Who Are You, Professor Mackay?


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One of my goals in my current project on the paratextual self-fashioning of late-Victorian historians is to expand the scope beyond the “usual suspects,” that is, beyond the handful of (mostly) Oxbridge men the historiographical studies typically refer to. The overlooked nineteenth-century historians I search for were, for example, amateurs who authored books that were immensely popular in their own time but have passed into oblivion since then, or those who were dedicated to teach history as tutors in the old universities or as professors in the new civic colleges. Because of the limited interest later historians have expressed to the historical pursuits in the margins, it has been quite difficult to identify the Oxford and Cambridge history tutors or the history professors in the red brick universities in spite of the help of such detailed registers as Joseph Foster’s Oxford Men (1893). In spite of the challenges the invisibility poses, I am convinced that also the unnamed tutors and professors deserve to have their voices heard. Surely they have something to say about paratexts and paratextual self-fashioning that is worth listening. While the anonymity makes it hard to make their stories heard, unearthing their lives have revealed once more how narrowly historical pursuits and professions are often defined and how these narrow preconceptions guide our historical understanding and expectations. I for sure am guilty for assuming that a history professor was someone who published history, but one J. M. Mackay illustrates how flawed this assumption cab be.

When I began to compose the publishing record of this J. M. Mackay, I only knew that he had been a professor in Liverpool and therefore a perfect candidate for my sample: a professor, historian, and employed by one of the civic colleges. In no time I ran into trouble: I was unable to find anything about him, no biographical entries, no publications, nothing. It took some effort even to establish his full name and the basic details of his career: John MacDonald Mackay, Rathbone Professor of History at the Liverpool College from 1884 till 1914. But nothing about his scholarly expertise or publications. Surely, someone who had been a professor for thirty years should have published something about history? The mystery began to gradually unravel once I expanded my search to nineteenth-century newspapers. From the clues provided by the obituaries in The Times, Courier and Advertiser, and Aberdeen Press and Journal I was able to sketch the outlines of the life of John MacDonald Mackay, born in the 1856 in Lybster, Scotland, and died in 1931 in Inverness.

The obituaries confirmed that, indeed, professor Mackay had not publish any historical studies before or during his long career. However, when I put together the small scraps of information I was able to find, it all made perfect sense and explained how it was possible that during the nineteenth century a professor did not publish anything related to his field of expertise. To understand how this was possible, we need to turn to the puzzling life of John MacDonald Mackay.

Young Mackay grew up in Scotland where he was schooled first in Old Aberdeen and then at the Edinburgh University. In 1878, he entered Balliol College, Oxford to study the classics. His skills, though left something to hope for and according to The Times he performed “with minor exhibition.” Consequently, he was placed only in the third class in the Classical Moderations. Benjamin Jowett, then the master of Balliol, advised him to study history instead. Obviously, Jowett, a classical scholar himself, considered history less intellectually demanding than the classics were. After a brief and less successful period in Oxford, Mackay returned to his native Scotland to take a teaching job in Edinburgh. Soon after this, he was appointed to a professorship in Liverpool College. It must have been due to his years in Oxford and the experience in teaching that rendered him an ideal candidate for the job.

The University College of Liverpool was founded in 1881 and it operated as part of the Victoria University, Manchester, since 1884 until 1903 when it was established as an independent Liverpool University. The University College of Liverpool was a perfect example of the new civic colleges that were founded around this time in northern England to provide technical and commercial education for the local middle-class boys. However, as Samuel Alberti has underlined, soon the colleges began to offer liberal education as well. The local families wanted their sons also to learn about modern and classical languages, history, and literature because knowledge in these subjects was considered essential for social advancement. The circles in which the families wanted their sons to enter were largely comprised of Oxbridge graduates with classical training and therefore even elementary knowledge of English history and classical authorities was considered a valuable cultural and social asset. The civic colleges responded to the  demand by introducing courses in these subjects and by recruiting teachers from Oxford and Cambridge. With his Oxford background, John MacDonald Mackay was an appealing candidate for a job that mostly comprised of teaching young men who took occasional courses in history. Judging the obituary in The Times, he was a good fit because as a teacher he “took a wide view of the objects of historical study, while encouraging research in special periods.” His students found in him an inspiring teacher and when he retired in 1914 they published a selection of essays, A Miscellany, to honor his career as en educationalist.

Apart from his educational duties, Mackay was politically active and it turns out so that this man that the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has nothing to say about, was instrumental in turning the Liverpool College into an independent university, and even more importantly, in introducing a Faculty-model into the civic universities. Before the organization of the new universities became a hot topic in the 1890s, the idea that universities could be composed of faculties had been obscure in Britain.  Mackay was convinced that Faculties, not the rivaling model inspired by a business world, guaranteed the freedom of thought, diversity of research, and brotherhood of its members which all he considered essential elements in a successful university. In 1895, he persuaded Senate to appoint a committee for this purpose and only a year later, in 1896, the Faculty of Arts was founded in Liverpool. This was not a self-evident outcome and Walter Raleigh, a contemporary to Mackay, gives both a graphic and hagiographic depiction of the battle in the Miscellany. In a strikingly militant and masculine fashion he paints a picture of a tenacious professor who enjoyed no leisure, songs, dance, or other social distractions. All his energies were directed to winning the battle of academia. He was often defeated, but “never faltered and never yielded,” because “by blood and temper” he belonged to the “fighting clan.” He was like “an inspired recruiting-sergeant” always on the look-out for new candidates to join “his devoted little band” which he led “up steep cliffs, under heavy fire.” Steadfastly he stood for his cause without fearing to expose himself “to the sharpshooters” who questioned the model he so strongly supported.

Although Mackay did not emulate the most typical model of a professor who was absorbed in his studies, he nonetheless left a lasting legacy. By teaching history for three decades he touched the lives of numerous students and by defending the model that he believed was the one to ensure the freedom of thought, comradeship, and scholarly diversity he profoundly shaped the future of the civic universities. Since the historiographical accounts tend to privilege those who were closely attached to the old universities and focused on the more traditional scholarly pursuits of writing and publishing, it is not surprising that at least for me the name of John MacDonald Mackay had been unknown. Taking into account how little information there was available online about him, I suspect that I am not the only one poorly enlightened about Mackay’s accomplishments. Although this half-a-day side path to the life of an obscure Victorian history professor did not add any paratextual material to my project, it certainly added a valuable piece to the picture of late-Victorian academia and the many roles history professors performed in it.

