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Literary composition and the early medieval historian in the nineteenth century

Ian Wood

Paper given at the University of Leeds as part of the Making of Medieval History project (2012)

Introduction: Ranke may not seem the obvious way to begin a discussion of the relationship between history and nineteenth-century historical novels which take the early Middle Ages as their subject. After all, in the preface to his History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514, first published in German in 1824, he commented that ‘A strict representation of facts, be it ever so narrow and unpoetical, is, beyond doubt, the first law.’ Moreover, the German scholar had scarcely any impact on the writing of early Medieval History, despite his importance for early modern and modern historians. Although he is frequently described as the mentor of Georg Waitz, the latter was already working for the MGH before he attended Ranke’s seminar: and although Ranke appears in Waitz’s autobiography, it is as a friend and a hillwalker, not as a teacher. In fact scholars working on Antiquity and the Middle Ages were already paying attention to source criticism long before Ranke came along.

Alongside his reputation for being a stickler for facts, Ranke was also concerned of course which how things really were: wie es eigentlich gewesen. The phrase appears in the preface to the History of Latin and Teutonic Nations. One insight into what Ranke meant may perhaps he gleaned from Philip Ashworth, the translator of the History, who visited the old German scholar shortly before he died. In the course of the interview Ranke remarked: ‘Great as is the respect and veneration in which I hold Sir Walter Scott, I cannot help regretting he was not more available for the purposes of a historian than he is. If fiction must be built upon facts, facts should never be contorted to meet the ends of the novelist. What valuable lessons were not to be drawn from facts to which the great English novelist had the key; yet, by reason of the fault to which I have referred, I have been unable to illustrate many of my assertions by reference to him.’

The historical novel, then, if fully footnoted, so that one could identify what was accurately recorded, could be used by the historian as source material. Manzoni, the Risorgimento novelist, dramatist and cultural theorist, in his treatise Del romano storico, made a series of observations about the historical novel, as well as epic and tragedy, which connect at a number of points with Ranke’s yearning to use Scott, whom the Italian called ‘the Homer of the historic novel’. ‘How many times’, he asked, ‘has it been said, and even written, that the novels of Walter Scott were truer than history!’ Surely, wie es eigentlich gewesen. The historical novel, as a mixture of history and invention ought, according to Manzoni, to be an impossibility (we are not far here from Virginia’s Woolf’s description of biography as a bastard art), but could be a success in the hands of a master. More important, from our point of view, he also pointed out that historical novels became increasingly based on fact, and indeed started to include footnotes, from the eighteenth century onwards. Manzoni made a comparison with drama: ‘Shortly after the middle of the last century, a French actor or actress (I do not know which) introduced a general reform in costuming to make it conform to the time in which the dramatic action was set.’ In relation to all this he used the concept of the verisimilar (verosimile).

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