A place for every historian: 19th-century categories of historians and histories


, ,

Classification, measuring, and categorization were common methods for understanding and organizing the world in the nineteenth century. Compartmentalization and systemization covered all aspects of human life and for historians this meant that various categories were established for defining more precisely both those who wrote history and the kind of history they produced. There were the historians proper, but also the biographers, genealogists, antiquarians, editors, and essayists just to name few. There was, of course, also the gradually emerging gap between professionals and amateurs which demanded its own delineation. JHoraceRoundAs John Horace Round observed in 1885 in the Athenaeum, it was necessary to draw a distinction between “the solitary enterprise of a family biographer” and “the systematic undertakings of a professed genealogist” because they should be judged and criticized “by a separate standard.” A year later, Round stressed for another time how it was a grave mistake to confuse “the functions of a biographer with those of a historian.” In similar fashion, Henry Offley Wakeman maintained how a “book of historical essays is one thing, a book of historical biography is another thing” and that an author runs into trouble when these are mixed because “biographical sketches is neither one thing nor another.” As these examples suggest, labeling histories and historians according to the various categories was a paratext that guided reading and the reception of history books as this contextual information created expectations. Moreover, classification served the purposes of evaluation: books were reviewed according to the standards of their “class.”

The boundaries, categories, and conceptualized notions about various styles of historical literature, and about those who produced them, helped to form and consolidate the ideals of historical scholarship. Different epistemic and narrative registers functioned as means to distinguish between the various modes of history writing and each category had its own set of rules, practices, and virtues that its adherents were expected to cultivate. Consequently, the field of history was not defined by one prevalent persona of a historian alone, but multiple personae historians had to choose from according to the type of history they represented. The categorization helped the emerging community of professional historians to promote their authority in respect to what became to be known as lesser forms of history writing.

A major dividing line was identified between historians and biographers. A reviewer in the Quarterly Review emphasized that biographies belonged to the province of the Muse of History. Historians nonetheless pinpointed significant differences in the scope, aims, and narrative strategies that historians and biographers applied. The focal point of a good biographer was the life and character of the subject matter. A skilled biographer did not disturb the image s/he painted with too many digressions into general history. Readers certainly did not expect a biographer to contribute broadly to history and as one reviewer pointed out in 1872, new insights about general history were lost in biographies because they provoked most of the readers to “turn impatiently from” such works.

Although there were many acclaimed biographical studies such as Mark Pattison’s Isaac Casaubon, many still treated biographies as inferior to “real” historical works. They were somewhere between history and literature and imaginative faculties or picturesqueness were not judged as inappropriate for biographers as they were for historians. This ambiguous position together with the fact that biographies were not expected to treat grave historical matters with high societal impact rendered them suitable for women to write. Rohan Maitzen has shown how this definition cleared room for women in history Aikinwriting during the first half of the century: as long as women wrote biographical sketches about other women and openly staked their position as biographers and not as historians, men tolerated their historical interventions. Lucy Aikin’s preface to the first volume of her Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth in 1818 illustrates this attitude: it was necessary to stress, Aikin explains, that she had constantly endeavored “to preserve to her work the genuine character of Memoirs, by avoiding as much as possible encroachments on the peculiar province of history.” By admitting that she did not aspire to overstep the gendered boundaries of history writing she nonetheless demanded herself a position among published historians.

While biography and history were clearly demarcated, there were some fields of historical inquiry that were much more problematic in this sense. For example, source editing seemed to escape clear definitions and value judgments. The challenge was that editing rarely produced new knowledge in narrative form even if many editors furnished their books with detailed introductions and commentaries about the sources. Nevertheless, since the nineteenth century was a heyday of grand source editing ventures all over Europe it was necessary to appropriately classify and label the source editing.

The multi-volume projects were often directed by eminent professors, yet the actual work was conducted by early career historians. They hoped that by joining the projects they would gain a reputation as diligent scholars and then apply for more research oriented positions at the universities. For many, however, the editing became a life-long profession and a much less illustrious occupation than what academia provided for their more successful colleagues. Indeed, many considered editing as an auxiliary practice and intellectually less demanding than history writing was. The prominent German historian Heinrich von Sybel did not disguise the fact that for him the editors were second rank historians who, for sure, were accurate and precise, but lacked the interpretative skills that were needed when facts were transformed into synthetic narrative account. In Britain, a writer in Edinburgh Review echoed this by proclaiming how Theodor Mommsen as a qualified historian only wasted his time in editing work. However, the matter was complicated by the fact that some first rank historians published acclaimed source editions. Frederic William Maitland, the Downing Professor of the Laws of England in Cambridge, was a highly respected legal historian whose source editions were generously praised by the historical profession. In Maitland’s case, no one asked whether his editing work should have disqualified him as a historian or whether his editions produced new knowledge or not. Indeed, the boundaries were not as fixed as historians’ anxious territorialism and exclusionary moves suggested.

