In June 1855, the Belgian newspaper Le Bien Public reported that Don Manuel García Gonzáles, the keeper of the Archivo general de Simancas, had been awarded the decoration “l’ordre de Léopold” with a royal decree of 9 June. This tiny bit of news illustrates the importance states put on historical knowledge, and consequently, on supporting historical research. History’s role as bedrock of nationalistic sentiments helps to explain why states were willing to invest in numerous historical ventures. As soon as archives opened their doors to historians, financing official expeditions to foreign archives became a routine procedure for many countries. The wealth of documents relevant to national history in repositories such as the Vatican Secret Archives or the Archivo in Simancas made them extremely attractive for these initiatives. Since archivists tended to consider it their duty to guard the national documentary treasures and their nation’s historic honor, they were apprehensive about any foreign historian seeking an entrance to their institution. An access to an archive was not self-evident and buttering up archivists was nothing unusual. Decorations and honorary nominations were handed out in a hope of access and favors in foreign archives.
Historians complained time and again about the excessive archive bureaucracy – Austrian repositories being the ultimate ordeal in this – and the archivists who seemed to be more interested in keeping them out of their institutions rather than letting them in. However, some compassion should be shown to nineteenth-century archivists who were only slowly learning the new order of public archives. After all, the situation where historians demanded to see manuscripts and flocked into the reading rooms was rather new: the French law of 7 Messidor an II (1794) had been the very first one to stipulate that citizens had a right to request access to documents held in archives. This set an example which was gradually followed also elsewhere in Europe. It must be emphasized, though, that this applied to public archives alone. The numerous private family, ecclesiastical, and institutional archives continued to follow their own, often more restrictive, rules.
It took some time from the archivists to adjust to the ways of the new world where archives were open for everyone – including foreign historians. Since archivists considered themselves as the “Guardianes de la Historia” – to borrow the title of Ignacio Peiró Martín’s fascinating study – they were anxious about possible misuse of the documentary treasures they protected. What if the information in the documents trusted into their care contained something that in foreign hands could be harmful for their country? What if the records undermined the cherished national narrative? These were pressing concerns because no one really knew what the hundreds of thousands of documents in archives all over Europe contained until historians began to systematically investigate them during the nineteenth century. Unexpected – and occasionally unpleasant – discoveries were rather usual business in archives. Considering the intense nationalistic climate of the time, it is understandable that some archives and archivists tried to control and regulate research. The English historian John Lingard, for instance, explained in the early 1820s the lack of precise references to certain documents in the footnotes in his History of England with unbearable conditions in the Simancas archive. His “friend” had been lucky enough to gain access to the archive, yet he had not been allowed to take any notes. Because of “the jealousy of the Spaniards” he could only “read them, and write down what he remembers, when he leaves,” Lingard complained.
Historians themselves were not entirely without a blame either: too often priceless manuscripts were ruined by a careless handling or disappeared into historians’ deep pockets. For some, trading historical manuscripts was a lucrative business, for others they were precious collectibles. There were also those to whom stealing records was the only way for preventing rivaling historians from using them. Due to all these reasons, tensions occasionally arose high in archives. It was, then, tempting to archivists to restrict the entry, demand an official permission from a ministry or some other higher administrative body, and to set rules that complicated the consultation and copying of the manuscripts. Historians complained loudly about these complications and coaxing reluctant archivists to grant an entry was part and parcel of historical research. Historians were not necessarily strong in the skills of diplomacy and those who had connections to state officials at home did not hesitate to solicit their aid. Moreover, states as their sponsors were more than willing to lend their assistance to the great nationalistic cause of history. More lucrative the archive was and more central it was for national history, more eager officials were to assist their historians in need. This is where the system of diplomatic favors came into the picture.
As the news in Le Bien Public indicates, the Belgian state granted decorations to foreign archivists. The newspaper did not mention the reasons for awarding Don Gonzales, but most likely Belgians wished that public recognition made the archivist favorable to any Belgian scholar pursuing research in Simancas. It is understandable that the young Belgian state was eager to invest and facilitate research in Simancas; after all, all the official Spanish documents had been stored to the archive since the sixteenth century and the historic connections between Belgium and the Habsburg Empire rendered the material crucial for Belgian national history.
