Ranke Develops Systematic History

Ranke’s first historical study transformed the discipline of history by claiming that historians could produce scientifically objective accounts of the past by following a properly systematic historiographic methodology. Ranke’s prolific writing and teaching over the next six decades would earn him recognition as the founder of scientific history.

Summary of Event

While completing his studies in theology and classics at the University of Leipzig when he was twenty years old, Leopold Ranke (who would become Leopold von Ranke in 1865) ceased to be a citizen of Saxony and became instead a citizen of Prussia. Such was the decision of the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), which transferred Ranke’s native Thuringia from Saxony to Prussia. This transfer reinforced Ranke’s belief that it was political matters above all else that affected people’s lives and the course of history. Historians;Leopold Ranke[Ranke]
Ranke, Leopold
Philosophy;and history[History]
[kw]Ranke Develops Systematic History (1824)
[kw]Develops Systematic History, Ranke (1824)
[kw]Systematic History, Ranke Develops (1824)
[kw]History, Ranke Develops Systematic (1824)
Historians;Leopold Ranke[Ranke]
Ranke, Leopold
Philosophy;and history[History]
[g]Germany;1824: Ranke Develops Systematic History[1270]
[c]Historiography;1824: Ranke Develops Systematic History[1270]
Niebuhr, Barthold Georg
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich

Upon graduation, Ranke took a position in the Prussian grammar school system at Frankfurt. In order to improve his knowledge of history, which consisted largely of ancient history, Ranke conducted research and wrote. His love of ancient history caused him to read Barthold Georg Niebuhr’s work Römische Geschichte (1811-1812; The Roman History, 1827), which pioneered scientific history by using available documents to discuss Rome Rome, ancient from its founding to the Punic Wars (264-146 b.c.e.). Niebuhr’s work exposed as fables many previously held beliefs about Rome’s historical development. Ranke too became determined to trust only original sources rather than use the work of other authors.

The result of this determination was Ranke’s first book, Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514 (1824; History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514, 1887). The study was such an immediate success that it earned him a professorship at the University of Berlin the following year. Ranke’s work was very different from that of his contemporaries. He used a wide variety of primary sources, including memoirs, letters, diplomatic dispatches, and eyewitness accounts, to analyze the struggle between the French and the Habsburgs for domination of Italy.

Ranke selected this narrowly defined topic as the subject of his first major study, because he regarded it as an important turning point in history. As in all his subsequent writings, Ranke’s emphasis was on political history and international developments. Writing in a graphic narrative style, he intended to transport his readers to another time and place, transforming them as nearly as possible into witnesses of history and allowing them to observe the unfolding of events firsthand. There was drama in the French-Habsburg power struggle for dominance in Italy, and Ranke allowed that drama to structure his account, detailing a series of events that built up to a historical climax.

Ranke studiously avoided using dull and often incorrect information from textbooks or secondary sources. Attached at the end of his work as an appendix was a critique of history as it had been written thus far and a set of recommendations as to how it should be written in the future. It was in this appendix that Ranke defined his new scientific approach to history. He denounced the fiction of the past as mere literary creation and enthroned fact in its place. History, he asserted, rested on particulars, not general laws or preconceived concepts. He rejected moralizing upon events in the past based on the values of the present, insisting instead that the historian’s mission was simply to demonstrate objectively the way things actually were at a particular point in time.

Individuals and past societies, for Ranke, had to be understood in their own terms, and all historical facts that led to such an understanding had to be derived from and documented by sources. Thus, Ranke insisted that the historian must locate documents, critically sift through the information they contain, collect the objective facts that can be distilled from them, and piece these facts together to reconstruct a logical Logic;and history[History] sequence of events. Such critical investigation would result in conclusions that would have scientific validity. These conclusions were not enough, however: Ranke also argued that the historian must use his “God-given talents” to present the material in an artistic way, capturing the interest and imagination of a reader. Hence, a historian was not only a critical investigator but also a writer. A historian’s work could be a literary masterpiece, yet the use of facts would make it a nonfictional masterpiece.

Ranke’s second work, Fürsten und Völker von Süd-Europa im sechszehnten und siebzehnten Jahrhundert (1827-1836, 4 volumes; Sovereigns and Nations of Southern Europe, in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: More Commonly Known as Ranke’s History of the Popes, and of the Spanish and Ottoman Empires, 1843), used a variety of archival sources, paramount among which was the correspondence of Venetian diplomats about the struggle between the expanding Ottoman Empire and Spain for hegemony in the Mediterranean. This correspondence had been unavailable to other historians: It was Metternich’s active intervention on Ranke’s behalf that allowed him to gain access to archives in Vienna and Italy.