For those, who saw themselves as the paragons of the new scientific history, establishing a firm boundary between amateurs and professionals – scientific and pictorial narrative history – was crucial: the collective self-fashioning demanded public display of skills, qualities, and experience that proper historians were expected to possess. Book reviews, lectures, and methodological treatises were primary sites for self-fashioning, yet historians’ imagination knew no boundaries when it came to exclude historians who York Powellseemed to threaten the dignity and credibility of the discipline. One of the most literary renditions of this was sketched by Frederick York Powell, Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford, in a letter to his friend.  Powel evoked a powerful vision of historians’ afterlife with three separate spheres. First, there was heaven, a quiet place since only a few were chosen. According to Powell, among the chosen ones were Samuel Rawson Gardiner, John Horace Round, Edward Freeman, and William Stubbs. There were not too many surprises in this bunch salve Round, who was respected as a scholar but excluded from the inner circle because of his ill-temper and obsession for historical controversy. In this heavenly setting Gardiner was to have “a quiet arbour with Firth on Delectable Mountains…and [Edward] Freeman will have a place of his own with [William] Stubbs,” Powell envisioned. Although the number of chosen historians was low, the high intellectual level guaranteed “good company and good talk.”

Then there was hell. It was crowded by historians who enjoyed the questionable reputation of being dishonest and unscrupulous. Here were the philosophers, “that mouldy gang of self-deceivers,” James Anthony Froude, the imagined incarnation of pictorial and inaccurate history, and the journalists. They all belonged to an Eternal Club where “the men drink and sneer at each other and tell old stories and quarrel and enjoy themselves after the journalistic kind.” The third sphere which Powell left unnamed, contained, if possible, even more suspicious and unreliable historians than those who occupied hell. Unable to hide his contempt and gendered biases, Powell explained how here resided “the plain female historians.” Although women historians were carefully concealed from the rest, heaven was not entirely without female company. “[T]here will be a few ‘weel favour’d hizzies’ supplied to us who may solace us in the intervals of high talk.” Since everyone had been appointed a place of own according to skills, competence, and achievements, “the historic heaven” was “a future to look forward to,” Powell assured his friend.

The various categories of historians and history books gave the practitioners of the craft a chance to define what belonged to the realm of history. The epistemological and narrative positioning revealed the diversity of historical practices, but also helped to identify the demands each type of history writing placed on historians’ persona and competence. The professional historians applied this knowledge to enhance the preeminence of the emerging scientific history.  Book reviews were used frequently for publicly reprimanding those who carelessly mixed different styles of history or who failed altogether to meet the standards they claimed to adhere to. The latter prompted the English Historical Review to publish anonymously in 1889 what was probably the most brutal review in its short history. The strong reaction was caused by G. G. Zerffi and his book Studies on the Science of General History. The reviewer justified the harsh words by emphasizing that it was his duty to reveal the many flaws in the work whose author promoted himself as “one of the lecturers of her Majesty’s Department of Science and Art.” This public association with a learned institution created false expectations about scholarship and misled readers to trust on what the author wrote. In reality, the appalled reviewer pointed out, the book was “made up of crude self-assertion, blustering intolerance, and an ignorance of a quite unusual profundity.” Moreover, it was pestered by “exploded blunders,” “impudent falsehood,” and “misspelled names.” In short, the book’s “worthlessness and undisguised perversity” were disturbing. The false pretensions of being serious scholarship were alarming and to avoid rotten apples from tarnishing the reputation of honorable historians it was necessary to inform readers that Zeffi’s book most certainly did not belong to any category of serious history. Labels that classified historical works were persuasive paratexts and while they were useful in erecting boundaries and guide readers they could also be damaging when used carelessly or deceptively. It was, therefore, pivotal to the scholarly community to control that the principles were carefully followed.


Aikin Lucy, Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth, vol. I (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1818).

[Anon.] review of the English translation of The History of Rome by Theodor Mommsen. Edinburgh Review (April 1862).

[Anon.] review of The Life of John Milton, narrated in Connexion with the Political, Ecclesiastical and Literary History of his Time by David Masson. Quarterly Review (January 1872).

[Anon] review of Studies on the Science of General History by G. G. Zerffi (London: Hirschfeld, 1889).

