Seeing the Past with the Mind's Eye: The Consecration of the Romantic Historian

By Tollebeek, Jo | CLIO, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Seeing the Past with the Mind's Eye: The Consecration of the Romantic Historian


Tollebeek, Jo, CLIO


In seventeenth-century theory of history, the reference to "the eyes of history" ranked as a topos. With that topos, Cellarius and his colleagues alluded to what they considered to be the most important auxiliary sciences of history: chronology and geography. The advancement of these auxiliary sciences was connected with European expansion; between 1500 and 1700, the categories "time" and "space" were in danger of losing their classical and biblical-historical contents. Chronology and geography helped historians to pave a way through a history which proved to be vaster, both in time and in space, than ever presumed.(1)

The metaphor of the eye also occupied a prominent place in Romantic historiography. However, the generation of historians born in the 1790s and which started publishing from 1820 on, among them Augustin Thierry and Jules Michelet in France, Thomas Carlyle and Thomas Babington Macaulay in England, Leopold von Ranke and Georg Heinrich Pertz in Germany, William Hickling Prescott and George Bancroft in the United States, used this metaphor in a totally different manner from that of the seventeenth-century historians. At a moment in which, as Stephen Bann noted, history "established itself ... as an autonomous vehicle for imaginative reflection," the "eye of history" no longer reflected the standing of certain auxiliary sciences, but the manner in which the past could be understood.(2)

This shift was evident in Abel-Francois Villemain's Histoire de Cromwell, published in 1819. In the preface to this work, sometimes considered to be the first example of Romantic historiography in France, the author praised two of his forebears, Jacques Benigne Bossuet and Francois Voltaire: "These two great men ... seem to have hit upon the truth on several points, not so much by the precision of their searchings as by that first sight of the genius (cette premiere vue du genie), which does not deceive. Indeed, the wisdom of a higher intelligence holds something that can supplant the painstaking examination of the facts and permits the truth to be divined, awaiting the moment that it is proven." Villemain, in other words, made a distinction between "the first sight" of the genius, which hits upon the truth "at a glance," and the laborious examination (his own) of the sources, proving the truth only in the second instance.(3)

The metaphor of the "eye of history" was developed most extensively by historians who were or became blind, as well as by the admirers, critics, and biographers of these historians. Two examples may serve as an illustration.(4) The first signs of blindness revealed themselves to Thierry, born in 1795 and one of Villemain's proteges, in 1822 and thereafter, as a result of the strain put upon his eyes by the research for the Histoire de la Conquete de l'Angleterre par les Normands [History of the Conquest of England by the Normans]. To edit his opus magnum, published in 1825, Thierry already had to call on the assistance of a secretary. With time, he lost his sight completely. From the 1830s on, after having been struck also by paralysis in 1828, and suffering from insomnia that could be alleviated only with opium pills, the blind historian could only read with the eyes of his wife and write with her hand.(5)

His blindness invested Thierry with an aura of martyrdom. As early as 1825, a reviewer of the Histoire de la Conquete expressed his admiration for a young man "who had used the age of passions and enterprise for unrewarding work, and had exhausted the remainders of his weary sight to decipher snippets from barbarian chronicles." But the greatest contribution to the rhetoric of heroism that would continue to adhere to his work came from Thierry himself. In 1834, having been forced for medical reasons to leave Paris for his "place of exile" in the provinces, in a mood of paranoia and misanthropy, he wrote a brief autobiographical outline in which he compared himself to a "soldier maimed on the battlefield.

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