Traversing foreign territory: nationality and writing non-national history


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“It is difficult for a foreigner to understand” the peculiarities of the seventeenth-century English government, maintained F. W. Cornish in 1887 in the English Historical Review in his review of Moritz Brosch’s Oliver Cromwell und die puritanische Revolution (1880). Two years later in the same publication, Charles Oman concluded similarly how it was certainly pleasing that foreigners studied English history, yet, they often committed easy mistakes because they were, well, not English. Nationality, thus, was a quality that a historian could not escape and consequently a constituent element of his scholarly self. It did not altogether prevent anyone from writing about topics that did not fall into the category of national history, nonetheless it was argued time and again that it set limitations to our ability to grasp the underlying institutional, ideological, and cultural meanings that defined the course of history. Nevertheless, historians recognized the challenges national biases posed for the credibility of their narratives and the benefits that an outsider’s view could provide. In spite of this, the emotional attachment to national history influenced the British historians in their evaluation of their foreign colleagues’ attempts to interpret English history.

No one, not even the eminent Leopold von Ranke, was able to escape the fact that only the native British had an access to the intimate knowledge about the history of the national institutions. John Richard Green was pleased with the new insights Ranke’s History of England offered about foreign relations, but complained about the “constitutional side” of the study. Ranke, just like “no foreigner” could understand “an adherence to forms and precedents, even in the face of ‘state necessities’” in England. Edward Freeman could not have agreed more with this. He congratulated Ranke for his treatment of “external matters” while detected numerous blunders “in the details of every judicial & parliamentary process.” This sprang from Ranke’s inability to understand “any purely English matter.” Although both Green and Freeman admitted that Ranke’s histories were useful for English readers, they could not ignore his shortcomings that were caused by his German background. The peculiar familiarity with the current national political and legal institutions was a prime requirement for producing accurate knowledge about history of England and could be gained only by personal acquaintance with these institutions. Although Freeman allowed that longer sojourns in Britain helped to gain deeper understanding of these institutions, only those who had been born in Britain could master the topic.

The insular, even protective, mindset can be partially explained with national jealousies. Peter Wende has observed that German and British historians carefully followed the publishing activities in their respective countries and introduced English and German books in their leading journals – the English Historical Review and Historische Zeitschrift. This curiosity in what was done abroad was shared by historians all over Europe; they eagerly followed the developments of their discipline elsewhere in order to learn more about the latest source discoveries and methodological discussions. This interest was also motivated by a wish to compare and evaluate own achievements in an international context. As Wende observes, the British and German reviewers recognized the merits of their foreign colleagues just as Green and Freeman did when admitting that Ranke’s History of England had value for English historians. Yet, the reviewers were often unable to escape the sensitive question of national pride. The Germans could barely hide their sense of superiority as the leading nation in the critical historical inquiry. In England, the reviewers continued to produce the familiar stereotype of German historians as unrivalled in their scientific exactitude, yet hopeless in their dry and unreadable narratives.

Nevertheless, there were exceptions to the conception that nationality restricted a historian’s ability to understand non-national history. This, though, was mostly limited to cases that did not treat the history of England itself. MosesW. A. B. Coolidge considered the American historian Bernard Moses to possess “special advantages”that enabled him to analyze Swiss federal institutions. Coolidge gathered that as an American citizen, Moses had to be “well versed in the actual working of federal institutions.”  He had another unique asset as well: he was a professor in California and hence lived closer by “than most of us to certain little-known states which boast of a perhaps not always uninterrupted enjoyment of federal institutions – the republics of Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela, and the Argentine republic”. Coolidge was convinced that Moses’s background rendered him “able to illustrate Swiss matters.”

Indeed, the impact nationality had on a historian’s ability to comprehend historical events and institutions seemed to be unfixed. In the case of Moses, nationality was not a hindrance to writing excellent history. Contrary, according to Coolidge, the residency in California had furnished him with such first-hand knowledge about federal institutions that he was qualified to comment on the topic also in a Swiss context. However, equally confidently Henry Sidgwick pronounced that the Swiss scholar Johann Kaspar Bluntschli had allowed “his mind to be too exclusively possessed by a German conception” of constitutional monarchy. This had led him to “rather seriously to misrepresent the facts of English political history.” As my sample is quite narrow, caution must be taken when making generalizations. Yet it seems that reviewers tended to be more sensitive about the foreign author’s national background when they were evaluating books that professed to make a contribution to English history, than when they were discussing publications that explored history with no direct bearing on their own home country.

In spite of the suspicions, doubts, and sense of national self-importance, many a reviewer was earnestly surprised – and even moved by – when foreigners were so interested in English history that they were willing to invest their time in its examination and produced something that had value for English readers. Lucien Wolf, reviewing Dr. Goldschmidt’s Juden in England von den ältesten Zeiten bis zu ihrer Verbannung, admitted that “at the first sight it may appear strange that a foreigner should have undertaken – and, as far as it goes, successfully – to write the little exploited and less known history of the English Jews.” Wolf and many others complemented foreign historians for discovering virgin territories, sources, and novel viewpoints. The geographical distance gave the foreign historians perspective that the native historians lacked. Free from the burden of traditions and conventions that constrained English historians, they discovered topics and records that had so far been   overlooked. The benefit that a distance may offer to a historian has certainly not vanished. Nevertheless, even today we might occasionally need to be reminded of the advantages the altering perspectives have on our notions on history.


Papers of Edward A. Freeman, The John Rylands Library, Manchester.


Coolidge, W. A. B., “Bernard Moses, The Federal Government of Switzerland,” English Historical Review 5:20 (1890): 798-800.

Cornish, F. W., “Moritz Brosch: Oliver Cromwell und die puritanische Revolution,” English Historical Review 2:8 (1887): 800-804.

Letters of John Richard Green, ed. Leslie Stephen (London: Macmillan, 1902).

Oman, C., “Fritz Hoenig, Oliver Cromwell,” English Historical Review 4:15 (1889): 571-73.

Sidgwick, Henry, “R. Lodge (ed.), Bluntschli’s Theory of State”, English Historical Review 1:2 (1886): 378-82.

Wolf, Lucien, ” Dr. S. Goldschmidt, Geschichte der Juden in England von den ältesten Zeiten bis zu ihrer Verbannung”, English Historical Review 2:6 (1887): 363-65.


Wende, Peter. “Views and Reviews: Mutual Perceptions of British and German Historians in the Late Nineteenth Century” in British and German Historiography 1750-1950: Traditions, Perceptions, and Transfers, eds. Benedikt Stuchtey & Peter Wende (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000): 173-189.




Paratexts, Paris, and the famous cows of Finland


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After a long and gray winter the recent couple of sunny days have made one feel just as happy as one may imagine cows to feel when they are for the first time in the spring let out from a barn. Because of this, it is perfect time to talk about paratexts, Finnish cows, and the 1900 Paris exhibition. These all three seemingly disparate elements came nicely together in a publication called Notices sur la Finlande which was publishedSuomen paviljonki to honor Finland’s participation in the 1900 universal exhibition in Paris. The russification measures were at their height and receiving an invitation from the French to build a pavilion for the Fair was a propaganda opportunity Finns were not going to miss. First rank artists and architects were asked to design and decorate a pavilion that ticked all the boxes of the national-romantic Jugendstil. They did not even try to hide the allusions to the dire political situation in the artwork that adorned the pavilion. Russians were far less thrilled about this all and when the French awarded a grand prix to the Finnish pavilion the news was greeted with outrage in Russia.

