Top Historians: The Results

The results of our informal poll to name the most important historian of the past 60 years are in.

History Today | Published in 16 Nov 2011

Our poll on the most important historian, and most important history book, of the past 60 years is now closed. You can view the full results, but in descending order the top five were:

  • Fernand Braudel
  • EP Thompson
  • Eric Hobsbawm
  • AJP Taylor
  • EH Carr

For the December issue of the magazine we also asked leading contemporary historians the same question.

Perhaps inevitably, the poll provoked controversy. We asked people to nominate their favoured historian, and then drew up a shortlist. Of particular concern was the lack of diversity reflected in this shortlist. In the past week we've received countless admonishments about figures whom we should have listed, including Dorothy George, C.L.R. James, Joanna Bourke, Natalie Zemon Davis and more.

All good suggestions, although most are relatively young, whereas the poll asked for the most important historian of the past 60 years. Were we to ask the same question in 2061, women and minorities would be far better represented.

The nature of the question asked also raised some concerns. ‘Important’ is a very vague and problematic term, particularly in the field of history, which generally requires historians to focus their research on a particular period or country. As Hugh Brogan notes, ‘[important] in this context is a meaningless, bombastic world and the field of history is far too vast, the labouring historians in the field far too numerous’.

This is perhaps why historians such as Braudel and EP Thompson ranked so highly: their work changed the very nature of the study of history and was important in terms of historiography rather than just in the area of their specialisation. Braudel was a leader of the Annales School and his The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II broadened, for the first time, the boundaries of history to examine it across stretches of water, over a huge time frame, and to incorporate different disciplines. Similarly, EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class brought social history to the fore; Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago revealed the horror of the Soviet gulags to the world and in doing so redefined people’s perceptions of humanity.