P.S An image of John MacDonald Mackay is available here.


“A Distinguished Educationist”, Aberdeen Press and Journal 10 March 1931.

“Professor’s Death at Iverness”, Courier and advertiser 10 March 1931.

“Professor Mackay”, The Times 13 March 1931, p. 16.

Raleigh Walter, “Builder”, A Miscellany. Presented to John Macdonald Mackay, LL. D. July 1914, ed. O. E. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1914).





Alberti Samuel J. M. M. “Civic Cultures and Civic Colleges in Victorian England”, The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain, ed. Martin Daunton (Oxford: Oxford University Press & The British Academy, 2005): 337–356.

Crouch Christopher, Design Culture in Liverpool 1880–1914: The Origins of the Liverpool School of Architecture (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002).



Cabbage, Pudding, and a Mutton’s Leg: Edible Metaphors for Foul Historical Research


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Nineteenth-century historians were keen to invent metaphors to describe their scholarly pursuits. According to what was probably the most popular image, historians presented themselves as builders who erected the grand edifices of knowledge out of tiny grains of historical facts. William Stubbs, the Oxford history professor, explained in the 1877 statutory lecture how the results of historians’ “minute study are the little pebbles of the concrete in which the foundations of the historic superstructure is laid.” Thus, every historian had to be like Walter Scott’s Dryasdust, for without a careful study of original sources it was impossible to produce sound material for the great historical structure historians wished to construct. While these metaphors of building edifices of historical knowledge often demonstrated great insightfulness in detail, historians were – I wish to argue – at least equally resourceful when they composed metaphors that derived from their dinner table. However, unlike the illustrious structures the historian-builders created, the cooked up tropes were turned into warning examples of how not to prepare or serve historical knowledge.

As William Stubbs demonstrated, the careful study of primary sources laid the foundations for historical knowledge. The consultation of original records also set the proper and improper historian apart. This fact had sunk deep into the popular imagination by the last quarter of the century. Even those with less experience in historical research were well aware of these disciplinary requirements and the Puddingconsequences the violation of these methodological principles could have on a literary reputation. Thus, Sir Samuel White Baker, better known as an adventurer and explorer in Africa than a historian, refused to write a book on Egypt for Cassell & Co. without first visiting the country to procure firsthand information and to consult unpublished manuscripts. Until then, he preferred to leave the book unwritten in order to protect his reputation. As he wrote to Macmillan, “without special information it [the book] would be merely the historical pudding that any literary cook could produce.” Baker, obviously, wished to serve his readers with something more exciting and elaborate than ordinary pudding.

The second pantry-inspired metaphor, too, illustrated the incorrect use of source material. The Edinburgh Review published in 1875 an anonymous and rather critical review about Thomas Carlyle’s The Early Kings of Norway. VeggiesThe writer, later identified as G. W. Dasent, the expert on early Scandinavian history, was dissatisfied with Carlyle’s source material. Instead of consulting primary sources and the most recent studies on the topic, Carlyle had settled for dated research and second-hand material. Because of this, Dasent accused him of building the book on “twice-cooked cabbage.” Carlyle was merely recycling what was already known. Consequently, he, first, violated a historian’s duty to stay abreast with the developments of the discipline and to acknowledge the latest discoveries in the field. Second, he failed to produce anything original even though originality was an essential virtue in history books. Because of the methodological shortcomings, Carlyle’s “kaleidoscopic sketch” was not proper history: the dish Carlyle served to readers disqualified him as a historian and identified him rather as “a great writer.”

The third and last edible example was applied to underline the distinctive value of history books. Edward A. Freeman, the author of the multi-volume History of the Norman Conquest of England, was well-known to publishers for his unrealistic demands, hot temper, and sharp pen. When Macmillan and Oxford University Press decided to prepare an inexpensive edition of Freeman’s Norman Conquest for the American audience, the venerable historian completely lost his temper. In order to reduce the printing costs, the publishers decided to issue the book without any of the marginal notes that had embellished the original version. This infuriated Freeman: the omission of the marginal notes, according to him, reduced his magnum opus into a mere textbook. He dispatched a Muttonset of frantic letters to his publishers. In one of them, he accused Bartholomew Price, the secretary of the Oxford Delegates, for treating scholarly titles as they were nothing else but a leg of a mutton or a pair of shoes. This insulted Freeman who expected Price to treat the Norman Conquest with all the necessary pomp and admiration. Perhaps even worse, Price’s conduct suggested that a representative of an academic publishing house fostered the commercial ethos associated with middle-class tradesmen, the ethos that scholars such as Freeman strove to disassociate from. Although historians produced saleable goods, history books, their products should not be mistaken for daily commodities such as food or clothing: scholarly books represented an entirely different register of values and granted historians status as members of the educated and cultured class, not the commercial middle class. Grocers and ordinary business men traded with goods such as mutton’s legs and shoes, while historians traded with products that derived from their intellectual capabilities. The different types of goods were to be strictly demarcated.

Comparing historical research to a familiar domestic pursuit of cooking helped to establish the intellectual vigor and methodological rules of the discipline. In similar fashion, contrasting daily products such as cabbage, pudding, and a leg of mutton with history books further highlighted the uniqueness and singularity of scholarly titles. The analogies of food were mostly drawn to illustrate the alarming malpractices or misconceptions about research methods and history books. Since a kitchen and a pantry were considered domestic feminine spaces, it must be asked whether these food metaphors were underpinned by the gendered assumptions of the Victorian middle-class. For Victorians, women were by nature intellectually less predisposed than men and consequently incapable for rigorous intellectual work such as what the careful and critical study of original authorities entailed. Defining a historian as a cook preparing a bad dish thus implied feminine qualities that were considered incompatible with historical research.

Male historians, sure, enjoyed their dinners and some even described in their diaries and correspondence the dishes they consumed. But they certainly did not participate in the dinner preparations. That was left to their wives and domestic servants. It is, thus, feasible to assume that by locating the incorrect research practices to the feminine sphere of a kitchen and the correct research practices to the masculine territory of a construction site, historians used the gendered notions to draw boundaries between proper and improper historians and research practices. Indeed, fresh produce was highly useful for forging scholarly personae.


All the above illustrations are from Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management (London: S. O. Beeton, 1861).


British Library: The Macmillan Papers.


Bott Michael, “Letters to Macmillan: An addendum. Sir Samuel White Baker’s letters to Macmillan”, Macmillan: A Publishing Tradition, ed. Elizabeth James (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002):102–130.