If the pavilion was visually a celebration of the golden age of Finnish national-romantic art, eminent scientists and scholars highlighted in an equally jubilant fashion  the  modernity of Finnish industry, agriculture, education, and state in thirteen brochures. The leaflets that were handed out to the visitors, were also published in a one-volume edition, Notices sur la Finlande. The authors represented the crème de la crème of Finnish expertise and included, among others, Tekla Hultin, the first woman in Finland awarded with a doctoral degree in history (in 1896). The purpose of the pamphlets was, according to the preface in the Notices, to offer as briefly as possible highlights about Finland’s social, economic, and agricultural conditions. As Leo Mechelin, the author of the preface, concluded, this brevity made the leaflets appealing to the largest possible audiences. After all, he asserted how “De nos jours, tout le monde est si pressé, et il y a tant de choses a lire.” Hence, the shortness of the accounts was due to this consideration towards the readers, not due to lack of worthy topics to discuss.

Considering the visually rich pavilion, the typography of the brochures was restrained underlining the serious nature of the content. The impression of gravity was enhanced with numerous statistics that were inserted into the text illustrating, among others, the increasing number of postal operations, and quite oddly, the number of severe accidents in the different fields of industry. TilastoThe articles were otherwise short of visual and paratextual hooks to attract readers – with only one exception. The piece about agriculture, L’Agriculture en Finlande vers la fin du XIXe siècle, was written by doctor Gösta Grotenfelt, was far longer than the other leaflets – 131 pages – and furnished with several paratexts. The text was accompanied with marginal notes that helped readers to navigate through it. Moreover, Grotenfelt had also illustrated his piece with statistical diagrams, maps, photographs, genealogical tables and this abundance of graphic material brings us to those happy Finnish cows.

In 1900, Finland was a rural country. Agriculture was vital for the local inhabitants and the improvements in the production, research, and education in the related fields were something to be proud of. Grotenfelt’s illustrations accentuated this national pride. Images as paratexts are pivotal in catching attention and indicating what is considered essential in the text. They educate, illustrate, and complement the textual message. Furthermore, visual paratext are important also because even those who do not read a text may familiarize themselves with them when browsing through books in libraries and bookshops. Consequently, these non-readers can create impressions and opinions about the book based on the graphic paratexts alone. Grotenfelt’s visual message was clear: Finland is an agricultural nation and proud of its achievements in breeding cattle.


Three maps, two foldable graphics, one genealogical table, and thirteen photographs promoted various aspects of agricultural life in Finland. Out of these paratexts, altogether eight pieces visualized themes related to cattle.Palkintolehmä Three photographs depicted indigenous Finnish cows and their grave, almost timid, keepers. Presenting a price-winning cow was a serious matter and nothing to smile about! One photograph documented four cow skulls and another one introduced the famous Aarni, the Ayrshire cow bred at the Mustiala institute of agriculture. Since Aarni was obviously an exceptionally significant representative of national cattle breeding, a genealogical table was attached to show its noble roots. AarniAs a sign of wider impact cattle breeding had for Finnish economy, two folded diagrams illustrated the export of butter and cheese since the 1850s. All this visualization was certainly enough to guarantee that even those who did not acquaint themselves with the detailed narrative grasped the significance cows had for Finland.


The technical developments in photography and printing enabled more efficient and affordable means to reproduce images during the last decades of the nineteenth century. This had an impact on how books were illustrated, texts visualized, and images interpreted. In learned publications, the advancing technology allowed a more diverse use of illustrations from complicated diagrams to photographs. The illustrations were not just decorations, but part of the message authors (and publishers) wished to convey. In terms of educating readers, the text and accompanying visualization were intended to complement each other. Of course readers could do nothing else than browse through books and casually stop to contemplate nothing else than the images. This selective reading gave graphic paratexts a key role in transmitting knowledge; the text was pushed into the margins and everything the audience learned was compressed into the illustrations – Finland sure was a country with great many cows. Dead and alive.



Success in stereos: stereotyping as a sign of popularity


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The popularity of the first volumes of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History of England in 1848 took everyone by surprise. Less than two months after their publication the author casually mentioned in his journal how he was correcting the proofs for a stereotyped edition. Stereotyping was one of the several technological innovations that influenced book production during the nineteenth century. The technology itself had been invented already during the eighteenth century, but it was the nineteenth century that took full advantage of its possibilities. What was significant in this new technology was that the plates could be used time and again. There was no longer a need for a new setting of type whenever a new issue was printed from stereos. This cut significantly the production costs of later issues and reprints. Since the initial costs of making the plates were relatively high, publishers were reluctant to invest in them unless they either predicted high demand for a new title or issued a new edition of a proven title. Because of this, stereotyping as a method of book production carried a concealed meaning of success. It is likely not a coincidence that Macaulay continuously alluded to stereotyping in his correspondence and journal during the months that proceeded the launch of the History of England. He was overwhelmed by his success and, against the virtues of modesty and moderation, did not hide his exultation.

Historians welcomed stereotyping with mixed feelings. They took great pride in correcting errors, adding new details, and improving their narratives whenever a new issue was published. Stereotyping, however, set limits to this because the use of existing plates significantly restricted the possibilities for making substantial alterations to an existing text. Thus, Edward Freeman demanded in 1872 to know what the “exact effect” of this specific production method was when Macmillan brought up the matter. Freeman suspected that stereotyping would hinder him from making “any further improvements” and reminded Macmillan how there had been a good number of additions and corrections in every volume and edition of his magnum opus, the History of the Norman Conquest. It was obvious that the famous historian was not thrilled about the prospect of his Norman Conquest of being stereotyped.

Freeman was right in a sense that stereotyping did not allow profound alterations, but it did not mean that any corrections were beyond historians. Blunders in dates, names, typos, and other similar blemishes were easy to correct in stereo plates. Other changes were possible as long as they did not alter the pagination and thus did not require casting new plates. Publishers tended to be less eager to make such investments. Creativity, thus, was needed when historians wished to make revisions to a stereotyped text. Edith Thompson, the author of History of England, learned to shorten and rearrange sentences in order to make room for some additional details and emendations she wished to insert into her book. Although stereotyping introduced limitations to revisions, historians grasped its symbolical function: being stereotyped was a subtle indication of their success and popularity. Macaulay was not unique in planting passing references to their stereotyped books in correspondence. In March 1873 Freeman wrote John Richard Green recounting his ongoing projects. Offhandedly he also mentioned how his General Sketch of European History happened to be at the moment “a-stereotyping or something.”

While stereos became shorthand for success, for some they became also a sign of shallowness. The persistent notion that a book’s popularity goes hand in hand with pedestrian taste was firmly in place in Victorian Britain. The commercialization of the book market was feared to lead to an inevitably lower literary and intellectual quality.  Freeman accused the “chatterers and joke-mongers” for spoiling the public taste and refused to lower himself to the level of the “vulgar public.” Since publishers mostly stereotyped their popular titles, some used stereotyping as an indication of a book’s lower cultural value. The Tablet published a critical review of Macaulay’s History of England in March 1849 and the writer concluded that the book was being stereotyped precisely because Macaulay was “at once shallow and brilliant.” Macaulay, the reviewer complained, did not instruct his readers, but rather gave “utterances to the current thought of every man’s mind” and did this in such brilliance of style that deserved to be called “the Dickens of historians”. Macaulay did not write history, but romance, the reviewer concluded. The book being stereotyped was a strong proof of this questionable scholarly quality.

Macaulay read the review, but considered it to be “trash.” Instead of wasting more time with it, he chose to boast his success to Charles Macaulay by noting how none of Walter Scott’s novels had sold faster than the History of England. If this and the sales figures were not enough to prove his popularity, he added how “we are going to stereotype” to once more verify his success.


The Macmillan Papers, British Library.