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

Round John Horace, review of The Life of Admiral Robert Fairfax by Clements R. Markahm. English Historical Review 1:3 (July 1886): 582-583.

Wakeman Henry Offley, review of The English Church and its Bishops (1700-1800) by Rev, Charles J. Abbey. English Historical Review 3:10 (April 1888): 383-387.


Maitzen Rohan Amanda, Gender, Genre, and Victorian Historical Writing (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1998).

Paul Herman, “The heroic study of records: The contested persona of the archival historian”. History of the Human Sciences, 26:4 (2013): 67-83.

Powell W. Raymond, John Horace Round: Historian and Gentleman of Essex (Chelmsford: Essex Record Office, 2001).


Gifts, honors, and how to enter an archive in 1800s



In June 1855, the Belgian newspaper Le Bien Public reported that Don Manuel García Gonzáles, the keeper of the Archivo general de Simancas, had been awarded the decoration “l’ordre de Léopold” with a royal decree of 9 June. This tiny bit of news illustrates the importance states put on historical knowledge, and consequently, on supporting historical research. History’s role as bedrock of nationalistic sentiments helps to explain why states were willing to invest in numerous historical ventures. As soon as archives opened their doors to historians, financing official expeditions to foreign archives became a routine procedure for many countries. The wealth of documents relevant to national history in repositories such as the Vatican Secret Archives or the Archivo in Simancas made them extremely attractive for these initiatives. Since archivists tended to consider it their duty to guard the national documentary treasures and their nation’s historic honor, they were apprehensive about any foreign historian seeking an entrance to their institution. An access to an archive was not self-evident and buttering up archivists was nothing unusual. Decorations and honorary nominations were handed out in a hope of access and favors in foreign archives.


From Biblioteca digital de Castilla y León

Historians complained time and again about the excessive archive bureaucracy – Austrian repositories  being the ultimate ordeal in this – and the archivists who seemed to be more interested in keeping them out of their institutions rather than letting them in. However, some compassion should be shown to nineteenth-century archivists who were only slowly learning the new order of public archives. After all, the situation where historians demanded to see manuscripts and flocked into the reading rooms was rather new: the French law of 7 Messidor an II (1794) had been the very first one to stipulate that citizens had a right to request access to documents held in archives. This set an example which was gradually followed also elsewhere in Europe. It must be emphasized, though, that this applied to public archives alone. The numerous private family, ecclesiastical, and institutional archives continued to follow their own, often more restrictive, rules.

It took some time from the archivists to adjust to the ways of the new world where archives were open for everyone – including foreign historians. Since archivists considered themselves as the “Guardianes de la Historia” – to borrow the title of Ignacio Peiró Martín’s fascinating study – they were anxious about possible misuse of the documentary treasures they protected. What if the information in the documents trusted into their care contained something that in foreign hands could be harmful for their country? What if the records undermined the cherished national narrative? These were pressing concerns because no one really knew what the hundreds of thousands of documents in archives all over Europe contained until historians began to systematically investigate them during the nineteenth century. Unexpected – and occasionally unpleasant – discoveries were rather usual business in archives. Considering the intense nationalistic climate of the time, it is understandable that some archives and archivists tried to control and regulate research. The English historian John Lingard, for instance, explained in the early 1820s the lack of precise references to certain documents in the footnotes in his History of England with unbearable conditions in the Simancas archive. His “friend” had been lucky enough to gain access to the archive, yet he had not been allowed to take any notes. Because of “the jealousy of the Spaniards” he could only “read them, and write down what he remembers, when he leaves,” Lingard complained.

Historians themselves were not entirely without a blame either: too often priceless manuscripts were ruined by a careless handling or disappeared into historians’ deep pockets. For some, trading historical manuscripts was a lucrative business, for others they were precious collectibles. There were also those to whom stealing records was the only way for preventing rivaling historians from using them. Due to all these reasons, tensions occasionally arose high in archives. It was, then, tempting to archivists to restrict the entry, demand an official permission from a ministry or some other higher administrative body, and to set rules that complicated the consultation and copying of the manuscripts. Historians complained loudly about these complications and coaxing reluctant archivists to grant an entry was part and parcel of historical research. Historians were not necessarily strong in the skills of diplomacy and those who had connections to state officials at home did not hesitate to solicit their aid. Moreover, states as their sponsors were more than willing to lend their assistance to the great nationalistic cause of history. More lucrative the archive was and more central it was for national history, more eager officials were to assist their historians in need. This is where the system of diplomatic favors came into the picture.

