Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times


Freud´s famous sofa. Photograph by Robert Huffstutter. Source: Wikipedia.

Peter Gay (1985): ‘The professional historian has always been a psychologist - an amateur psychologist. Whether he knows it or not, he operates with a theory of human nature; he attributes motives, studies passions, analyzes irrationality, and constructs his work on the tacit conviction that human beings display certain stable and discernible traits, certain predictable, or at least discoverable, modes of coping with their experience. He discovers causes, and his discovery normally includes acts of the mind. Even materialist system-makers like Karl Marx, who subject individuals to the ineluctable pressures of historical conditions, have given room to the play of mind, and professed to understand it. Among all his auxiliary sciences, psychology is the historian's unacknowledged principal aide. But it remains, by and large, unacknowledged; as devotees of common sense, historians have been reluctant to canvass the place of psychology in their discipline.’

Lucien Febvre - Co-founder of the Annales School. Lebvre detested historical anachronism and especially psychological anachronism - the false assumption that past people thought about things in the same way as we do.

John Tosh in his classic introduction to the study of history

‘The Annals school: a historical psychology? The first historians who tried to investigate collective psychology in the past were those of the Annales school. The founders of Annales, especially Lucien Febvre, called for a history of mentalities. In Febvre’s view the worst kind of historical anachronism is psychological anachronism - the unthinking assumption that the mental framework with which people interpreted their experience in earlier periods was the same as our own. What, he asked, were the psychological implications of the differences between night and day and between winter and summer which were experienced much more harshly by medieval men and women than they are today? Febvre called for a “historical psychology”, developed by historians and psychologists working together. Instead of looking at formally articulated principles and ideologies, the history of mentalities is concerned with the emotional, the instinctive and the implicit - areas of thought which have often found no direct expression at all. Robert Mandrou has probably come closest to fulfilling Febvre's programme. In his Introduction to Modern France 1500-1640 (1961) he characterized the outlook of ordinary French people as “the mentality of the hunted”: helplessness in the face of a hostile environment and chronic under-nutrition produced a morbid hypersensitivity, in which people reacted to the least emotional shock by excessive displays of grief, pity or cruelty.

Freud and “psychohistory”. Historical psychology raises large theoretical issues, given that human psychology is such a heavily theorized area of study. Febvre himself was nor specially drawn to theory, but since his day one of the key questions for historians in this area is how far they should make use of the findings of psychoanalysis. Freud claimed that, as a result of his clinical work with neurotic patients, he had arrived at a theory which placed our understanding of the human mind on an entirely new and more scientific footing. His theory turned on the concept of the unconscious - that part of the mind imprinted by the experience of traumas in infancy (weaning, toilet-training, Oedipal conflict, etc.) which determines the emotional response of the individual to the world in later life. For Freud and the many followers who modified or extended his theory, the primary use of psychoanalysis lay in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. But Freud himself believed that his theory also offered a key to the understanding of historical personalities, and in a famous essay on Leonardo da Vinci (written in 1910) he in effect carried out the first exercise in psychohistory. From the 1950s onwards this approach to biography enjoyed a considerable following, especially in the United States where psychoanalysis was more widely accepted than in any other country. At its best psychohistory introduces a valuable element of psychological realism into historical biography, as in Bruce Mazlish’s controversial study of James and John Stuart Mill - two lives in which the intellectual is otherwise particularly likely to obliterate the emotional. With the benefit of hindsight it is all too easy to bend the lives of people in the past to a satisfying shape which emphasizes rationality and steadiness of purpose. Psychohistory, by contrast, dwells on the complexity and inconsistency of human behaviour; in Peter Gay’s words, it depicts people as “buffeted by conflicts, ambivalent in their emotions, intent on reducing tensions by defensive stratagems, and for the most part dimly, or perhaps nor at all, aware why they feel and act as they do.” In this way the inner drives can be restored to historical figures, instead of confining their motives to the public sphere in which their careers were played out.