The Papers of Edward A. Freeman, The John Rylands Library, Manchester.


The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. V. Ed. Thomas Pinney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

“Mr. Macaulay and his History”, Tablet 3 March 1849. Quoted in Thomas, William (ed.), The Journals of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. II (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008).


Dooley, Allan C. Author and Printer in Victorian England (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1992).

Guy, Josephine, “Authors and authorship”, The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1830-1914, ed. Joanne Shattock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 9-29.

Miller, Laura J., Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Weedon, Alexis, Victorian Publishing: The Economics of Book Production for a Mass Market, 1836-1916 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2003).

Edward Freeman and the personae of late-Victorian women historians



Historical scholarship faced several significant changes during the second half of the nineteenth century and history gradually grew into a profession and discipline of its own. Although in Britain history studies prepared men to public service rather than to academia, a university degree symbolized a formal qualification for conducting intellectual work. Moreover, it provided one with crucial social capital and networks. Women were unable to obtain an academic degree, yet they did not abstain from writing history. Quite the contrary, women participated in numerous ways to historical pursuits. These decades, I discovered while writing a paper for the forthcoming “The Persona of the Historian: Repertoires and Performances, 1800–2000”– conference in Leiden, saw women beginning to redefine their role as a historian. For example, in the close circles of Edward Freeman, the Oxford professor and eminent scholar of early English history, it is possible to identify at least five different types of women historians. Indeed, there was not just one dominant model women emulated, but a multitude of roles and corresponding personae they could choose from. Freeman loftily counted some of these women as part of “us,” part of the privileged group of professional historians. In reality, however, women were not granted a full membership in this club and even Freeman’s own actions reveal the prejudices women faced when they ventured to write “serious” history. For him, a fundamental difference in the persona men and women were to cultivate derived from the level of independence that was expected from a historian. Women still served history best as assistants, not as the active producers of new knowledge. The five types of women in Freeman’s world indeed indicate that this was very much a transitional period between Agnes Strickland, the queen of feminine biographies, and Eileen Power, the economic historian and professor. Whereas the historiography’s hall of fame continued to be firmly occupied by men such as Freeman who believed in the gendered social and cultural order of things, women took careful steps in a direction of serious scholarship.

For Freeman the lowest echelon of history belonged to the full amateurs, the vulgar popularizers of history. Charlotte Yonge, (1823–1901), picture_of_charlotte_mary_yongeperhaps better known as an author of historical novels than of histories, was the embodiment of an amateur historian who lacked the skills and qualities that writing history required. She nevertheless produced a respectable number of historical titles. She for example wrote a short history of France to the series Historical Course for Schools Freeman edited to Macmillan. Freeman was constantly frustrated with her who, according to him, was unable to distinguish between significant and insignificant, or to understand complicated political and historical events. She, thus, was short of the skills and qualities a historian should have possessed. Freeman was, however, astonished how Yonge accepted his criticism with admirable forbearance and obediently followed his orders to revise her text time and again. Yet, Yonge’s inability to grasp the deeper meaning of Freeman’s instructions proved again how she was not fit for writing history. She was a textbook example of why it was pivotal that history was written only by those who possessed an appropriate persona for successfully carrying out the task.

Second, and far above Yonge, were Freeman’s daughters Florence and Margaret who fulfilled the role of an assistant. He once even called them as his “librarian” and “sub-librarian.” Of course it is well-known that during the nineteenth century writing history was a family business. nq-indexWives, daughters, sisters, cousins – they all participated in research one way or another. They took care of the tedious routines and tasks that did not demand independent initiative. The Freeman family made no exception in this. The daughters dutifully copied notes, proofed sheets, organized papers, and indexed Freeman’s studies. Freeman expected them to be available for him, to carry out the tasks in prompt and diligent manner, and when they met his expectations, he “(in figure) pat…on her little wee, wee, wee, bit headikie for doing what I have set her so well and so quickly.” The daughters cultivated a set of virtues and qualities that rendered them perfect assistants: they were reliable, careful, precise, patient, and punctual. They were of irreplaceable help for their father, but of course their help was a public secret. Margaret, who proved to have the patience and detailed eye that indexing required, was responsible for composing – among others – the separate index of her father’s multi-volume History of the Norman Conquest. The title page, though, indicated Edward A. Freeman as the author and only the brief preface signed by “M.E.” revealed that the real author was his daughter Margaret Evans.

Then there was Edith Thompson (1848–1929), the ideal type of a woman historian for Freeman. Thompson, a friend of the Freeman-family, wrote the history of England to the series Historical Course for Schools. thompsonUnlike Charlotte Yonge, Thompson was fit for the job. She was aware of the expectations and developments of historical scholarship and strove to apply the principles in the popular history she wrote. She was even familiar with a large number of historical records and manuscripts. What was crucial for Freeman was that Thompson was willing to listen to his instructions and advice. She also accepted his historical views. Such submissiveness was vital for Freeman: he was able to dictate the content of the history Thompson wrote in a way that he could not have done with a male author. Men, he emphasized, had a right to their own opinion, but a similar privilege of independent thinking was not granted to women. Women served history best by transmitting the knowledge men produced into concise narratives for popular audiences. Freeman had no scruples to declare it loud and clear that it was the independence and strive for original research that set men and women historians apart. Thompson fit well into this model; she was an accurate, industrious worker, and accommodating to Freeman’s ideas. Even when she did not agree with the revisions he suggested, she complied and followed his instructions just as she was expected to do. In reality, though, accepting Freeman’s orders was not always easy for her, but she was able to follow her own instincts only after Freeman’s death. Although she always retained high respect to her mentor, she then used the opportunity to break free from some of Freeman’s notions that she had either never accepted or had begun to doubt on a later age. But as long as Freeman was alive, she was the loyal Edith who adopted his views and fluently conversed with him about anything from old-English manuscripts to the follies of their fellow historians.

The two remaining types of women stand out from the crowd because of their initiative to alicestopfordgreencarry out independent historical work. This was one reason why Freeman struggled to get along with them. The fourth type, then, was Alice Stopford Green (1847– 1929). She was a widow of the famous historian John Richard Green who had encouraged women to do original research. Alice Stopford Green conducted historical research but also assumed an active political role using the past for advancing ideological causes. During the 1890s she was an active member of the London society, but turned slowly into an ardent Irish nationalist. She embraced the Gaelic interpretation of history of Ireland. It was through the study of history, Stopford Green stressed in 1908, that the Irish could find their “just pride restored, and their courage assured.” She, thus, trespassed two traditionally masculine spheres – politics and history. Freeman’s relationship with Stopford Green had been uneasy ever since Green had introduced his fiancé to him. In disparaging-manner he talked about the “widow woman” who lived comfortably on Green’s royalties. She was a strong personality, independent, outspoken, and pretty much everything that Freeman could not tolerate in women. She engaged with public life and assumed a role of an active historian, a role that challenged the traditional social order.

The fifth and last type was Kate Norgate (1853–1929), a diligent historian who made a norgatepraised contribution to the pool of historical knowledge and who was acknowledged for her scholarly competence. She was also a disciple of Green and close friend with Alice Stopford Green, though these two women could not have been more different. After Green’s death Norgate occasionally consulted Freeman about history. He praised her first book, England under the Angevin Kings (1887) in the English Historical Review as a sound piece of historical work. “The addition of a new member to the company of those who are reading and writing history in the right way is indeed a thing to be glad at,” Freeman wrote and continued how “the gladness is certainly not lessened when we find of whom Miss Norgate is the intellectual daughter, still less by the fact that she is the daughter and not the son.” Freeman, however, was troubled by Norgate. He acknowledged her skills and knowledge that made her as perfect a historian as one could be. The problem was that her quiet dedication to intellectual work was not becoming for a woman. Freeman had instructed young Edith Thompson in discipline and commitment to arduous work, but there were limits on how far women should adhere to the strenuous work ethic and serious habitus of a scholar.