As the news in Le Bien Public indicates, the Belgian state granted decorations to foreign archivists. The newspaper did not mention the reasons for awarding Don Gonzales, but most likely Belgians wished that public recognition made the archivist favorable to any Belgian scholar pursuing research in Simancas. It is understandable that the young Belgian state was eager to invest and facilitate research in Simancas; after all, all the official Spanish documents had been stored to the archive since the sixteenth century and the historic connections between Belgium and the Habsburg Empire rendered the material crucial for Belgian national history.

Carclos I Simancas 1540 AGS

Carlos I orders in 1540 to all the state documents to Simancas. AGS.

Because the archive was so pivotal to Belgian historians, Gonzales was not the first archivist in Simancas whom Belgians wished to decorate for. In 1844, the Simancas archivist Diego de Ayla died before receiving the Order of Leopold. Belgians adapted to the altering circumstances and instead awarded Antonio Gil de Zarate, director-general of the Minister of Interior. According to Pieter Huistra, Zarate had been instrumental in the negotiations that eventually led to granting Louis-Prosper Gachard a permission to conduct research in Simancas. Gachard became the first foreign historian to access the archive. Granting him the decoration was to publicly acknowledge the Spanish cordiality in the matter. In the light of these events, it is hard not to read with some suspicion – and amusement – the title page to Archivist Francisco Díaz Sánchez’s Guía de la villa y archivo de Simancas (1885) where the author attributes himself not only as the director of the very same archive, but also as a “comendador de las reales órdenes de Isabel la Cátolica y la Estrella Polar de Suecia [Sweden]” and as “Oficial de la real orden de la Corona de Italia.”

As Díaz Sánchez’s title page suggests, Belgians were not the only ones honoring archivists.  Nor were the keepers of the Simancas archive the only ones to receive such distinctions. The same method was applied in the Vatican Secret Archive as well. In 1889, the Austrian and Prussian historical institutes in Rome landed in a fiery priority right battle. The dispute, which lasted nearly two years and partially paralyzed research in both institutes, concerned about the right to publish and use certain sixteenth-century diplomatic records in the Nunziatura Germania collection. Both institutes considered the support from the archivists vital in the conflict, but the archive personnel remained frustratingly impartial. Konrad Schottmüller, the director of the Prussian institute, decided to advance the German cause with appropriate public recognition. He persuaded the Akademie der Wissenschaften in Berlin to appoint archivist Heinrich Denifle as their corresponding member. Schottmüller openly admitted to the Austrians that the Germans expected Denifle to respond to the nomination by supporting their claims. This was a grave miscalculation; the archivist did not play according to the rules of gift exchange. He admitted that the nomination had “made him very pleased” but nonetheless maintained a neutral position in the conflict.

Public recognitions were the nuts and bolts of scholarly diplomacy. Countries and national research institutions awarded decorations and honorary nominations in a hope that archivists returned the gift by preferring their historians. Since archive research was publicly funded, states were, of course, eager to ensure that their historians gained access to archives. The investments that some countries made in archival research could be substantial, as Het Laatste Nieuws reported in November 1904. According to it, the Belgian ministry of education had reserved “117.000 fr (!)” for supporting historical research in archives in Lille, Dijon, den Haag, Vienna, and Simancas during 1905. The exclamation mark shows how the writer considered this to be a generous contribution to historical research. In comparison, the same piece of news told that the ministry had allocated 3000 francs for the newly-established Belgian institute in Rome and 300 000 francs for celebrating the seventy-five years of Belgian independence. Since the public endowment for archival research was significant, the bureaucratic difficulties historians faced in archives were not insignificant at all. If smoothing the archival obstacle course required the buttering up of archivists and other related parties, states were more than willing to decorate them with appropriate medals and honorary nominations. After all, history was a source of national unity and countries needed a glorious history for constructing national identities. A few honorary degrees here and there was a small price to pay for a past that their subjects could take pride in.


Díaz Sánchez Francisco, Guía de la villa y archivo de Simancas (Madrid: Tipografía de Manuel G. Hernández, 1885).

Le Bien Public 9 June 1855

Haile Martin & Edwin Bonney, Life and Letters of John Lingard 177 –1851 (London: Herbert & Daniel, s.a.).

Het Laatste Nieuws 9 November 1904.

Theodor von Sickel: Römische Erinnerungen. Nebst ergänzenden Briefen und Aktenstücken, ed. Leo Santifaller (Vienna: Universum Verlagsges, 1967).



Garritzen Elise, “The International Historical Institutes in Rome and their Scientfic andPolitical Roles c. 1880–1914”, Storia della Storiografia 64:2 (2013): 37-59.

