What Is A ‘Historian’?

What is an ‘Historian’? This essay provides a definition and differentiates between Historian as a scholarly pursuit and the writing of history for the general public.

What is an ‘Historian’? The most obvious answer is ‘Someone who studies history.’ But is that entirely accurate? Can anyone who studies history properly call themselves an ‘Historian’? Or are there instead qualifications to be met before someone can call himself or herself an ‘Historian,’ in the same way that physicians, nurses, lawyers, and other recognized professionals must meet certain standards before adopting those titles? How can you determine the difference between a ‘good’ historian and a ‘not-so-good’ historian?

The History of History

Before we can address these questions, it is first perhaps useful to look briefly at the history of history.

Most literate civilizations and cultures have written narratives of their founding and past, from the Hebrew Torah (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) and prophetical writings (the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) to the Chinese Shang Shu (Book of Documents) and Guoyu (Discourses of the States). Some of these ancient written narratives are accorded such veneration that they are considered religious scripture, as with the Hebrew history narrative. Even non-literate societies often have some type of history narrative that is transmitted orally from one generation to the next, though they may be limited to creation accounts and lineal pedigrees. Examples of these include the Hopi Origin of the Clans and the Hawaiian legends of Hawai‘iloa and Pa‘ao.

But the first named-individual that we know of in Western Civilization who engaged systematically in what we now call ‘the study of history’ was Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a Greek of the fifth century BCE. His Histories (from the Greek ιστορία, istoria, meaning ‘story or tale’), written between 450 and 420 BCE, are a reasonably comprehensive, if slightly flawed, record of human society in the eastern Mediterranean Basin in that period.[1] A contemporary, Thucydides of Alimos, wrote his own History of the Peloponnesian War — best known today for its account of the Battle of Thermpoylae (480 BCE) — which earned its author the modern appellation as ‘The Father of Scientific History.’ Thucydides is the first person known to have closely followed a rigorous set of standards when gathering information for his writings and to have analyzed events for cause-and-effect relationships.

The Roman Empire also had its historians, following the earlier Grecian example. Titus Livius, today called Livy (d.17 AD), is perhaps the best known of the Roman historians. His Ab Urbe Condita Libre details the history of Rome prior to the Caesars (the Roman Republic). Tacitus (d.117 AD) studied the early Roman Empire in his Annals and Histories, while Suetonius (d.122 AD) gave us The Lives of the Caesars and a host of others works on Roman Imperial history. Other historians from the Roman Imperial period include Josephus, Plutarch, and Ammianus Marcellinus.

History, both as retrospective study and prospective record-keeping, continued to thrive in the post-Empire medieval period. Many of the monastic institutions, guardians of learning in the medieval period, kept chronicles, not unlike corporate diaries, that recorded daily events in the community and surrounding areas. Thus we have today the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles from the 9th century, the Croyland Chronicles of the 6th through 15th centuries, and the Chronicle of Melrose (8th–13thC), among many others. Perhaps the most famous of the early British chronicles is that of Bede (d.735), the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), for which he is today known as ‘The Father of English History.’ But despite the fact that the formalized recording and study of history thrived throughout the medieval period, it was not yet considered a separate field of academic study. The traditional Seven Liberal Arts did not include history.[2] When teachers began collecting at Oxford in the 11th century, for example, and formed what would become the University of Oxford, history was not initially taught as a separate subject, but was instead conveyed piece-meal only as it related to other fields, such as law or theology. And although the term ‘historian’ was coined as early as the 16th century to describe someone who studied history specifically, Oxford University did not gain its first Professor of History until 1622.[3]

Even though Oxford had a Professor of History after 1622, neither it nor any other British or American university had a department (‘faculty,’ in British terminology) devoted exclusively to history until the 19th century. Before ‘History’ could become worthy of an entire department as a separate and distinct academic discipline in which one might earn a university degree, its practice had to be standardized and legitimized. The German Leopold von Ranke (d.1886) led the way in that regard, emphasizing reliance on primary sources of proven authenticity and the use of empirical methodologies in approaching the study of history. The written results of historical research became known as ‘historiography’, and journals for disseminating the results of that research began to be published, beginning in the English-speaking world with The English Historical Review, first published in 1886.[4] In the US, the American Historical Review was first published in 1895. Societies and associations devoted to history as a distinct academic field also emerged in the 19th century. Britain’s Royal Historical Society was founded in 1868 and the American Historical Association in 1884.[5] Thus by the end of the nineteenth century, ‘History’ had become a separate and distinct academic discipline governed by standards similar to those that governed other professions, and ‘Historians’ were recognized as professional scholars.

