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It was the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) who asserted that written history should be based on facts. This was a remarkable claim for the time, when histories were often advanced by amateurs seeking personal gain or by participants looking to settle scores. Such writers, many of them retired generals or politicians, often relied upon uncorroborated eyewitness accounts and distorted those accounts to suit their arguments. Ranke, an academic whose fuse seems to have been rather short, dismissed one such history—by the well-regarded 16th-century Italian politician Francesco Guicciardini—as a “departure from the truth.” “We want the naked truth,” he said, “without any decoration, and with thorough research into the particulars, and let God take care of the rest!”
Ranke saw history writing as an elevated endeavor, an aesthetic and a spiritual practice. Historical sources such as documents and diaries possessed a beauty, he wrote, that exceeded anything found in “romantic fiction.” Historians, he insisted, were discerning not simply the past but the workings of the Divine hand, the “Holy hieroglyph.” It was by studying the “interaction and succession” of events that historians could know “the secret of world history,” which is to say, God’s will.
And so Ranke went down into the archives. Archives had long existed as vaults, to store knowledge or valuables in safety. With Ranke, archives became workplaces, seedbeds of knowledge. An ethical and trained scholar with an unimpeachable archival source could present the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist“—as it truly happened—Ranke claimed in the introduction to his opus History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, 1494–1514.
Lord Acton (1834–1902), the Catholic historian of political and religious liberty, and others initially thought Ranke had too much regard for documents. “The dust of archives blots out ideas,” Acton said, adding, “No great man had as few as Ranke.” What Acton preferred to lean on were rare printed narratives from historic times. But he, like many others, came around, and when appointed to a chair at Cambridge University late in life, Acton publicly declared Ranke “the real originator of the heroic study of records.”
“Heroic” would have pleased Ranke, who’d died nine years earlier. The historian’s task, as he understood it, did require a kind of bravery: to submit to the archives. The historian’s second heroic task was to be relentless. Ranke’s six-volume History of the Reformation in Germany (1839–47) was based in part on his scouring of 96 volumes of reports from Frankfurt ambassadors to the Imperial Diet, though he later said those sources “were of only secondary or tertiary value for my researches.” Every detail mattered. “Every insight . . . redeems and enlightens mankind,” he noted.
Ranke’s method—he researched each day until his hand tired of taking notes—was not as fanatic as that of some of his contemporaries. Jules Michelet (1798–1874), a French historian of the Middle Ages, once recalled that he purposely breathed in the dust that rose from parchments in Paris’s Archives Nationales. (Migraines plagued Michelet later in life, and one modern historian believes his effort at intimacy with his subject may have drawn anthrax spores into his lungs.)
Few outside of historians and archivists can imagine what a thorough search of archival documents will sometimes reveal. A colleague recently visited the Massachusetts Historical Society to review criminal accusations made in 1883 against managers of the state almshouse in Tewksbury. The managers, it was claimed, were not only selling corpses to Harvard Medical School for pedagogic use, but were engaged in selling “leather” commodities made from inmate skin. Part of the prosecutor’s supporting evidence, today attached in a plastic bag to his report, was a slice of tanned human skin. A prize-winning scholar and thankfully no Michelet, my colleague took photographs and went home.
Ranke remains the man who turned writing history from a literary exercise into a science, though historians now are skeptical about “that noble dream” of absolute objectivity, as the late historian Peter Novick put it. Ranke’s main work, his scholarship, is rarely cited, because the history he wrote has been recast many times. History is by nature an unfinished product, and every book and article that purports to set the facts “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” is lying. New data will always come to hand. Ranke conceded as much when he wrote that works “of great reputation and usefulness become obsolete.” The only eternal aspect of history, he might have added, can be viewed, or breathed, in archives.
Seth Meehan is a doctoral student in the history department and coauthor, with Ben Birnbaum, of the forthcoming A College of Ours: The Illustrated History of Boston College, 1863–2013. An account of historic Boston College documents recently found in the University archives and elsewhere begins here.