The psychology of the collective. The insights of psychoanalysis are not confined to individual lives. Indeed from the perspective of the cultural historian, the main contribution of psychoanalysis has been to direct attention to cultural patterns of parenting, nurture and identification, and to the play of the unconscious in collective mentality. In The Protestant Temperament (1977), one of the most wide-ranging applications of a psychoanalytic perspective, Philip Greven has identified three patterns of child-rearing in colonial America: the “evangelical” or authoritarian, the “moderate” or authoritative, and the “genteel” or affectionate. While these labels signal the directing influence of theology and social position, the impact of each pattern is traced through the characteristic psychic development of children raised in these ways. (….) Within a common Freudian framework Greven’s approach makes allowance for the cultural diversity of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America, without insisting that every American enacted one of the three models. The appeal of psychoanalytic categories is particularly strong in the case of those facets of the past which we consider irrational or pathological, but which made compelling sense to those involved. Racism lends itself to this approach. Models of repression and projection have been used to excellent effect to explain white attitudes to other races during the heyday of colonial expansion - as for example in Jacksonian America.

Objections to psychohistory. Of all the technical and methodological innovations made in the past thirty years, psychohistory has attracted the most curiosity outside the profession, but it is also open to quite serious objections, for two principal reasons. First, there is the problem of evidence. Whereas the therapist seeks to recover the infantile experience of the patient through the analysis of dreams, verbal slips and other material produced by the subject, the historian has only the documents which are likely to contain very little, if any, material of this kind and very few direct observations about the subject’s early infancy. Much personal material which we might consider highly relevant is completely unobtainable, yet this is the bricks and mortar without which a psychohistorical theory of personality cannot be devised. Second, there is no reason to assume that the propositions of psychoanalysis hold equally good for previous ages. Indeed, the assumption should rather be the reverse: Freud’s picture of emotional development is very culture-bound, rooted in the child-bearing practice and mental attitudes (especially towards sex) of the late nineteenth-century middle class urban society. The application of Freud’s insights (or those of any other period or society is anachronistic. For the structure of human personality over time is precisely what needs to be investigated, instead of being reduced to a formula. Even the notion of the self, which we (like Freud) may regard as a fundamental human attribute, was probably quite foreign to Western culture before the seventeenth or eighteenth century. As one particularly trenchant critic has put it, psychohistory can easily become a determinist form of “cultural parochialism”. [A] narrow-minded concern with one’s own immediate locality and concerns without regard to their wider context. Historians who draw on psychoanalytic theory have to be particularly careful to temper their interpretations with a respect for historical context.’ 


Jeremy Black & Donald MacRaild in their classic introductory to studying history

‘(…) Perhaps the greatest development of the third generation of the Annales School can be seen with the advent of I’histoire des mentalités (the history of mentalities) - what we in Britain call cultural history. Febvre and Bloch, as we have argued, were keen on this approach. Febvre’s desire to understand the mental frameworks of the past was born out of a hatred of anachronism. The worst kind of anachronism, he suggested, was psychological anachronism - the false assumption that past people thought about things in the same way that we do. Febvre, then, blew the trumpet of “historical psychology”, and this inspired later generations. (…)

Cultural history was a long-established tradition in European historiography, embracinq works as diverse as that of Jakob Burkhardt in the nineteenth century and Jan Huzinga in the early twentieth. In Britain, in the early 1970s, it probably reached a high peak: Keith Thomas’s major study of belief, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), was heavily influenced by the Annales School. (…) These traditions were continued, developed and taken in new directions in the 1970s and 1980s. (…)’

‘Cultural history and the “history of mentalities” are used interchangeably here. The “history of mentalities” emerged in the Annales School. It must be borne in mind, however, that some historians still use “cultural history” in a narrowly defined way, to refer to the history of artistic artefacts. This is not what the French historians, nor the social anthropologists who inspired them, meant by “cultural” history. We are thus writing about cultural history as the defining types of popular belief and emotion in the way the Annales conceived it. (…)

