Recently, historiographers have directed their curious gaze at nineteenth-century historians’ scholarly persona to explore how the formation of a modern “scholarly self” – or ethos – was linked to the modernization and institutionalization of the discipline. The assumption is that the framing of a new scholarly persona was concurrent and closely linked to the modernization of historical methods and institutionalization of the discipline.
While historiography has traditionally focused on the texts, now the emphasis is on historians’ practices and scholarly conduct. In other words, on what happened before the texts entered the literary marketplace. The questions historians are asking include such as how was the persona defined and framed, who was allowed to participate in this framing and who were left out, how was the notion of a scholarly persona transmitted and passed on to new generations of historians, and how did the scholarly community deal with those who did not meet the criteria of a scholarly persona. These are just some examples of the exciting new themes that historiographers are discussing at the moment. What is particularly significant in this new line of inquiry is that it underlines the influence of the scholarly persona both within and beyond academia. The persona was used to shape academic communities, but it also transgressed the scholarly boundaries and found its way into popular imagination. Indeed, while each generation has since then pursued to define their scholarly persona, many of the nineteenth-century ideas of scholarly ethos continue to inform our notions of a professional historian.
In late-Victorian Britain, the scholarly ethos was under constant scrutiny and debate. Defining the habitus of a professional historian had a clear goal: to draw a definite boundary between professional and amateur historians, between history based on facts and history based on conjecture and dramatic narrative imagination. The model historian was carved out of a set of skills such as the appropriate use of references, of polite conduct and of epistemological virtues such as accuracy. Similarly, innate qualities were constitutive for a scholarly ethos. Ambiguously defined historical mind, for instance, was an important intrinsic quality. The qualities were highly gendered, and also hereditary. Reviewers in the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews observed that George Otto Trevelyan had unfortunately inherited his uncle’s, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s, “rhetorical diarrhea”, and his son, George Macaulay Trevelyan, was just unfortunate suffering from the same quality of melodrama which obstructed the application of a critical mind.
Although historians stressed that the qualities alone did not make a proper historian, but that also a long training was necessary, it was widely accepted that the lack of suitable qualities was a serious impediment on the road to mastering historical inquiry. In the worst case, the lack of historical mind could be fatal. For James Antony Froude, the notorious archenemy of the professional entourage, there was no hope. Froude, who was a useful tool in the game of drawing boundaries between the amateur and professional historian, was labelled as constitutionally incapable for accuracy. He could not be rescued from the malady of inaccuracy and consequently he became the symbol of bad history.
The vivid picturing of Froude’s vices was followed with a great interest in France and when Charles Langlois and Charles Seignobos published their best-selling methodological guidebook in the late 1890s, they included Froude as a warning sign for all students of history. They compared Froude’s unfortunate “mental conformation” with color blindness and concluded that both maladies were beyond treatment. The authors then went on and labelled this condition of inaccuracy as Froude’s Disease and diagnosed it as “incompatible with the professional practice of critical scholarship.” Thanks to the immense popularity of the book, Froude’s disease became a catch word and dreadful condition in scholarly circles for decades.
Scholarly ethos is the topic of the next seminar organized by The Finnish Society for the History of Science and Learning. The seminar is held in Helsinki in Tieteiden Talo on April 24 at 5:00.
More about Froude’s disease can be found in Ian Hesketh’s The Science of History in Victorian Britain (2011).