Published Date

January 28, 1932

From Historical Scholarship in America: Needs and Opportunities (1932)


I. Present Trends and Neglected Areas in Research

With respect to the question as to the extent to which the growth of historical studies is dependent upon the introduction of new ideas and new points of view from outside the historical guild, the conference feels that the progress of mediaeval historiography has undoubtedly been furthered by developments outside, as well as within, the field of history. The genuine contributions of archaeology, anthropology, economics, psychology, etc., should certainly be welcomed by historians; but the exaggerated use of the interpretations and techniques of these disciplines should with equal certainty be avoided in the field of mediaeval historical research.

On the whole, mediaevalists have reason to feel gratified with the progress which has been made by studies in both material and intellectual history, with the parallel emphasis which has been placed upon institutional and functional studies, and with work which has been done in the fields of mediaeval history and philology. It is quite certain, however, that a profitable correlation, or even synthesis, could be made by a combination of such studies, which hitherto have been kept too much apart.

Notwithstanding the extent to which the sources of mediaeval history are available in print, it is evident that the lack of manuscript materials imposes a considerable limitation upon the historical studies which may successfully be carried on exclusively in this country. Thanks to modern devices for manuscript reproduction, however, this limitation is not absolute and, in any case, it does not seem to force mediaeval studies in America to follow traditional or, indeed, any particular channels.

It would be a heavy responsibility to make a list of the major problems which could most profitably be attacked during the next ten or twenty years. We hesitate to make the attempt, for we feel that such a list, even if prepared with great care and prudence, might lead to much misguided effort. In the future, as in the past, notable achievements must depend upon individual initiative and experience.

We believe there is no need for the publication of new periodical lists of individual or cooperative projects currently under way. The Mediaeval Academy of America through its journal Speculum, and more especially through its annual Bulletin, already supplies adequate vehicles for the dissemination of information concerning the enterprises which are being carried on in the mediaeval field.

II. Enlargement, Improvement and Preservation of Materials

One of the most pressing practical needs of mediaevalists working in this country is that of obtaining reproductions of manuscript materials in foreign repositories. It seems especially desirable that funds should be made available for the assistance of scholars when they are in need of considerable numbers of photostatic reproductions, that such funds should be administered with as much flexibility as possible in order that a minimum of time may be lost in making them available for use when a legitimate need arises, and that once the photostats have been procured they should be made available under all reasonable conditions for use by other scholars besides the one for whom they were originally obtained. The conference is aware that these matters have already been made the subject of discussion and resolution by the Modern Language Association and by the Mediaeval Academy of America; and with the projects which have been proposed by these organizations we are in general accord.

In order to give definite form to our recommendations concerning this very important matter we have adopted the following resolutions:

That a fund should be created for the reproduction of manuscript materials for use in research.

That grants should be made from this fund to individual scholars for the procuring of reproductions, and that reproductions so obtained should be left in charge of the grantee for whom they are obtained as long as he requires them.

That the grantee should permit others to have copies made of all such reproductions.

That all reproductions procured by means of grants from the said fund be the property of the Library of Congress, which is also to be their ultimate repository.

That the Library of Congress be requested to issue a bulletin setting forth the reproductions which it possesses in the mediaeval field.

The development of museums in this country is a matter of great importance to historians, particularly in certain departments of the mediaeval field; and it is obvious that much remains to be accomplished along this line in future years. Nevertheless, the conference feels gratified at the progress which is now being made, often under considerable handicaps, in museum development, at least in so far as the Middle Ages are concerned.

There are obvious difficulties in carrying out a plan of library development on a national scale with a view to bringing about the formation of great specialized collections of research material at certain centers. Library administrations naturally have policies of their own and are not subject to outside control. Nevertheless many of the greater American libraries have already formed very important collections in one or more departments of the mediaeval field. This is a very desirable development which is worthy of all praise. But there are manifestly still further possibilities of progress along this line, and the conference feels that every possible encouragement should be given to libraries to expand and strengthen their collections in the departments of the mediaeval field in which they have an existing interest or preponderant strength. It is suggested that a general survey might well be made by the Social Science Research Council or the American Council of Learned Societies in order to determine more definitely than has yet been done the present preponderance of the more important American libraries with respect to materials for research in any branch of mediaeval history. Such a survey could then be made the basis of a further, more definite recommendation. In the opinion of the conference a list of the libraries which might be considered as special repositories of mediaeval materials, or of certain kinds of mediaeval materials, would be likely to include the following:

Library of Congress
Library of the Surgeon General
New York Public Library
Columbia University
American Geographical Society
Hispanic Society
University of Pennsylvania
Episcopal Academy of Philadelphia
Cornell University
Duke University
University of Michigan
University of Chicago
John Crerar Library
Union Theological Seminary
Drew Theological Seminary
Harvard University
Boston Public Library
Yale University
Princeton University
Newberry Library
University of Wisconsin
University of Illinois
University of Colorado
University of Texas
University of California
Huntington Library

The well-planned, carefully directed and competently executed publication of significant source material is one of the greatest needs of workers in the mediaeval field; but the conference feels that, for the present, the strengthening of existing organizations engaged in carrying on such work is of greater importance than the formation of new ones. In many cases, such organizations would welcome the cooperation of American scholars; and it would seem particularly desirable if, in the present difficult times, some means might be found of providing financial assistance to such organizations as the Selden Society and the Pipe Roll Society, which are doing excellent work but are hampered by a lack of adequate support.

