The Historian at Work in “Persian Historiography”

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Historiography in relation to other sciences is one of the main concerns of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies. As two integrated disciplines, History and Literature have brought their approaches to Persian Historiography” to propose new questions about the historians and their works.

 “A History of Persian Literature” supervised by Dr. Ehsan Yarshater the general editor is a comprehensive and richly documented work, with illustrative examples and a fresh critical approach, written by prominent scholars in the field.[1] Fourteen volumes were initially envisaged to cover the subject, including two Companion Volumes. Later two additional volumes devoted to Persian prose from outside Iran (the Indian subcontinent, Anatolia, and Central Asia) and historiography respectively were added. [2]

 “Persian Historiography” is the 10th volume of “A History of Persian Literature” and was edited by Dr. Charles Melville. Yarshater regards it as an interdisciplinary study: “The very concepts of literature and history have been the topic of much debate in the past decades. The study of the cross-fertilization of the two disciplines has opened up new approaches”. (xxii)   “The Persian Historiography” contains an introduction and 12 chapters as follows:

 In his Introduction, Melville defines historical literature as “a window onto various aspects of Iranian intellectual life: not just a factual record of events, it provides an insight into mentalities, expectations, the transmission of knowledge and the political and social role of history in Persian culture (xxxviii).

Chapter 1: History as Literature by Julie S. Meisami reviews previous work in the field of literary criticism and identifies the key issues of fact and fiction in Persian writing, and the use of simple and complex styles. The focus of this chapter is on the period of around 1200.

Historical writing in Iran from the Rise of New Persian Literature in the 10th century is discussed in:

Chapter 3: The Rise and Development of Persian Historiography by Elton L. Daniel; Chapter 4: The Mongol and Timurid Periods, 1250-1500 by Charles Melville; Chapter 5: Safavid Historiography by Sholeh Quinn and Charles Melville.

Chapter 6: Persian Historiography in the 18th and Early 19th Century by Ernest Tucker; Chapter 7: Legend, Legitimacy and Making a National Narrative in the Historiography of Qajar Iran (1785-1925) by Abbas Amanat and Chapter 8: Historiography in the Pahlavi Era by Fakhreddin Azimi.

These chapters underlie the continuities in the form, structure, and language of historical literature over several centuries, with a tendency for the language of narrative prose to become more elaborate as the subject of history became more mundane and departed ever further from the ideals espoused by historians-cum-bureaucrats.

Chapter 9 through 12 covers Persian historical writing in neighboring regions that could be defined as belonging to the Persian cultural zone at various times in the past are discussed in the following chapter: Chapter 9: Ottoman Historical Writing in Persian, 1400-1600 by Sara Nur Yildiz; Chapter 10: Historiography in Central Asia since the 16th Century by R.D. McChesney; Chapter 11: Historiography in Afghanistan by R.D. McChesney; Chapter 12: Indo-Persian Historiography by Stephen F. Dale.

 Apart from the chronological and geographical scope of the volume, the authors have written discrete essays on aspects of the historical writing of different times. It is with a focus on the most significant works. As Charles Melville specifies in the introduction, the authors are encouraged “not simply to produce a catalog of books in the ‘literary history’ style, but to address various issues and themes as appropriate.” (xxxviii). The themes referred to in this book are genre, style and language, the context of the work, patronage, and audience; the authors’ theory of history, the aim of writing, and use of sources; the organization and contents of the works; and their scope and their influence on later historians (ibid).

 In Chapter 2 (The Historian at Work) which is one of the most informative sections of the book, Melville addresses literary issues from a different perspective discussing the occupations of the medieval historians. In light of its importance, the main points of Chapter 2 are summarized.