As standardization progressed and history became a formal academic discipline, history departments began to be formed at a variety of leading universities, and academic degrees in history became a qualifying standard for entry into the field. Initially, only advanced degrees (Master’s, Doctoral) were awarded, but Baccalaureate degrees followed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Harvard University formed its Department of History in 1839, perhaps one of the first such departments in the world. The British Universities of Oxford and Cambridge each formed their ‘Faculties’ of History later in the 19th century, as did the leading US universities. Today, most major universities throughout the world have a department of history, and history is a well-established and respected field of study with myriad sub-divisions and sub-specialties, and there are thousands of scholarly, academic historians.

Defining ‘Historian’

So how do we define ‘Historian’? Are all historians alike? If not, how can the average person tell one from the other, the ‘professional’ from the ‘amateur’, the ‘good’ from the ‘not-so-good’?

Virtually anyone can call themselves an ‘historian’ if they do indeed read and study history, even if they do so at the most basic level and without any prior formal training. In this respect, history is quite different from most other ‘professional’ pursuits. Reading and studying the law does not itself convey the right to call oneself a lawyer, just as knowledge of human anatomy, physiology and disease does not mean the possessor of that knowledge can rightly call himself a physician. In the US, qualification as a lawyer, as a physician, or as a member of most other professional occupations is controlled by state governments through licensure programs. Even the local plumber must have state certification and licensure before he can legally advertise as a plumber.[6] Yet even though academic historians do have a commonly recognized set of standards of practice as well as governing associations and societies, there is no formal legally-controlled process for qualification as an ‘Historian’ in the sense of a professional occupation. In this conspicuous absence of a legally-recognized category of profession called ‘Historian’, all manner of amateurs and quasi-‘professionals’ can and do lay claim to the more generic title ‘historian’.

The word ‘historian’ is as a result so ambiguous in applied usage that the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a writer of history; especially: one who analyzes events critically, as opposed to a chronicler or compiler.” By that definition, virtually anyone who writes about a past event, regardless of the factual or analytical quality of that writing, is a ‘historian’. While that definition may be serviceable in a wider context, it is insufficient for our narrower context in which we seek to differentiate the good historian from the not-so-good historian. We must therefore look elsewhere for a more precise definition of ‘historian.’

As noted above, there is an unofficial but acknowledged standard among scholarly, academic historians themselves for determining whether or not a person is indeed a genuine ‘Historian.’ First and foremost, the individual almost always has some amount of formal training in history, historical research techniques, and historiographic methodologies. That is, the individual has been trained to some extent in the basic facts of history as a sequence of human events, and in how to seek out and make use of source material, and in how to critically analyze the information gleaned from that source material and transform the results into an objective and well-written piece of scholarship. This training most often involves some kind of university degree in specifically history, as opposed to (for example) journalism, literature, or education. Most ideally that degree will be a doctorate, though master’s and baccalaureate degrees may also be sufficient.[7] There nonetheless have been and are a few highly respected historians who were not formally trained, though they are exceedingly rare.[8]

Another way to distinguish the relative quality of a person’s claim to be a genuine ‘Historian’ is through that person’s publishing record. This has nothing to do with volume of sales, however. Sometimes the very worst historians, in the generic sense of that term, have huge volumes of sales while the very best scholarly and academic historians may have only very limited sales. Rather, one must look at the nature of the publishing house itself. Historians of the scholarly and academic variety usually publish the majority of their work through academic presses and publishing houses. Such presses are often directly affiliated with a university, such as Oxford University Press, University of Chicago Press, or University of Toronto Press, though such affiliation is not necessary. Palgrave MacMillan, for example, is not affiliated with any university but is nonetheless highly respected as a publisher of exclusively academic books, textbooks, and reference works.[9] Academic presses generally do not have large marketing departments and do not advertise their products to the general public. They instead focus their minimal advertising on a more scholarly market, such as university libraries and members of academic and professional associations. Non-academic presses, often referred to by outsiders as ‘popular presses’ because they market to the general public, almost always have large marketing departments that buy advertising space on billboards, the sides of buses and in subway stations and that seek to book their authors onto television talk shows and public-speaking circuits. Academic presses focus on quality while popular presses seek quantity.

