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”It is a national disgrace”, cried the German historian Wilhelm Ihne in 1883, when he discovered that German was not the spoken language at public events in the German Archaeological Institute in Rome. Instead, in an institute “paid for by the German people”, everyone spoke Italian, Latin – or French! – at the festivities and scholarly gatherings. This, Ihne thought was unacceptable, and intended to make a change to the Institute’s language policy. Ihne, a strong supporter of German nationalism, captured one of the most important themes in the nineteenth-century nationalistic discourse. Language was as much a means to communicate as it was a chief constituent of national identity. Especially in multi-ethnic nations the choice of language was a markedly political statement. Historians, who eagerly participated in strengthening the patriotic and nationalistic sentiments through their heroic accounts of national history, were very much aware of the power of the language they chose to use.

The nineteenth-century being the heyday of nationalism, the ethnic and nationalistic ideologies pervaded all walks of life. Universities were often centers of fervent political activity and sites for cultivating nationalistic ideologies. At the University of Helsinki, language became one of the most hotly debated topics and the sharpest divider of the academic community. The academia was split into two opposing camps when Finnish was granted the status of an official language in 1863. Until then, Swedish had been the language of state, politics, law, culture and education. When the National Romantic movement caught the cultural elite it prompted a search for the authentic Finnish culture and its ancient roots. Soon the Swedish speaking higher society discovered that it was the Finnish-speaking peasants that had nurtured and passed on the national traditions from one generation to another. Consequently, the Finnish language gained new importance reaching culmination in the 1863 Language Act. The language act and expanding public education meant that a growing number of Finnish-speaking students entered the university. Equipped with a new nationalist awareness, they demanded the highest education in their own language. This caused anxieties among the Swedish-speaking part of the population who began to fear for losing its centuries’ long position at the top of the society. After all, they were a small minority.

At the university the changing cultural and political climate led to a formation of two camps with competing epistemological and methodological preferences. In history, this meant that the Swedish-speaking historians preferred a detailed study of documentary evidence and narrowly focused topics in political history, while the Finnish-speaking historians explored cultural and social history, covered long time periods, and instead of exhaustive analyses preferred broad syntheses. It goes without saying that they approached national history very differently. When the Swedish-speaking historians hailed the shared past with Sweden, the Finnish speakers reminded their readers of all the sufferings the Swedish era had brought along. Their conclusion was that Sweden had prevented Finland from developing its own national institutions and culture.

Association with a language group was a public statement on behalf of the research methodologies and interpretational framework. The few historians who dared to refuse to subscribe to either of these traditions were marginalized. Either you were in or you were out, but you could not be somewhere in between in an academic world where each of the language based groups had their own institutions – associations and journals – and where grants, chairs and other academic treats were granted primarily not by merits, but by membership in these camps. When a Finnish-speaking historian was appointed to a professorship, soon a new chair was established for his Swedish-speaking contestant and when a Swedish-speaking applicant received a big travel grant, the unwritten rules stated that the following year the grant would go to a Finnish-speaking candidate. The discussions about doctoral dissertations were another battlefield. Liisi Karttunen’s doctoral dissertation certainly left a lot to hope for scientifically, but one of the major reasons why it was nearly rejected at the Faculty of Arts, was her close affiliation to Ernst Gustaf Palmén. Just weeks before Karttunen’s dissertation was discussed at the Faculty, Palmén, a professor in Finnish history, had been instrumental in a campaign against the docentship of Per Olof von Törne. Törne, then, was the young favorite of M. G. Schybergson, a Swedish speaking professor and prominent figure in his camp. To pay back to his nemesis Palmén, Schybergson orchestrated a fierce attack on Karttunen. Only after long debates and a close-call voting, Karttunen’s dissertation was approved. The dirty campaign tarnished her scholarly reputation for years to come. The hostilities could be ruthless and humiliating to those doctoral students who were used as tools to gain an edge in the language battle. They needed years to regain their scholarly confidence.

Apart from being a political tool, language was a means to communicate with readers within and beyond the academic world. But what if historian’s mother tongue was one of those lesser spoken languages in Europe? How to write to the national audience and to reach a wider readership beyond the national and linguistic borders? There were no easy answers to these questions and historians adopted different methods of communicating to reach out for their readers.