Cultural history is thus the history of popular ideas, and therefore different from the classical history of ideas (e.g. that of Hobbes and Locke) because it concentrates on the ideas which influence everyday actions, such as work practices, ceremonies and rituals. Cultural history of this type tries to evaluate the mentalities of the past by explaining what were once considered to be unconventional matters, for example the history of lunacy, crime or magic. Peter Burke claimed that the history of mentalities grew up to fill a conscious gap between narrow definitions of the history of ideas and social history. Its development prevented historians from having to make a choice between “an intellectual history with the society left out and a social history with the thought left out”. (…)

None of the potential criticisms are easy to answer with any confidence. Historians face real problems when they cannot find the kinds of sources that make them happiest, and are easiest to interpret in an agreed, or indeed any, fashion. Even today, little of what is popular culture gets written down; popular culture is - and always has been - oral. Thus cultural historians are faced with the task of reconstructing (or deconstructing the meaning of) past popular culture using archaeological sources and written documents. And if official-type documents are employed to resurrect the popular past, might not the historian simply reactivate the divisions and differences, the biases and the value-judgements, which he/she is supposed to eliminate? A real problem for cultural historians is the question: are your findings typical or are they eccentric? Do colourful examples of popular culture illuminate what was common practice: does the riotous massacre of cats by starving apprentices in eighteenth-century France tell us about French printers’ lives; or does it tell us of the mad antics of one printer’s shop in Paris? Indeed, the very fact that it is written down, or leads to government/police intervention, suggests that it is atypical, a point that has a general applicability.

What then of the cultural historian’s amateur psychology? How can cultural historians know the things of popular mentality they claim to uncover? With its concentration on scraps of evidence, or its possibly eccentric subject matter, is cultural history a return to antiquarianism? Then there is the related question of what cultural history means for the learning experiences of students. Is it necessary that, in order to understand cultural history, Darnton asks, students should be introduced to rhetoric (arguing the indefensible); textual criticism (understanding the incomprehensible); semiotics (the study of human behaviour through communications); and anthropology? These are all valid questions raised by Darnton. (…)’

Jeremy Black in his expectations on future historiography

‘A different direction of challenge to conventional historiography will come from a greater understanding of the human brain and of patterns of thought, motivation, and action. This understanding may provide another iteration of the impact of psychoanalysis on many historians working in the twentieth century. Scientific research on these topics will probably lead to renewed questions about how best to discuss the relationship between structure and agency, and will invite are thinking of the nature of perception and of the character of individual and collective memory, issues which have attracted much attention over the last few decades. With greater appreciation of psychological processes in the brain, the unconscious determinants of act ion might become better understood, notably the unconscious processes that precede conscious processes. It is unclear what affect these developments will have on notions of free will. Knowledge of brain regions has led to an appreciation of differences between episodic memory, for single events that have been experienced, and semantic memory, about the world as a whole. Research on mirror neurons has led to an appreciation of the extent to which action and perception are interwoven, with experience affecting act ion directly, rather than separate. There will also be better understanding of collective memories. Human beings are biologically equipped for these memories.’ 


What is psychohistory? Some present-day answers from the experts 

Paul H. Elovitz: ‘In Psychohistory: Theory and Practice (1999), Jacques Szaluta defines psychohistory as “the application of psychology, in its broadest sense, or psychoanalysis in a specific sense, to the study of the past.” Henry Lawton in The Psychohistorian’s Handbook (1988) describes it as “the interdisciplinary study of why man has acted as he has in history, prominently utilizing psychoanalytic principles.” He adds that psychohistory “is essentially interpretive” rather than narrative. I define psychohistory as an amalgam of psychology, history, and related social sciences. It examines the “why” of history, especially the difference between stated intention and actual behavior. Psychobiography, childhood, group dynamics, mechanisms of psychic defense, dreams, and creativity are primary areas of research (…). I consider myself to be a historian and a psychohistorian. Psychohistory enables me to probe more deeply into the past by providing psychological insights and tools that were not originally available to me as a historian. But in most research I try to avoid the use of theory until the later stages of research so as to be as open-minded as possible in examining the evidence. In writing, wherever possible I let the materials speak for themselves by quoting them directly.’  