Those with the best claim to the title ‘Historian’ also submit their work before publication to a process called ‘peer review.’ All respectable academic publishers, whether of books or journals, use the peer-review process. In this process, the work submitted for potential publication is sent out by the publishers, usually without the author’s name attached, to one or more experts in the same narrow field of study (e.g.: women in Tudor England or the English Reformation). Those experts read the work, without knowing who produced it, in order to judge without personal bias whether or not the work is worthy of publication as a scholarly article or book. The external reviewer(s), so called because they are not employees of the publishing house, may recommend the work be published as-is, may send it back to the author for more research and revision, or may reject the work outright. In contrast, popular presses generally accept manuscripts only from literary agents and do not use the peer-review process. The decision to publish or reject usually lies with an acquisitions editor employed directly by the publishing house itself and is based solely on how many copies can likely be sold. The screening process is more often carried out by the literary agent, who is employed by the author specifically to advocate in favor of publishing the author’s material. Literary agents are seldom, if ever, recognized experts in a particular field of scholarly endeavour and are thus not best qualified to evaluate the scholarly content of the works they handle. In other words, academic presses use independent expert judges to assess the scholarly content of a work, while popular presses accept work from agent-advocates, often without having in any way evaluated the work’s scholarly content.

This is not to say that all history books published by non-academic presses and/or routed through literary agents are necessarily non-scholarly. Both popular presses and literary agents do occasionally handle very scholarly material, especially in the field of biography.[10] But in general, the better works published in this manner are usually from historians who also have a well-established record of simultaneously publishing through peer-reviewed academic presses and publishers.

Separating The Good From The Not-So-Good

In addition to checking whether or not a particular ‘historian’s’ work has undergone peer-review and been published by an academic rather than a popular press, there are other ways to separate the good historian from the not-so-good historian. This can usually be accomplished by careful examination of certain aspects of the writer’s published work itself. For example, does the main text have footnotes or endnotes that reveal the writer’s sources? Do those notes include the author or creator of the source, the title, name or nature of the source, the date at which the source was created, where the source was originally found, and precisely where in the source the noted information was located? The best historians will often have literally hundreds of notes per chapter or article, while the worst may have very few or the notes will be incomplete.

Bibliographies included at the end of a published book can also reveal the relative quality of the entire work. The very best historians (and the best academic presses) will separate the bibliography into two or more categories: manuscript primary sources, printed primary sources, and printed secondary sources.[11] The most scholarly work will usually be based on both manuscript and printed primary sources, while lesser-quality scholarly work may be restricted to printed primary sources, since the reading of pre-modern handwriting is a specialized skill not easily acquired. Non-scholarly or ‘popular’ history will often be based solely on secondary sources and will have few if any primary ones.[12]

There are potentially other ways to judge the scholarly quality of a work, as well, though they are all of varying reliability. In general, if a book that purports to be ‘history’ includes any amount of casual dialogue, it is a work of lesser or low quality. Casual dialogue is that which occurs on a day-to-day basis in private between individual persons and does not include formal public speeches or debates. Casual dialogue is almost always invented by the author, especially when it is of any length, and therefore places the book in the realm of fiction.[13] Similarly, if the work repeatedly identifies various emotions or impulses supposedly experienced by an individual historical person (e.g.: “She was so anxious at his approach that she felt as if she might swoon”) without some specific note identifying a primary source that records that emotion or impulse, the work is of lesser or low quality. Prior to the eighteenth century, it was quite rare for people to keep written record of their emotions and impulses, except perhaps in private letters (diaries did not become fashionable until the end of the seventeenth century). Absent a note specifically citing a letter or diary, the emotion is almost certainly invented by the modern writer. Lastly, if the author claiming to be an ‘historian’ also writes fictional novels, even if they are historical novels, that author is usually of lesser quality. Scholarly and academic historians very rarely delve into writing fiction, in large part because they are so rigorously trained to analyze historical sources for the nuggets of fact that they contain and to avoid or suppress at all costs any imaginings that those same sources may inspire. Writing fiction is simply antithetical to the vast majority of academic historians and contrary to their ingrained thought processes.