According to Freeman, Norgate was extremely serious, shy, and socially restrained. This awkwardness irritated him exceedingly. She was an opposite of the chatty and social Thompson whose company he enjoyed excessively. Although he expected women to adhere to the principles of scientific history and to cultivate many virtues common with their male counterparts, the unwavering dedication was a masculine quality. He had been unpleasantly surprised when he had found Thompson to take steps to this direction when she was writing the History of England. He had met her briefly in London and had expected to spend a couple of hours in good company by lightly chatting about this and that. Instead of this, he had met Thompson with her manuscript and a list of questions concerning history and of writing the book. Luckily, this did not happen again. This sort of serious “Woman of Business” was far from the ideal Freeman had for a woman historian whom he expected to be sociable and available for light but witty conversation.

Although Freeman counted Edith Thompson to be one of “us” and complemented her knowledge on history and historical practices, he never encouraged her to conduct independent research. The gender was still a decisive factor in the division of tasks in historical activities. The five types of women historians in Freeman’s circles indicate how the late-Victorian women hovered between the amateurs and scientifically oriented historians. They occupied what could be called a muddled middle ground between the two extremes. Women were considered the most suitable for assisting men in their research or for transmitting the knowledge men produced into a concise popular format. This role had a direct bearing on the demands placed on their persona. In addition to the fundamental virtues such as accuracy and honesty, their persona was submissive to the guidelines, interpretations, and instructions dictated by men. Independence of mind, ambition, extreme dedication, or desire for original research were vices that women should have avoided.


Letters from Edward Freeman to Edith Thompson, Hull History Centre.

Letters from Edith Thompson to Macmillan, The Macmillan Papers, British Library.


Freeman, Edward A., “Kate Norgate, England under the Angevin Kings”, English Historical Review, 2:8 (October 1887): 774-780.

Stephens, W. R. W. (ed.), The life and letters of Edward A. Freeman D.C.L., LL.D. (London: Macmillan, 1895).

Stopford Green, Alice, The Making of Ireland and its Undoing, 1200-1600 (London: Macmillan, 1908).


McDowell, R.B., Alice Stopford Green: A Passionate Historian (Dublin: Allen Figgis and Co. 1967).



Picture-perfect scholars and uncontrollable portraits


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Edward Freeman, the venerable history professor in Oxford, had his picture taken in 1888 and proudly he informed Edith Thompson how, for the first time, his picture was to be sold by the photographer. This was a big day for Freeman: he had reached the milestone of being so popular that a photographer expected to make profit by putting copies of his carte-de-visite portrait up for sale. The sensational popularity of the carte-de-visite during the last decades of the nineteenth-century encapsulates the technological innovations, the intensification of consumer and celebrity cultures, and the immense overload of visual signs that shaped the European popular imagination. The latest techniques in photography and printing rendered the carte-de-visite cheap to reproduce. Printed on small cards that often incorporated a facsimile signature of the sitter, the carte-de-visite was also durable. All this made them fashionable collectables among the middle-classes who strove to establish a connection between themselves and their favorite celebrities by possessing their pictures. The marketing capacity of the carte-de-visite photographs was broadly recognized. tennysonArtists, scientists, and politicians sought the opportunity to promote, commodify, and manipulate their public image through portraiture. Much care was taken to achieve the desired “look” that reproduced an idealized image of a “poet,” “scientist,” or an “explorer.” Margaret Oliphant complained how Tennyson assumed in photographs an appearance that “was too emphatically that of a poet… the fine frenzy, the careless picturesqueness, were almost too much.” Tennyson simply “looked the part [of a poet] too well.” Despite the many benefits the carte-de-visite had for marketing and self-fashioning purposes, there were several risks involved in their use that could undermine the promotional value.

Photographers were keen to seek an agreement with their notable customers about making duplicates of their portrait photographs and selling them for profit in their shops. Such a request was of course made only when the sitter was considered famous enough to attract buyers. This explains why Freeman could barely conceal his delight when a respectable photographer had in 1888 proposed this opportunity to him: it confirmed that he had established himself as a publicly recognized historian. For many others who did not share similar honor, the lack of a commodified portrait was a reminder of the opposite. However, once a commercial carte-de-visite was produced, the sitter’s popularity was tested anew. How prominently the carte-de-visite was displayed at the photographer’s shop and how well did it sell caused stress to many sitters as Gerard Curtis has suggested.

The fact that once the carte-de-visite had become commercial merchandise it was beyond its sitter’s control underlined the commodification of celebrities. Some were anxious that they could not influence the way photographers, shopkeepers, and customers handled the portraits. They also feared that sometimes the pictures were treated in such a fashion that a sitter’s reputation could be harmed. A major concern was, as Henry Sampson argued in 1874, that a portrait of someone of respect got “mixed up in the questionable company” in a shop window. Using portraits of actresses as an example he observed how the shop windows were filled with photographs of women whose “chief attraction consists…in their lavish display of limbs and ‘neck’” rather than in their talent in acting. These women had their pictures taken “in the most extraordinary attitudes,” and because of all this, Sampson concluded that the respectable actresses “whose portraits should grace the photographers’ show-case” were hesitant to allow their pictures to appear in such a crowd. Sampson perhaps exaggerated the “respectful” actresses’ reluctance to allow their photographs to be sold at these same shops, but his conclusion about the contamination of a bad reputation was not unfounded. As many celebrity studies have suggested, establishing an association with someone famous has been a popular method for enhancing reputation. Sampson, however, introduced a case where the impact of an association was negative. Having a portrait randomly land in an unwanted company held a risk for a contaminating a reputation.

Freeman did not envisage the fate of his portrait any further on the marketplace in his letter to Thompson. He was simply overjoyed by this token of success. Nonetheless, the notion of a false association injuring a reputation was not strange to him even though he did not extend the risk to the commodification of his portrait. He emphasized constantly the importance reputation had for a historian’s credibility and marketability. He was, therefore, cautious that his name was not associated with those who he did not consider worthy of being called a historian.



Edward A. Freeman to Edith Thompson, 20 May 1888. U DX9/160. Letters from Edward Augustus Freeman to Edith Thompson, Hull History Centre.


Blathwayt Raymond, “How Celebrities Have Been Photographed”, The Windsor Magazine, II (1895): 639-648.

Sampson Henry, A History of Advertising from the Earliest Times (London: Chatto and Windus, 1874).

The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs M. O. W. Oliphant. Ed. Mrs Harry Coghill (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and sons, 1899, 3rd edn. revised).


Curtis Gerard, Visual Words: Art and the Material Book in Victorian England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).

Giloi Eva, “”So Writes the Hand that Swings the Sword”: Autograph Hunting and Royal Charisma in the German Empire, 1861-1888”, Constructing Charisma: Celebrity, Fame, and Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Eds. Edward Berenson & Eva Giloi (New York & Oxford: Bergham Books, 2010): 41-51.

