“The truth is that one is not qualified to write a history of the Jews by the mere fact of being a Jew,” a reviewer wrote in 1887 in The English Historical Review and went on claiming that to be a historian “requires knowledge of original documents and training for writing.” In short, “an historian is not born, but trained.” What was a good historian made out of was a question that troubled many nineteenth-century historians while they strove to establish history as an academic discipline and to promote themselves as protagonists of this new school of history. Defining an appropriate persona for the new type of a historian helped to distinguish professional scholars from amateur historians who lacked that something that was required from a proper historian. It was more or less agreed that a professional historian ought to adhere to the virtues of honesty, accuracy, precision, patience, and disinterestedness, possess the skills and conduct related to these virtues, and to apply them at every step of the research process. Lately, these so called epistemic virtues have attracted growing attention among historiographers and many have suggested that rather than focusing only on the texts and the products of historical research, as historiographers traditionally have done, we should also explore the research process and scholarly practices in order to gain better understanding about the nature of historical inquiry and knowledge. Drawing inspiration from the philosophy and history of science these historians have analyzed the different epistemic virtues and their role in historical research. As the virtues were unfixed by nature, historians have also been increasingly interested in how the virtues were shaped, negotiated, and reinterpreted during the nineteenth century in order to construct and display a persona of a historian that corresponded with the new methodological and epistemological demands of the discipline.
Character and character building were essential for Victorian culture and historians were understandably puzzled about the topic when it touched their own field. One question that seemed to divide them was how the virtues could be acquired. Was it possible to learn the trade and become a good historian through a rigorous process of education and socialization into the discipline? Or were there certain traits and a priori characteristics that could not be learned and the lack of them disqualified one from the profession by definition? The unidentified “A.N.” in The English Historical Review was explicit in the belief that training and education were essential for mastering the fundamental intellectual and practical skills of a proper historian. Nevertheless, not everyone was equally convinced of this and instead suggested that there were inbuilt traits that could either make or break a historian. A well-known proponent of this line of reasoning was Edward A. Freeman, the unyielding rival of James Anthony Froude.
Freeman devoted decades for shooting down everything that Froude published by claiming that Froude was unable to do anything else than to write some “namby-pamby” histories that barely deserved to be called histories at all. According to Freeman, Froude was incapable of producing serious history because he missed the love of truth plus the key virtues of accuracy and precision. As Ian Hesketh has demonstrated in his fascinating analysis of the Froude-Freeman dispute, Freeman eventually came to conclude that Froude lacked some inherent quality that prevented him from adhering to truth and accuracy. There was something in Froude himself that disqualified him as a historian from the start. Freeman seemed almost relieved when he explained in May 1879 to Edith Thompson that Froude was not knowingly dishonest. Had he been consciously lying, Freeman was certain that he had invented much more ingenious stories than the ones that he now presented as history. Rather, it was simply Froude’s “state of mind” that misguided him to write inaccurate and invariably incorrect histories. Being dishonest by nature was something to feel pity about, but, as a score of reviewers underlined, being intentionally dishonest was a crime against the sacred principles of historical scholarship. Although in Freeman’s eyes Froude’s list of sins was long, at least ha had not committed the sin of intentional dishonesty.
Thanks to the persistence of Freeman’s attacks and the exceptionally violent tone that he adopted, the notion that Froude lacked the historian’s “gene” was widely accepted. In 1895 the Quarterly Review the naval historian James R. Thursfield reviewed Froude’s English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century and was unable to resist the temptation to note that Froude’s diligent archive research was marred by his constitutional incapacity of reading sources “without the aid of his dramatic spectacles.” The Froude-case was followed with keen interest even beyond the English borders. When the French historians Charles Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos published in 1898 Introduction aux études historiques, a methodological handbook that was quickly translated to numerous other languages, they introduced Froude as a warning example of a historian who was “constitutionally inaccurate.” Although Froude was a pioneer in archive studies in England “his mental condition rendered him altogether unfit for the emendation of texts; indeed, he murdered them, unintentionally, whenever he touched them.” Langlois and Seignobos underlined that Froude, however, was not intentionally careless, but he had a condition that made him unable to adhere to truth and honesty. Therefore, they invented the “Froude’s disease” to describe any historian who suffered from a similar condition and concluded that anyone diagnosed with it “ought to be regarded as incompatible with the professional practice of critical scholarship.