The Association for Psychohistory: ‘Psychohistory, the science of historical motivations, combines the insights of psychotherapy with the research methodology of the social sciences to understand the emotional origin of the social and political behavior of groups and nations, past and present.’  

The International Psychohistorical Association: ‘Current affairs and the historical record are full of events in which individuals and groups say and do things that seem irrational. Have you ever felt that something is missing from the conventional explanations of such events in terms of political, social, economic, cultural, or intellectual factors? If so, then psychohistory may be for you. Psychohistorians add a neglected but critically important level of explanation - identification of the unconscious motivations of individuals and groups. We bring psychoanalysis and related knowledge to bear in understanding the role of unconscious motivations in history, the sources of these motivations in the history of childrearing, and the psychological effects of genocides, wars, and other large scale traumas on individuals and groups. Many of us are professional scholars in a range of disciplines including history, psychology, and the humanities while others are practitioners in applied fields such as psychotherapy and social work. The psychohistory community includes students of all ages and anyone interested in the field and in using its insights to ameliorate human destructiveness.  There are three areas of inter-related psychohistorical research. 

1. History of Childhood. This inquiry includes such topics as how children have been raised in different historical periods, how families have been constituted, how and why childrearing arrangements have evolved, changing attitudes towards the mistreatment of children, and why there is still such denial about the reality of child abuse and neglect even today. We pay such attention to childhood because it is the ground in which adult psychology and behavior are rooted. 

2. Psychobiography. Here we seek to understand individual historical actors and their motivations. Psychobiography is the oldest and most well established form of psychohistorical scholarship. It involves reconstruction of a person’s emotional development; family and social relationships; decisions and actions; and the interaction of all these factors within the cultural and political context of the person’s time and place. Since it requires detailed biographical information, this form of scholarship is commonly practiced with recent historical figures.

3. Group Psychology. As with individuals, group psychology and behavior are also influenced by emotion, fantasies, and unconscious complexes. While there is no collective mind existing independently of the individuals who make up the group, patterns of shared culture and child-rearing give rise to common attitudes, fantasies, beliefs and values that often play decisive roles in history. Different groups support and oppose wars, revolutions, genocides and other large scale historical projects.’


Sigmund Freud. Founder of the School of Psychoanalysis.

Some important titles

Marc Bloch, Apologie pour l'histoire ou Métier d'historien (1949). Translated as The Historian's Craft (1954, 1992).

Peter Loewenberg, Decoding the past. The Psychohistorical approach (1969; reprints afterwards).

Terry H. Anderson, “Becoming Sane with Psychohistory”. The Historian 41 (1978).

Richard E. Beringer, Historical Analysis. Contemporary Approaches to Clio’s Craft (1978).

Saul Friedländer, History and psychoanalysis. An inquiry into the possibilities and limits of psychohistory. Translated by Susan Suleiman (1978).

David E. Stannard, Shrinking History. On Freud and the failure of psychohistory (1980).

Lloyd Demause, Foundations of psychohistory (1982).

Peter Gay, Freud for historians (1985).

Geoffrey Cock & Travis L. Crosby (ed), Psycho/history. Readings in the method of psychology, psychoanalysis and history (1987).

Henry Lawton, The Psychohistorian’s handbook (1988).

Lynn Hunt (ed), The New Cultural History (1989).

Robert Darnton, The kiss of Lamourette. Reflection in cultural history (1990).

Peter Burke, Varieties of Cultural History (1997).

