Regius Historiographers

by Ilaria Porciani

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several European monarchs – both Catholic and Protestant – appointed scholars and often prominent authors to write their histories or chronicles, with a strong focus on political history in the tradition of the annalists, and the task of legitimating states and their rulers by describing their illustrious pasts.

This office disappeared in the course of the nineteenth century, while other kinds of scholarly activity slowly emerged, in some countries earlier than in others, such as the organization of state archives or the organization of chairs, while other figures, such as university professors, came to the fore.

In Sweden, the last regius historiographer was Jonas Hallenberg, born in 1748 and appointed ‘rikshistoriograf’ in 1784, who occupied the office until his death in 1834. However, the office had already been formalized in around 1640. The German philosopher Samuel von Puffendorf was appointed royal historiographer to the Swedish king in 1677. In Denmark, Ove Malling (1747–1829), the author of Great and Good Deeds by Danish, Holsteinians and Norwegians (1777) held that position from 1809 to 1829. In Russia an official historiographer headed a section of the Academy of Sciences founded in Saint Petersburg in 1725.

In the Netherlands, a deeply divided country, there was an urgent need to create and highlight a common past. In 1826, King William I organized a competition in which participants were invited to discuss the possibility of writing a general history of the country and indicate the sources that they would use. The winning candidate would receive the title of royal historiographer. However, no single winner emerged, with the consequence that there was no successor to the deceased state historiographer, Martinus Stuart.

In Italy, the position of regius historiographer still existed on the eve of Unification. As late as 1860, the provisional government set up after the fall of the Bourbons offered the post to Michele Amari, a patriot who had spent long years in exile, and the author of an important study on the Muslims in Sicily. But Amari rejected the offer, and the position ceased to exist thereafter.

In the Ottoman Empire, the office of imperial annalist, which had been active since the eighteenth century, survived until the First World War. The scholar appointed, a man with literary and philological skills usually chosen from among the court scribes or bureaucrats, usually combined the office with other administrative duties. In comparison to the regius historiographers cited above, he worked in much closer adherence to the annalist tradition by proceeding in chronological order and recording contemporary events.

Porciani, I. (2010). Regius Historiographers. In L. Raphael & I. Porciani (Eds.), Atlas of European Historiography. The Making of a Profession 1800-2005 (p. 2). Palgrave.

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