The undesired character traits could be hereditary. The Macaulay-Trevelyan family was a good example of inherited vices. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859), a narrative historian par excellence, was demoted from his eminent position soon after his death. In 1868 one reviewer suspected Macaulay to have suffered from “rhetorical diarrhea.” Indeed, for the late-Victorian historians he symbolized everything that was wrong in what they considered as antiquated pictorial history. Thus, drawing attention to a fact Macaulay’s late-relatives seemed to have inherited his rhetorical condition was not a positive thing at all. In 1880 the historian J. K. Laughton remarked in the Edinburgh Review how much George Otto Trevelyan’s “style resembles that of his uncle” and asked if we were “to consider this as an inheritance?” because “It is certainly not an imitation.” Laughton assumed that it had to be a hereditary trait, because Trevelyan had not adopted Macaulay’ style only on a surface level. On the contrary, there were recognizable similarities between the two writers also in the “arrangement of the ideas, in the wit, the humour, the allusion”. As Macaulay’s reputation continued to dive, the reviewers grew more and more pronounced when discovering that a member of the Macaulay-Trevelyan clan was endowed with the hereditary vices. In 1900 Laughton again wrote to the Edinburgh Review, this time about George Macaulay Trevelyan’s England in the Age of Wycliffe. He was anxious about Trevelyan’s style “which in many ways will remind him of that of the author’s grand-uncle, Lord Macaulay, as filtered, it may be, through the writings of his own father, Sir George Trevelyan.” Yet, even “greater fault seems to rise out of an hereditary protest against ‘the dignity of history,’ which, in its practical form, is too frequently allowed to degenerate into the careless or affected misuse of words; into colloquialisms, Americanisms, or what may be called newspaperisms, which are certainly out of place in a sustained narrative”. The diagnosis was clear: an obvious case of inherited macaulayanism of hyperbole style, disrespect to history itself as well as to the severity of historian’s profession. The undesired character traits were persistent lasting from one generation to another.
The question about the virtues and their nature surfaced in historians’ writings time and again suggesting their preoccupation with the topic and its implications for their intellectual practices. As in so many other matters, the question divided opinions. Although some believed in the power of education, many seemed to think that certain traits could not be acquired through training. These included the love of accuracy and truth as well as factors such as nationality, gender, and religion. Because of this, some were simply unfit to be professional historians. Fortunate were those, who possessed the desirable mix of virtues, learned skills, and ideal character traits. F. A. Paley, the classical scholar, maintained in 1884 that John Richard Green had been one of these lucky geniuses “in whom the peculiar bent of mind and course of study which together constitute the historic faculty were most happily combined.”
Letters from Edward Augustus Freeman to Edith Thompson. Hull History Centre.
[Abraham Hayward] review of The Works of Lord Macaulay in the Quarterly Review (April 1868).
[J. K. Laughton] review of George Otto Trevelyan’s The Early History of Charles James Fox in the Edinburgh Review (October 1880).
[F. A. Paley] review of J. R. Green’s The Conquest of England in the Edinburgh Review (April 1884).
A.N.’s review of Mrs. (now Lady) Magnus’s Outlines of Jewish History in The English Historical Review 2:5 (January 1887).
[James R. Thursfield] review of J. A. Froude’s English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century in the Quarterly Review (July 1895)
[J. K. Laughton] review of George Macaulay Trevelyan’s England in the Age of Wycliffe in the Edinburgh Review (January 1900).
Lanlgois Ch. V. & Ch. Seignobos, Introduction to the Study of History (New York: Henry Holt, 1898)
Hesketh Ian, The Science of History in Victorian Britain: Making the Past Speak (London: Pickering & Ghatto, 2011).
Paul Herman, “What is a Scholarly Persona? Ten Theses on Virtues, Skills, and Desires” in History and Theory 53 (October 2014): 348-371.