Historians’ prefaces and introductions can be curious reading. The prefatorial matter surely spells out why the study is significant and innovative and what it actually is about, but rarely does it say anything about what happened before the book reached the literary marketplace. The very last paragraph of the acknowledgments might reveal that the road up to that point has been a long one, because here the historian – following the conventions of the field – warmly and for a good reason thanks the loved ones for their enduring support during all those long years that it took to complete the project. Otherwise, historians show little inclination to unravel their research and writing processes. This does not mean that there is nothing to tell or that historical research is a straightforward and uncomplicated process. No, historians just prefer not to elaborate the many twists and turns they take before reaching the finish line. Indeed, research is full of trials and errors and the role of chance, luck, coincidence, and even accidents, should not be overlooked. Revealing this messy reality of course undermines the heroic image of historians as great minds and geniuses whose days are filled with nothing but big thoughts and well-organized intellectual pursuits. Well, let two nineteenth-century historians unveil the truth: sometimes luck can be more decisive than carefully planned and intellectually rigorous procedures in historical research.
The first example takes us to Rome, to the Vatican Secret Archives around the turn of the twentieth century. When archives began to open their doors to historians during the nineteenth-century, they were ill-prepared to receive researchers. Their collections were poorly organized and the manuscripts were uncatalogued. The Vatican archive which opened its doors to scholars in 1880 was one of the most notorious ones when it came to chaos and lack of sufficient catalogues. No one had a clear idea of what was stored in the Archive and the archivists were seemingly embarrassed of the disorder.
When Liisi Karttunen arrived to Rome in 1907 to collect material for her doctoral thesis about the sixteenth-century nuncio Antonio Possevino, the situation had not significantly improved. Without too much help from the catalogues, she diligently combed the numerous volumes of records in the collection of the nunziatura polonia and succeeded in digging up enough previously unknown sources to write her thesis. When she was about to send her manuscript to the printer, she heard that the archivists had come across a pile of records that she might be interested in. When she returned to the Archive she was told that the bundle had been behind one of the heavy cabinets that were used to store the manuscripts in the magazine. It was likely that they had been there for centuries without anybody being aware of their existence. They were now discovered because the archivists had decided to move the cabinets around to improve the use of space in that particular magazine. One hasty look was enough to Karttunen to grasp the importance of the discovery. The documents were so significant for her topic that she decided immediately to postpone the printing of her thesis and to write an additional chapter making the most of the lucky discovery in the Vatican archive.
The second example leads us to London where Thomas Babington Macaulay was revising the first two volumes of his best-selling History of England in 1849. The book had been an immediate success since it was first issued in 1848 and within a year it had reached the sixth edition which Macaulay was now revising. He corrected some obvious mistakes, but when he was ready to return the sheets to the printer he noticed, for his great vexation, that one sheet had gone missing. Macaulay had lost his account of the siege of Londonderry. Since he was unable to locate the missing piece of the text, he sat down to write a new version of it. Soon he realized that the aggravating accident was actually a blessing in disguise – or at least so he tried to convince himself. In the self-congratulatory fashion so characteristic of his journals, Macaulay complimented himself for improving the quality of the narrative.
The fact that research projects do not always turn out to be exactly as the historian had designed them to be, or that every carefully crafted sentence in a historical narrative is not a result of a carefully planned research process poses challenges for historiographers. Karttunen’s last-minute chapter and Macaulay’s lost sheets should warn us not to attribute every detail in historical narratives to the author’s scholarly thinking without first scrutinizing the context in which the text was crafted. Indeed, a revised text or a book chapter might originate from a stroke of luck or unexpected coincidence. Thus, a rigorous contextualization and textual analysis are the daily methodological tools of a historiographer who endeavors to understand historical research as a complex scholarly and culturally constructed process. This approach also challenges the persistent myth that historiography is an easy field because all that historiographers need to do is to read couple of old books and c’est ça. Without a doubt, historical narratives are an important set of sources in historiography, but more is needed to understand how the texts came to be, what is it that historians want to tell with their texts and what does that reveal about the time when they were written.
Liisi Karttunen papers, National Archive of Finland
Thomas, William (ed.), The Journals of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Vol. II. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008.