The Sociability of History – Associations

by Gabriele Clemens

Associations of antiquarians and historians came into existence in many of the larger towns throughout Europe towards the middle of the nineteenth century. In Britain this phenomenon made an early start with the Society of Antiquaries of London in the first decade of the eighteenth century, and in the 1840s there were so many societies that a first – and certainly partial – census was necessary. They also rapidly proliferated in France and in the German-speaking regions, in the German states and in the Habsburg Empire, where between 1830 and 1850 they were often at the origins of the first history museums and received substantial support from the state. A Society for Yugoslav History and Antiquity was created in 1850. Even in Russia, a Society of History and Russian Antiquity was founded in 1804 at the University of Moscow. In the 1830s, they were founded in Switzerland, both in the Germanand French-speaking areas: in Basel the Historische und antiquarische Gesellschaft zu Basel (1836) and in Geneva, the Société d’histoire et d’archéologie de la Suisse romande (1838). In 1839, the Danish Historical Association was created. In Italy historical associations in their own right, and which published historical sources, were created only after the 1850s; and the same happened in Spain, where the Sociedad Española de Excursiones (Spanish Excursions Society) was created on the initiative of the Count of Cedillo, professor at the Escuela de Diplomática and royal librarian, to disseminate the history and art of the Spanish nation with participation by representative scholars in national historiography.

Impelled by romantic notions of medieval chivalry accompanied by considerable passion for antiquity, men of education and means were wont to organize the common pursuit of historical research by founding societies. These associations enjoyed, as a rule, the benevolent support of the various monarchies, which viewed the conservative elites assembled in the history societies as loyal supporters of their respective dynasties. The admission of new members was a procedure generally carried out in secret, a co-optive process which served to sustain the exclusive character of the associations, and one which enabled the notables engaged in it to propagate their own ideas of cultural heritage.

The criteria employed to judge the suitability of an applicant for admission were origin, education, profession, social status and ability to perform comme il faut; that is to say, applicants were assessed by their behaviour or societal position. From the point of view of the European nobility, such societies provided excellent means with which to re-establish their elitarian social structures in a modernized form. What is remarkable is that the ‘bourgeois’ members of such associations accepted the ‘noble’ members as leading figures.

Among the non-noble members there were librarians, archivists, as well as members of the clergy; but traders were excluded. Women formed only a tiny minority: my research on Italy and Germany has shown that, in the nineteenth century, out of a total of 12,400 members of history societies, only 103 were women: 61 of them belonged to the Italian societies, 42 to the German ones.

The tasks undertaken by the associations were manifold. They published sources, historiographical texts and journals relating for the most part to regional history, although a further focus of their attention was antiquity and the protection of historical monuments, besides a zeal for collecting. Many of these societies carried out archaeological digs on their own account, and some of them could therefore claim to have initiated acceptance of the idea that historical monuments should be protected, which then developed in their countries.

Their copious collections were housed in the museums which they constructed; or they were donated to the state when the task of conserving them became excessively burdensome. As regards their expenditure, these societies organized regular lectures, banquets and excursions for their members. Inasmuch as these academic lectures and communal considerations of works of art complied with the statutes of the association, they were deliberately intended to consolidate and reinforce the social circle to which their members belonged. In the German states, general assemblies and excursions were followed by sumptuous banquets.

These examples demonstrate numerous parallels relating to the understanding of history. Associations of this kind, conservative and based on the concept of ‘estate’, propagated the idea that ‘great men make history’ provided that they are noblemen, senators, bishops, princes or kings. It was to them that the members of antiquarian societies dedicated their numerous literary monuments. Not surprisingly, genealogy and heraldry enjoyed immense popularity during the period in question. Members of the aristocracy were followed by the middle classes in determined attempts to demonstrate their noble ancestry and to derive their right to influential positions in the nineteenth century from the fact that their ancestors had been influential figures in the past.

Against this background, it is evident that a critical approach to authority was the exception among the antiquarian societies and associations. Historiography was highly personalized, and there was general agreement on the historical events in any period – almost exclusively the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age – that a member might wish to deal with. As they did so, the members of these associations tended to concentrate on those periods in which their own town, their own region, or their own family had played a prominent role.

In the late nineteenth century, associations slowly started to open up to more bourgeois milieus, as well as to new methods of academic historiography. They also began to concern themselves with issues of national history, albeit mostly in local or regional contexts.


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