[Dasent G. W.], “Thomas Carlyle: The Early Kings of Norway”, Edinburgh Review (July 1875).

Stubbs William, Seventeen Lectures on the Mediaeval and Modern History and Kindred Subjects (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1886).


Accuracy, Perfection, and Completeness: Revising Published Histories in Victorian Britain


Imagine that you were given an opportunity to revise your earlier publications; to correct all those clumsy sentences and the blunders in details, refine your arguments, and respond to the critical remarks in reviews. Despite the growth of ebooks and the expanding opportunities for editing they entail, this still seems a rather unlikely scenario unless you are one of a few globally best-selling historians. For Victorian historians though this was business as usual as I have argued in a recently published article. Revising published texts was not only extremely common, but also something that historians were expected to do whenever their publishers detected commercial demand for out-of-stock histories. “New edition” on a title page implied popularity attracting new customers. For a good reason the standard publishing contracts of Macmillan and Longmans stipulated that an author was responsible for revising the book whenever a new version of it was issued. Yet, as I emphasize in this post, the commercial incentive was not the only reason for historians to rework their published texts. They were guided by such scholarly virtues as accuracy and completeness and an adherence to these virtues turned revising into a fundamental scholarly practice: there always seemed to be something to correct or add to the published narratives. Consequently, historians worked simultaneously on their current and previous projects. This multitasking makes their publishing record simply astonishing, but for the present-day historiographers this abundance of titles and variants poses a tricky methodological challenge of which version/s of a specific title to consult as a source.

Mandell Creighton, a Cambridge professor and the first editor of the English Historical Review, confessed that he never picked up any of his books “without finding some mistake or misprint, or clumsiness, or ambiguity, or something that causes a pang.” No wonder then that seeing his latest book bound was “a source of woe” to him. Such concerns are understandable. Historical research was described in terms of scholarly virtues and accuracy, completeness, and perfection were virtues that were constantly referred to when historians’ performance and the quality of their studies were evaluated. In practical terms, this meant that the studies they published should have been void of blunders in details and filled with all the relevant information about the topic. This was easier said than done. John_LingardThe publishing process was prone to cause mistakes in details and spelling. Historians often corrected the proofs in haste and it was easy to overlook such small blunders. John Lingard, dubbed also as the “English Ranke”, cautioned his friend not to blindly trust dates in printed histories. “More mistakes are made in them [dates] by printers than in anything else, and such mistakes most frequently escaped detection,” Lingard explained. John Richard Green, notorious of carelessness, maintained that blunders in details did not necessarily “betray an unhistoric mode” of studying past. Although most of the historians agreed with him to a certain point, they were nonetheless humiliated about the blunders in their books. It was broadly acknowledged that inaccuracies risked the scholarly credibility of a profession that built its public image on accuracy, minuteness, and precision.

Next to accuracy, an ideal historical study was as complete and comprehensive as possible. This required unyielding industry from a historian who was expected to vigilantly follow the developments of the field: to scrutinize every possible primary source and to consult every study that was published about the same topic. However, keeping abreast with the advancing knowledge was exhausting because of the rapid stream of new source publications and historical studies and articles that found their way to the scholarly book market. Some even joked that as soon as a history book hit the market, it became outdated. Historians were nonetheless expected to take into account every monograph and article for the sake of completeness and for the fact that the rules of scholarly conduct demanded historians to pay respect to those who had written about the same topic. Edward Freeman was utterly frustrated about this rule, as I have written in this blog earlier, because he had been criticized for ignoring articles in ephemeral German journals that were impossible to consult in Britain. In spite of the many difficulties, historians acknowledged that it was urgent that their books were “up to the very last light” as Edith Thompson formulated the principle of completeness. Although completeness was a far-fetched goal, it was the target which historians endeavored to reach by gradually updating, improving, and augmenting their books from one revised edition to another.

There were, however, some significant deviations to this hype for revising. Perhaps the most important exception was William Stubbs, the venerable Oxford Professor, who chose to make only minimal alterations to his books – in spite of his role as an embodiment of the most virtuous historian of his time and the one who mastered the new scientific methods of the discipline. Stubbs limited his modifications to his footnotes while many of his colleagues rewrote long sections of their texts. Stubbs’s reluctance to update and improve his most significant scholarly contribution, The Constitutional History of England, puzzled the respected legal historian Frederic William Maitland so greatly that he even addressed the issue in 1901 in the obituary he wrote about Stubbs for the English Historical Review.


Frederic William Maitland (1850-1906)

The Constitutional History, first published in three volumes in 1874, 1877, and 1878, reached its fifth edition by the 1890s. Maitland regretted for two reasonsConstitutional History 2 Stubbs that Stubbs had made so few changes to it. First, and most importantly, the lack of editing left readers to wonder “whether he is deliberately maintaining in the nineties a position that he held in the seventies.” Thus, it was unclear what Stubbs actually thought about the studies that had been published since the first volume of the Constitutional History had appeared. Without the updated footnotes it was impossible to say how much Stubbs was “reaffirming and how much he is simply leaving alone.” As Stubbs disliked controversies it is likely that he added only as little new references as was necessary so that he could refrain from engaging in current debates. Second, and linked to the first point, Maitland pointed out that due to the minimal changes in the references it was unclear which recent studies Stubbs considered valuable for historians. After all, Constitutional History had become a classic and every generation of Oxbridge history students found it on their reading list. It was a pity that Stubbs did not provide any guidance for these aspiring historians about the history books that had been published since 1874. Such indifference about readers and about editing as an essential scholarly practice went against the virtues of the discipline, but as this was an obituary Maitland politely expressed his criticism only indirectly.

Stubbs was an exception and it was more common for historians to grasp the scholarly and financial implications of revised volumes. Thanks to the rabid editing, historiographers are today faced with a vast pool of various editions and versions of historiographical classics and lesser-known titles that enjoyed great popularity in their own time. Making sense of the confusing publishing records of Victorian historians evokes at least two methodological issues. First, every volume that is labelled as “new edition” on a title page is not necessarily a new edition. As novelty and freshness sold books, less scrupulous publishers were keen to attach to an existing stock new title pages that promoted revisions to accelerate the sales. Consequently, many of the “new editions” do not contain an altered text but are mere reprints or impressions. Thus, cautiousness is needed when dealing with the nineteenth-century history books and their different versions.

