Almost uniformly, historians who have written on the professionalisation of their own craft in Britain have treated it essentially as a development which took place in the second half of the 19th century and at any rate before 1914. Of course, all have been aware that that the historical profession is not altogether comparable with other professions in as much as it has never come close to securing a monopoly on practice. Anyone can ‘set up’ as a historian; it has always been possible to make a living out of doing history without any formal qualifications whatever, and in every generation many of those who did and do possess them have complained about their own lack of public profile, and ‘amateurs’’ super-abundance of it.
How then are ‘professional’ historians to be defined at all, and what was the character of ‘professional’ history? Before its emergence in Britain, a historical profession had already begun to take shape in continental Europe, and especially in Germany. Its contours were defined by the mutual recognition of a community of scholars. They shared a distinctive set of questions about the past, which concentrated overwhelmingly on high politics. Historians asked how states were formed, how nations were built, how relations between states were conducted and what the role of ‘great’ individuals in each of these contexts was. They developed what might be called a tool-kit for addressing these questions. They agreed that the past was to be examined through a close and critical engagement with primary sources, and that that entailed work in archives. They agreed also that such work was possible only if researchers had already acquired skills in palaeography and in philology so that they could actually read and make sense of their sources. And they placed considerable emphasis on training in these technical skills.
First in Germany, and later in much of continental Europe, in Japan and in the USA, these skills were honed in seminars, through the mutual criticism apprentices in the craft made of each other’s work, through the further critical comments of the master-craftsman – ideally, the university Professor – who led the seminar, and through collective discussion of the interpretation of sources. Ultimately, of course, the fruits of these labours were then to be rendered publicly visible – when doctoral degrees were conferred to signal, as it were, the point of transition from apprentice to master-craftsman, and when published historical writing ensued. The craft analogy is neither a metaphor nor a post hoc rationalisation, for professional historians in Germany came rapidly to refer to themselves collectively as a ‘guild’ or Zunft.
Interest in and receptivity toward German historical scholarship was intense among many members of the first generations of what became a British historical profession. Sometimes, British historians even expressed an apparently painful awareness of their own relative backwardness. But German historical scholarship did not serve either immediately or uncomplicatedly as a model for a merely imitative burgeoning profession in Britain, where in fact professionalisation proceeded patchily, borrowings were partial and indigenous approaches especially to British history itself remained fundamentally unaltered. The ‘Whig’ interpretation of British history – as a story of progress centred on the constitution – was as much a characteristic of pre-professionalised as of professionalised historical work, and the importance attached to constitutional history in Britain was far greater than in Germany.
Studies of the development of history as a profession in Britain have explored a variety of routes and kinds of location. Work done in archives, by archivists, it has persuasively been argued, constituted the first recognisable kind of professional history achieved in Britain. Yet archivists were to receive no formal training until the second half of the 20th century, and the quality of their publications of calendars of primary sources and commentaries on them from the 1850s onward was so variable that to describe them all as ‘professional’ is misleading and does a disservice to the very best among them. In any event, the driving force behind professionalisation then shifted to the universities, on which substantially more has been written.
To be continued.
Dr Peter Lambert is a lecturer at Aberystwyth University