 “One measure of the aims and literary approach found in Persian historical works comes from understanding more of the authors themselves. Many, indeed most, of the historians were not professional historians in the modern sense. They were generally government officials of varying rank, ranging from the highest administrative offices, such as the viziers and court ministers like Bal’ami, At-Malek Joveyni, Rashid-al-din, and E’temad-al-Saltane; accountants and financial officials, such as Vassaf of Shiraz, Hamd-Allah Mostowfi, Aqsara’I, Siyaqi Nezam, and Mohammad Mohsen; secretaries in the chancellery (monshis), such as Mo’in-al-Din Esfezari, Budaq Qazvini, Eskandar Beg Tuckman, down to perhaps more peripheral members of the central or provincial courts, such as Abu’l-Fazl Beihaqi, Jorbadhqani, or Fazli Beg Khuzani-Esfahani.

Others, while also in government service, were primarily members of the religious establishment. We also find astrologers and military figures among historians (57).

 What these officials had in common as historiographers was a connection with the court and access to information, whether by word of mouth or documents and archives. They had similar educational backgrounds including religious sciences, knowledge of poetry, the prerequisite qualification to be considered learned and literate enough to deal with the court’s correspondence (57-58). Without exception, the authors of medieval chronicles were part of an elite milieu of scholars and writers whose place in society and at court was predicated on their verbal skills and cultural sophistication (64).

 The combination of this bureaucratic training and chancellery service, with the significance attached to the appreciation and practice of poetry, beyond a doubt leads to the recognition of a strong literary impetus behind the production of works of history. The boundaries are sometimes sufficiently blurred for historical works to be accused of not really being history at all, for example, the Rahat-al-sodur of Ravandi, or of containing scant historical value or actual interest such as Jorbadhqani’s Persian version of Otbi (62).

 Chapter 2 also explores some of the literary and aesthetic dimensions of the chronicles and histories such as their use of language, how they fulfilled the need to be both instructive and entertaining, how they upheld the literary tradition of which they were apart, as well as the values of the milieu in which they were composed. In this context, it will also be necessary to consider the authors themselves and the reception of their work”(56).

Maryam Kamali

- Melville, Charles (2012). Persian Historiography, (a History of Persian Literature, X), General Editor, Ehsan Yarshater, London, New York: I.B Tauris.


[1]. Prof. Yarshater refers to a number of significant contributions throughout the 20th century to different aspects of Persian literary history including B.Foruzanfar’s Sokhan wa sokhanvaran (1929-1933), M. T. Bahar’s Sabk-shenasi  in three volumes (1942), Dh. Safa’s Tarikh-e adabiyyat dar Iran (1953-79) in five volume  and a number of monographs on individual poets and writers (xix).

[2]. It constitutes 16 volumes as follows: I. General  Introduction to Persian Literature, II. Persian Poetry in the Classical Era, 800-1500 Panegyrics (qaside), Short Lyrics (ghazal); Quatrains (robai), III Persian Poetry in the Classical Era, 800-15—Narrative Poems in the Couplet Form (mathnavis); Strphic Poems; Occasional Poems (qat’e); Satirical and Invective Poetry; shahrashub IV. Heroic Epic The Shahnameh and its Legacy V. Persian Prose, VI. Religious and Mystical Literature VII. Persian Poetry, 1500-1900 from the Safavids to the Dawn of the Constitutional Movement VIII. Persian Poetry from Outside Iran The Indian Subcontinent, Anatolia, Central Asia after Timur IX. Persian Prose from Outside Iran The Indian Subcontinent Anatolia, Central Asia after Timur X. Persian Historiography XI. Literature of the Early Twentieth Century From the Constitutional Period to Reza Shah XII. Modern Persian Poetry, 1940 to the Present, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, XIII. Modern Fiction and Drama XIV. Biographies of the Poets and Writers of the Classical Period XV. Biographies of the Poets and Writers of the Modern Period; Literary Terms XVI. General Index, Companion Volumes to A History of Persian Literature. XVII. Companion Volume I: The Literature of Pre-Islamic Iran XVIII. Companion Volumes II: Oral Literature of Iranian Languages Kurdish, Pashto, Balochi, Ossetic, Persian and Tajik. Anthologies: XIX Anthology I: A Selection of Persian Poems in English Translation XX Anthology II: A Selection of Persian Prose in English Translation.

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