The second methodological issue that calls for attention is the question which edition to consult. Historiographers duly indicate the editions they use, but rarely (if ever) explain why they have chosen a specific edition. It remains unclear for me why historians have, for example, preferred the original version of Stubbs’s Seventeen Lectures (1886) and not the third edition (1900) which contains two additional lectures and a new preface where Stubbs reflects the latest development of historical research in Britain. I suspect that the explanation has nothing to do with historiographical justifications: the original edition was reprinted in 1967 and it is likely that until the recent digitalization ventures it has been the version most readily available for historians. This, of course, does not explain why it was the first edition and not the third one that was reprinted in 1967.

There is not an easy answer to the question about the most appropriate edition. Textual scholars have tended to privilege the last edition as it is considered the most complete one. However, this has been recently questioned and the emphasis is now on the gradual development of texts. Indeed, as the examples of the Victorian historians suggest, historical knowledge was constantly in transition and evolved in a dialogue with the growing pool of historical sources and studies. Although there are not hard and fast rules when it comes for choosing an edition, I would like to suggest that outlining the publishing history and being aware of historians’ revising practices can be good starting points as this information can help to make more informed choices between different variants. Most importantly, it is good to bear in mind that for the Victorian historians the first edition was often only a beginning of a meandering publishing history that could stretch over decades.


Maitland F. W., “William Stubbs, Bishop of Oxford”, English Historical Review 16:63 (July 1901): 417–426.

Creighton Louise, Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, Sometime Bishop of London, I (London, New York, Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1904).


Garritzen Elise, “Revise, Edit, and Improve: Writing and Publishing History as an Unending Process in Victorian Britain”, Clio 45:3 (2016): 289–314.


Reading History in Victorian Britain



Local strawberries, cream, and the master of the house reading aloud – these were on offer for those who visited John Ruskin, the eminent art critic and professor, at his summer residence. According to Edmund Yates who reported about the breakfast for The World, Ruskin entertained his guests by reading aloud extracts of the letters he had just received, samples of his ongoing work, or stories from Walter Scott. Ruskin’s elevated breakfasts were just one example of how texts were consumed in the nineteenth century. The cultural history of reading has attracted increasing attention during the last decades and historians have started to ask how readers invested texts with their expectations and constructed meanings against their intertextual baggage, how the act of reading was done, and how books and other texts shaped the identities of their readers. Thanks to this burgeoning research, we know now that books were consumed alone and together, silently and aloud, privately at homes and publicly in railway carriages and omnibuses where they provided a welcomed and socially acceptable excuse for not socializing with co-travelers. We also know that the readership diversified during the nineteenth century thanks to the increasing literacy, spreading of libraries, and decreasing production costs that lowered the price of books and other printed material.

The historians of reading are, however, confronted by methodological challenges and the harmonious breakfast at Ruskin’s house is one example of the problems historians have to solve: the limitations of the source material. There is no shortage of similar accounts of the edifying reading habits of the gentile and educated society. Often these are idealized and conventional pieces promoting books and reading as a means to cultivate the mind and moral character. Apart from this, the source material is sporadic at the best. While ransacking the archives and exploring the published letters and diaries of Victorian historians, I have come across occasional letters from readers or historians’ comments about encounters with their audiences. Despite the fragmentary nature, the material opens a tiny window to the world of reading non-fiction in Victorian Britain. It is also fascinating because it provides some clues about historians’ strategies for responding to their readers’ comments. We already know perfectly well that historians anticipated the reactions of their readers while they wrote their books and that they were anxious about book reviews. We are, however, less acquainted with their private interaction with the readers of which these sources talk about.

The thirst for historical knowledge did not know any limits in some cases. Readers wanted to know more about this and that and tested historians’ patience with their enquiries. In spite of the fact that Edward Freeman had published five thick volumes about the history of the Norman Conquest and packed his narrative with every scrap of detail he had discovered, at least one reader thought that he had left some important questions unanswered. Freeman was astonished to receive a letter from a painter asking about the weather on the day of the great battle. He could not believe the odd things readers wanted to know about and impatiently remarked that of course he would have reported the weather conditions had the sources told this to him.

Readers were quick to spot mistakes, blunders, and conclusions that they considered incorrect, and they were equally quick to report their discoveries to the historians. Thomas Babington Macaulay complained in 1848 that he was “pestered with many letters” that commented in good and bad his History of England. In similar vein, Freeman received mail from his readers who wished to share their opinions about his historical oeuvre with him. Thomas Kirkup who introduced himself as an admiring and interested reader of Freeman’s works had carefully studied Freeman’s General Sketch of European History and sent him now a three-page long list or errors he had discovered in the book.

These letters tell us, first, that there were readers who studied history books pen in their General sketchhand. They annotated, added marginal notes, and took notes while they were reading the text. For them, reading was an active mental process in which they processed the historical narrative within the context of their existing knowledge on the topic. This enabled them to identify errors and alternative ways to interpret history. This was certainly not passive activity: readers did not only receive knowledge, but they actively constructed and evaluated it. Second, by mailing the lists of blunders to historians they challenged the boundaries between the producers and consumers of historical knowledge. The letters were written in a hope that historians corrected their mistakes in the next edition. Readers, thus, assumed agency in the process of producing historical knowledge. Kirkup, apologizing his presumed discourtesy, defended his interception with a wish to offer readers a more accurate account of history.

Historians were, in general, grateful to these Kirkups who informed them about their embarrassing blunders in details such as dates and spelling. TBM History of EnglandThese were promptly corrected in the subsequent editions whenever such was issued. Historians were, however, less susceptible to alter their interpretations and conclusions when readers found something to criticize about them. Readers tended to evaluate the “fairness” of historians’ views in rather emotional terms. Macaulay recorded in his diary how Lady Theresa Lewis had been vexed about Macaulay’s depiction about one of her ancestors, Lord Rochester. Macaulay defended himself by noting that he told nothing but the historical truth, that it was not his duty to puff anyone’s ancestors, and that therefore he had not “willingly’ hurt Lady Theresa’s feelings. Again, reading was not a passive activity. Historical narratives were pregnant with patriotic, political, and religious references which stirred readers’ emotions. There were many Lady Theresas who were provoked by what they judged as an insensitive treatment of their ancestors. Their passionate responses betray the spectrum of emotions reading could involve.