Huistra Pieter, “Reproducers Anonymous. Copyists in Nineteenth-Century Historiography”, Storia della Storiografia 68:2 (2015): 107-119.

Peiró Martín Ignacio, Los guardianes de la Historia: La historiografía accadémica de la Restauración (Zaragoza: Institución “Fernando el Católico”, 2006).

Verschaffel Tom, “‘Something More than a Storage Warehouse’: The Creation of National Archives” in Setting the Standards: Institutions, Networks and Communities of National Historiography, ed. Ilaria Porciani & Jo Tollebeek (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2012): 29-46.


Cardinal Wolsey, lice, and inaccurate metadata




Thomas Wolsey (1470/71–1530) was a royal minister, the archbishop of York, and Robert hooke Micrographia 1667cardinal and lived during the time that was pestered with vermin such as head and body lice. This piece of trivial information is curiously linked to the theme of this post, inaccurate metadata – something that today is pretty much as unwelcome and an annoying guest as were the various species of lice in the sixteenth-century England. Let me turn to the topic of this post and the source of my current irritation: Google and other bodies who have scanned and uploaded enormous amounts of nineteenth-century books to OA sites such as the Internet Archive. I have written here before about my frustrations about the numerous mishaps that corrupt the digitalized nineteenth-century history books. After just completing two intense weeks with online copies of Mandell Creighton’s (1843–1901) history books I am once again dismayed by the high number of mistakes the books and their metadata contain. Although I am immensely grateful to everyone who has made it possible for me to gain access to all these nineteenth-century books that are not available in the libraries in Helsinki, I am also greatly concerned about the consequences the incorrect metadata may cause to research. After all, it is precisely the metadata that is decisive for what kind of results we get when we search the vast online libraries.

In 1876, Mandell Creighton, one day a Cambridge history professor and the first editor of Age of Elizabeththe English Historical Review, prepared for Longman a book called The Age of Elizabeth. It was a concise narrative history aimed for a large market and since it reached its’ goal, it went through various editions and reprints during Creighton’s time. As I was primarily interested to see whether Creighton’s paratexts changed from one edition to another, I was not tracing just any copy of The Age of Elizabeth, but those that the bibliography identified as new editions. Thanks to my previous experience with Internet Archive, I knew that it was useless to search titles with a specific publication date. This information is utterly unreliable. Thus, I typed just “Age of Elizabeth” and “Creighton” and got eighteen hits which proved once again how poorly the metadata has been composed. Out of the eighteen online copies, ten had been tagged with an incorrect publication date. Yes, I said ten! That is more than half of the copies uploaded to the Internet Archive. For example, three out of the five original 1876 editions were labelled as being published either in 1887 or 1930. The year 1887 seemed to be popular, because the versions that were issued in 1904 and 1905 were marked as published in 1887 as well. Calling the results confusing or misleading is an understatement.

The unreliable metadata is a nuisance and for a heavy user like me it is hard to find anything amusing in it. Though I must confess that there are moments when the mistakes are so absurd that they actually take a comical turn brightening the day of a frustrated book historian. WolseyThis brings us back to Thomas Wolsey and to the question whether the powerful cardinal suffered from lice. This question is relevant because Creighton wrote a book titled Cardinal Wolsey (London: Macmillan, 1888). It, too, was aimed at the so-called general reader and just like The Age of Elizabeth, it became a staple reading for anyone interested in the history of England. As its popularity spread, A. L. Burt, a New York publishing house, issued the book in the US in 1903 with a slightly altered title that presumably made it more appealing to the local audience. Thus, the book was introduced to the North American readers as The Life of Cardinal Wolsey. The meandering publishing history of Cardinal Wolsey took a surprising turn sometime in the 2010s when the book was once more rechristened. This time it appeared as The Lice of Cardinal Wolsey. Sure, it is not unlikely at all that the powerful cardinal had suffered from head and body lice at some point of his life, but it is highly doubtful that the unwanted guests had had so much impact on Wolsey’s politics that Creighton would have dedicated an entire book for the topic. Yet, the typo that turned “life” into “lice” reveals the consequences minor deviations in the metadata can cause. Putting the gravity of the matter aside, I have to admit that the blunder sure made the day of this paratext-nerd.

