How to be a Historian: Scholarly Personae in Historical Studies, 1800-2000, edited by Herman Paul

R.C. Richardson assesses a wide-ranging study of how historians present themselves and are perceived by others

July 25, 2019
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No more striking image could have been found for this book’s cover than the tomb of the great 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet, with the confident living spirit of History towering over his dead corpse. Historians’ identities form the subject matter of this geographically wide-ranging, well-researched and theoretically framed collection of essays. Some of these personae were personally self-fashioned and distinctively asserted. More were shared with a scholarly community – the professional “scientific” historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example. Other identities and roles were imposed from above either by collectives such as the British Communist Party’s Historians’ Group or by oppressive regimes in Salazar’s Portugal and the Hungarian People’s Republic.

That some historians’ identities or personae were not all what they seemed is well, and at times amusingly, illustrated by Travis Ross’ essay on the 39 volumes of The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft (1882-90), relentlessly churned out by staff based at his own proprietary library rather than by the named “author” himself. In another essay – arguably the best in the book – Elise Garritzen examines how the English historian E.A. Freeman (1823-92) enforced the male-centredness of the mini-world of historical scholarship and publishing over which he presided. Women such as Edith Thompson could be allowed to act as assistants doing the drudgery of indexing, for example, or writing school textbooks, but they were kept firmly in line, actively discouraged from doing real research of their own, and prevented from challenging the views and verdicts of the master. It was only after Freeman’s death that a second edition of Thompson’s textbook allowed her to squeeze in some sentences about Victoria and Albert that Freeman had earlier censored.

Henning Trüper’s essay throws light on F.L. Ganshof’s considerable input into the American Bruce Lyons’ biography of the leading Belgian historian Henri Pirenne (1862-1935). Positioning himself as guardian of the shrine of Pirenne, his mentor, Ganshof, was constantly correcting Lyons’ text as he wrote, just as later he defended Pirenne’s reputation in the face of hostile criticism from a younger generation. More generally, however, he saw himself as defending the lofty status of academic history itself. He was outraged when, in the course of going through the visa formalities required for taking up a visiting appointment at an American university, it became clear that he would have to undergo a medical examination. How dare anyone inflict such a monstrous indignity on a professor, he protested!

The book touches on other, impersonal, forces impacting on historians’ personae, among them changing political landscapes and the expansion and greater social inclusiveness of universities. There is also the interesting suggestion that the decline of formal letter writing in favour of telephone calls and emails has lowered the pedestals on which academics formerly perched. One major missed opportunity, however, is a proper consideration of obituaries and how these have been used to confirm, qualify or challenge historians’ reputations and personae.

 All of these essays are worth reading, although they form a loose rather than a tight fit. Perhaps unavoidably there is considerable repetition. A few are models of clear exposition. Others, sad to say, are convoluted, verbose and jargon-laden.

R.C. Richardson is emeritus professor of history at the University of Winchester and the author of The Debate on the English Revolution (3rd edition, 2004).


How to be a Historian: Scholarly Personae in Historical Studies, 1800-2000
Edited by Herman Paul
Manchester University Press
232pp, £80.00
ISBN 9781526132802
Published 13 June 2019

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Print headline: Characters behind the pages

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