a meaningful historical continuum bottomed in the deep past.

In his important Outlines of Universal History , the American historian George Fisher gave just a few paragraphs summarizing recent archaeological discoveries. Even so, his contribution, in the English edition, amounted to no more than 7 pages in a text pages in length. It was also one of imagination. One could be open to the idea of deep history without knowing quite what to do with it.

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A remarkable solution to this narratival difficulty was to reimagine the European Middle Ages as a period of darkness so profound as to duplicate the social state of primitive savagery. In this new schema, ancient history stood in for the golden era of antediluvial sacred history, and medieval Europe was transformed into the primitive world of the immediate postdiluvial age.

In an echo of a Huttonian geology that eschewed the search for origins and focused instead on process, general historians of the nineteenth century found that they had no need for genesis and could focus instead on the progress that mankind had made since the most recent catastrophe. The very idea of a pseudo-primitive Dark Age influenced the ways in which nineteenth-century historians framed the history of civilization.

The Enlightenment denigration of the European Middle Ages had made it easy to view the original inhabitants of Europe and the invaders of Rome as crude barbarians, little different from the primitive peoples that figured in conjectural histories and anthropological prehistories. Adam Ferguson made the parallel explicit, describing the Gauls, Germans, and Britons as resembling the natives of North America in their ignorance of agriculture and their tendency to paint themselves and wear the skins of animals.

We are the perfectly legitimate descendants of mediaeval men, and we have no ideas, no institutions, no manners that are not shot through and through with thread of mediaeval spinning. All that changed was the event itself, as the aqueous Deluge was transformed into a deluge of barbarians. This is not the place to explore in detail the refashioning of the European Middle Ages in nineteenth-century historiography. Another problem with the Paleolithic lay in the inability of prehistorians to date their findings with confidence, since the lack of a chronological scaffolding made it impossible to attach prehistory to the grid of historical time, as J.

Myres noted in Vico denied the possibility of approaching the time before the Deluge via the products of vernacular language, since all such languages postdated the Deluge. Nineteenth-century archaeologists spoke of the fog that obscured their vision of the pre-Christian era. Lubbock summed up the philosophy of those opposed to prehistoric archaeology in the opening paragraph of Pre-Historic Times: The first appearance of man in Europe dates from a period so remote, that neither history, nor even tradition, can throw any light on his origin, or mode of life.

In the remarkable opening paragraph of his Universal History, published in the s, Ranke deliberately refused to breach the veil of prehistory: History cannot discuss the origin of society, for the art of writing, which is the basis of historical knowledge, is a comparatively late invention. The earth had become habitable and was inhabited, nations had arisen and international connections had been formed, and the elements of civilization had appeared, while that art was still unknown.

The province of History is limited by the means at her command, and the historian would be over-bold who should venture to unveil the mystery of the primeval world, the relation of mankind to God and nature. The solution of such problems must be intrusted to the joint efforts of Theology and Science. dictionary :: sacred history [literally "salvation history"] :: English-German translation

Documents are the traces which have been left by the thoughts and actions of men of former times … For want of documents the history of immense periods in the past of humanity is destined to remain for ever unknown. For there is no substitute for documents: no documents, no history. No documents, no history. One can, with Herbert Butterfield, point out that Ranke was trying to preserve the realm of history from the speculations of philosophers.

Early chapters of Universal History echo the sacred histories of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In its attitude toward evidence, an important strand of late-nineteenth-century scientific history embedded a resistance to deep time under the guise of a neutral professionalizing agenda. By the turn of the century, however, some of the intellectual obstacles to prehistory were fading.

The discovery of cave paintings in the s and s was a jolt to those who doubted the humanity of Paleolithic humans, because the capacity to create art was seen as a symbol of a higher world view—evidence for the thinking, feeling human so difficult to detect in the eoliths and bones that had hitherto dominated the archaeological world.

Prehistorical dates were circulating widely in the works of acknowledged authorities such as Sir Arthur Keith, and although these, too, were inaccurate, they nonetheless provided a chronological scaffolding on which historians could begin to build. In the wake of these changes, the New History of the s and s saw some remarkable attempts to bridge the gap between prehistory and history. They both indicate a suspicion that we are in some way gaining illicit information about what happened before the footlights were turned on and the curtain rose on the great human drama.