Readers were eager to let historians know whether they did or did not like their books. General USFreeman was perplexed about the frankness of his young American audience. He reported to his friend John Richard Green from Baltimore in 1881 how it was droll to meet girls who came to talk to him only to tell how much they hated him because they had to read his General Sketch of European History. Freeman had, however, also more appreciative readers. He received in 1872 what could be called fan mail. The sender was Miss A. V. Ponsonby, a ten-year old girl, who found his Old English History for Children better than any other history book she had ever read. She encouraged him to write more histories for children because she was certain that they would be “so much clearer, truer, and more interesting than what other people write.” This must have tickled the vanity of the eminent historian.

Readers processed, constructed, assessed, approved, and rejected the historical accounts they read. Reading was invested with intellectual and emotional responses and reaching out to authors turned readers into active participants in the production of historical knowledge. The mail that historians received tells us also that scholars were public figures whose lives their audiences followed. While most of the correspondence from readers concerned with historical details, sometimes the interest was not limited to strictly historical questions. Historians’ private lives, habits, and interests beyond history aroused curiosity in the public. Macaulay, for instance, was approached by an American reader who was concerned about his health. He received other curious mail as well. One painter, appealing to Macaulay’s lover for fine art, adjured him to “buy him a cow to paint from!”


British Library: The Macmillan Papers

Hull History Centre: The letters from Edward A. Freeman to Edith Thompson

John Rylands Library: Edward A. Freeman archive

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

Thomas William (ed.), The Journals of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. II (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008).

Yates Edmund, Celebrities at Home, 2nd series (London: Office of ‘The World’, 1878).


Colclough Stephen and David Vincent, “Reading” in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. VI, ed. David McKitterick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 281–323.

Garritzen Elise, “Revise, Edit, and Improve: Writing and Publishing History as an Unending Process in Victorian Britain”, Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 45:3 (2016): 289–314.

Hammond Mary, “Readers and Readership” in The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1830-1914, ed. Joanne Shattock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 30–49.

Price Leah, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012).


Blue china, a brass poker, and yellow wallpaper: masculinity and character during the later Victorian era


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They were young and they were in love. It was the early spring of 1872, Mandell and Louise Creighton were in Paris on honeymoon, and Mandell, a historian and fellow of Merton College in Oxford, was determined to find the perfect brass poker for their first home. Louise was only starting to comprehend what it means to be wedded to someone who does not consider wallpaper and furniture as mere necessities. No, for Mandell decorating a home was a method of perfecting the perplexing and elusive character that encompassed a man’s disposition and moral qualities. Character was a central organizing idea of Victorian culture and society. Character was nothing to be taken too lightly as many believed that it determined a man’s fate. Creighton drew a link between character and decorating by stating how “it is quite as difficult to furnish a room as to form a character” because “A room ought to be an indication of the character of its inhabitants.” For Creighton, the importance of constant development of character was self-evident and the cultivation of self was a common theme in his correspondence. Every purchase he made, then, had to be carefully considered because the pretty domestic items he acquired were testimonies of his character, class, and gender.

Louise Creighton

Louise Creighton (1850-1936)

Shopping and decorating are often regarded as feminine pursuits and the nineteenth century for sure was not void of persisting stereotypical images of hysterical women losing control in London’s spring sales or fretting about fashionable drapes, chests, and pots. Men, for their part, were depicted either as indifferent or incompetent shoppers who could not be bothered less about conspicuous consumption or who were hoodwinked by shopkeepers and henpecked by their wives. As amusing as these stereotypes may be, they are only stereotypes and there is much evidence of women as cautious consumers and of men as avid shoppers. Louise Creighton “ached with fatigue” while she stood waiting for Mandell who explored the “innermost recesses” of “every old furniture & curiosity shop” there were in Oxford. Mandell Creighton’s fascination for furniture and accessories shows how at least a certain kind of consumerism and domesticity were not considered to undermine masculinity. Quite the contrary; because a home was an important display of individual taste and social status, Victorian middle-class men showed great interest in interior design. Towards the end of the century, though, this began to change: the crisis of gender, the flight from domesticity together with the adoration of muscular masculinity, and Oscar Wilde’s trial which established an uncomfortable link between aestheticism and effeminacy all made decorating to appear a suspiciously feminine pursuit and something to be refrained from.

As Paul Deslandes points out, decorating rooms was an essential part of the Oxbridge undergraduate experience during the second half of the 19th century: taking charge of one’s own lodgings was a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood and an opportunity for self-fashioning. The Oxbridge folklore was pregnant with stories of four distinct “types” of masculine poses – the aesthete, the athlete, the reading man, and the sporting man – and of their identifiable attributes and decorative preferences.

Mandell Creighton

Mandell Creighton (1843-1901)

Mandell Creighton, who as an Oxford student placed himself into the category of a “bookworm”, was in the vanguard of the decoration fever in his university. He was interested in the aesthetic movement, and at the latest when he became a tutor in 1867 and moved into his bachelor’s den at Merton College, he began energetically to decorate his rooms and “gratify his taste for beautiful things.” He purchased fine blue china, and to confirm to his identity as a man of books, designed an oak bookcase which he extended year after year to accommodate his growing library. He converted his rooms into a striking display of his style and a space to impress his guests. Even decades later, Mrs. Humphrey Ward remembered the “Morris paper” and “the blue willow-pattern plates” in his “beautiful Merton rooms.” Even more importantly, when he brought for the first time his fiancé to his rooms, she was blown away by his “gorgeous rooms…,splendid oak furniture, quantities of beautiful china & endless beautiful photographs & prints.” When they set to get their first Oxford house in order, Mandell shared his passion for furnishing and decorating with Louise who was much less informed about the possibilities and hidden meanings ascribed to various styles and domestic accoutrements than he was.

Mandell Creighton was indisputably aware how the decorations he chose for his rooms functioned as indicators of his scholarly status and gender. He was well embedded in the masculine values that defined the Oxbridge culture. With the manly self-assurance of a recent Oxford graduate, he declared how “ladies in general are very unsatisfactory mental food,” yet allowed that women were a sort of unavoidable necessity of life: “Of course at a certain age, when you have a house and so on, you get a wife as part of its furniture, and find her very comfortable institution.” Thus, it is not surprising that Creighton hunted antique stores and decorated his home with objects such as books and rare prints which betrayed his identity as an educated Oxford man. Such purchases required education, knowledge, and refined taste – all attributes that oozed with manful scholarliness and high social standing.