Writing to a domestic audience was a historian’s main responsibility, but when this community was, let’s say in Denmark, there was a real risk that his great thoughts would not be known abroad. Or, they would be heard of, but not properly understood. This was the dilemma that William Stubbs, Edward Freeman, and John Richard Green encountered in the early 1880s when they discovered that the Danish historian Johannes Steenstrup had criticized Green’s conclusions in his latest study. The problem was that Steenstrup’s book was in Danish and across the channel all that Green and his friends were able to make out of it, was that it seemed that Steenstrup questioned Green’s research. What exactly the Danish historian said about it, they could not comprehend, because they were unable to cross the language barrier. Stubbs gave his best attempt to decipher the footnotes and he concluded that Steenstrup did not say anything that could hurt Green’s reputation. It seemed that the Danish smacked Green mostly of “personal affront” because Green had not cited him in his studies. This was all that Stubbs was able to crack and Steenstrup’s criticism and discoveries in the medieval history remained largely mysteries to his colleagues in England.

When historians chose to write in a language that was not their own, they of course had to choose which language to use. The choice was loaded with political and scholarly implications, but it was also dictated by practicalities. Henry Biaudet decided that all the studies of the Finnish expedition in Rome should be written in French, because the subject matter – early modern Papal diplomacy – attracted interested readers mostly in southern Europe. The choice was easy to make also because French was Biaudet’s mother tongue and he was known for his anti-German mindset. In Finland, however, French was an unusual language to write history in. Because of the long contacts with Germany, Finnish scholars learned German and their French skills were limited. Biaudet, however, understood that Finnish historians were not his primary audience. As long as the expedition investigated the Nordic Reformation from a Catholic point of view, French was the most sensible language for them.

Biaudet’s choice had some unexpected consequences to the production rate of the expedition. He quickly realized that the members of his research team did not have the competence to write in French. Thus, they needed a translator who could translate their Finnish texts into French. Translating was not cheap and the costs limited their chance to publish all the results of their research. But the high price was the least of Biaudet’s worries.

The chief obstacle was that there was no one in Finland who had the necessary skills to translate from Finnish into French, and even those who were able to translate from Swedish to French were hard to come by. Biaudet did not have any other option than to ask his students to write in Swedish, in a language they all disliked for ideological reasons and knew poorly. The literary quality of their texts suffered greatly when they had to put down their thoughts in Swedish. Even worse, one of the students was so ignorant in Swedish that he could not compose sensible sentences in it. A creative solution was needed and he ended up dictating his text in rudimentary Italian to a local copyist who turned the awkward sentences into a grammatically pure Italian. Then, the text was further translated into French. Biaudet was terrified about the end result. He knew that his student was not known for literary bravado or verbal finesse, but when his clumsy sentences went through such a translation process, whatever little elegance there might have been, was lost forever. In spite of all these difficulties, Biaudet refused to allow his students to publish in any other language than in French. He maintained that the only way to establish the reputation of Finnish historians as important scholars in the study of early modern Papal diplomacy, was to write in a language that all the specialists in the field understood. This language was French and therefore Biaudet concluded that all he could do was to continue to find ingenious solutions to overcome the linguistic limitations and bear with the fact that his expedition would not be known for literary panache.

The importance of language has not vanished. The recent political events show that language continues to be a powerful ideological device. Also in the academic world, the language debates have made a comeback. The impact factors and global rankings of scientific journals have diminished the value of publishing in small national journals in countries such as Finland and historians dread that they are pushed to publish in English when the impact of rankings steadily increases in academic assessment. The widely-expressed fear is that soon only those with long lists of high-value international publications will score funding and that only the second-rate scholars continue to publish in local languages. The discussions are spiced up with hyperbolic comments and emotional pleas to a historians’ duty towards their national audiences. It is almost like those who write in English are being labelled as traitors, while no one asks how the local history community might benefit from the attempts to address a critical international audience. It is hard to imagine that participating in international discussions would not help historians to develop their arguments and discover new ideas. After all, scholarship should not know any national borders.

It is also important to keep in mind that publishing in English does not exclude the possibility to publish in other languages as well. Writing is not either this or that, but what the recent debates often overlook, it is about reaching out to different audiences and engaging in different discussions. Don’t we study the past because we want to learn more about it, and write because we wish to share our knowledge with others? The audiences of our texts can be different and we are skilled in adjusting our voice accordingly without compromising the quality of the research. Why should we not think about language in similar terms? Yes, I am aware that every article and publishing platform does not bring an equal amount of brownie points when the panelists review the publications of the applicants. Certainly, review committees are crucial for providing means for research, but they are not our only readers and therefore the language should be decided on a case-to-case basis. I may write in Finnish about learned Finnish women when I wish to contribute to the local discussion about women’s education in early twentieth century Helsinki. But why would I use the same language when I write about the use of paratexts in late-Victorian histories? That would be like leaving the present-day non-Finnish historians to spot their names in my footnotes without a fair chance to understand what I say about them – just as Freeman, Green and Stubbs were left to do a century or so ago.

Edward Freeman papers, The John Rylands Library, Manchester
The papers of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Helsinki, The Central Archive of the University of Helsinki
William Holden Hutton, Letters of William Stubbs (London, 1904)