Thomas Babington Macaulay, the immensely popular mid-nineteenth-century historian, complained in his journal in 1849 how he had lost a valuable day of research at the British Museum because he had “like a fool” forgotten his spectacles home. Because he did not choose to burden his eyes “with the vile print of the newspapers of 1702” he wandered around the zoological and mineralogical rooms of the Museum instead of ransacking its historical newspaper collections. But Macaulay was not the only historian who was concerned with his eyesight. Half a century later in Rome, Henry Biaudet cautiously took breaks from his research on early modern watermarks. He was afraid that otherwise he would share the fate of his predecessor, C. M. Briquet, who had been stone-blind by the time he finished his path-breaking Les Filigranes.
It is understandable that nineteenth-century historians’ diaries, correspondence and memoirs were saturated with concerns about fading eyesight. Eyes were one of their most valuable tools and conditions in the archives certainly put a strain on their eyesight. Dimly-lit reading rooms, draft and cold, dirt and dust, and, above all, manuscripts with tiny, illegible handwriting together with fading ink were treacherous for eyes. Thus, it is not surprising that historians carefully reported even the smallest changes in their eyesight. Gustave Bergenroth diligently searched the archives in Simancas in the 1860s and kept his family and fellow-historians up-to-date with the progress of his vision. He first reported to his mother how his eyes had improved and he was even able to put aside his spectacles. In the following year, he noticed that although he could still read and write for hours, he should pick a suitable pair of spectacles and then gradually accustom his eyes for them. Despite all the effort, the hard work eventually took its toll and Bergenroth had to admit that his eyes had become “much tired” and yet another appointment at the oculist was needed.
Although the archival research was a real threat to historians’ vision, perhaps the recurring allusions to diminishing eyesight were not only meant as updates of historians’ physical condition. The literary tradition of linking blindness and weak eyes with knowledge and learning dates to the ancient times and since then the topos has firmly established itself in literary and popular imagination. It is probable that the tradition influenced historians who applied it for constructing their disciplinary identity in which diligence and hard-work were important elements.
Historiographical lore knows numerous heroic stories of historians who, despite their blindness, continued their scholarly pursuits. In spite of the physical impediment, they steadfastly remained committed to historical inquiry. Just like the professor J. R. Danielson-Kalmari in Helsinki, they produced hundreds – even thousands – of pages of historical text with a help of a scribe. At least in the case of Danielson-Kalmari, the quality of his research was irrelevant: the fact that he continued his scholarly pursuits rendered him iconic and exemplary figure and whoever dared to question his merits was quickly placed into an academic outcast. Such heroic stories as the one of Danielson-Kalmari enhanced the notion of fading eyesight as a sing of learning and scholarship. These examples, then, inspired growing number of historians to use the fading vision not only as an unfortunate physical fact, but also as a testimony of their indefatigable work.