National History – a New Discipline

by Ilaria Porciani

It was only in the nineteenth century that national master narratives in a modern sense emerged prominently as an innovation in the historiographical landscape. A new concept of nation was at the core of those works, while it was also explicitly recalled in the titles of books, series of source publications, and in some cases the titles of journals. As a state school system was implemented, and as universities prepared future teachers for it, history – sometimes labelled ‘national’ – appeared on university curricula in various countries.

Our statistics for 1830 record 25 chairs of national history and eight bearing a title referring to both the national and the European space; while in 1850 the chairs devoted to national history amounted to 22 out of a total of 164. Some examples may illustrate more precisely this general trend: in Belgium, chairs devoted to the history of the country were instituted as early as the 1830s, while in the Netherlands national history began to be taught in 1850. In Spain, the Moyano Law of 1857, which made the study of history compulsory, created a chair of history of Spain together with one in universal history.

In 1875, 50 out of a total of 252 – that is, a percentage of 20 per cent – academic posts (including positions at academies and research institutions, or ones for which no precise denomination is available) were directly related to national history. In 1900 the proportion was 85 out of a total of 479 (18 per cent). Nor did national history lose ground in the subsequent years chosen for our survey. In 1955, it accounted for 30 per cent of posts, or 840 out of 2801. In 1980 the proportion was about 25 per cent. Finally, in 2005 the chairs and positions devoted to national history amounted to 3676 in a total of 18,021; that is, once again, 20 per cent.

From the early nineteenth century onwards, the history discipline was increasingly structured in universities in twofold manner: on the one hand, there was a pure chronological partition (ancient and modern history, later ancient, medieval and modern history) based on often unspoken Eurocentric assumptions; on the other, a distinction was drawn between national and European or universal history, the latter being by far the longest in existence.

However, similar denominations covered very different approaches, and it is wise to take a closer look before making precise distinctions.

In the Habsburg Empire, chairs in universal and Austrian history existed well before the nineteenth century. Predictably, however, their focus was not on ‘Austria’ as a nation in the modern sense, which would have been an obvious anachronism, but rather on the monarchy.

National history was subject to significant restrictions in times of strife. ‘Hungarian history’, which was taught in the form of lectures at the University of Budapest before 1848, was suspended after the failure of the 1848 Revolution. In fact, the title of the chair in ‘Universal and Hungarian History’ was significantly altered to ‘Universal and Austrian History’. The regular teaching of Hungarian history resumed after 1866.

In Greece, in 1875 Constantinos Paparrigopoulos taught a course on the ‘History of the Greek Nation’ at the University of Athens, and published a work with the same title for children.

Inspection of the titles of chairs shows that the focus was sometimes not on the country but on the people, as exemplified by a chair created in 1900 in the History of the Serbian or Romanian People.

In the Nordic countries, the situation was more predictable: in Sweden during the first decades of the nineteenth century, a ‘national’ historiographer was still active, while the chairs at the country’s universities were in general history. In Norway, by contrast, national history was taught from the foundation of the University of Oslo (Christiania) in 1813 onwards, and hence much earlier than the publication of books such as one devoted to the history of the Nordic people (1852–9).

Swiss history, as a discipline taught at higher education institutions, had existed since 1825 in connection with law – whence derived the course title of ‘Swiss History and Law’, which combined both disciplines, and this happened in other countries as well.

However, the absence of a chair’s precise ‘national’ denomination did not signify that it was not ‘national’ in its scope; even less that it did not propound a powerful national rhetoric – as evidenced by the case of François Guizot, whose lectures were published under the title of Cours dhistoire moderne with the purpose of demonstrating French supremacy. Thus one should not overestimate the fact that, in Paris, a chair entitled ‘Histoire de France’ was established only as late as 1853 at the École Normale Supérieure, but in 1862 was transformed into a more general chair on ‘Histoire’. Also in Italy the sole chair of ‘Italian history’, founded in 1859, was renamed ‘Modern history’ in 1862.

Porciani, I. (2010). National History – a New Discipline. In L. Raphael & I. Porciani (Eds.), Atlas of European Historiography. The Making of a Profession 1800-2005 (p. 17). Palgrave.


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