Since Creighton associated decorating with character building and self-display, furnishing was a cautious project for him. A man’s character was, according to him, entirely depended on his own actions and he decidedly rejected the notion that character formation would have depended on circumstances. This was a contested topic and the question between determinism and voluntarism, that is whether a character was made for us or by us, divided opinions. Creighton firmly believed that a “Man is entirely above the power of circumstances” and thus responsible for his own character. In terms of decorating, this meant that Creighton rejected all dogmatism and aesthetic theories as these undermined the individuality of an aesthetic project. He was aware of John Ruskin’s theories of style and William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, but emphasized how “All people err who fall into rules on the subject [of decorating].” This was not an entirely unique notion. For example, the magazine The Decorator and Furnisher advocated similar individuality on its pages. Creighton subscribed to this wholeheartedly and insisted that his rooms expressed his personal identity, interests, and tastes, not those of an upholsterer or an art critic. He was pleased to notice that he had succeeded in this. In a letter written in 1871, he described how “Mrs. P.” had visited his room and approved it because “it gave the effect of a thoroughly individual and masculine taste throughout.” His desired manly style was confirmed by this unidentifiable female visitor.

A home – together with clothing – was the most important visual indicator of class in Victorian Britain and as this fact was not missed by the young Oxford dons either, we must, lastly, shift our attention from the furniture and decorations to the walls, and more precisely, to the papers that adorned those walls. Indeed, wallpaper gained symbolic importance in late-Victorian Oxford as a marker of education and learned society. Lewis Foreman Day, a decorative artist and industrial designer, defined wallpaper as “indispensable to the “tenantable repair” of an ordinary middle-class dwelling.” In other words, wallpaper was the second best choice after a wall painting for those who leased their houses and were unwilling to invest in property that was not their own. To compensate for wallpaper’s lack of dignity and effectiveness, the design, color, and producer had to be carefully selected. The wallpaper brands all carried their own implicit meanings and for the educated Oxford elite it was William Morris and his floral and ornamental designs that aptly defined their unique social status.

Morris’s wallpaper had found its way already to Mandell Creighton’s rooms at Merton and Louise observed how the “Morris influence was strong” in Oxford at the time the couple was furnishing their first home. The Morris-craze was further affirmed by Mrs. Humphrey Ward, who had, as a young don’s wife, noticed that in the Oxford of the 1870s “we all…furnished our houses with Morris papers, old chests and cabinets, and blue pots.” Indeed, Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement which he was associated with became household names in artistic and educated middle-class homes whereas his designs remained rather unpopular beyond these circles.  For many, the handmade Morris wallpaper was too expensive and his distinct style unappealing. According to L. F. Day, Morris “had a way of his own and the courage to persist in it.” Young academics, on the other hand, were attracted by this individuality though of course the popularity of “clustering pomegranates” particularly in Oxford homes undermined the uniqueness.


William Morris’s “Blue Fruit” or “Pomegranate”

The eclectic customer base earned the Morris wallpapers an artistic reputation and plastering walls with the company’s designs evolved into an act of collective self-fashioning that codified the social role of a scholar rather than expressed individual style. As Mrs. Humphrey Ward explained, most of the young families in Oxford “were very anxious to be up-to-date and in fashion, whether in esthetics, in housekeeping or in education” and one way to achieve this was to follow “the fashion of the movement which sprang from Morris and Burne-Jones.” Adherence to the Morris-style enabled them to distinguish themselves from the Belgravia and Mayfair fashions that they scorned and to underline their own unique status as young academics.

Mrs Humphrey Ward

(Mary Augusta) Mrs. Humphrey Ward (1851-1920)

Mandell Creighton’s enthusiasm for decorating deviates from the conventional accounts of nineteenth-century historians who worked hard to disassociate themselves with domestic concerns, conspicuous consumption, and fashion at least in their autobiographical writings. The decorative pursuits of these dedicated historians were strictly limited to a study: the desk, armchair, and bookcases had to accommodate the intellectual activities and the ever-expanding library. One explanation for these conflicting images might be that they participated in different self-fashioning projects and historians’ diverse, yet overlapping identities. While historians strove to constitute a persona for the slowly emerging academic discipline of history and therefore emphasized the intellectual commitment, symbolically displayed by a writing desk and an extensive library, Creighton’s immersion into house ornaments was linked to the refinement of the categories of class and gender identityL0048804 Advert for wall paper free from Arsenic that historians also assumed. The domestic objects Creighton possessed were assigned meanings that identified their owner as a learned man and a representative of a specific academic community of Oxford scholars, a community not primarily delineated by disciplinary boundaries but by shared cultural values and practices. This explains why Creighton as a historian took the papering of the walls of his homes with such a level of seriousness: although the financial realities forced the Creightons to paper the walls of their first home with an affordable yellow design from Woollams & Co., they hoped to be able to confirm to the outward expectations later on and optimistically “looked forward to Morris papers in the future.”



Creighton Louise, Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, Sometime Bishop of London. Vol. I. (London: Longmans, 1904).

Day Lewis F., “The Choice of Wall Papers”, The Decorator and Furnisher 20:6 (Sep. 1892): 217-219.

Memoir of a Victorian Woman: Reflections of Louise Creighton, 1850-1936, ed. James Thayne Covert (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994).

Ward Humphrey Mrs., A Writer’s Recollections, vol. I (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1918).


Collini Stefan, Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850–1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Deslandes Paul R., Oxbridge Men: British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience, 1850–1920 (Bloomington & Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2005).

Steinbach Susie L., Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxon & New York: Routledge, 2012).

Tosh John, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).

Cancelled: Historians’ Christmas Ball


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I had it all planned out for you; a merry IMG_0825 (3)holiday post with dancing historians. Gustave Bergenroth and Henry Biaudet had polished their dancing shoes and were ready to show their best moves – and Edward A. Freeman was equally ready to express his contempt about such a folly as a dancing historian. But as so often, the infamous “reality” interfered: as soon as I started my holiday I caught a terrible flue, and as I still feel nothing like party-party-party, I have to cancel the grand show of hot rhythms, untamed emotions, and groovy historians. Instead, I only wish you happy holidays and very prosperous 2018!


International Copyright and Unprotected Lucy Aikin


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In 1843, the London publishers Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans furnished Lucy Aikin’s Life of Joseph Addison with the following “Notice to Booksellers, Proprietors of Circulating Libraries, and the Public” to establish its copyright:

The Publishers of this work give notice that it is Copyright, and that in case of infringement they will avail themselves of the Protection now granted by Parliament to English Literature. Any person having in his possession for sale or for hire a Foreign edition of an English Copyright is liable to a penalty, which the Publishers of this work intend to enforce. It is necessary also to inform the Public generally, that single Copies of such works imported by travellers for their own reading are now prohibited, and the Custom-house officers in all our ports have strict orders to this effect. The above regulations are equally in force in our Dependencies and Colonial Possessions.

