Historical Knowledge, Historical Error


A quick review of the following book:

“Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice.”


By Allan Megill

Published in 2007 by University Chicago Press, Chicago.


The genre of this book is history; it is an academic text.

This book’s target audience is “practicing historians – and […] beginners.” (Preface)

Allan Megill writes about the dangers a person might face when writing about history. It doesn’t act as a comment on issues of epistemology when examined in a philosophical context. He simply wants to point out the dangers and pitfalls of historical writing, and historical texts.

The book is written mostly by Megill, although there is a chapter which is a collaboration. There were many parts of this book I didn’t understand because Megill quoted so many different sources, it was difficult to keep track of the main point he was trying to get across.

Most of the passages which are informal and understandable are written by him as a summary of the sources he quotes. This overuse of quotes and large words brings to mind the bad writing of French philosophers.

Here is a link to a conversation about bad writing in French philosophy:


The linked example is an interesting way to think about academic writing in general.

This is a book I wanted to read as part of my thesis research; I felt it would help me approach history in a more appropriate manner. I didn’t know how I would like to write my thesis; which approach I should take.

Megill wrote about some things I had no clue about, and I was able to learn about these subjects and think how I would be able to apply this to my research. Other things which Megill wrote about, I already knew but I didn’t know how to express these ideas in my own words.
Some chapters were easier to digest than others. Megill formed a reading plan for beginners by suggesting which chapters should be read first. This is the order I read the chapters in the book: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 4, 6, 9, 10. For anyone reading this book who is not familiar with historiography, I suggest you take Megill’s advice. This way you are able to look at the easier parts first, before plunging into the heavy theory. Each chapter is relatively independent of the others.

There are plenty of notes throughout the text (As in, referenced by small numbers and written at the back of the book). Sometimes these are just citations, at other times they provide a little bit more information and clarification of the ideas discussed in the text. There are also some diagrams which help to visualise and summarise Megill’s theories.

I feel this book is a good introduction to historiography. Megill uses the texts written by many important people in this field as a basis for his own theories. So, if you want to research historiography further this book is an excellent starting point. It is also a really good read for people who want a summary on the dangers of writing and researching history. The ideas presented by Megill will allow me to look at my own research with more understanding. Minus the occasional theoretical language maze, this is a good book.


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