Classification, measuring, and categorization were common methods for understanding and organizing the world in the nineteenth century. Compartmentalization and systemization covered all aspects of human life and for historians this meant that various categories were established for defining more precisely both those who wrote history and the kind of history they produced. There were the historians proper, but also the biographers, genealogists, antiquarians, editors, and essayists just to name few. There was, of course, also the gradually emerging gap between professionals and amateurs which demanded its own delineation. As John Horace Round observed in 1885 in the Athenaeum, it was necessary to draw a distinction between “the solitary enterprise of a family biographer” and “the systematic undertakings of a professed genealogist” because they should be judged and criticized “by a separate standard.” A year later, Round stressed for another time how it was a grave mistake to confuse “the functions of a biographer with those of a historian.” In similar fashion, Henry Offley Wakeman maintained how a “book of historical essays is one thing, a book of historical biography is another thing” and that an author runs into trouble when these are mixed because “biographical sketches is neither one thing nor another.” As these examples suggest, labeling histories and historians according to the various categories was a paratext that guided reading and the reception of history books as this contextual information created expectations. Moreover, classification served the purposes of evaluation: books were reviewed according to the standards of their “class.”
The boundaries, categories, and conceptualized notions about various styles of historical literature, and about those who produced them, helped to form and consolidate the ideals of historical scholarship. Different epistemic and narrative registers functioned as means to distinguish between the various modes of history writing and each category had its own set of rules, practices, and virtues that its adherents were expected to cultivate. Consequently, the field of history was not defined by one prevalent persona of a historian alone, but multiple personae historians had to choose from according to the type of history they represented. The categorization helped the emerging community of professional historians to promote their authority in respect to what became to be known as lesser forms of history writing.
A major dividing line was identified between historians and biographers. A reviewer in the Quarterly Review emphasized that biographies belonged to the province of the Muse of History. Historians nonetheless pinpointed significant differences in the scope, aims, and narrative strategies that historians and biographers applied. The focal point of a good biographer was the life and character of the subject matter. A skilled biographer did not disturb the image s/he painted with too many digressions into general history. Readers certainly did not expect a biographer to contribute broadly to history and as one reviewer pointed out in 1872, new insights about general history were lost in biographies because they provoked most of the readers to “turn impatiently from” such works.
Although there were many acclaimed biographical studies such as Mark Pattison’s Isaac Casaubon, many still treated biographies as inferior to “real” historical works. They were somewhere between history and literature and imaginative faculties or picturesqueness were not judged as inappropriate for biographers as they were for historians. This ambiguous position together with the fact that biographies were not expected to treat grave historical matters with high societal impact rendered them suitable for women to write. Rohan Maitzen has shown how this definition cleared room for women in history writing during the first half of the century: as long as women wrote biographical sketches about other women and openly staked their position as biographers and not as historians, men tolerated their historical interventions. Lucy Aikin’s preface to the first volume of her Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth in 1818 illustrates this attitude: it was necessary to stress, Aikin explains, that she had constantly endeavored “to preserve to her work the genuine character of Memoirs, by avoiding as much as possible encroachments on the peculiar province of history.” By admitting that she did not aspire to overstep the gendered boundaries of history writing she nonetheless demanded herself a position among published historians.
While biography and history were clearly demarcated, there were some fields of historical inquiry that were much more problematic in this sense. For example, source editing seemed to escape clear definitions and value judgments. The challenge was that editing rarely produced new knowledge in narrative form even if many editors furnished their books with detailed introductions and commentaries about the sources. Nevertheless, since the nineteenth century was a heyday of grand source editing ventures all over Europe it was necessary to appropriately classify and label the source editing.
The multi-volume projects were often directed by eminent professors, yet the actual work was conducted by early career historians. They hoped that by joining the projects they would gain a reputation as diligent scholars and then apply for more research oriented positions at the universities. For many, however, the editing became a life-long profession and a much less illustrious occupation than what academia provided for their more successful colleagues. Indeed, many considered editing as an auxiliary practice and intellectually less demanding than history writing was. The prominent German historian Heinrich von Sybel did not disguise the fact that for him the editors were second rank historians who, for sure, were accurate and precise, but lacked the interpretative skills that were needed when facts were transformed into synthetic narrative account. In Britain, a writer in Edinburgh Review echoed this by proclaiming how Theodor Mommsen as a qualified historian only wasted his time in editing work. However, the matter was complicated by the fact that some first rank historians published acclaimed source editions. Frederic William Maitland, the Downing Professor of the Laws of England in Cambridge, was a highly respected legal historian whose source editions were generously praised by the historical profession. In Maitland’s case, no one asked whether his editing work should have disqualified him as a historian or whether his editions produced new knowledge or not. Indeed, the boundaries were not as fixed as historians’ anxious territorialism and exclusionary moves suggested.