Nevertheless, the notice that referred to the 1842 Copyright Act Bill did not prevent the foreign publishers from making alterations to Aikin’s book without consulting her about the revisions.

The introduction of copyright legislation during the eighteenth century defined books as content and a physical object granting an author the ownership of the former. The 1842 Copyright Bill Act guaranteed, first, copyright to authors for 42 years from publishing and for seven years post-mortem for their families. This was a significant improvement: for the first time protection was provided also to a writer’s family. Second, the law made a modest attempt to tackle the issue of illegal international reprints by imposing heavy fines for anyone importing foreign copies of English books to Britain. The 1838 International Copyright Act had enabled reciprocal copyright agreements with individual nations. This, however, was easier said than done and the law had very little impact on the flourishing market of illegal reprints. The 1842 Act did not do much to improve the situation. It was not until the international copyright Berne Convention in 1886 that the matter was tackled with some level of seriousness. In the case of the United States, the 1891 Chase Act guaranteed some protection to British titles there. Until these improvements, British authors discovered time and again how their books were both illegally reprinted abroad and revised without their consent to make them more appealing to local markets. Lucy Aikin’s Addison joined the ranks of British history books that appeared in an altered shape in North America.

The American version of Lucy Aikin’s Life of Joseph Addison was published in 1846 in Philadelphia by Carey and Hart. The publishers furnished the front matter with an Aikin_US“Advertisement by the American Publisher” promoting Aikin as an “accomplished authoress” whose previous productions had enjoyed wide “celebrity.” This rendered the “republishing” of her latest work the most appropriate thing to do. Yet, the “intended re-print” had to be postponed because the acclaimed English historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, had written a lengthy review of the book “pointing out a number of errors into which Miss Aikin has fallen.” Thus, in order to avoid publishing a deficient history, Carey and Hart decided to carefully re-examine the book and after their detailed investigation in the matter, they were pleased to inform the readers that “most of these drawbacks” were not quite as serious as Macaulay had implied and rather “referred to matters of collateral interest.” Nonetheless, since such a “distinguished a source” had identified numerous defects in the original version, the publishers had seen it best to correct the mistakes by “availing themselves of Mr. Macaulay’s suggestions” before releasing the book.

Without any legal impediments or, as it seems, consideration to Aikin and her moral right to the text, the publishers set to work guided by Macaulay’s review. According to the announcement, they had carefully corrected every mistake the eminent English historian had indicated. Enthusiastically they either made silent alterations to the text or cited and referred to Macaulay in footnotes. In the latter case, they added eleven footnotes credited to Macaulay. For instance, the footnotes stipulated that “Mr. Boyle was not afterwards “Lord Orrery,” but “Lord Carleton,” according to Mr. Macaulay,” “‘Miss Aikin says that Epistle was written before Halifax was justified by the Lords. This is a mistake…Macaulay,” and that “‘Miss Aikin attributes the unpopularity of the Whigs, and the change of government to the surrender of Stanhope’s army: the fact is, that the ministry was changes, and the new House of Commons elected, before the surrender took place.’ – Macaulay.” Consequently, Aikin’s narrative and paratexts were mutated into something that contained ingredients that derived from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s book review and were fused into the text by a publishing house in Philadelphia.

Acknowledging the alterations – and the mistakes in the original version – in the front matter was, for sure, a calculated marketing trick and an attempt to ward off any suspicions Macaulay’s review might have aroused in American readers. While the “Advertisement” and the inserted footnotes conveyed Aikin’s mistakes, incorrect interpretations, and confusion of names, dates, and events, the same paratexts explained the actions publishers had taken to fix these vices. Accuracy was, after all, a core scholarly virtue and selling point in history books and it was crucial to show how the publishers had remedied the vice of inaccuracy in the original version. Thanks to this action, the book was not, by any degree, inferior or “deficient in value to Miss Aikin’s former biographies.”

Moreover, the advertisement served as a precaution. Macaulay was widely admired in America and everything he wrote was carefully perused by the American audience (both in legal and in illegal format). Doubtless, the audience was familiar with his review about Aikin’s Addison, a book which he privately judged to contain “a great number of blunders of any which singly was discreditable, and all of which united were certain to be fatal to the book.” Although Macaulay had mentioned to Macvey Napier that he was going to be “as civil to Miss Aikin as I well can,” he was not going to “let her off without a little gentle correction.” It was his duty as a historian to rescue the book from “utter ruin” by pointing out the “numerous and gross” mistakes “as courteously as the case will bear” – even if it was against his feelings “to censure any woman even with the greatest lenity.” Such gentlemanly generosity was an insincere display of Macaulay’s notions about women historians whom he patronized and disdained. He scorned every woman who dared to venture to the masculine province of history. Thus, taking into account the author’s gender and Macaulay’s general dislike of Joseph Addison, it is not surprising that his review on The Life of Joseph Addison might have appeared to a general reader rather critical and to a publisher a threat to the book’s success. Revising the original text and inserting a note loudly promoting the corrections were used for securing the book’s commercial viability.

Lucy Aikin’s The Life of Joseph Addison is but one of the many history books that were released in America without authorial consent during the nineteenth century. John Richard Green was astonished to discover that the pirated copy of his Short History of the English People was more “gorgeous in form, and margin, and type” than the original was. Charles Oman, for his part, was furious about the illegal copy of his History of Ancient Greece and at least equally furious about the fake facsimile copy of his autograph falsely sanctioning the piracy in the front matter. The lack of international copyright legislation enabled the publishing houses to treat books as free game to be profited of. Without legal constraints, the matter rested on publishers’ moral and although there were many publishers who treated English writers with respect and offered them compensation, there were too many who were indifferent about the immorality of illegal copies. Of course the same applied to American authors in the English literary marketplace: in similar fashion they were taken an advantage of by less scrupulous publishing houses in Britain. Regardless the nationality, every pirated book was a nuisance and insult to its author and a violation of what today is called intellectual property. The pirated copies bear witness to the complicated state of the nineteenth-century publishing business and the challenges the rapidly growing transnational literary market place imposed on existing copyright legislation.


