After explaining how nineteenth-century historians underlined their professionalism by emphasizing their rigorous commitment to scholarship, relentless industry, and rejection of mundane pleasures, a student asked me if this was really true. Well, no, historians did not honestly depict the reality. Rather, sketching an image of a diligent scholar who replaced hedonistic pleasures with ascetic intellectual pursuits was an attempt to construct an identity for an emerging professional historian. There were quite many ingredients in this image of an ideal scholar that remind us of the early modern scholars such as Isaac Casaubon and their extreme devotion to learning and a Spartan lifestyle – even at the expense of their health. The nineteenth-century historians recycled the traditional notions of a virtuous scholar to draw clear distinction between the new brave champions of the historical discipline and the emotionally loaded Romantic figures who had dominated the field far too long. So, it was good bye to writers like Thomas Babington Macaulay who indulged themselves with oysters, lobster curry, wild duck, and woodcock, and welcome to professional historians who took no pleasure in eating, drinking, or partying. Liisi Karttunen’s frugal diet of porridge was more fitting for the members of this new school of history. For them eating and drinking was wasted time, and they nourished themselves just because it enabled them to endure another long day in an archive.
Nevertheless, this narrative of porridge and dedication to a strict daily program of research began to crumble like a Christmas cookie when historians actually experienced circumstances that were Spartan at best. To discover the beef of this story, we must follow the nineteenth-century historians to Spain and to the plains of Castile where lays the remote village of Simancas and its famous Archivo General de Simancas. In an impressive fifteenth-century castle was – and still is – a treasure chest of early modern documents rendering the village an attractive destination for historians all over the world. Unfortunately, Simancas was far away from everything and could be accessed only by mule from Valladolid. Even more unfortunate, the tiny rural hamlet offered no modern comforts or conveniences. There was no running water, central heating, restaurants serving fashionable dishes, or theaters, clubs, or any other entertainment venues. The village reminded the historians of a different era and it strengthened their pre-existing prejudices of Spain as a backward primitive society. The villages, who according to James Anthony Froude, “lived like rabbits in their warrens in the midst of a wilderness” confirmed the prejudiced understanding that Spaniards were lazy and impoverished.
The village put historians’ middle class values and lifestyle to a test. It is not a wonder that Froude concluded that Simancas was nothing like he had seen before. Every historian could consult the archives in France, but to come to Simancas required extraordinary courage and strength. Once the archive opened its door to historians in 1844, a few brave ones travelled there and soon their stories of the horrid conditions in the village, the unbearable climate of the Castile plain, and the disorder in the archive itself spread quickly in the scholarly community. The accounts effectively cut short any travel plans historians had fostered. Only a handful of historians took the risk, saddled a mule, and rode to Simancas to ransack the piles of poorly organized dusty papers.
The reality in the village was indeed far from the comfortable middle class living that historians had been used to, and the visit tested their patience and fortitude in every possible way. The food and drink were no longer insignificant, simple nourishment that they were according to the idealized picture of a proper historian. Quite the contrary: the chewy mutton that stared scholars from the plate every day drove them into despair. The wine that tasted like a leather bag, made them weep. Henry Biaudet maintained his sanity by dreaming of ordering the best piece of beef as soon as he came across again a European restaurant – in other words, returned to the civilized world.
The overbearing challenges that every meal posed were described in detail both in private and in public. Historians vented their immediate frustration in letters and diaries. In equally critical language they reflected their experience in the official reports they wrote to the official committees and learned societies that had sponsored their trip and in the prefaces they attached to the source publications, studies, and archive manuals they prepared when safely back at home. These travel narratives from Simancas form a unique set of sources and stand out from the genre of archive travel accounts which mostly focus on the conditions in the archives, scholarly pursuits, and on the most important manuscript discoveries. The reports from Simancas, however, are striking because they contain lengthy descriptions of the living conditions in the village. The circumstances in the rural Castile were so extraordinary for scholars whose understanding of an appropriate lifestyle was moulded in archives in Paris, London, Berlin, and Rome, and who shared an undefined idea of what it was to be a middle class historian in late-nineteenth-century Europe. This idea entailed a certain standard of living that Simancas failed to fulfill. In spite of the often meagre income that especially young historians had, they strove to nurture the most fundamental elements of dignified middle class living – and having a proper meal and drink was part of this. Simancas, then, did not only enforce their prejudices about Spain, but also strengthened their identity as members of a certain professional and scholarly class. The disgusted stories of savage and brutal villagers helped historians to achieve this goal.