If it should become possible greatly to extend the work of publication of sources in the mediaeval field, there are many concrete proposals which would require serious consideration. From suggestions offered by various scholars the conference is able to submit the following incomplete but representative list:

  1. Monastic cartularies.
  2. The sources for the study of political thought.
  3. English exchequer records.
  4. Select cases from the English plea rolls.
  5. Statistical material (tax lists, customs records, etc.).
  6. Accounts of private merchants.
  7. Notarial registers.
  8. Vatican archive material, especially of the Papal Camera, principally in the fifteenth century.
  9. Episcopal registers.
  10. Sources for the study of heresy, especially registers of the Inquisition.
  11. Sources for the study of mediaeval science.
  12. Sources for the study of the history of painting (miniatures of manuscripts and also frescoes in southern France, Spain and Italy).

On the whole, mediaevalists have just cause for gratification at the number and excellence of the bibliographies, regesta, calendars, catalogues of manuscripts and guides to archives which are already at their disposal. Nevertheless, there is still need -for other works of this character, and we submit herewith a list of such needed works which have been brought to our attention and which it would seem desirable to have undertaken when competent workers and necessary funds can be found:

  1. A bibliography of glossaries which, even if incomplete, would still be very useful.
  2. A union list of catalogues, calendars, etc., of mediaeval manuscripts in various European repositories.
  3. A reliable check list of manuscripts in American libraries, public and private.
  4. A check list of cartularies, both manuscript and printed, in European and American repositories.
  5. A list of reproductions of manuscripts in American repositories, both public and private, which should periodically be brought up-to-date. This would undoubtedly uncover much material the existence of which is at present little known.
  6. A comprehensive bibliography of mediaeval Italian history.
  7. A comprehensive bibliography of mediaeval Spanish history.
  8. A dictionary of names of mediaeval persons and another of mediaeval places.
  9. A continuation of the Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum which was begun by the late H. W. C. Davis.
  10. A new edition of C. V. Langlois’s Manuel de Bibliographic Historique, now long out of date and hopelessly out of print.
  11. Completion of the bibliography of manuscript illustrations and illuminations which is now partly finished at Princeton University.

III. Development of Research Personnel

The development of personnel is obviously a matter of the utmost importance for the future of mediaeval historical studies; and every effort should be made, while discouraging the mediocre, to attract undergraduates of outstanding promise into graduate work. To this end we believe that in the graduate schools greater emphasis should be placed upon fields of knowledge and less upon courses, and that students should be required to prepare themselves for examinations by the study of fields rather than simply by means of courses. We think it highly desirable that students should establish contacts with a considerable number of scholars and acquaint themselves with as broad a range of viewpoints and methods as possible. Students should therefore be encouraged to visit for a period other universities than their own, provided teachers and libraries are to be found there to meet their special needs. We also consider it a matter of the utmost importance that students in the mediaeval field should supplement their American training by means of travel and study abroad, and we feel that there is a peculiarly pressing need for the establishment of more and larger traveling fellowships than now exist in order to provide additional opportunities for such foreign study.

IV. Improvement of Research Methods

There appears to be no present need for any new manual of a general theoretical nature on historical method, but there is still great need for additional works on certain of the auxiliary sciences, such as palaeography and diplomatics.

It is of the utmost importance that sound methods of historical research and writing shall be effectively taught in our graduate schools, and that such teaching shall be insisted upon for all students; but we would not insist on any particular manner in which this shall be accomplished. What is of genuine importance to the historian is method and not methodology. Whether this can be taught better in a distinct course on method or in a seminar devoted to the training of advanced students depends upon the personnel and equipment of departments and institutions.

The seminar in mediaeval history should be used only for the training of students in historical method or for the discovery of new knowledge. It should be limited to a small number of students who have had all the necessary preliminary training. It is a matter of observation that many courses which are at present called seminars should be otherwise labeled.

Students of  mediaeval history have long been required to acquaint themselves with certain contributory techniques which have been developed in connection with other disciplines than history but which are of special value in mediaeval studies, and this practice must be insisted upon. But in view of the uncertain nature of mediaeval statistical material, it does not seem necessary for the mediaevalist to expend as much time in the mastery of statistics as would normally be required of the student in the modern field.