Aikin Lucy, The Life of Joseph Addison, vol. I (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1843).

Aikin Lucy, The Life of Joseph Addison (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846).

Le Breton Hemrey Philip, Memoirs, Miscellanies and Letters of the Late Lucy Aikin (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1864).

Pinney Thomas (ed.), The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. IV (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

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


Eliot, Simon, “The business of Victorian publishing”, in Deirdre David (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 37-60.

Feather John, A History of British Publishing (London, New York, Sydney: Croom Helm, 1988).

Seville Catherine. “Copyright”, in David McKitterick (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. VI (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 214-237.

Fashionably a competent historian?



Confusion, that is what the Swiss history professor Jacob Burckhardt, caused. The reason for the constant perplexity was that in his simple attire Burckhardt did not look at all what a nineteenth-century professor was expected to look like. Scientists take pride in claiming it is their work that matters, not their looks, but a recent study shows that appearances influence the reception of science news. As Ana I. Gheorghiu, Mitchell J. Callan, and William J. Skylark demonstrate, the impressions facial-appearances create have an effect on how scientists are perceived. The study suggests that scientists who appear competent, moral, and attractive spark more public interest in their work. Yet, the impact of attractiveness decreases when the competence for conducting high-quality research is being evaluated. In short, “those who appear competent and moral but who are relatively unattractive and apparently unsociable create a stronger impression of doing high-quality research.” The research affirms that – just like in the nineteenth century – there are strong stereotypical assumptions about the correlation between credible science and scientists’ looks. Putting aside the worn-out metaphor of a dusty historian, how was a historian expected to look in order to appear convincing, credible, and immediately recognizable as a representative of his profession? Was there such a thing as a dress code specifically fashioned for historians?

Historians’ looks were constantly monitored and evaluated in public and in private. The depictions are minute comprising pretty much everything from clothing to haircuts, beards, and facial appearances. It was equally common to describe in detail historians’ posture, voice, and habitual manners. What is interesting in these reports is that they often imply a link between appearance and scholarliness attempting to search for clues that betray visible signs of learning, intelligence, and competence. Nevertheless, there was not a unified understanding about the style that would have made a proper historian and it is rather doubtful that this was even what the writers were looking after. Rather, they expected an outfit that corresponded with middle-class respectability and then attached to the markers of class membership new meanings that derived from the stereotypical expectations about scholarly research and a researcher.

Edward Augustus Freeman embarked on a long American tour in the early 1880s and was astonished about the intense interest expressed towards his habits, looks, and opinions while the press and public almost completely ignored his scholarly accomplishments. Dodge City Times described how Freeman had “a great deal of personal magnetism” and how the “rhythmic richness of his voice flows along in agreeable cadences.” Moreover, Freeman looked “a hale, vigorous and large-hearted Englishman, of medium height, broad-shouldered and full chested, with a high head”. The writer was relieved to conclude that there was “nothing of the book-worm” about Freeman. There were no references to Freeman’s dress-code in this short piece that enlightened the Kansas readership about the famous English professor. Elsewhere, though, the stereotypical image of a shabby dress of a book-worm was exploited. According to the New Haven Evening Register, a crucial indication of Freeman’s scholarly profession was his outfit. Freeman was one of those who changed the “course of human thought” and “Being such he had apparently no time to give to the conventionalities of dress, for there was a bagginess about the trousers which indicated the work-a-day of a man of might.” Although Freeman wore a costume suitable for his middle-class status, overlooking the baggy pant-knees was a marker of his scholarly habitus – and of the long hours seated by his desk. The sentiment that a genuine spirit of scholarliness was unmoved by material considerations such as the condition of trousers, was widely spread.

Freeman and pants

E. A. Freeman and baggy pant-knees in making

The Oxford Professor Frederick York Powell surprised many with his wardrobe. In 1901, Mrs. Tremlow was amazed by the fact that York Powell was dressed up like he was a sea captain, not a professor of history. A cap and blue naval dress together with York Powell’s encaptivating presence guaranteed that Mrs. Tremlow was moved by the professor’s grand appearance. The same cannot be said about Charles Oman. He was highly critical about York Powell and even decades later continued to refer to him as an alarming example of a historian who had devoted his entire life for reading while failing to produce anything worth mentioning. This, Oman underlined, had made him unfit for academia and his looks had only added to this mismatch. Oman recounted how York Powell had been “A burly, bearded, athletic man,” how he had always worn “a blue serge jacket, a low collar with a wisp of black tie,” and how he had gone around with “a briar pipe.” Thanks to all this, York Powell had looked “rather like the captain of a coasting steamer” and not like someone with an academic position. Oman’s contempt for this breach of scholarly respectability was deep.

Although there was not a particular fashion code for historians, there were nonetheless assumptions about historians’ appearances. Historians were expected to represent both their middle-class status and scholarly profession through their dress and manners. Audiences studied historians’ dress, looks, composure, and conduct, searching for clues to their scholarliness, intellectual competence, and general social standing. A deviation from the fashion code attracted much curiosity and suspicion just as Frederick York Powell did.

Writing about sartorial markers or physical appearance should not be dismissed as insignificant or irrelevant for the sciences. As the already mentioned recent study illustrates, the stereotypical images of scientists continue to flourish, and what is more important, scientists’ looks inform audiences’ decisions about and interest in scientific research. The widely shared presumption is that attractive scientists receive more attention while less attractive looking ones produce world-class science. The writers emphasize the risks that these hidden biases involve. As the pressure to communicate with the public through expanding modes of media – from live shows to Youtube videos – increases, the looks may gain more and more importance and even have ramifications on one’s career. Thus, it is crucial to recognize our biases deriving from appearance because they may have a direct bearing on decisions about whose research is considered worthy of funding and whose research is considered worthy of publicity. It would be unbearable if looks became decisive for who is given the airtime and who produces valuable research.

P.S. There are two upcoming opportunities to hear me talk more about nineteenth-century historians’ self-fashioning through various mediums: on Thursday 19 October in Turku at the Historiantutkimuksen päivät and on Friday 3 November in Denver at the North American Conference of British Studies.


Dodge City Times (Kansas) 24 November 1881.

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

The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, ed. Alexander Dru (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001).

Oman, Charles, On the Writing of History (London: Methuen, 1939).


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, 2015), 101-118.

Gheorghiu Ana I & Mitchell J. Callam, William J. Skylark, “Facial appearance affects science communication”, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114:23 (June 6, 2017): 5970-5975.

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


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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.