‘Historian’ is a term with a very ambiguous meaning, ranging from untrained amateur writer to fully trained and accredited accomplished academic. There are many ways to determine at which end of the spectrum a particular writer falls, but those ways do take some work and critical thought on the part of the reader. Ideally, the terminology used to describe those who write history would/should be more specific. Those who have minimal or no formal advanced training in history and historiography, who write non-analytical narrative accounts of past events, who intend their writing for the general public, and who publish exclusively through non-academic presses should be called ‘writers of history.’ Those who have full training and accreditation, who write critical analyses that elicit cause-and-effect relationships, who write for a specialist audience, and who publish primarily through academic presses should be called ‘historians.’


J. Stephan Edwards, PhD
17 August 2012



  1. Though Herodotus was, like Thucydides immediately after him, somewhat systematic in compiling sources, he was at the same time heavily biased in the writing of his narrative. He also included a great deal of information that was not in strictest terms ‘history,’ but that instead qualifies as geography and descriptive natural history.
  2. The Seven Liberal Arts were Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic, known collectively as the Trivium, plus Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy, or the Quadrivium. Other formalized fields of study in the medieval period included Law, Medicine, Theology, and Philosophy.
  3. Degory Wheare was the first Professor of History in England, as the first holder of Camden Professorship in Ancient History, University of Oxford.
  4. Though the British scholarly journal Notes & Queries was founded earlier, in 1849, it is not devoted exclusively to history, but instead includes literature and folklore.
  5. The Canadian Historical Association was founded somewhat later, in 1922, while the Australian Historical Association was not formed until 1973.
  6. Similar certification programs exist in the UK, though they are not always administered by the state.
  7. This is especially true in the British setting, where secondary education is much more specialized and advanced than it is in the United States. A British baccalaureate degree in history is often equivalent or exceeds in content an American master’s degree.
  8. Perhaps the most famous of the ‘untrained’ historians is Sir Winston Churchill, whose post-secondary education was conducted at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.
  9. Examples of other non-affiliated academic presses and publishers include Routledge, Ashgate, and Wiley-Blackwell, among many others.
  10. As a historiographic methodology, biography occupies a difficult position, and its relative value is the subject of intense debate among academic historians. Many see biography as little more than the narrative chronicling of an individual past life too often isolated from the subject’s historical environment. Others, including myself, argue that history is a record of people, both collectively and individually, and to ignore the identifiable pivotal individuals in history is to reduce history to an impersonal homogenous group experience in which the individual has no agency or influence. Good scholarly biography firmly situates the subject individual in his/her historical milieu and analyzes the interaction between and interdependency of the individual and society.
  11. Some very respectable academic presses today, in order to cut production costs in a tight publishing market, will include only a single-category bibliography. This is, in my opinion, a wrong-headed move.
  12. In a single-category bibliography, it can sometimes be very difficult for the novice to determine whether a printed source is primary or secondary, since many printed primary sources bear modern publication dates. The best way is to check the life-dates for the original author. If he or she lived and died at or about the time of the events he/she describes, theirs is probably a primary source. If the actual author (rather than any modern editor) lived many years afterward, the work is almost always a secondary source. Thus Roger Ascham’s Whole Works of Roger Ascham edited by J.A. Giles and published by John Russell Smith in 1865 is a primary source, while L.V. Ryan’s Roger Ascham published in 1963 is a secondary source. See Primary and Secondary Sources in Historical Research: What Is the Difference? for additional information.
  13. A perfect example of this, drawn from the context of biographies of Jane Grey, is Mary Luke’s Nine Days Queen. Though marketed as non-fiction when it was first published in 1986, the book is packed with extensive casual dialogue and is in reality nothing more than historical fiction.