Nowadays publishers tend to prefer short, compact monographs. The response many aspiring historians get from their publishers is the advice to shorten, shorten, and once more, shorten the manuscript. 100 000 words are more than enough to make a proper scholarly monograph. Keeping this in mind, you might understand my dismay when I went to the National Library to pick up Philip Waller’s Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870–1918 (Oxford, 2006): there it was, standing proudly on the shelf with all of its 1181 pages. There was no need to go to the gym after dragging this stately tome to my office. With disbelief I read Waller’s preface where he thanks his editors for their help in shortening the manuscript by pointing out chapters that could be omitted in their entirety. I think we can rest assured that 1181 pages are more than enough to provide as complete a picture of the topic as it is possible to do.
Naively, I admit, I had thought that overgrown historical narratives were a thing of the past. For nineteenth-century historians the multi-volume histories were the standard of an ideal historical account and composing a comprehensive narrative was a sign of one’s professional competence. Hence, historians filled thousands of pages with their discussions about individual events, personalities and brief time periods. Edward Freeman needed five volumes of some 800 pages each to cover the events of the Norman Conquest. Proudly he called his work a masterpiece and a true English classic.
For historians, size certainly mattered: more volumes and pages meant more credibility. Releasing a thin single-volume history bestowed less respect on its authors than publishing a multi-volume study did. It was broadly doubted that historical events could be treated comprehensively in two or three hundred pages. Moreover, size was an important genre indicator. Popular histories were concise, short, and often significantly smaller than the publications that historians considered scholarly studies. Since the emerging camp of self-proclaimed professional historians gave less credit for writing popular histories, producing a multi-volume study strengthened their professional status and helped to draw distinct boundaries between professional and amateur historians. This was considered crucial at a time when historians struggled to establish their discipline as an academic field of study and to define a distinct professional and collective persona for a modern historian. Indeed, size was not an insignificant factor when deciding who was in and who was left out from the professional scholarly establishment.
Readers were quick to learn that these lengthy accounts tended to be dull reading. Indeed, it was a wearisome task for an ordinary reader to pore over hundreds and hundreds of pages of all that detailed information historians had gathered from archives and libraries. Consequently, the sales of professional histories were modest at best, while well written compact popular histories sold like hotcakes. But not every professional historian was pleased with the development and some even openly ridiculed the obsession to write unnecessarily overblown books. Jacob Burckhardt did not hide his despise of the three-volume monographs and their often minimal contribution to history. He wrote to Bernhard Kugler in 1870 to complain how the scholarly and intellectual contribution of such histories usually fitted to four or five pages. He also cautioned his friend to confine his history into one volume. Burckhardt himself followed his own advice but admitted that making The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy three times bigger than it was probably would have earned him more respect.
The tendency to expand a narrative with insignificant details was often considered a German characteristic, but this was only half of the truth. German historians were, without a doubt, well-trained in stuffing their studies with unnecessary minute details, but the same applied to historians of any nationality. The late-nineteenth-century French historians were notorious for their obsession to print every piece of information they discovered and as the example of Freeman and his five volumes of the Norman Conquest suggest, English scholars were equally talented in producing all-inclusive manuscripts.
The need to distinguish oneself as a professional and proper historian was not, however, the only motive for historians to stretch their texts. Many of them were so excited about the new facts they discovered from previously unknown sources, that they sincerely wished to share it all with their readers. Every morsel of new information helped to fill in the many blanks that still remained in history and contributed to a more perfect understanding about the past. Historians were on an important mission and they fulfilled their duty by carefully writing down all they had learned while combing the archives around Europe. Juho Aukusti Pärnänen was one of these historians who caught the notorious archive fever. Duly he sat in the Vatican Secret Archives to gather material for his doctoral dissertation about King Sigismund’s (1566-1632) journey to Sweden in 1593-94. Amidst the dusty parcels of the diplomatic reports of the nuncios of Poland he found so many thrilling records about the preparations of the said journey, that he had enough material to fill one doctoral thesis. Consequently, his study draws to its conclusion at the very moment Sigismund arrives to Stockholm.
But that is all history now and today the ideal is to publish the research results in well-written and concise monographs that go straight to the point. Some even argue that monographs themselves are “so last century” and that historians should rather focus on writing brief articles. Without going into the research political and financial motives that underpin that debate, let me just say that I am a big fan of reading – and writing – monographs. I fear that abandoning a monograph as a means to communicate our research results would have serious consequences to the nature of historical research and to our ability to understand and explain complex historical phenomena. It just is not possible to develop larger themes in 8000 words.
Yet, I have to admit that, considering the number of historical studies published annually, I am grateful that we have ditched the habit of writing multi-volume studies. There are too many books to be read and authors who produce studies with more than 500 pages are expecting quite an investment and commitment from their readers. Moreover, the sheer physical size of such books creates problems. Before I can properly tackle Waller’s Writers, Readers, and Reputations, I have to make some decisions. First, will I face this Herculean task at work or at home? Second, what sort of reading aids shall I need to help me to maneuver with the book? It is simply impossible to carry the book back and forth between home and work, because it does not fit into my handbag. Or, is this one of those force majeure situations that call for a new handbag that is big enough to accommodate even the most extreme physical challenges of historical research?
Alexander Dru (ed.), The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, Liberty Fund, 2011.
Juho Aukusti Pärnänen, Sigismond Vasa et la succession au trône de Suède, 1592–1594, Genève, 1912.