Claim for a name: Agnes Strickland and the disputed ownership of a title



A title is one of the most crucial paratexts a history book can have. In a few words a title captures the essence of a text – its topic and genre – as well as contextualizes and explains it. Without a title a text remains nothing but a text. A title is a fascinating paratext also because it lives a double-life. As Eleanor Shevlin has observed, titles are at the same time attached to the text and removed from it. It is the title that is used to refer to a specific text and it is the title that links the reviews, discussions, and comments in outside world to the book. Moreover, a title has contractual power in legal sense. In England, since the act of 1719, a title has been recognized both as a property and a legally binding marker of this ownership. Nevertheless, every now and then the unwritten rules of scholarly conduct have complicated the question of ownership making it nothing but a simple legal matter. In 1840, Agnes Strickland (1796–1874) argued for the moral right for a title even before a book was published as long as the expected title was communicated to the public one way or another. Strickland went so far that she publicly accused Hannah Lawarance (1795–1875) for stealing the title of her forthcoming book. Lawrance strongly disagreed with this interpretation and replied by staking her own claim for the moral right to the disputed title.

Agnes Strickland and Hannah Lawrance are today remembered for the biographies of queens and princesses they wrote. This was a popular and well-established genre and Victoria’s ascendancy to the throne did nothing to lessen the demand for the picturesquely written histories of prominent women. Strickland tapped this enthusiasm for royal biographies and sought a “gracious permission” from her Majesty to dedicate her first book to the Queen “with feelings of profound respect and loyal affection.” Women were considered highly suitable for writing such books. Their femininity helped them to connect with their subject matter, yet, by writing about women they did not compete with men who wrote about really important historical topics such as politics, wars – and kings who were the true historical agents. The queens and princesses, if they had had any impact on the progress of England, had exercised much softer influence focusing on education, charity, and culture – fields that were considered suitable for the nineteenth-century women as well. Hannah Lawarance, though, contested this model and introduced the women she wrote about as active historical actors and instilled her narrative with opinions about the contemporary debates on women’s education.

In 1840, Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest was issued with a preface where she claimed that someone had stolen the original title of her book. stricklandIn 1837, she explained, she had informed Queen Victoria about her ongoing project. Moreover, the Literary Gazette plus “other leading periodicals of the day” had announced that she was working on to complete “Historical Memoirs of the Queens of England.” It was, then, well-known that she was preparing a book with a specific title. These notices granted Strickland the right to the topic – and as she believed – to its title as well. She was convinced that the tree-year long delay in the process, caused by a “long and dangerous illness,” should not have affected her moral ownership of the title. Hence, she was unpleasantly surprised to discover that while she was convalescing, her chosen title “was appropriated by another writer.” Discretely Strickland shunned from mentioning the unscrupulous writer by name, but anyone who followed the literary scene could easily identify the wrongdoer as Hannah Lawrence, the author of Historical Memoirs of the Queens of England which had been issued in 1838.

Lawrance did not take such a public charge and humiliation well. She paid back to Strickland in a vicious review that she submitted anonymously to The Atheaneum. She started by tackling the accusation, which “With all respect for Miss Strickland” created “an unfair prejudice against Miss Lawrance, whose laborious and interesting Memoirs” lawrancewere referred to in the unpleasant preface. As so often in priority right disputes, Lawrance, too, set to prove that actually it had been her work – including the contested title – that had been publicly announced well before the papers had said a word about Strickland’s work-in-progress. Lawrance-the-reviewer explained how already in 1831 when Anna Jameson’s Memoirs of Celebrated Female Sovereigns had been published, it had been “heard that Miss Lawrance was writing ‘Memoirs of the Queens of England’.” As this was quite vague leaving it open to whom and how the news of Lawrance’s book was communicated, she added that “in 1832 we believe, but certainly when the [poet] Ettrick Shepherd was in London, for he and twenty other literary persons were present, this report was confirmed to us by Miss Lawrance herself.” For Lawrance this was enough to both prove her innocence and her right for the disputed title. Hence, it was not Lawrance-the-historian who was the villain in the story: “under these circumstances, it is a little too bad to insinuate that Miss Lawrance has, in some way or another, acted unjustly or ungenerously towards Miss Strickland,” Lawrance-the reviewer concluded.

It is not surprising that the publicly disgraced Lawrance, after quieting “our conscience” about the titular disagreement, went to great lengths to find every possible fault in Strickland’s book. Perhaps Lawrance-the-reviewer tried to conceal the reviewer’s true identity and therefore focused primarily on flaws that were considered feminine: uncritical evaluation of authorities, absurd simplification of complicated matters, inclusion of “antiquarian, and gossiping matter of the slightest interest,” jocular style unbefitting to a grave historical work, and the “besetting sin of female writers, a redundancy of adjectives and epithets.” She, moreover, suspected the feasibility of Strickland’s plan to produce a multi-volume work that contained “all Queens of England.” This was a  bold venture for a woman for it required a consultation of sources that “a young lady would scarcely like to avow she had even read, much less have critically investigated and reasoned upon”.

Once a book was published, the nineteenth-century historians in general respected the right its author had for the given title. No one claimed to have a priority or ownership of overtly general titles such as “History of England,” which did little to distinguish one such work from another. It was the more unique titles that were considered as an author’s possession. The brief Strickland–Lawrance skirmish, however, suggests that the ownership of a title could be a complicated business and that that an ownership of title could pre-date a book’s publication with years. As long as the forthcoming title was publicly announced, both Lawrance and Strickland argued, the author had gained a moral right to use it in the expected book. However, as there was not any clarity on how and where the ownership should be declared, the risk to miss this vital information about priority was real.


Anonymous [Hannah Lawarance], “Lives of the Queens of England, from the Norman Conquest, with Anecdotes of their Court. By Agnes Strickland. Vol. I.” Athenæum, 15 February 1840, 123-125.

Lawrance, Hannah, Historical Memoirs of the Queens of England, from the commencement of the twelfth century (London: Edward Moxon, 1838).

Strickland Agnes, Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest; with Anecdotes of their Courts, now First Published from Official Records and other Authentic Documents, Private as well as Public, vol. I (London: Henry Colburn, 1840).


Dabby Benjamin, “Hannah Lawrance and the Claims of Women’s History in Nineteenth-Century England”, The Historical Journal 53:3 (2010): 699-722.

Shevlin Eleanor F. “’To Reconcile Book and Title, And Make ‘em Kin to One Another’: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Functions”, Book History, 2 (1999): 42-77.

Wilsmore S. J., “The Role of Titles in Identifying Literary Works”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 45:4 (1987): 403-408.



Underground advertising in fin de siècle Maastricht



Lots of things happened during the nineteenth century and the rise of modern advertising culture is one of the many innovations of that century. Of course, there had been advertisements even before that, but during the nineteenth century marketing grew into a profession of its own and the methods of marketing diversified from newspaper notices to rampant puffery, celebrity endorsements, loyalty programs, discount campaigns, bouncers dressed up as tea kettles, and to product placements in plays and Sunday services. As the spending power grew and more and more competing products entered the shops, manufacturers and shopkeepers had to find new modes to appeal to customers and invent more and more innovative and dramatic ways to catch the consumers’ attention.


Punch 1846

Victorian London was the heaven and hell of advertising – and a butt of all jokes. Anthony Trollope parodied the advertising business in The Struggles of Brown, Jones, and Robinson by One of the Firm and numerous satires appeared in magazines ridiculing the London cityscape that was plagued with commercials. Although advertising in London was on par to none, it did not mean that commercials would not have decorated other cities as well.  Paris was filled with advertisements, though the English tourists were astonished by the style and elegance of the Parisian marketing posters. Yet, even the smaller towns were affected by the advertising craze and posters and placards found their way to wherever there were potential customers. This summer I learned that nineteenth-century advertisements appeared in the most unexpected locations – like in the caves under Maastricht.

For centuries, mining was an important source of income in the region that is today known as southern Limburg and the St. Pietersberg hill in Maastricht was one of the many mines in the region. During the peak of the mining activity, the hill concealed more than 200 kilometers and 20,000 passageways. Today the network of caves extends to 80 kilometers and can be visited as part of a guided tour. I took one of these tours in July and discovered that the caves conceal a real surprise to anyone interested in the history of advertising or in the history of reading and writing.


