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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886)

LEOPOLD VON RANKE, the founder of the objective school of history, was born at Wiehe in Thuringia, on December 21st, 1795. He studied at the gymnasium at Pforta, famous for the excellence of its training in the humanities, and at the university of Leipzig, where he devoted himself to theology and philology. He took the degree of doctor of philosophy in 1817, and the year after became a teacher in the Gymnasium at Frankfort-on-the-Oder.

His reading as a Protestant student of divinity had aroused his interest in the history of the Reformation. He regarded the Reformation as the beginning of modern history; and its importance was enhanced in his mind by the fact that it illustrated in an admirable manner his theory of the unity of history. He held that European civilization was fundamentally a unit; and that it was made up of a mixture of Romanic and Germanic elements, represented by the French, the Spaniards, and the Italians on the one hand, and by Germany, England, and Scandinavia on the other. Accordingly, at Frankfort, he began that research into the history of the Reformation and of the counter-Reformation which occupied the better part of his life. His first book, which bore the title ‘History of the Romanic and Germanic Peoples,’ appeared in 1824; and in conformity with its author’s conception of European history, aimed to exhibit in a single view the great religious and political movements that simultaneously agitated the Romanic and Germanic nations at the beginning of the Reformation. It opened with the year 1494, when all Europe met in the wars of Italy; and closed with the year 1514.

The ‘History of the Romanic and Germanic Peoples’ formulated the theory of the unity of history. It announced, besides, a new aim and a new method of history. Von Ranke maintained that the aim of history was, not to enforce preconceived theological or political views, but to narrate events as they happened, without regard to their moral worth. He denied that history was auxiliary to politics, theology, or ethics; and insisted that it was an independent science. As the aim of history was to narrate the simple and unadulterated truth, it followed that the writer of history must divest himself as far as possible of his own opinions and prejudices. He must adopt the objective style of narration, and let the events speak for themselves. Literary art was not to be excluded, but it must be subservient to the facts.

This dignified conception of history demanded a new method of historiography. Hitherto writers of history had depended chiefly on the printed accounts of persons contemporary with the events related, such as memoirs and formal histories. Von Ranke showed the untrustworthiness of such sources; for even if the contemporaneous author had a personal knowledge of the events of which he wrote, and even if, in addition, he intended to tell the truth concerning them, it was not at all certain that he had appreciated their relative importance, or that he had narrated them clearly. Von Ranke therefore insisted that the true method of historiography was to rely upon primary sources of information, such as diplomatic correspondence and State papers generally; in short, on original documents. Succinctly stated in his own words, the aims and methods of history were “a critical study of the genuine sources, an impartial apprehension of their contents, an objective representation,… the presentation of the whole truth.”

The ‘History of the Romanic and Germanic Peoples’ took its place at once as a classic in German historical literature. In recognition of its extraordinary merits, von Ranke, a year after its appearance, was appointed to a professorship of history in the University of Berlin. His personal history, aside from his scientific achievements, is devoid of incident. At the age of thirty he became a university professor; thirty years later he retired from the active duties of his professorship; the remaining thirty years of his life were devoted wholly to literary labors. In 1841 he was appointed historiographer of Prussia, and in 1865 he was raised to the rank of the hereditary nobility. During the years of his professorship he trained hundreds of young men in his own peculiar method of historical research; and most of the leading historians of Germany have either sat under his oral instruction, or have been influenced by his writings.

As to his works, the ‘History of the Romanic and Germanic Peoples’ was followed by a series of histories of the separate States in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which the aim was to exhibit the special national aspect which the great religious and political movements of the period assumed among the several nations. This series included ‘Fürsten und Völker von Südeuropa im XVI. und XVII. Jahrhundert’ (The Princes and Peoples of Southern Europe in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries), 1827; ‘Die Römischen Päbste, ihre Kirche und ihr Staat im XVI. und XVII. Jahrhundert’ (The Roman Popes, their Church and their State in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries), 1834–36; ‘Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation’ (German History in the Period of the Reformation), 1839–47; ‘Neun Bücher Preuszischer Geschichte’ (Nine Books of Prussian History), 1847–48; ‘Französische Geschichte, Vornehmlich im XVI. und XVII. Jahrhundert’ (French History, Especially in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries), 1852–61; ‘Englische Geschichte im XVI. und XVII. Jahrhundert’ (A History of England, Principally in the Seventeenth Century), 1859–68; ‘Geschichte Wallensteins’ (History of Wallenstein), 1869; and ‘Zur Deutschen Geschichte vom Religionsfrieden bis zum Dreiszigjährigen Kriege’ (German History from the Religious Peace to the Thirty Years’ War), 1869. Other works dealt with the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries.

In his eighty-third year Ranke undertook a history of the world, the first volume of which appeared in 1880, when he was fourscore and five years of age. Thenceforward a new volume appeared each year until his death, which occurred on May 23d, 1886. The seventh volume, which was nearly ready for the press at the time of his death, brought the history down to the beginning of the Middle Ages.

The most typical, certainly the most popular, of all Ranke’s works is his ‘History of the Popes.’ Macaulay speaks of it as the “work of a mind fitted both for minute researches and for large speculations.” By way of introduction, it gave a rapid sketch of the rise of the papal power, emphasizing the characteristic features of the principal epochs or stages of its development, and frankly recognizing its importance as an agency of civilization during the Middle Ages. The body of the work discussed with admirable clearness, fullness, and insight the causes, political and religious, of the Reformation and of the counter-Reformation. In symmetry of plan, in animation of thought, and in directness of language, the ‘History of the Popes’ was a model of historical writing, and was no less notable as a contribution to literature than as a contribution to historical science.