Because the archive was so pivotal to Belgian historians, Gonzales was not the first archivist in Simancas whom Belgians wished to decorate for. In 1844, the Simancas archivist Diego de Ayla died before receiving the Order of Leopold. Belgians adapted to the altering circumstances and instead awarded Antonio Gil de Zarate, director-general of the Minister of Interior. According to Pieter Huistra, Zarate had been instrumental in the negotiations that eventually led to granting Louis-Prosper Gachard a permission to conduct research in Simancas. Gachard became the first foreign historian to access the archive. Granting him the decoration was to publicly acknowledge the Spanish cordiality in the matter. In the light of these events, it is hard not to read with some suspicion – and amusement – the title page to Archivist Francisco Díaz Sánchez’s Guía de la villa y archivo de Simancas (1885) where the author attributes himself not only as the director of the very same archive, but also as a “comendador de las reales órdenes de Isabel la Cátolica y la Estrella Polar de Suecia [Sweden]” and as “Oficial de la real orden de la Corona de Italia.”
As Díaz Sánchez’s title page suggests, Belgians were not the only ones honoring archivists. Nor were the keepers of the Simancas archive the only ones to receive such distinctions. The same method was applied in the Vatican Secret Archive as well. In 1889, the Austrian and Prussian historical institutes in Rome landed in a fiery priority right battle. The dispute, which lasted nearly two years and partially paralyzed research in both institutes, concerned about the right to publish and use certain sixteenth-century diplomatic records in the Nunziatura Germania collection. Both institutes considered the support from the archivists vital in the conflict, but the archive personnel remained frustratingly impartial. Konrad Schottmüller, the director of the Prussian institute, decided to advance the German cause with appropriate public recognition. He persuaded the Akademie der Wissenschaften in Berlin to appoint archivist Heinrich Denifle as their corresponding member. Schottmüller openly admitted to the Austrians that the Germans expected Denifle to respond to the nomination by supporting their claims. This was a grave miscalculation; the archivist did not play according to the rules of gift exchange. He admitted that the nomination had “made him very pleased” but nonetheless maintained a neutral position in the conflict.
Public recognitions were the nuts and bolts of scholarly diplomacy. Countries and national research institutions awarded decorations and honorary nominations in a hope that archivists returned the gift by preferring their historians. Since archive research was publicly funded, states were, of course, eager to ensure that their historians gained access to archives. The investments that some countries made in archival research could be substantial, as Het Laatste Nieuws reported in November 1904. According to it, the Belgian ministry of education had reserved “117.000 fr (!)” for supporting historical research in archives in Lille, Dijon, den Haag, Vienna, and Simancas during 1905. The exclamation mark shows how the writer considered this to be a generous contribution to historical research. In comparison, the same piece of news told that the ministry had allocated 3000 francs for the newly-established Belgian institute in Rome and 300 000 francs for celebrating the seventy-five years of Belgian independence. Since the public endowment for archival research was significant, the bureaucratic difficulties historians faced in archives were not insignificant at all. If smoothing the archival obstacle course required the buttering up of archivists and other related parties, states were more than willing to decorate them with appropriate medals and honorary nominations. After all, history was a source of national unity and countries needed a glorious history for constructing national identities. A few honorary degrees here and there was a small price to pay for a past that their subjects could take pride in.
Díaz Sánchez Francisco, Guía de la villa y archivo de Simancas (Madrid: Tipografía de Manuel G. Hernández, 1885).
Le Bien Public 9 June 1855
Haile Martin & Edwin Bonney, Life and Letters of John Lingard 177 –1851 (London: Herbert & Daniel, s.a.).
Het Laatste Nieuws 9 November 1904.
Theodor von Sickel: Römische Erinnerungen. Nebst ergänzenden Briefen und Aktenstücken, ed. Leo Santifaller (Vienna: Universum Verlagsges, 1967).
Garritzen Elise, “The International Historical Institutes in Rome and their Scientfic andPolitical Roles c. 1880–1914”, Storia della Storiografia 64:2 (2013): 37-59.
Huistra Pieter, “Reproducers Anonymous. Copyists in Nineteenth-Century Historiography”, Storia della Storiografia 68:2 (2015): 107-119.
Peiró Martín Ignacio, Los guardianes de la Historia: La historiografía accadémica de la Restauración (Zaragoza: Institución “Fernando el Católico”, 2006).
Verschaffel Tom, “‘Something More than a Storage Warehouse’: The Creation of National Archives” in Setting the Standards: Institutions, Networks and Communities of National Historiography, ed. Ilaria Porciani & Jo Tollebeek (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2012): 29-46.