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When Pope Leo XIII announced in 1880, that the Vatican Secret Archives were now open for all serious scholars regardless of their national and religious background, the academic world welcomed the news with great enthusiasm. Without wasting any time, men from all over the world journeyed to the Eternal City to ransack the immense collections in the papal archive and many states established there permanent or temporary research institutes to facilitate the research. They hoped that as many interesting records as possible could be located, copied, and published in edited collections designed for this purpose. The national research teams raced through the dusty piles of paper to discover valuable evidence to support their notions of history. These young men, equipped with the skills and knowledge they had obtained in universities in their home countries, were enthusiastic patriots and eager to test their skills in real archive work. They arrived in Rome with their scholarly hopes and political ambitions running high. The reading room in the Vatican archive was quickly turned into a battle field where historians were forced to face the reality: the entangled national histories and the growing political tensions and rising nationalistic sentiments that were about to drive the continent into chaos. This international scholarly community in Rome was a masculine realm where diplomatic history and political aspirations reigned. The reading room in the Vatican archive oozed testosterone. Women,still largely marginalized both in academia and daily politics, were – literally – pushed into a side room in this community.

Notwithstanding the opposition from the male establishment, women were slowly accepted into universities towards the end of the century. Consequently, young women with an academic training began to envisage a career as professional scientists and scholars. The first woman to entertain an idea to conduct research in the Vatican archive was Anna Hude. Anna Hude Hude had been the first Danish women to receive a doctoral degree in history in 1893 and in 1898 she was invited to join the Carlsberg Foundation funded research project in Rome. The intention was that together with the other Danish historians she would gather and edit records that shed light on the early modern diplomatic relations between Denmark and the Holy See. When the Danes contacted the archive to enquire whether a woman could gain access to the archive, the response was that Hude could consult the collections only if she accepted not to work in the actual reading room, but in a separate side room. The ruling was definite and Hude was prohibited to enter the reading room under any circumstances. Hude realized that the separation from the rest of the team without any hope for being able to communicate with them in the archive would cause unnecessary strain for all of them and she decided to resign from the project.

Although Hude never arrived at the archive, there were other women who did so. There are not any official statistics about their number and the archive’s records about readers are not available for investigation. Hence, the following is patched together from sporadic clues here and there, most importantly from an exchange of e-mails with Dottore Marco Grilli, the secretary to the Prefect of the archive, nine years ago. He estimated that between 1907 and 1915 some fifteen women explored the collections in the archive. The number seems plausible. First, women were hardly seen in the national research institutes. The only woman employed by a national research team was the Finnish Liisi Karttunen. The number of women residents in the institutes was nearly as low. The Austrian institute mentions the art historian Bertha Pelican as an external member in 1909-1910 and Eugénie Sellers Strong, archaeologist and art historian, occupied a position in the British School. Neither of them conducted research in the Vatican archive. Second, in 1907, Henry Biaudet, the leader of the Finnish expedition, reported that one or two American “ladies” had been in the archive in 1906, currently one Italian woman was there, and that the archivist expected an English “miss” to arrive at any day. Third, a hint that women were slowly breaking through in archive studies in such a masculine bastion as the Vatican Secret Archive, is hidden in Carl Fish’s Guide to the Materials for American History in Roman and Other Italian Archives (1911). Fish wrote that a permission to use the collections was “freely granted to all who bring evidence of intention and capacity for serious study,” however, “in the case of women, special arrangements must be made.” The fact that Fish even mentioned these special conditions suggests that, on one hand, enough women had worked in the archive to make their existence known in Rome, and to make it necessary for the archive to establish guidelines for their visits. On the other hand, by advising women about the special conditions Fish acknowledged that there was a growing number of women aimed to search the collections of the world-famous archive and benefited from this small piece of information.

The “special arrangements” that Fish alluded to are likely to refer to the rule that women were not allowed to enter the main reading room. Moreover, the regulations also stated that women were prohibited from using the same entrance and stairs with the men. Instead, they were directed to enter the archive via the adjoining Vatican Library. Conveniently a corridor led from the library to the archive and to the little room designated for the ladies. Henry Biaudet explained that these arrangements were made with good intentions. The female presence in the great reading room might have distracted some of the more pious and devout readers causing only unwanted distress and bafflement. In the name of decency and morality, it was then wise to maintain strict gender boundaries and tuck the women into a room of their own where they were conveniently out of sight and – hopefully – out of mind as well. What Biaudet implied, but did not say aloud, was, of course, that women who perused archival sources were not just disinterested scholars, but also objects of desire. Erotic passions were not unknown for historians, though such emotions were mostly fixed to the manuscripts and past itself. As it is well-known, the bundles of records were feminine objects for the nineteenth-century historians who formed lifelong attachments to their historic mistresses and pledged eternal allegiance to them. Leopold von Ranke confessed that his flings with the objects of his admiration in the archives exhausted him. Ranke’s fantasies about the beautiful Italian documents, though, were just the tip of an iceberg. Such affections were widely shared in the male-dominated history community. Biaudet certainly did not hide his sexual innuendos: in his letters he admitted his lust for archival studies and flirted with the maidens of Catholicism and Protestantism who fought for his attention. Nor did he – the real-life Casanova and family-man – deny the attraction of intellectual women in archives. After all, Liisi Karttunen was, first his mistress, and then, partner in love, life, and scholarship.

