The WikiLeaks deluge of diplomatic cables has unexpectedly re-energized a six-century-old genre - the letters home of resident envoys to their governments - and has given the world a glimpse of history taking shape.
There have always been ambassadors, but they were sent on specific missions, to deliver a particular message or negotiate one agreement. Starting in the 1400s, however, Italian and then other European states began to maintain envoys who were more than temporary visitors. Diplomats became regular correspondents, sending their masters a mixture of direct, hard observation and impressionistic gossip.
Much of the history of King Henry VIII, for example, comes from the reports of Eustache Chapuys, a Frenchman who was the long-time representative in London of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor as well as being the King of Spain. Most of Niccolo Machiavelli's short writings are memoranda written in the course of his job as (more or less) the deputy foreign minister of Florence, sometimes preliminary sketches for The Prince - which could be more realistic than the book: Machiavelli built up the myth of Cesare Borgia as a brilliant, villainous antihero, but his reports to his political bosses show Borgia being incompetent and indecisive, too.
Few, if any, diplomatic letters were great literature, but in due course they formed archives that changed the very meaning of the word "history." From Herodotus and Thucydides to David Hume and Lord Macaulay, historians were not particularly concerned with researching documents. Then, in the first half of the 19th century, Leopold von Ranke and other German historians created "scientific history," that is, based on documents contemporary with the events it dealt with. This meant history with a heavy emphasis on foreign policy.
In the past half-century, there has been a rebellion in favour of social history - on housemaid's knee in Belleville, Ont., in Jack Granatstein's example. But the WikiLeaks documents, not mouldering in archives but beaming through the Internet at lightning speed, with the King of Saudi Arabia ranting that the U.S. should attack Iran to "cut off the head of the snake," show that history has not ended but is accelerating.
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