The walls in the caves are covered with signatures, signs, and notes from the miners of different centuries, but even more astounding and surprising is to discover the other decorations on the walls of the passageways and caves. maastrichtartTowards the end of the nineteenth century, the local artists and businessmen began to fill the wall with their artwork and advertisements. According to the guide, the caves had become an extremely popular destination for the Sunday promenades of the Maastricht society. In no time the artists and shop owners realized that the caves were a perfect location for their advertisements. The artists began to decorate the walls with charcoal drawings and paintings to induce potential buyers to their shops and studios. They painted local landscapes, documented historical events, and illustrated Biblical stories. Even Clio found her way to a wall in one of the caves. Thanks to the natural conditions in the caves, the paintings remain in their original condition.



maastrichtbolsThe owners of local businesses were eagerly anxious to tap the potential this new advertising space offered to them. Hotel and restaurant owners promoted their services and the visitors learned, among others, about the different types of drinks that Bols produced.


The advertisements in the Maastricht caves are a good example of the very textually rich nineteenth century. Printed texts – words, letters, numbers, signs, and symbols – appeared literally everywhere. It was nearly impossible to escape the continuous exposure to writing in one form or another. Although the Maastricht tradesmen targeted their advertisements at the local well-to-do classes, the miners saw the same posters when they tramped up and down the passageways leading to the heart of the mine. How much this kind of omnipresence of textual influence shaped the nineteenth-century literacy and the culture of reading and writing, is of course a matter of debate, but its impact on making words and texts familiar to pretty much everyone should not be underestimated.


Punch May 1847


The photographs on the courtesy of Mr. Footnote and his mother – thanks!


[Anon.], “The Age of Veneer. The Science of Puffing”, Fraser’s Magazine (January 1852): 87-93.

[Anon.], “Thoughts on Puffing”, All the Year Round (4 March 1871): 329-332.J. “The Grand Force!”, Fraser’s Magazine (March 1869): 329-332.

W.J. “The Grand Force!”, Fraser’s Magazine (March 1869): 380-383.

White, Mrs., ”A Chapter on Puffs and Advertisements”, Ainsworth’s Magazine: A Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, and Art, XVI (1849): 42-46.


Mason, Nicholas, Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.


Death of a historian and other breaking news from Victorian Britain


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One morning in 1904, the London papers reported that Frederick York Powell, the Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford, had passed away. On the very same morning in Oxford, Frederick York Powell, seriously ill yet alive, was greatly amused about the news of his departure. Showing his whimsical sense of humor, he wrote to the editor begging that any obituary notices were sent to him “for his entertainment.” York Powell was remarkably forbearing in the matter. Many others were less thrilled about the sensational “news” the mass media published about their private lives and about the obsession the general audience seemed to have for wanting to know every little detail about their looks, homes, families, hobbies, and what not else. Indeed, the public’s curiosity was almost unlimited and an anonymous writer in The Strand concluded in 1891 that “he is a careful man nowadays who hides his idiosyncrasies from the public gaze. Happier still is he who, having his skeleton in his cupboard, can double lock the door and lose the key.” The crucial question, then, was, how to succeed in hiding the “idiosyncrasies.” Even historians were forced to think about their strategies for creating and maintaining a public image that corresponded with a scholar’s ethos that underlined modesty and moderation.

The nineteenth century was the century of emerging mass media and popular celebrity culture. As Leo Braudy has emphasized, nineteenth-century fame was no longer granted on hereditary grounds or on affiliation to a certain social class introducing an ever widening range of individuals to gain celebrity status. The audience now had the power to make and break celebrities. If this audience allowed it, practically anyone could be the topic of the talk: artists, actors, boxers, politicians, scientists… Even historians could become minor scale celebrities whose lives were followed with intense interest. A death of a history professor was, then, news worth to publish in a London newspaper. The new mass media was a fitting vehicle to satisfy and create curiosity for the famous. The technological innovations both in printing and paper making enabled cheaper prices revolutionizing the newspaper industry. printing-pressThe growing literacy guaranteed an ever increasing audience for the press. This was a new kind of audience who cared less about highbrow literary essays and more about the bite size news that dailies and weeklies supplied them with. This was also an audience obsessed about biographical stories and news – and the media was happy to respond to this by introducing gossip columns, interviews with celebrities, series of brief biographical sketches of notable men and women, and many other features that enabled the readers to peek into the private lives of the famous. Even the more serious weeklies such as The Athenaeum considered it necessary to introduce a gossip section in order to continue to appear as an attractive magazine.

Historians’ responses to the new interest in their personal lives varied greatly and reflected the general confusion the celebrity culture caused among the literati. Some embraced the potential the publicity held for book sales, others wished to have nothing to do with the kind of media that they deemed incompatible with scholarly dignity. Thomas Carlyle was one of those who was willing to seize the opportunity. He had preached pretty much his whole life against fame and vanity and considered them serious vices for a man of letters. Literary minds ought to adhere to modesty and disinterestedness.  Yet, Carlyle invited to his home Edmund Yates, a journalist from The World, who wrote the immensely popular sketches titled Celebrities at Home. In a good hero-worshipping fashion Yates drew a portrait of Carlyle as a great mind, finding evidence for this in every aspect in his life and every object in his life from “a wooden paper-knife marked ‘Mentone’ and a bowie knife of tremendous proportions” to the portraits of Cromwell and Frederick the Great that adorned his private study. He observed Carlyle’s life from the very moment this “gray-bearded, rugged-featured man, swathed in ample dressing-gown of gray duffel” carlyle_blogiappeared at the front door till the evening when the sage of Chelsey devoted himself for reading and contemplation. Carlyle’s habits, routines, abstemious amusements, his garden – even his voice – all were testimonies of his great mind carrying clues about his inner personality. Following Yates’s day together with Carlyle readers were given a unique opportunity to take a glance into the private life of one of the nation’s greatest scholarly heroes.

Carlyle willingly exposed his life for a public gaze, but many were subjected to the same gaze against their will. It was challenging, if not impossible to control the media that had its own will and interests to look after. The gossip that sold papers was not necessarily flattering for the scholars who were the target of the libelous press. It is doubtful that the venerable Hebrew scholar, Dr. Cox, was amused to read from The Strand how he relaxed by playing ball with his wife. The same writer who had concluded that happy were those who kept their skeletons in their cupboards, showed no mercy on Cox or a number of other notables, when revealing their queer ways to unbend. What the writer found remarkable in Cox’s fascination for throwing ball was that he did not do this “in the sanctity of the back garden,” but instead openly in the front garden! Although no one had accused “our greatest Hebrew scholar” for being “guilty of amusing himself in his own peculiar way on a Sunday,” the writer obviously found it somewhat strange – if not inappropriate – that someone who was expected to be somber and moderate, in fact enjoyed throwing a ball with his wife.

While the ball playing Hebrew scholar might amuse the audience, the revelation of his unexpected hobby was unlikely to seriously harm his reputation. But there were “news” that could potentially damage a historian’s credibility and public image. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the author of the bestselling History of England, certainly had his share of good and bad publicity. Macaulay was not ashamed to admit that his vanity was tickled by the success and flattering he earned with his book. He even fantasized to be one day carved into wax in the Madame Tussauds. Yet the publicity had its downsides as well.

