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.


Cardinal Wolsey, lice, and inaccurate metadata




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

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

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

Lice of Cardinal Wolsey

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

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


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

Robert Hooke, Migrographia (1667).

Dissecting a footnote: “Stubbs ii. 365”



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

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

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

Footnote Stubbs

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Is the study of historiography relevant at all?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Traversing foreign territory: nationality and writing non-national history


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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