Lice of Cardinal Wolsey

The Internet Archive rechristened Creighton’s The Life of Cardinal Wolsey

In the midst of the contemporary technology hype it is easy to overlook the fact that digitalization of historical materials still requires human agency and that humans are prone to errors. This fact was crystal clear for Mandell Creighton, who admitted to H. C. Lea in 1887 how he never opened any of his books “without finding some mistake or misprint, or clumsiness, or ambiguity, or something that causes me a pang.” Acknowledging the evident slips and blunders prompted the nineteenth-century historians to revise their studies time and again to assure an ever higher quality of their work. Quality control would be much needed also today to ensure that the metadata of electronic source material is as accurate as possible. Shifting the focus from quantity to quality is pivotal because without the quality historians will not be able to reap the benefits of the quantity.


 Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, Sometime Bishop of London, vol. 1, ed. Louise Creighton (London: Longmans, 1904).

Robert Hooke, Migrographia (1667).

Dissecting a footnote: “Stubbs ii. 365”



Footnotes make intriguing reading. This may sound absurd, but even the most trivial looking nineteenth-century footnote conceals so many meanings that unearthing these hidden aspects is simply exciting. Let’s take, for example, the footnote “Stubbs ii. 365” the Cambridge historian GuelphsOscar Browning (1837–1923) composed for his Guelphs & Ghibellines. A Short History of Mediæval Italy from 1250–1409 (1893). As the book was aimed for general readers, it was not heavy on footnotes: historians and publishers generally agreed that popular histories did not need annotations. The scientific histories were a completely different matter in this respect. While it is pretty much impossible to say what prompted Browning to compose two footnotes to his book, and what spurred him to make one of them a reference to William Stubbs, much more can be said about the broader meanings this specific footnote concealed.

When we think of footnotes, we often think of the “German” style footnote apparatus that absorbs nearly an entire page. This is, without a doubt, a popular format, but there are cultural and scholarly traditions where the matters have stood quite differently. In spite of the difference, what historians generally have agreed upon is that references to manuscripts and research literature should be made so detailed that a reader could easily trace their origin and find the documentary evidence on which historians built their arguments. As Edward Freeman formulated this principle in 1885, “reader has right to ask whence the information comes.” In reality, though, nineteenth-century footnotes were nothing but easy to decipher. They were composed in offhand manner and the lack of shared standards gave authors freedom to format their notes as they wished to. The adherence to minuteness and precision was less rigid and the late-Victorian history books are filled with cryptic footnotes that tell nothing else than the name of the author and a page number. It was certainly not an easy task for readers to trace the origins of the sources listed in these notes.

The “Stubbs ii. 365” in Browning’s Guelphs & Ghibellines is a textbook example of the nineteenth-century footnote practice. Following the fashion of his day, Browning’s book does not contain any kind of bibliographical list of authorities that would help to explain the reference. Bibliographies were indeed extremely rare and I can count their number in my current set of data of approximately 300 late-Victorian titles with the fingers of my two hands. Some authors chose to list their most important sources in a preface, but once this was done, they usually considered it sufficient and eschewed from referring to these sources in their footnotes. Another solution was to introduce some of the source material in the narrative. Browning did not do any of this: he did not include a bibliography, he did not write a preface, or refer to Stubbs’s study in the text itself. No, all that he told his readers with that footnote was that if they wished to know more about Adolf of Nassau and Edward I to whose story the note was attached to, they ought to consult “Stubbs ii. 365.”

Footnote Stubbs

For informed readers this was certainly enough. In this context, “Stubbs” could not really mean anyone else than William Stubbs, the venerable historian of the English constitution and “ii, 365” obviously stood for page 365 in the second volume of his Constitutional History of England. However, the matters were complicated by the fact that by 1893 the second volume, originally published in 1875, had gone through several revisions. Three revised editions and one library edition had appeared since 1875, but the footnote did not specify to which one of these Browning instructed his readers to turn to.

If Stubbs, who enjoyed the reputation of an eminent historian was a rather easy case for readers to recognize, they were not always equally lucky. As the number of history books grew rapidly during the last decades of the century, the number of authors, titles, volumes, and editions historians could refer to in their footnotes increased in an unforeseen quantity. The footnote apparatus in the late-Victorian history books is a clear proof of the expansion of historical scholarship: the range of authors that were now referred to, diversified seemingly towards the end of the century. Since the practice of composing footnotes changed less rapidly and historians tended to stick to the old habit of listing nothing but the writer and a page number, tracking down the references became challenging – if not impossible.

Historians were not unaware of the issue, but they were more preoccupied with the burden of consulting the studies that were now issued in rapid flow. The task of following all the latest developments in their field, tracking down the publications, and incorporating them to their narratives was overwhelming, but something that was expected of them. Critics were quick to remind them that a core skill of a virtuous historian was to stay abreast with everything that was published about his field of study. When they fell short on this, reviewers sanctioned them of insufficient effort, ignorance, and disrespect for their fellow historians whose contributions they failed to acknowledge. Referring to these recent developments, Charles Oman lamented in 1906 in his inaugural lecture in Oxford how “bibliographies on some subjects have grown so enormous that they have become a hindrance rather than a help” and asked “what good is it to have 700 titles of monographs, of all varieties of intrinsic value and accessibility, flung in our face?”