In 1853 he learned that the New York Herald was claiming that he was writing the next volume of his History under the influence of opium. macaulay_seriuosThe paper reported that Macaulay’s friends had given up any hopes to see the work finished, because the “excessive use of opium, to which he is addicted, has destroyed his health, and prevents him from any continued mental exertion.” A concerned American reader contacted Macaulay who assured him that the story was “an impudent lie.” He had never consumed more than altogether ten grains of opium or taken “even a drop of laudanum, except in obedience to medical authority.” The last time had been in 1849 during the cholera epidemic. Macaulay was agitated by the false news and felt “some indignation at the villainy of the low-minded and bad-hearted man who could send such a calumny across the Atlantic.”

The new kind of media and celebrity culture required from the famous novel strategies for coping with it. Full withdrawal was not a feasible option as that only seemed to rouse the public curiosity. New sorts of skills were needed to deal with journalists, and as historians quickly discovered, these were very different than the ones they applied in their research. It took trial and error to learn to endure the new situation. An American journalist was astounded to find Edward Freeman, a prolific historian with a sharp pen, to answer his questions with monosyllables and showing no inclination or understanding towards the reporter’s limited knowledge about English history. Soon the reporter had to admit that even “the tortures of the inquisition” would have failed to get any further comments from Freeman, “a man of very diffident manners” with “crusty temper.” The picture the journalist painted of Freeman to the American audience was far from flattering and indicated how much difficulties the old-school historians like Freeman had with the new mass media.


[Anon.] “Celebrities at Play”, The Strand Magazine, II (1891): 145-149.

Elton Oliver, Frederick York Powell: A Life and a Selection from his Letters and Occasional Writings, vol. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.

Pinney, Thomas (ed.), The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. V. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Yates Edmund, Celebrities at Home. Reprinted from “The World”, vol. I. London: Office of ‘The World’, 1877.


Braudy Leo, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & Its History. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Conlin Jonathan, “The Consolations of Amero-Teutonism: E. A. Freeman’s Tour of the United States, 1881-2” in Making History: Edward Augustus Freeman and Victorian Cultural Politics, eds. G. A. Bremner and Jonathan Conlin. London: Proceedings of the British Academy 202, 2015: 101-118.


Born to be a historian


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“The truth is that one is not qualified to write a history of the Jews by the mere fact of being a Jew,” a reviewer wrote in 1887 in The English Historical Review and went on claiming that to be a historian “requires knowledge of original documents and training for writing.” In short, “an historian is not born, but trained.” What was a good historian made out of was a question that troubled many nineteenth-century historians while they strove to establish history as an academic discipline and to promote themselves as protagonists of this new school of history. Defining an appropriate persona for the new type of a historian helped to distinguish professional scholars from amateur historians who lacked that something that was required from a proper historian. It was more or less agreed that a professional historian ought to adhere to the virtues of honesty, accuracy, precision, patience, and disinterestedness, possess the skills and conduct related to these virtues, and to apply them at every step of the research process. Lately, these so called epistemic virtues have attracted growing attention among historiographers and many have suggested that rather than focusing only on the texts and the products of historical research, as historiographers traditionally have done, we should also explore the research process and scholarly practices in order to gain better understanding about the nature of historical inquiry and knowledge. Drawing inspiration from the philosophy and history of science these historians have analyzed the different epistemic virtues and their role in historical research. As the virtues were unfixed by nature, historians have also been increasingly interested in how the virtues were shaped, negotiated, and reinterpreted during the nineteenth century in order to construct and display a persona of a historian that corresponded with the new methodological and epistemological demands of the discipline.

Character and character building were essential for Victorian culture and historians were understandably puzzled about the topic when it touched their own field. One question that seemed to divide them was how the virtues could be acquired. Was it possible to learn the trade and become a good historian through a rigorous process of education and socialization into the discipline? Or were there certain traits and a priori characteristics that could not be learned and the lack of them disqualified one from the profession by definition? The unidentified “A.N.” in The English Historical Review was explicit in the belief that training and education were essential for mastering the fundamental intellectual and practical skills of a proper historian. Nevertheless, not everyone was equally convinced of this and instead suggested that there were inbuilt traits that could either make or break a historian. A well-known proponent of this line of reasoning was Edward A. Freeman, the unyielding rival of James Anthony Froude.

Freeman devoted decades for shooting down everything that Froude published by claiming that Froude was unable to do anything else than to write some “namby-pamby” histories that barely deserved to be called histories at all. According to Freeman, Froude was incapable of producing serious history because he missed the love of truth plus the key virtues of accuracy and precision. As Ian Hesketh has demonstrated in his fascinating analysis of the Froude-Freeman dispute, Freeman eventually came to conclude that Froude lacked some inherent quality that prevented him from adhering to truth and accuracy. There was something in Froude himself that disqualified him as a historian from the start. Freeman seemed almost relieved when he explained in May 1879 to Edith Thompson that Froude was not knowingly dishonest. Had he been consciously lying, Freeman was certain that he had invented much more ingenious stories than the ones that he now presented as history. Rather, it was simply Froude’s “state of mind” that misguided him to write inaccurate and invariably incorrect histories. Being dishonest by nature was something to feel pity about, but, as a score of reviewers underlined, being intentionally dishonest was a crime against the sacred principles of historical scholarship. Although in Freeman’s eyes Froude’s list of sins was long, at least ha had not committed the sin of intentional dishonesty.

Thanks to the persistence of Freeman’s attacks and the exceptionally violent tone that he adopted, the notion that Froude lacked the historian’s “gene” was widely accepted. In 1895 the Quarterly Review the naval historian James R. Thursfield reviewed Froude’s English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century and was unable to resist the temptation to note that Froude’s diligent archive research was marred by his constitutional incapacity of reading sources “without the aid of his dramatic spectacles.” The Froude-case was followed with keen interest even beyond the English borders. When the French historians Charles Victor introductiontost00langLanglois and Charles Seignobos published in 1898 Introduction aux études historiques, a methodological handbook that was quickly translated to numerous other languages, they introduced Froude as a warning example of a historian who was “constitutionally inaccurate.” Although Froude was a pioneer in archive studies in England “his mental condition rendered him altogether unfit for the emendation of texts; indeed, he murdered them, unintentionally, whenever he touched them.” Langlois and Seignobos underlined that Froude, however, was not intentionally careless, but he had a condition that made him unable to adhere to truth and honesty. Therefore, they invented the “Froude’s disease” to describe any historian who suffered from a similar condition and concluded that anyone diagnosed with it “ought to be regarded as incompatible with the professional practice of critical scholarship.

The undesired character traits could be hereditary. The Macaulay-Trevelyan family was a good example of inherited vices. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859), a narrative historian par excellence, was demoted from his eminent position soon after his death. In 1868 one reviewer suspected Macaulay to have suffered from “rhetorical diarrhea.” Indeed, for the late-Victorian historians he symbolized everything that was wrong in what they considered as antiquated pictorial history. Thus, drawing attention to a fact Macaulay’s late-relatives seemed to have inherited his rhetorical condition was not a positive thing at all. In 1880 the historian J. K. Laughton remarked in the Edinburgh Review how much George Otto Trevelyan’s “style resembles that of his uncle” and asked if we were “to consider this as an inheritance?” because “It is certainly not an imitation.” Laughton assumed that it had to be a hereditary trait, because Trevelyan had not adopted Macaulay’ style only on a surface level. On the contrary, there were recognizable similarities between the two writers also in the “arrangement of the ideas, in the wit, the humour, the allusion”. As Macaulay’s reputation continued to dive, the reviewers grew more and more pronounced when discovering that a member of the Macaulay-Trevelyan clan was endowed with the hereditary vices.  In 1900 Laughton again wrote to the Edinburgh Review, this time about George Macaulay Trevelyan’s England in the Age of Wycliffe. He was anxious about Trevelyan’s style “which in many ways will remind him of that of the author’s grand-uncle, Lord Macaulay, as filtered, it may be, through the writings of his own father, Sir George Trevelyan.” Yet, even “greater fault seems to rise out of an hereditary protest against ‘the dignity of history,’ which, in its practical form, is too frequently allowed to degenerate into the careless or affected misuse of words; into colloquialisms, Americanisms, or what may be called newspaperisms, which are certainly out of place in a sustained narrative”. The diagnosis was clear: an obvious case of inherited macaulayanism of hyperbole style, disrespect to history itself as well as to the severity of historian’s profession. The undesired character traits were persistent lasting from one generation to another.