Lynn Hunt, “Psychology, Psychoanalysis, and historical thought”, in: Lloyd Kramer & Sarah Maza (ed), A companion to Western historical thought (2002).

Peter Burke, What is cultural history? (2004).

Marc Bloch. Co-founder of the Annales-School.

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

Irène Diependaal explored psychohistory during her research for her Master’s essay in modern history on the British statesman W.E. Gladstone. At the University of Amsterdam a small research school, called “Cultural history informed by psychoanalysis”, was operating. In (informal) cooperation with Yale-professor Peter Gay, but also heavily influenced by the Annales school, it was led by - the American born and educated - Professor Arthur Mitzman.

While drawing up conclusions, she decided not to use psychological theories and specific psychohistorian tools. Her research results, based on both ego documents and political papers left by Gladstone, led her towards conclusions in the research field of cultural history in general (the deviating Zeitgeist, the deviating “spirit of the age”) and the nature and development of the political views of this prominent British political leader. The tools developed by Sigmund Freud and the Post-Freudians were, in this particular case, less useful.

However, she became triggered by the basic ideas of psychohistory. As a result, she developed a lifelong passion to study ego documents of historical persons as a supplement to the more conventional historical sources.

In later stages of her research efforts, she discovered the advantages of social psychology and mass psychology. To understand the public support for the modern models of constitutional monarchy, it is important to understand why some people love to read about “royalty” and why criticism towards individual royal conduct is able to dominate the newspaper pages in the popular press. It brought the British royal family nearly on the rocks in the 1990s. More in general, Irène Diependaal thinks it is interesting to think about the “why” of historical events from the point of view of a psychohistorian. She therefore likes to share some suggestions of historiographical writings in this corner of Hereditas Historiae.

Jeremy Black & Donald M. MacRaild made a mistake in name-giving: it is “Johan Huizinga” (no “Jan Huzinga”). They were especially referring to two classic studies, both are translated in English: (1) Jacob Burckhardt, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860). (Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy). (2) Johan Huizinga, Herfsttij der middeleeuwen (1919). (Autumn of the Middle Ages).

Indirectly, Black & MacRaild made a reference to Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984). In their opinion Darnton provided ‘excellent evidence of the potential for linking the anthropology of his mentor Clifford Geertz with Annales-type social history perspectives.’

Emeritus Cambridge-professor Peter Burke, who - according to the website of London based and internationally highly respected Institute of Historical Research (IHR) - played a large part in raising the profile and status of cultural history - referred to Burckhardt and Huizinga as important founding fathers of the cultural historical perspective. ‘This classic model has not been replaced by any new orthodoxy, despite the importance of approaches inspired by social and cultural anthropology.’ The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, tried to attempt, in his opinion, both to imitate and surpass the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. ‘The difference between these works and specialized studies in the history of art, literature, philosophy, music and so on is their generality, their concern with all the arts and their relation to one another and to the “spirit of the age”. (…) Both writers had a gift for evoking the past and also for showing connections between different activities. All the same, I shall argue that their approach cannot or should not be the model for cultural history today, because it cannot deal satisfactory with certain difficulties. (…)’

The quotations are taken from:

Peter Gay, Freud for historians (Oxford 1985).

John Tosh, The pursuit of history (6rd revised edition 2015).

Jeremy Black & Donald M. MacRaild, Studying History (4th revised edition 2016).  

Jeremy Black, Clio’s battles. Historiography in Practice (2016).

Peter Burke, Varieties of Cultural History (1997).

The other quotations are taken from the websites of the Association for Psychohistory, the International Psychohistorical Association and Paul H. Elovitz. They are retrieved on 5 December 2016.

The Association for Psychohistory and the Journal of Psychohistory are affiliated with the International Psychohistorical Association, which holds annual June conventions. Apart from the American schools, also a German school is operating within the German language area: “Die Deutsche Gesellschaft für psychohistorische Forschung”. Psychoanalysis - based the works of Sigmund Freud and the Post-Freudians - is the main orientation.