The incomplete footnotes sure did not help historians who tried to trace even the most inconspicuous publications by foreign scholars that they had spotted at the bottom of a page of another study. The matter was further complicated by the ongoing changes in scholarly publishing which encouraged historians to publish articles in scholarly journals rather than only producing monographs. As the journals sprang up like mushrooms after the rain and historians only gradually experimented with ways to refer to this material in their footnotes, they faced an entirely new dilemma when trying to decode notes that gave only partial information about these sources. Since the change that the birth of scholarly history journals brought along was so significant, I will return to the topic in another post. It suffices to say here only that it took some time from historians to adjust their footnotes to correspond with the altered publishing culture.

Edward Freeman summed up his frustrations about all this in a preface he wrote in 1891 for the first volume of his History of Sicily from the Earliest Times. SicilyHe was particularly irritated about Germans who were obsessed about the craze of founding academic journals and series. Certainly, Freeman admitted that a historian working on Sicily was sure to learn something from “the most obscure Abhandlung or Programm or Dissertation,” but to follow this stream of foreign publications was a mission impossible for an English historian. When this academic ephemera was mentioned in footnotes, Freeman complained how the references lacked vital bibliographical information.  But this was not all and he pointed out how historians experienced other obstacles as well: “when one has found what is wanted it is sometimes forbidden to buy the number that one wants, unless one chooses to buy a whole volume that one does not want.”  Freeman, seemingly irritated, went on complaining how “the Englishman is sure to be found fault with if he misses the smallest scrap of the whole “Litteratur” of any matter. In this our High-Dutch friends are sometimes little unreasonable.” English historians, of course, showed much more understanding towards their German colleagues and humbly Freeman concluded how at least he did not blame a German historian “if he has never come across what I have written about King Ine in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archæological Society.” Even if Freeman spiced up his preface with a fair amount of English patriotism, at the bottom it was the unforeseen growth in the number of publications and the outdated footnote practices that did not keep up with this development that prompted him to address the topic in the preface.

Footnotes are not composed in a cultural vacuum and the nineteenth-century references are a good reminder of this. When the number of titles and authors had remained limited it had sufficed to compose less detailed footnotes. Everyone knew what “Stubbs ii. 365” referred to. The growing number of studies and authors whom historians mentioned in their footnotes indicates the expansion of scholarly publishing and audience: there was a high demand for history books and more and more historians who produced and consumed these studies. The footnote apparatus, however, was slower to adapt to the changing culture and the notes that indicated the sources only gradually began to respond to historians’ altered scholarly needs and practices. There were, of course, exceptions to this and footnotes such as “Holm, Geschichte Siciliens, i.11” and “See Schubring, Umwanderung, p. 459” in Freeman’s History of Sicily suggest that a change was on its way. Yet, it is striking how incomplete – from the present-day perspective that is – the bibliographical information in late-nineteenth-century footnotes was in spite of historians’ constant demands that references ought to be precise and complete.


Browning Oscar, Guelphs & Ghibellines. A Short History of Mediæval Italy from 1250–1409 (London: Methuen & Co., 1893).

Freeman Edward A., The History of Sicily from the Earliest Times, vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891).

Oman Charles, Inaugural Lecture on The Study of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906)

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

Is the study of historiography relevant at all?


, ,

It is not only once or twice that I have been reminded that historiography is irrelevant, marginal, and disconnected from the “real” history – whatever that may be – and is mostly concerned with esoteric topics. I have also been told that historiography is a territory that is occupied by philosophers who have never entered an archive, held an unpublished record, plus lack any training and experience about hands-on research. Anyone with real ambitions in history should cautiously abstain from historiographical pursuits. Although some of this may have been said only half-seriously, someone who has spent more than a decade for exploring nineteenth-century historical practices may no longer find this amusing, but simply ignorant and conceited. Since the claim that historiography is marginal and irrelevant surfaces too often, it might be time to explain why at least I think very differently about the matter.

