Nineteenth-century historians were keen to invent metaphors to describe their scholarly pursuits. According to what was probably the most popular image, historians presented themselves as builders who erected the grand edifices of knowledge out of tiny grains of historical facts. William Stubbs, the Oxford history professor, explained in the 1877 statutory lecture how the results of historians’ “minute study are the little pebbles of the concrete in which the foundations of the historic superstructure is laid.” Thus, every historian had to be like Walter Scott’s Dryasdust, for without a careful study of original sources it was impossible to produce sound material for the great historical structure historians wished to construct. While these metaphors of building edifices of historical knowledge often demonstrated great insightfulness in detail, historians were – I wish to argue – at least equally resourceful when they composed metaphors that derived from their dinner table. However, unlike the illustrious structures the historian-builders created, the cooked up tropes were turned into warning examples of how not to prepare or serve historical knowledge.
As William Stubbs demonstrated, the careful study of primary sources laid the foundations for historical knowledge. The consultation of original records also set the proper and improper historian apart. This fact had sunk deep into the popular imagination by the last quarter of the century. Even those with less experience in historical research were well aware of these disciplinary requirements and the consequences the violation of these methodological principles could have on a literary reputation. Thus, Sir Samuel White Baker, better known as an adventurer and explorer in Africa than a historian, refused to write a book on Egypt for Cassell & Co. without first visiting the country to procure firsthand information and to consult unpublished manuscripts. Until then, he preferred to leave the book unwritten in order to protect his reputation. As he wrote to Macmillan, “without special information it [the book] would be merely the historical pudding that any literary cook could produce.” Baker, obviously, wished to serve his readers with something more exciting and elaborate than ordinary pudding.
The second pantry-inspired metaphor, too, illustrated the incorrect use of source material. The Edinburgh Review published in 1875 an anonymous and rather critical review about Thomas Carlyle’s The Early Kings of Norway. The writer, later identified as G. W. Dasent, the expert on early Scandinavian history, was dissatisfied with Carlyle’s source material. Instead of consulting primary sources and the most recent studies on the topic, Carlyle had settled for dated research and second-hand material. Because of this, Dasent accused him of building the book on “twice-cooked cabbage.” Carlyle was merely recycling what was already known. Consequently, he, first, violated a historian’s duty to stay abreast with the developments of the discipline and to acknowledge the latest discoveries in the field. Second, he failed to produce anything original even though originality was an essential virtue in history books. Because of the methodological shortcomings, Carlyle’s “kaleidoscopic sketch” was not proper history: the dish Carlyle served to readers disqualified him as a historian and identified him rather as “a great writer.”
The third and last edible example was applied to underline the distinctive value of history books. Edward A. Freeman, the author of the multi-volume History of the Norman Conquest of England, was well-known to publishers for his unrealistic demands, hot temper, and sharp pen. When Macmillan and Oxford University Press decided to prepare an inexpensive edition of Freeman’s Norman Conquest for the American audience, the venerable historian completely lost his temper. In order to reduce the printing costs, the publishers decided to issue the book without any of the marginal notes that had embellished the original version. This infuriated Freeman: the omission of the marginal notes, according to him, reduced his magnum opus into a mere textbook. He dispatched a set of frantic letters to his publishers. In one of them, he accused Bartholomew Price, the secretary of the Oxford Delegates, for treating scholarly titles as they were nothing else but a leg of a mutton or a pair of shoes. This insulted Freeman who expected Price to treat the Norman Conquest with all the necessary pomp and admiration. Perhaps even worse, Price’s conduct suggested that a representative of an academic publishing house fostered the commercial ethos associated with middle-class tradesmen, the ethos that scholars such as Freeman strove to disassociate from. Although historians produced saleable goods, history books, their products should not be mistaken for daily commodities such as food or clothing: scholarly books represented an entirely different register of values and granted historians status as members of the educated and cultured class, not the commercial middle class. Grocers and ordinary business men traded with goods such as mutton’s legs and shoes, while historians traded with products that derived from their intellectual capabilities. The different types of goods were to be strictly demarcated.
Comparing historical research to a familiar domestic pursuit of cooking helped to establish the intellectual vigor and methodological rules of the discipline. In similar fashion, contrasting daily products such as cabbage, pudding, and a leg of mutton with history books further highlighted the uniqueness and singularity of scholarly titles. The analogies of food were mostly drawn to illustrate the alarming malpractices or misconceptions about research methods and history books. Since a kitchen and a pantry were considered domestic feminine spaces, it must be asked whether these food metaphors were underpinned by the gendered assumptions of the Victorian middle-class. For Victorians, women were by nature intellectually less predisposed than men and consequently incapable for rigorous intellectual work such as what the careful and critical study of original authorities entailed. Defining a historian as a cook preparing a bad dish thus implied feminine qualities that were considered incompatible with historical research.
Male historians, sure, enjoyed their dinners and some even described in their diaries and correspondence the dishes they consumed. But they certainly did not participate in the dinner preparations. That was left to their wives and domestic servants. It is, thus, feasible to assume that by locating the incorrect research practices to the feminine sphere of a kitchen and the correct research practices to the masculine territory of a construction site, historians used the gendered notions to draw boundaries between proper and improper historians and research practices. Indeed, fresh produce was highly useful for forging scholarly personae.
All the above illustrations are from Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management (London: S. O. Beeton, 1861).
British Library: The Macmillan Papers.
Bott Michael, “Letters to Macmillan: An addendum. Sir Samuel White Baker’s letters to Macmillan”, Macmillan: A Publishing Tradition, ed. Elizabeth James (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002):102–130.
[Dasent G. W.], “Thomas Carlyle: The Early Kings of Norway”, Edinburgh Review (July 1875).
Stubbs William, Seventeen Lectures on the Mediaeval and Modern History and Kindred Subjects (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1886).