How Historical Theories Affect Interpretations of the Past

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  • 0:03 One Set of Facts, Two Stories
  • 0:51 Competing Theories
  • 2:50 Problems with Ignoring…
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Unlike scientists looking for a theory of everything, historians know that there are many different theories to explain the past. This lesson shows how different theories work together to help provide historians with the best view possible.

One Set of Facts, Two Stories

During the 13th century, Mongolian armies of mounted archers rode out of the barren steppe beyond the Great Wall of China and conquered just about everything they could reach. Knowing that fact could get you a B+ on a high school world history quiz; however, it is not enough for historians to simply know the facts. Instead, historians are expected to be able to interpret the past, meaning that they understand not only when and where but also how and why.

As you can imagine, there are literally dozens of ways that historians can approach a given situation - after all, more than 200 reasons for the fall of Rome have been identified, for example. This lesson will give two reasons that the Mongols invaded so much territory, both founded in a different historical theory.

Competing Theories

For many historians, history is just the story of great people doing great things. That is an example of what is called Great Man history, because it relies on the importance of a few important individuals throughout history that have led the way for others to follow. From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, those who subscribe to Great Man history say that it is the actions of these few truly gifted people that have changed the world. For the Mongols, that great person was Genghis (pronounced Ching-ghis, never Gang-gis) Khan, who was able to unite many of the warring tribes of Mongols.

By the way, it doesn't always have to be a man. Great Man historians also point to how Cleopatra positioned Egypt as a real power in ancient history or how Harriet Tubman led so many slaves out of captivity in the Antebellum American South.

But maybe that wasn't your chosen theory. After all, chances are that if you find yourself in a climate, whether it's a geographic region or simply a cold room that you find uncomfortable, you don't wait on some great person to tell you to move. In that case, you'd probably find the theory of Environmental Determinism more to your liking. As you may be able to guess from the name, that just means that the environment determines the actions of the people.

Worldwide fluctuations in temperature had meant that the Mongols faced a choice of expansion or extinction. Luckily for them, their neighbors were disorganized enough to make sure that they were able to gain territory. Other civilizations in history have not been so lucky. Around the same time, the Mayans in Central America had largely exhausted their own environment and began to disintegrate as a cohesive society. Some historians argue that in both cases it was the environment that caused the civilizations to act like they did, not the inspired leadership of a single person.

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