European Review

Research Article

How historians play God

a1 Department of History, Princeton University, 129 Dickinson Hall, Princeton, New Jersey 08544–1017, USA. E-mail:


This essay recounts the career of Jacques-Pierre Brissot, the leader of the Girondists during the French Revolution, in a manner designed to pose questions about the nature of historical research in general. How, in piecing together information taken from scraps of paper, do historians come to an understanding of other lives? Put in the abstract, the problem belongs to epistemology or ethics. Confronted in practice, it is more like the puzzles uncovered by archaeologists. The historian digs out a shard of evidence from the archives and asks: was Brissot, the ultimate idealist, a spy for the police? By stepping in and out of layers of time, the historian is actually playing a deeper game, one that he or she may be reluctant to admit.