Oral History and the Historian

Paul Thompson looks at the newest and oldest form of history.

Oral history is at the same time the newest and the oldest form of history. The first professional historians were the tradition-bearers of non-literate societies. Their descendents may still be found in our own time in the griots of African villages who can recite from memory the genealogies of landholding families, the dynasties of chiefs, the roll-call of natural and political disasters, up to ten generations into the distant past. Nor did the use of oral sources end with the advent of literacy. They were highly valued and regarded as a more reliable path to truth than documents alone by almost every major historian up to the eighteenth century: by Herodotus, by Bede, by Guiccardini, even by the sceptical Voltaire. It was Voltaire’s method in writing the life and times of Louis XIV that Samuel Johnson singled out for special praise when, after his tour of the Hebrides in 1773, he was breakfasting with the philosopher-historian William Robertson, Principal of Edinburgh University.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email digital@historytoday.com if you have any problems.