A major reason for misunderstanding the nature of historiographical research derives from the confusion on what historiography actually is. I was once told by a fellow history graduate student who was trying to hit on me in a bar that historiographical research is so easy and unambitious because all that historiographers do for a monograph is to read a few old books and that’s it. P1070030Needless to say, I was unmoved both by the argument and the attempt. If we put the worst ever pick up line aside, there is indeed a rather common assumption that historiographers focus narrowly on published texts without paying too much attention to the historical context of the text. There is certainly some truth in this because historiographers have tended to prioritize published texts as their source material. That being said, the recent cultural turn in historiography is certainly expanding it towards a more inclusive understanding about the field. History of science and book history have both influenced historiographers who are now exploring, among others, the research and publishing process of history books,  social construction of learned communities, motives behind historical pursuits, and the ways historians have defined themselves and their discipline. Because of this broadened scope of interests, “reading a few old books” is certainly no longer sufficient and the introduction of new source material has brought along many new nuances to the conventional account of history of history writing. Historians’ correspondence, diaries, publishing records, ephemeral writing, photographs, notes, lectures, and any many other traces they have left behind form now a valuable set of sources for exploring the history of our craft.

Historiography has also been blamed to be suffering from elitism because it ignores the history writing taking place outside the academia. This is confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary which defines historiography either as “the writing of history, written history” or as “the study of history-writing, esp. as an academic discipline.” These both are rather misleading in their restrictiveness. The past decades have witnessed unforeseen growth in historiographical studies that problematize issues such as gender, race, and class. It is now widely recognized that white academic men have not held a monopoly on interpreting the past and producing and presenting historical knowledge, or that a textual mode is the only right format to transmit historical accounts. Furthermore, the past decades have produced detailed accounts on how history has been used and manipulated to serve various ideological purposes. However, this type of research is not always counted as historiography because it does not correspond with the traditional definition of the field. These clarifications hopefully show why historiography should not be dismissed as “irrelevant” to anyone who is interested in history and historical research. After all, recognizing the cultural and political implications historical knowledge may have contributes significantly to a broader understanding of history as well.

Since it is nowadays pivotal to pinpoint in the funding applications the societal impact of the proposed project, I suggest that historiographical research ticks this box, too, because it provides tools for increasing professional awareness. My confidence in historiography’s usefulness was further enhanced by a course I taught this spring about the nineteenth century as the “century of history.” The course allowed me to integrate various strands of historiography from the founding of history as an academic discipline to women using history as a means to indirectly participate in political and social debates of their age.  Or, from diagnosing the archive fever to the use of history in late-Victorian soap commercials. In spite of the temporal gap, the students found many of the themes we covered both recognizable and relevant in 2017 as well.

Indeed, historiographical knowledge is useful because it inspires students to reflect their own “scholarly persona.” How are they socialized to a historian’s craft during their studies, what is expected of them as specialists in history in terms of skills and qualities, and how history should be narrated and does it actually matter how we write history? This is just a small sample of the questions that were discussed during the course and should be enough to illustrate how historiography can provide a fruitful framework for addressing questions that are highly relevant for a professional growth.

Furthermore, identifying the nuts and bolts of a historian’s craft and outlining their historicity provides students with a temporal perspective to their own discipline. Learning for example about the German historian Karl Lamprecht (1856–1915) and his impact on young Finnish-speaking historians answers partially to a question why social history has dominated – and continues to do so – in Finland. This is the kind of information that helps students to understand where their discipline comes from and where they are situated in the scholarly traditions in the field of history.

And last, but certainly not least, historiography can provide inspiration and role models. As I have written before (here and here) young women particularly find it encouraging to discover that women have participated in historical pursuits already for centuries. Since academia is still a long way from gender equality and women and gender are neatly compartmentalized as topics to be treated in specialty courses on “women’s history”, it is not difficult to see why it tends to come as a surprise that nineteenth-century women actively endeavored to contribute to historical research. Because of these gendered practices, it is crucial to continue to remind students about the fact that women have had opportunities use their voice in managing and molding historical narratives and that these voices deserve to be heard even today.

Although many of these aspects may appear to have minor impact or relevance because they derive from the disciplinary context, but considering the role history continues to play in modern day societies they should not be judged as insignificant. It certainly matters how the future historians are trained because history and historical knowledge are so deeply embedded in modern societies. Thus it should be evident that an awareness of the mechanisms behind the use and misuse of history is crucial. Furthermore, strong professional integrity is  something that should not be overlooked or ignored. Even if historiography does not provide ready answers or solutions, it offers guidance on these questions. And lastly, even an elementary knowledge about historiography and its methods should teach students not to question or underrate the topic; this knowledge may save them in a bar when they try to pick up a historiographer.


Traversing foreign territory: nationality and writing non-national history


, ,

“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


, , ,

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


, ,

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


, ,

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.