For those, who saw themselves as the paragons of the new scientific history, establishing a firm boundary between amateurs and professionals – scientific and pictorial narrative history – was crucial: the collective self-fashioning demanded public display of skills, qualities, and experience that proper historians were expected to possess. Book reviews, lectures, and methodological treatises were primary sites for self-fashioning, yet historians’ imagination knew no boundaries when it came to exclude historians who seemed to threaten the dignity and credibility of the discipline. One of the most literary renditions of this was sketched by Frederick York Powell, Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford, in a letter to his friend. Powel evoked a powerful vision of historians’ afterlife with three separate spheres. First, there was heaven, a quiet place since only a few were chosen. According to Powell, among the chosen ones were Samuel Rawson Gardiner, John Horace Round, Edward Freeman, and William Stubbs. There were not too many surprises in this bunch salve Round, who was respected as a scholar but excluded from the inner circle because of his ill-temper and obsession for historical controversy. In this heavenly setting Gardiner was to have “a quiet arbour with Firth on Delectable Mountains…and [Edward] Freeman will have a place of his own with [William] Stubbs,” Powell envisioned. Although the number of chosen historians was low, the high intellectual level guaranteed “good company and good talk.”
Then there was hell. It was crowded by historians who enjoyed the questionable reputation of being dishonest and unscrupulous. Here were the philosophers, “that mouldy gang of self-deceivers,” James Anthony Froude, the imagined incarnation of pictorial and inaccurate history, and the journalists. They all belonged to an Eternal Club where “the men drink and sneer at each other and tell old stories and quarrel and enjoy themselves after the journalistic kind.” The third sphere which Powell left unnamed, contained, if possible, even more suspicious and unreliable historians than those who occupied hell. Unable to hide his contempt and gendered biases, Powell explained how here resided “the plain female historians.” Although women historians were carefully concealed from the rest, heaven was not entirely without female company. “[T]here will be a few ‘weel favour’d hizzies’ supplied to us who may solace us in the intervals of high talk.” Since everyone had been appointed a place of own according to skills, competence, and achievements, “the historic heaven” was “a future to look forward to,” Powell assured his friend.
The various categories of historians and history books gave the practitioners of the craft a chance to define what belonged to the realm of history. The epistemological and narrative positioning revealed the diversity of historical practices, but also helped to identify the demands each type of history writing placed on historians’ persona and competence. The professional historians applied this knowledge to enhance the preeminence of the emerging scientific history. Book reviews were used frequently for publicly reprimanding those who carelessly mixed different styles of history or who failed altogether to meet the standards they claimed to adhere to. The latter prompted the English Historical Review to publish anonymously in 1889 what was probably the most brutal review in its short history. The strong reaction was caused by G. G. Zerffi and his book Studies on the Science of General History. The reviewer justified the harsh words by emphasizing that it was his duty to reveal the many flaws in the work whose author promoted himself as “one of the lecturers of her Majesty’s Department of Science and Art.” This public association with a learned institution created false expectations about scholarship and misled readers to trust on what the author wrote. In reality, the appalled reviewer pointed out, the book was “made up of crude self-assertion, blustering intolerance, and an ignorance of a quite unusual profundity.” Moreover, it was pestered by “exploded blunders,” “impudent falsehood,” and “misspelled names.” In short, the book’s “worthlessness and undisguised perversity” were disturbing. The false pretensions of being serious scholarship were alarming and to avoid rotten apples from tarnishing the reputation of honorable historians it was necessary to inform readers that Zeffi’s book most certainly did not belong to any category of serious history. Labels that classified historical works were persuasive paratexts and while they were useful in erecting boundaries and guide readers they could also be damaging when used carelessly or deceptively. It was, therefore, pivotal to the scholarly community to control that the principles were carefully followed.
Aikin Lucy, Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth, vol. I (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1818).
[Anon.] review of the English translation of The History of Rome by Theodor Mommsen. Edinburgh Review (April 1862).
[Anon.] review of The Life of John Milton, narrated in Connexion with the Political, Ecclesiastical and Literary History of his Time by David Masson. Quarterly Review (January 1872).
[Anon] review of Studies on the Science of General History by G. G. Zerffi (London: Hirschfeld, 1889).
Elton Oliver, Frederick York Powell: A Life and a Selection from his Letters and Occasional Writings, vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906).
Round John Horace, review of The Life of Admiral Robert Fairfax by Clements R. Markahm. English Historical Review 1:3 (July 1886): 582-583.
Wakeman Henry Offley, review of The English Church and its Bishops (1700-1800) by Rev, Charles J. Abbey. English Historical Review 3:10 (April 1888): 383-387.
Maitzen Rohan Amanda, Gender, Genre, and Victorian Historical Writing (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1998).
Paul Herman, “The heroic study of records: The contested persona of the archival historian”. History of the Human Sciences, 26:4 (2013): 67-83.
Powell W. Raymond, John Horace Round: Historian and Gentleman of Essex (Chelmsford: Essex Record Office, 2001).