Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Enigma of Mount Holyoke's Nellie Neilson

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Enigma of Mount Holyoke's Nellie Neilson

Article excerpt

Nellie Neilson (1873-1947), Mount Holyoke College's great scholar of early English history who was the first woman elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America (1926) and the first woman elected president of the American Historical Association (1943), remains something of an enigma. The superb quality of her scholarship is quite clear; but the influences upon her intellectual development has been distressingly unclear, as few of her personal papers that might be revealing seem to survive.1

What is known is that Neilson studied under Charles McLean Andrews, Frederic W. Maitland, and Sir Paul Vinogradoff. The easy assumption would be that Maitland and Vinogradoff were most influential upon her since they were two of England's leading medievalists, at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford respectively. Andrews, who taught at Bryn Mawr College, The Johns Hopkins University and Yale University, was only briefly a medievalist early in his career, and is remembered far more as an outstanding historian of the colonial America era.

An account of Neilson's thought and work examining the instrumental role of Andrews in her career has yet to be seen. This influence upon Neilson was probably more life-transforming than has been realized.

When Neilson received her Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College in 1899, she became one of only eight American women to receive a doctorate in history before 1900.2 Andrews was well aware that research into medieval English history was making a quantum leap in the 1890s. He saw the need and opportunity for gifted young medievalist scholars such as Neilson, originally an English major, and helped to mold her into a fine historian.

Many years afterward, in a strong statement of appreciation, Neilson wrote: "I can never be glad enough that at such a time Mr. Andrews turned me from a pleasant dalliance in the paths of early English literature to the strict discipline of early English legal and economic history."3 She later wrote, upon his passing:

Very fortunate were those of us who worked in the cramped little seminar room at the top of Taylor [Hall]. It was there that I for one found a great love for early English history which has never lessened and has stood me in good stead through the pleasures and tribulations of this mortal life. It is a debt of very Beat gratitude that I owe to the memory of a great scholar. It was hard, exacting work that he required. One's second best was never good enough, and sometimes neither was one's first best!4

Neilson states that "Andrews turned me" from early English literature to the history that became her "great love." Andrews, in a paper published when Neilson was his graduate student, made a sharp and clear distinction between history and literature:

Here lies the first and broadest distinction which can be drawn between the influence of history and literature. in history we are dealing with realities, with the actual relations and struggles of man with man and nation with nation. We are studying life in its best sense, not as it might have been, not as it ought to have been, but as it has been.5

He must have imparted to Neilson his belief that the study of history is more valuable than the study of literature:

If these are lessons which history teaches, surely we may ascribe to its study a high place as an aid to moral culture. Much of this literature cannot accomplish, because it does not treat of realities and has not the range of views which history possesses.6

Andrews argued:

History alone can furnish that perspective, those points of comparison, which are so needed in judging what we have done and where we now are. It gives a meaning to our present perplexities; it gives proportions to the affairs of today; it makes it possible to determine the character and direction of our present progress.7

Andrews knew that history demands scholarship

of a high order to discover, understand, coordinate and present the multifarious fats, the ambiguous statements and contradictory evidences which confront every investigator into the events of the past times. …

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