There is much truth to the argument that the New History was thoroughly permeated by a rejection of the short chronology. Consider the question posed at the very outset: One of the most difficult questions that a historical writer has to settle is the point at which he is to begin his tale … How far back shall we go to get a start? Modern research seems to show that man was a wandering, hunting animal for hundreds of thousands of years before he learned to settle down and domesticate animals, cultivate the soil, and plant and reap crops. The answer is perhaps inevitable: the European Middle Ages.

Eschewing the need to return to the Paleolithic bottom, Robinson argued that because our civilization has descended directly from the fusion of Roman civilization and medieval Europe, there is no particular need to go any earlier.

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But no such good fortune was in store for western Europe, which was now only at the beginning of the turmoil which was to leave it almost completely barbarized, for there was little to encourage the reading or writing of books, the study of science, or attention to art, in a time of constant warfare and danger. Robinson, in other words, never really overcame the idea of rupture, the idea that some gulf separates us from the Paleolithic. With rare exceptions, textbooks and general histories published over the twentieth century followed more or less in his footsteps. Robinson himself, thinking in a Rankean mode, made an epistemological distinction between remains and written documents.

The Sacred History : How Angels, Mystics and Higher Intelligence Made Our World

In a letter to a fellow historian written in , J. Another reason justifying the gulf between history and prehistory was lucidly expressed in Robert H. Aware of the true depth of the human race, Labberton nonetheless held that a society can be subject to the gaze of history only when the society itself has a historical consciousness.

Still other historians echoed an argument that Fisher made in in his Outlines of Universal History, designed explicitly for use as a textbook in American secondary schools: History is concerned with the successive actions and fortunes of a community; in its broadest extent, with the experiences of the human family. It is only when men are connected by the social bond, and remain so united for a greater or lesser period, that there is room for history.

It is, therefore, with nations, in their internal progress and in their mutual relations, that history especially deals.

Of mere clans, or loosely organized tribes, it can have little to say. Still another argument held that early humans were not fully human, and that some event transformed them suddenly into civilized man. Human beings proper have existed only since the end of the Ice Age; only then did ape-man develop into man on the road to civilization … Herein man surpasses the brutes; no animal before him ever took that step: here is the dividing-line between brutes and men.

It was civilization that made humanity, not humanity that made civilization. This account embeds another perspective that was and remains common in a variety of twentieth-century general histories. We know what men have proved capable of accomplishing—their sciences and arts and great civilizations.

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Why, then, did they live for so long in the wilderness? It appears as if some great calamity had fallen upon human nature itself, as if some sentence of banishment and damnation had been laid on man by his Creator. But what broke the stasis and set man on the move? Rather than catastrophe, some general histories of the twentieth century proposed the idea of a catalyzing event that introduced progress or direction into a society hitherto without history.

Roberts postulates a new capacity for making conscious choices, a transformation that broke through what hitherto had been the dominating influence of genes and environment. An especially important catalyzing event was the invention of writing.

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By the nineteenth century, however, the invention of writing was beginning to figure prominently in historical accounts. The belief in writing as a catalyzing event, however, was a much more profound concept. Writing, in this view, actually put civilization on the move and created history out of the historyless Paleolithic. Few historians, it seems, were troubled by the incongruities of this argument: that agriculture, villages, towns, even cities and empires arose before the invention of writing; that the earliest forms of writing consisted of such things as market transactions and tax records, with no moral, political, or legal lessons for future generations; that the great religious texts and myths circulated in oral form long before they were written down.

The emphasis given to the invention of writing in historical accounts was linked to another trend, a key element of the persisting chronogeography of sacred history. This was the growing inclination to locate the Garden of Eden in Mesopotamia. Over time, it shifted westward in popular geography, toward the Near East, where both Bodin and Vico were inclined to place it. Armenia was the location preferred by the church historian George Smith in his The Patriarchal Age Armenia, he noted, is where Noah and his sons settled after the Deluge.

In this vision, the Ark, scarcely drifting at all in the floodwaters, settled on Mount Ararat after the waters subsided. Smith was insistent on Armenia because it was close to the geographic roots of the Indo-European peoples—and hence better suited to his purpose, which was to argue that the historical splitting of the Indo-European linguistic family was identical to the Confusion of Tongues. The Sumerian origins of writing joined with the relatively new myth of a Mesopotamian Eden in confirming the Near East as the cradle of humanity.

The rise of Mesopotamia in twentieth-century historiography is palpable. General histories and textbooks published in the later nineteenth century typically had history begin in Egypt, then considered the oldest civilization. Crossing it at some point late in the Neolithic era, humanity entered on the road to civilization, creating history in the process. The Neolithic Rubicon performs a narrative function eerily similar to the Deluge.