Heroes of History

As most autobiographies suggest, people usually write about themselves when they have run out of other things to say. When physicians retire, they take up the history of medicine; and when historians approach the end of their career, they find themselves composing the annals of their universities or the obituaries of their colleagues. Until quite recently, the history of science was largely a pastime for scientists who had given up on their research, while the history of human scholarship was regarded as a narcissistic sideline, inappropriate for historians who were still in full possession of all their faculties. When, in the 1950s, it became evident that the Roman historian Arnaldo Momi-gliano was devoting much of his energy to the study of historiography, many of his colleagues openly lamented that he had turned away from what ought to have been his first responsibility, the history of the ancient world.

Because of its failure to engage the interest of scholars at the outset of their careers, the history of learning has, until recently, been something of an academic backwater. In 1976, for example, Rudolf Pfeiffer, the great editor of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus, published a History of Classical Scholarship covering the period 1300 to 1850. It offered an acute, but distinctly laconic, outline of a vast subject. It was politely reviewed by a young assistant professor at Princeton University, who hailed it as “the first real history of classical scholarship in the modern world,” but then went on to make clear that, in his view, the serious study of the field had barely begun. He conceded that there had been much valuable work on the humanist philology of the Renaissance era, but he suggested that the true history of classical scholarship from its beginnings in fourteenth-century Italy to its culmination in nineteenth-century Germany had yet to be written. What had been lacking was sustained engagement with the practice of the individual scholars themselves, their working habits, and their mental processes. The standard histories of learning tended to be mere biographical compendia, based on secondary sources and padded out with excerpts from the prefaces of scholarly works.

The need was for detailed monographs that would come to grips with the practice of scholarship itself by analyzing the working methods and achievements of individual textual critics, epigraphers, numismatists, archaeologists, and historians. The habits and conventions of scholarly life—reading, writing, publishing, and reviewing—had to be reconstructed and fitted into a larger social and intellectual context. This was a formidable task, which could only be attempted by those who combined the broad perspective of the cultural historian with the technical skills of the classical scholar. To write the history of the learned, in short, one had to be more learned than they were.

Now, little more than twenty years later, the author of that youthful manifesto can look back at it with some satisfaction. As Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University, the Young Turk has become the doyen of the …

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