Clio in the Chairs: History’s professionaliza- tion and conversion into a discipline

It has been said that the 19th century was the century of History (1). Certainly, seldom did History enjoy such high social recognition. Two arguments in favour of this, among the many possible, are the moral authority and even the political and cultural influence of F. Guizot, before 1848, and the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902 to the great German historian of the Roman Republic Theodor Mommsen.

From the point of view of praxis, it was in the 19th century that the figure of the professional historian, who received specific training (language study, source criticism methodology, palaeography and other auxiliary historical science) for his task, appeared, and who primarily dedicated his time to researching and teaching History. As an institutionalized discipline, History was born at that moment, supported –and to some degree supervised– by the state. The creation of university chairs, its inclusion in secondary school curricula, the setting-up of archives and public libraries, the edition of extensive documentary collections and the birth of the first specialised historical journals are all phenomena related with this development (2). All of them pointed in the same direction towards the setting-up of a discipline and the institutionalization and wider dissemination of historical knowledge, hand-in-hand with the spread of literacy (3).

The work of the historian ceased to be a minor, secondary task, often connected with the old age of cultured men and/or retired politicians. Young and enthusiastic spirits, men such as Jules Michelet, who is retrospectively projected in the splendid preface and afterword of 1869 to his great History of France, also now dedicated all their energy and illusions to it. Here is a short and revealing fragment: “Even more complicated, more distressing, was my historical approach, considered as the resurrection of life in its integrity, not in its appearances but in its underlying internal organisms. No sane man would have dreamed of it. Fortunately, I was not one of them”.

Studying the genealogy of the different nation states of the Western European world and celebrating the victorious expansion of this civilization –civilization itself– were the two great thematic commitments that underlie the greater part of institutionalized historiographical activity. In this science-based century, in which Europe attained its apogee, confidence in a discernible and positive evolution of History, derived from the ideology of the Enlightenment,  was rarely questioned; only, perhaps, in some untimely considerations running against the general flow of ideas.

On the other hand, in the 19th century, specialization in historical studies advanced rapidly, and the theory of History began to be expressed in works such as J. G. Droysen’s Historik (1887), and, at the end of the century, in Dilthey, who continued Vico’s work.

F. Sánchez Marcos


(1) “Notre siècle est le siècle de l’histoire”, stated G. Monod in 1876 in the first number of the Revue historique. Ch.-O. Carbonell gathers together this and other testimonies of a comparable nature in his excellent short book (1981) L’historiographie. Paris: PUF, p. 84.

(2) Some clarifications and data about this process can be found in, besides the previous work, Iggers, Georg G. (2005). Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press. More monographically, some important historical journals of the century, such as the American Historical Review, the Revue historique and Rivista Storica Italiana, were studied in Middell, Matthias, dir. (1999). Historische Zeitschriften im internationalen Vergleich, Leipzing: Akademische Verlagsanstalt.

(3) See “Profesionalización del saber histórico y erudición institucional” in M. Puyol & J. Andrés-Gallego, dirs. (2004). Historia de la historiografía española. Madrid: Editorial Encuentro, pp. 140-143.