Leopold von Ranke.

(Library of Congress)

The material Ranke obtained in these archives formed the basis of wonderful narratives about the popes, whom he viewed more as pragmatic political leaders than as religious figures. The use of stories and the unfolding of intimate details also acted to render the character and behavior of the popes as intriguing as the histories they inhabited. In all instances, Ranke attempted to be a dispassionate observer and an objective analyst. If any conclusions were to be drawn, it was the reader who was to draw them. Ranke merely sought to provide the details, both positive and negative, upon which those conclusions would be based. Key events or turning points were not to be declared as such: They were only hinted at by the degree of attention and detail Ranke provided in his descriptions of them. This same objectivity was brought to bear in Ranke’s Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation (1839-1847; History of the Reformation in Germany, 1845-1847), aiding his analysis of what was still a delicate topic.

Ranke’s scholarly production was voluminous. He completed fifty-four volumes and wrote nine volumes of an uncompleted universal history, which he worked on during the last ten years of life. He produced voluminous studies of the House of Brandenberg, sixteenth and seventeenth century France, and seventeenth century England. These national histories brought into focus a theme continually found in Ranke’s work that the evolution of history led to the development of unique nation-states. The nation-state was the idea or theme of the age. In this, Ranke appropriated the concept of zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, first skillfully employed in the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Philosophy;Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel[Hegel] . In determining the nature of the zeitgeist, Ranke insisted on following the path of particulars rather than beginning with an overarching a priori assumption. Ranke’s writings about political developments of the past ultimately led him to conclusions about how the major states of Europe had developed to their then-present forms.


In both quality and quantity, Leopold von Ranke can be regarded as the Western world’s leading historian for the second half of the nineteenth century. His writings changed the status of the historian from a glorified storyteller to a scientist and literary artist. His teaching at the University of Berlin from 1825 to 1871 was equally impactful and related to the scientific methodology espoused in his seminal 1824 work. Ranke’s students plunged into primary-source archival research and were strictly trained in their professor’s scientific method. Ranke demanded footnotes and bibliographies, so any researcher could easily find a mentioned source. He pioneered the use of the seminar method, so his students could challenge one another’s conclusions. From these approaches developed the idea that historical works had to stand the test of time to prove their authority and had to withstand challenges of other historians working from the same evidence, as well as new sources of evidence. Ranke trained more than two generations of leading German historians. His scientific history was further developed by such notables as Friedrich Meinecke and Max Lenz. These German historians in turn influenced the way history was researched, taught, and written in other European countries and the United States.

Ranke’s narrow focus on political history and the policies of important political leaders remained a common bias among most historians until social and cultural history began to flourish in the 1960’s. In part, this bias was a by-product of the types of sources historians could work with in government archives. Today, there are still a large number of historians who believe that the use of historical facts carefully distilled from primary source documents enables them to ascertain objective truths and that history is the mother of the social sciences. There are many others, however, who embrace the lessons of deconstruction, poststructuralism, and other movements that emphasize that narrative is inherently biased, and as soon as facts are used to tell a story they cease to be objective. Ranke’s History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514, then, can be viewed as having launched history into the modern age, in part by providing the founding terms of a debate that is still raging.

Further Reading

  • Bentley, Michael. Modern Historiography: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1999. Excellent background information; chapter 4 is devoted to Ranke. References and index.
  • Gilbert, Felix. History: Politics or Culture? Reflections on Ranke and Burckhardt. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. A comparative analysis of two fathers of modern history and the clash between Ranke’s political history and Jacob Burckhardt’s cultural history. Footnotes and bibliography.
  • Iggers, Georg G. Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2004. The first three chapters treat Ranke’s scientific historical influence, along with that of other German historians.
  • Iggers, Georg G., and James Powell, eds. Leopold von Ranke and the Shaping of the Historical Discipline. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990. A collection of essays by leading historians evaluating different aspects of Ranke’s influence. Includes thirty-five pages of bibliographical references.
  • Krieger, Leonard. Ranke: The Meaning of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. A good starting point for interpreting Ranke’s work. Footnotes and bibliography.

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