So, if food and drink were so unbearable, what about social intercourse – another important element of middle class living? As a norm, historians emphasized that they were immune to entertainment that only distracted their great minds. Research was more than enough to provide the necessary intellectual amusement. Again, the accounts from Simancas suggest that this was not quite the truth. Indeed, historians longed for amusements that interrupted the routines of historical research. Gustave Bergenroth, who searched in Simancas documents for the Master of the Rolls, complained how the village was void of any chance for social intercourse. Henry Biaudet bemoaned that there was nothing else to do in free time than to take long walks to the plains around the village. The solitary wanderings did nothing to stress his nerves – quite the contrary, the loneliness only increased his agitation. It is evident that scholarly activities were not enough to satisfy historians. Luckily, the village was not quite as tranquil as historians let their readers believe it was…
Gustave Bergenroth wrote to the Master of the Rolls apologizing for his momentary lapse that had made him to put his pen down for a moment. The thing was that, first, he had heard “sweet-sounding” of a dulcian, a traditional woodwind instrument, coming outside from the Plaza. Then, two local girls had entered his lodgings and begged him to join the “general rejoicing.” Excusing the weakness of his scholarly character, Bergenroth admits that under such circumstances “there are few men of such elevated sentiments that they can continue a life of calm reflection and purely intellectual enjoyment.” Discretely Bergenroth left untold whether he actually joined the villagers, or just enjoyed the music in his room. In any case, as Bergenroth’s letters were later published, the story of the historian and dancing villagers lived on and was read by other scholars who were planning to travel to the archive. One of these historians was Henry Biaudet, who wrote about the dancing señoritas to his patron, Professor Ernst Gustaf Palmén. Thanks to Biaudet’s flaming temper, he spiced up the story quite a bit: in Biaudet’s letter the sunset made the black hair of the señoritas glow, the castanets and tambourines evoked an atmosphere of heated passion, and the wild dance seduced him to tempt the “hottest señorita” to swing around with him. A passionately dancing historian who lost control and allowed his emotions to dictate his behavior was far from the public image historians wished to disseminate of their profession.
Nevertheless, historians read the stories from Simancas with great interest. Those who opted for the comforts of middle class living hailed the super scholars who, risking their health and well-being, travelled to Simancas to discover unknown sources and historical details. For some, trading juicy steaks and vintage wines for the most frugal diet was too high a price to pay. Unlike their public efforts indicated, historians were not unmoved about the pleasures of life.
Is there then a moral in this story about our busy predecessors trying to find a balance between scholarly commitment and hedonistic pleasures, public and private ideals, and amateur and professional identity. I guess that only days before Christmas the moral could be that it is just fine to let loose every now and then and to enjoy the academic downtime without guilt or fear of appearing as a lazy historian. Just remember the wise words of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who concluded that his weakness was not caused by the excessive drinking the night before, but by the fact that he had unwisely mixed different kinds of alcoholic beverages!
Happy holidays for everyone and a very good 2016!
More bizzarre Victorian Christmas cards can be found here
Letters from Henry Biaudet to Erns Gustaf Palmén, The National Archive of Finland
Henry Biaudet, Les archives de Simancas au point de vue de l’histoire des pays du Nord-Baltique (Geneve, 1912).
Gustave Constant, “Simancas”, Revue Historique 96 (1908): 50-68.
William Cornwallis Cartwright, Gustave Bergenroth: A Memorial Sketch (Edinburgh, 1870)
William Thomas (ed.), Journals of Thomas Babington Macaulay (London, 2008)
Pedro Carasa Soto, “Los nacionalismos europeos y la investigacion en Simancas en el siglo XIX” in Archivi e storia nell’Europa del XX secolo, vol. I, eds. Irene Cotta, Rosalinda Manio Tolu (Florence, 2002): 109-155.
Waldo Hilary Dunn, James Anthony Froude (Oxford, 1963)
Elise Garritzen, Lähteiden lumoamat (Helsinki, 2011), where the Simancas narratives are discussed also in the English summary.