History Chairs in about 1812

by Mauro Moretti

A map of history chairs in Europe during the first decades of the nineteenth century comprises institutions of different origins and with various characteristics.

Yet the academic teaching of history was founded on a fragmentary institutional tradition which had already become consolidated during the final decades of the eighteenth century. This concerns not only the best-known and most pertinent example, that of history chairs at reformed universities such as Göttingen. Also significant are examples furnished by Nordic countries. In Sweden, courses in general history at the universities of Lund and Uppsala dated back to the seventeenth century.

During the period of maximum national grandeur, and by virtue of the strong role assumed by the state, the entry of history onto university curricula had a marked political connotation. In Denmark, too, history was taught at universities, and in 1788 – anticipating to some extent one of the main mechanisms employed in the process of Napoleonic and nineteenth-century institutionalization – history was included among the disciplines necessary for pursuit of teaching and administrative careers in Danish secondary schools.

Despite the reorganization of higher education consequent on the suppression of the Company of Jesus in 1773, history continued to be taught at the universities of the Habsburg Empire. The academic programmes at the Universities of Vienna and Prague comprised courses on universal history, auxiliary disciplines, legal history and ecclesiastical history; and the University of Pest had chairs in universal and national history and auxiliary disciplines founded between 1777 and 1790. Also the Dutch universities comprised chairs of eighteenth-century foundation; but history had scant disciplinary autonomy and served essentially as support for language courses and ones on classical antiquity.

A case apart was that of Great Britain: a chair of ancient history was instituted at Oxford in 1622; and in 1724 two posts as Regius Professor of Modern History were created at Oxford and Cambridge. These, however, were posts of little significance within the overall academic system, given the preeminent function of the colleges with respect to the university chairs. Moreover, their occupants were often non-resident professors, and their courses were for long devoid of a modern disciplinary connotation. Also the Scottish universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow offered history courses – created in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – on ecclesiastical history and civil history.

Neither was Czarist Russia an exception to the pattern, with a chair in Russian and general history created in 1799 at Moscow. Nor was Poland, where a course in general history was introduced in 1784 at the University of Lemberg after the country came under Habsburg rule.

Even in such a specific sector as the universitylevel teaching of history the impact of the Napoleonic era was of extreme importance in various respects. In France of the Ancien Régime the institutional space allocated to history had been minimal, restricted to the capital, and essentially concentrated into a single chair, that of Histoire et Morale, created in 1774 at the Collège de France. After the dissolution of the ancient universities, it was the creation and organization, after 1808, of the imperial Université which established in France – but also in French Italy – close linkages between secondary and higher education. Obligatory in this new university system was the presence of a chair in history at the faculties of letters. The opening of numerous provincial faculties led, in 1810, to the creation of 23 chairs in history, of which 20 were then abolished by 1815.

The Restoration produced similar effects in Italy, for example at Pisa, a centre of culture which had performed a prominent role within the Napoleonic order by virtue of the location close to the university of a branch of the École Normale Supérieure of Paris.

France’s European hegemony also generated contrary pressures and movements which found expression in the assertion of national traditions, and therefore in the political importance assigned to historical knowledge. The case of Prussia and other German states is of particular significance in regard to the legitimating function of the teaching of history. From the first years of the nineteenth century onwards, chairs in history proliferated, being created at 14 different universities and with 21 occupants; and a broader academic programme was introduced at the Universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, and Königsberg. Also in the German area, the subsequent further expansion of university history courses was tied to the overall growth of the education system.

Also in other contexts there was an evident correlation between the new national dimension and the institutionalization of history teaching: as exemplified, for instance, by Norway and the new form of national independence enshrined by personal union with the crown of Sweden in 1814, and preceded, in 1813, by the creation of a chair in history at the University of Christiania (Oslo).

The age of the Restoration saw the suppression of numerous chairs in disciplines deemed dangerous. In France, only in 1838 was a stable system of faculties achieved, and new history courses were allocated to specific training institutions like the École des Chartes. Also to be emphasized is the introduction, at the École Normale Supérieure in 1830, of a special agrégation examination in history for qualification as a secondary school teacher. On the eve of the 1830s, innovations in history teaching were also introduced in Great Britain, at the University College of London. Also to be mentioned are significant institutional presences during the early decades of the nineteenth century in Holland and Switzerland, and also in Bohemia at the Universities of Olmütz and Prague.

Moretti, M. (2010). History Chairs in about 1812. In L. Raphael & I. Porciani (Eds.), Atlas of European Historiography. The Making of a Profession 1800-2005 (p. 3). Palgrave.


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