The question about the virtues and their nature surfaced in historians’ writings time and again suggesting their preoccupation with the topic and its implications for their intellectual practices. As in so many other matters, the question divided opinions. Although some believed in the power of education, many seemed to think that certain traits could not be acquired through training. These included the love of accuracy and truth as well as factors such as nationality, gender, and religion. Because of this, some were simply unfit to be professional historians. Fortunate were those, who possessed the desirable mix of virtues, learned skills, and ideal character traits. F. A. Paley, the classical scholar, maintained in 1884 that John Richard Green had been one of these lucky geniuses “in whom the peculiar bent of mind and course of study which together constitute the historic faculty were most happily combined.”


Letters from Edward Augustus Freeman to Edith Thompson. Hull History Centre.


[Abraham Hayward] review of The Works of Lord Macaulay in the Quarterly Review (April 1868).

[J. K. Laughton] review of George Otto Trevelyan’s The Early History of Charles James Fox in the Edinburgh Review (October 1880).

[F. A. Paley] review of J. R. Green’s The Conquest of England in the Edinburgh Review (April 1884).

A.N.’s review of Mrs. (now Lady) Magnus’s Outlines of Jewish History in The English Historical Review 2:5 (January 1887).

[James R. Thursfield] review of J. A. Froude’s English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century in the Quarterly Review (July 1895)

[J. K. Laughton] review of George Macaulay Trevelyan’s England in the Age of Wycliffe in the Edinburgh Review (January 1900).

Lanlgois Ch. V. & Ch. Seignobos, Introduction to the Study of History (New York: Henry Holt, 1898)


Hesketh Ian, The Science of History in Victorian Britain: Making the Past Speak (London: Pickering & Ghatto, 2011).

Paul Herman, “What is a Scholarly Persona? Ten Theses on Virtues, Skills, and Desires” in History and Theory 53 (October 2014): 348-371.

Solidarity, propaganda, and the 1908 Messina earthquake



This was supposed to be a post about making historians in the nineteenth-century England, but the devastating news about the earthquake in central Italy changed my plan. Watching the local news on the evening of the disaster revealed both the scale of the disaster as well as reminded once more how ruthlessly media can treat those who have suffered unbearable losses demanding to hear “how the destruction made them feel.” One reporter was particularly insistent on chasing locals who obviously were reluctant to share their emotions with the rest of the world. National disasters certainly are more than the sum of the human suffering they cause: the misery and images of the devastation sell news and contribute to widely shared solidarity and a strong emotional response from us who follow the events from a distance. These, then, can and have been channeled to serve various political causes. This was the case with the 1908 Messina earthquake – if not the biggest, at least one of the biggest natural disasters ever in Italy. The aftermath of the catastrophe also involved a Finnish historian who used the Italian misery for his own nationalistic purpose.

The Messina earthquake took place on 28 December 1908, at 5.20 in the morning when the locals were in sound sleep in their homes. The destruction was complete: 98 per cent of Messina was in ruins and smaller towns and villages on both sides of the strait were wiped away. MessinaThe number of casualties was in between 80 000 and 1000 000. Italians were struck by the disaster and a deep sense of solidarity swept over the country as news began to spread. Il Giornale di Italia talked about “la riviera delle morte” and about the infernal conditions that reigned in southern Italy. Dramatic photographs competed with the sensational headlines, showing collapsed houses, ruined villages, men and women in rags, orphaned children, corpses, injured, and queen Elena in the midst of this inferno in a white nursing costume. This image of the queen quickly became an important symbol and was planted into the visual vocabulary of the catastrophe and its political utility for nation building. John Dickie emphasizes that the Italian politicians were quick to grasp the usefulness of the national solidarity for uniting the still largely disunited people. In no time they began to refer to the earthquake as a national disaster. The emotional response from the Italians was translated into a patriotic language: the earthquake made Italy one nation and mourning became a political act.

Foreign nations used the earthquake similarly for advancing their own political ambitions. Assisting the victims helped to polish their international reputation at a time when political tensions were growing all over Europe. Sending out money and material help guaranteed positive publicity as the Italian press reported in detail the donations that were flooding from abroad. The propaganda opportunity was seized also by Henry Biaudet, the Finnish historian residing in Rome.

When the devastating news reached Rome, Biaudet was deeply shaken about the scale of the human catastrophe that had struck the Messina region. He wrote immediately to his friends in Finland pleading them to collect money to be sent to the victims. Italy had given so much for the minds and bodies of Finns in the shape of art, edification, inspiration, and bodily wellbeing, that it was now their time to give back to Italy and the Italians, Biaudet explained. Soon, though, the tone of his letters took a political turn and he began to talk about Messina as an opportunity to make Finland known abroad.

Biaudet suggested to his contacts in Finland that rather than sending money to Italy, they should construct ten wooden barracks and ship them to Messina. Any form of housing was desperately needed and Biaudet was convinced that ten sheds would bring visibility to Finns and their charity in the Italian press. He even envisioned this little batch of cottages to eventually become a permanent village called “Finlandesa.” Such an honor would have granted Finland a lasting visibility in Italy. Biaudet’s enthusiasm was not shared in Helsinki. After a long silence he finally heard that his idea was considered unrealistic. Building and sending the barracks from Finland to Italy was too complicated and expensive. Biaudet was furious. While the Finns had procrastinated, Sweden had sent out 500 sheds and the Canadians were apparently ready with a shipment of another 3000 shelters. After such a generosity, ten tiny sheds from Finland would not have even reached the news, Biaudet concluded. He was left with no other option than to capitulate and regret about the missed opportunity to promote Finland in Italy.

Reading these letters for the first time and sensing Biaudet’s enthusiasm for using human suffering for political purposes was a disquieting experience. They showed no excusing for using a natural disaster for propagandistic ends. It was the unashamed tone of the letters that I found troubling. They showed so clearly the mechanisms that are applied when disasters, chaos, and suffering of others is used for propaganda. The Messina earthquake was certainly not the last time this occurred: a quick look to the news from this very week show how in the name of ameliorating human suffering all over the world countries still strive to score propaganda points from us who follow these events comfortably from the safety of our living rooms. Help is needed when a disaster strikes, but unfortunately the cost of it might be higher than it appears to be.


The Henry Biaudet Papers, National Archive of Finland

Il Giornale di Italia, 28.12.1908-30.1.1909

Dickie John: “A patriotic disaster: The Messina – Reggio Calabria earthquake of 1908”, The Politics of Italian Nationality: A Multidisciplinary Perspective, eds. Gino Bedani & Bruce Haddock (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000): 50-71.

Dickie John, “Timing, Memory and Disaster: Patriotic Narratives in the Aftermath of the Messina-Reggio Calabria Earthquake, 28 December 1908”, Modern Italy 2 (2006): 147-166.

Garritzen Elise, “Henry Biaudet: Suomen epävirallinen lähettiläs Roomassa”, Pro Finlandia: näkökulma Ranksa ja Italia, eds. Jussi Nuorteva & Pertti Hakala (Helsinki: National Archive of Finland, 2014): 200-208.