In praising the archivists’ sensitivity in this delicate matter, Biaudet happily disregarded the inconveniences the arrangement caused for women who were cut off from any communication with their male colleagues. Moreover, entering the archive through the library meant that women lost half an hour of valuable working time every day. The library opened 30 minutes later than the archive, and when the archive was open only three and a half hours a day (and closed during the long summer recession, around Christmas, Easter, and many other religious holidays), missing half an hour was not an insignificant hindrance to women historians. Liisi2 Liisi Karttunen complained often about this nuisance stressing how much it set her back in her studies. Her joy knew no bounds when in 1910 she learned that the prefect had granted her a special permission to both use the same entrance with the men and to enter the archive at the same time with them. The good will of the archivists confirmed that she was considered as a diligent and competent historian. Karttunen herself modestly concluded that she earned the privilege because the past three years had shown the archivists that she was “harmless” in every aspect.

Whilst women constituted only a small minority in the Vatican archive and in the national research institutes, there were many more of them in Rome writing history outside the institutional and professional scholarly framework. These amateur historians mixed in their texts different genres – travelogues, biographies, journal articles – and different fields of study from history to art history, classical studies to archaeology. Their presence and literary pursuits were not appreciated by the professional establishment. The misgivings that Biaudet had about these amateur women implies that they were the ones who were perceived as a standard of a “history writing woman in Rome.” These “dames,” Biaudet explained, threatened the reputation and credibility of those women who had received university training in historical methods, who qualified as professionals, and who conducted research in the Vatican archive. Biaudet feared that readers were inclined to group all the women into the same category and that this would tarnish even Karttunen’s credibility. Hence, he advised her to add her academic title, Docteur ès Lettres, on a title page to emphasize her competence in writing authoritative history. It was vital that the small number of professional women distinguished themselves from the masses that crowded the Eternal City. Yet, it is doubtful that they were always warmly welcomed to the professional echelons of the local scholarly community either. They were stranded in between the two worlds of history writing in Rome.

Women who strove for career opportunities in historical pursuits during the nineteenth century encountered a number of structural obstacles, institutional barriers, and a hefty load of public criticism and assaults. Archivists were hesitant to let them see records that might contain material not fitted for their delicate minds, their male colleagues doubted whether feminine physic would endure the dust, damp, and dimness in archives, and students and professors protested against women’s admission to universities. Later during the century, science was harnessed to prove that women were not fitted for intellectual work. In this light, the “special arrangements” in the Vatican Secret Archives are just another example of the limitations that women were forced to cope with. The separate reading room in the archive was certainly not a room of one’s own in the Virginia Woolf kind of way. Yet, the exception granted to Liisi Karttunen indicates that even in a side room it was possible for a woman to produce high-quality research and grow into a recognized professional historian before the First World War.

P.S. This post is written to honor all the women who fought their way through the masculine barriers in scholarly and scientific world long before this day. Furthermore, the post celebrates the recently published collection of biographical essay of learned Finnish women around 1900: Naisten Aika: Valkoinen varis ja muita oppineita naisia, eds. Riitta Mäkinen and Marja Engman (Gaudeamus, 2915). If you wish to hear more about these brave Finnish women, come next week Friday (23 October) to hear me, Riitta Mäkinen and Anna Kortelainen discuss about them at the Helsinki book fair!


Henry Biaudet Papers and Liisi Karttunen Papers, The National Archives of Finland
Biaudet Henry, “Vatikaani ja sen suvaitsemattomuus”, Helsingin Sanomat, 7.11.1907
Dengel Philipp, Das Österreichische Historische Institut in Rom 1901-1913. Vienna and Freiburg: Herdersche Verlaghandlung, 1914.
Dyson Stephen L, Eugénie Sellers Strong: Portrait of an Archaeologist. London: Duckworth, 2004.
Fish Carl, Guide to the Materials for American History in Roman and Other Italian Archives. Washington: The Carnegie Institute, 1911.
Manniche Jens Chr., “En umaettelig kundskabstorst. Anna Hude, Danmarks forste kvindelige historiker”, Clios dotre gennem hundrede år, eds. Marianne Alenius, Nanna Damsholt, Bente Rosenbeck. Copenhagen. Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 1994.141-164.
Vian Paolo (ed.), Speculum mundi. Roma centro internazionale di ricerche umanistiche. Rome: Unione Internazionale degli Istituti di Archeologia, Storia e Storia dell’arte in Roma, 1991.

About the institutes in English, see my article “The International Historical Institutes in Rome and their Scientific and Political Roles c. 1880-1914”. Storia della Storiografia, vol. 64 (2:2013): 37-60.