With respect to the question of specialization, it is the opinion of the conference that a balance should be maintained in the training of all students in the field of mediaeval history between breadth and depth, general and special studies. No student should be allowed to proceed far without obtaining a solid background much wider than the particular topic of his special interest.

So far as the art of writing is concerned, the teacher of mediaeval history is unfortunately compelled to rely very largely upon such literary training as students have already received in school and college before entering the graduate school. Something can be done, however, to help graduate students improve their capacity for historical composition through the enforcement of rigorous standards in connection with term papers, through the encouragement of extensive reading in historical classics, and particularly through the insistence upon higher literary standards in the writing of doctoral dissertations. So great is the need that no opportunity can be wisely neglected.

The language problem is admittedly one of the most difficult to be encountered in connection with the training of students for research in the mediaeval field. It would be of great advantage if students who contemplate advanced study could be informed early in the course of their high-school and college work of the necessity of training themselves in the appropriate foreign languages. The American Historical Association might well take steps to make this desideratum as widely known as possible among teachers in secondary schools.

The conference deplores a tendency which has been observed in some American universities to grant the doctor’s degree in mediaeval history to students who have not had an adequate training in Latin and in at least two modern foreign languages, ordinarily French and German.

V. Improvement of Research Organization

The conference considers the work which is being carried on by research councils in many American universities to be a matter of great importance; but it feels that in the establishment and administration of funds for the support of such organizations there has often been neglect of the social sciences and the humanities in favor of the natural sciences. So far as mediaeval history is concerned, we believe that this neglect may arise from a widespread failure to appreciate the modern significance of mediaeval studies. We would ’emphasize the fact that the study of the problems of the Middle Ages is in many cases capable of throwing much light upon current forces.

With respect to other types of research organization, we strongly urge the closest possible cooperation between the Mediaeval Academy of America and the American Historical Association in the furtherance of their common aims. We believe it would be of very great advantage if these organizations could join in promoting the establishment of a special organization at Rome for the assistance of American scholars who are there carrying on researches in the mediaeval field. To this end we strongly urge that there should, if possible, be created by the American Academy in Rome an American School of Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies for the benefit of American students pursuing work in history, archaeology and allied subjects which can best be carried on in Rome. The results achieved by the French School in Rome are a signal illustration of the possibilities which lie in this proposal.

VI. Publication Problems

The conference favors the publication of abstracts of all completed Ph.D. (but not M.A.) theses in the mediaeval field. This might very advantageously be accomplished as part of a larger enterprise perhaps under the auspices of the Social Science Research Council; but, if this proposal should for any reason not seem desirable, we believe that provision should be made for the publication of such abstracts in the annual Bulletin of the Mediaeval Academy of America.

Among the considerable number of American journals with an interest in the Middle Ages as a whole or in certain of their aspects, there is none which makes a practice of calling attention to all the work which is being done in the entire mediaeval field. We believe that it would be well if one of these journals-perhaps Speculum-should accept responsibility for the regular publication of a list of all articles and documents of interest to the Middle Ages appearing in other journals in the United States. Such an enterprise would require the examination of the following journals and possibly others:

American Historical Review
Quarterly Journal of Economics
Journal of Political Economy
Political Science Quarterly
Modern Language Journal
Modern Philology
Studies in Philology
Romanic Review
Catholic Historical Review
Harvard Theological Review
Metropolitan Museum Studies
Art Bulletin
Eastern Art
Liturgical Art

There is at present a lack of facilities for the publication of the products of research which are too long to appear in journals but not long enough to make books. Accordingly, we believe that it would serve the highest scientific purpose if a special vehicle could be established for the publication of such monographs. This should be an occasional, not a regular, publication. In order to accommodate monographs in the field of art a somewhat larger format than is usual should be adopted. It is to be hoped that the American Historical Association and the Mediaeval Academy of America will consider this matter jointly.

There is also at present in America a serious lack of means for securing the publication of substantial works in mediaeval history which would not be commercially profitable and which would involve the outlay of large sums of money. A number of desirable enterprises to which the conference has already referred in this report could not at present be undertaken for want of adequate funds.

VII. Financial Needs for the Promotion of Research

In some universities, and also in a small number of colleges, substantial funds have been made available for the support of research, and in the benefits of such funds mediaeval studies have within limits been able to share. But it is clear that the support of mediaeval research from such funds has been very uneven in the universities and colleges of the United States. We believe that it would be conducive to the best interests of both scholarship and instruction if many more universities and colleges than have yet done so should recognize the necessity of providing general funds for the support of research.

A number of the projects which have been listed in Section II (many of which would require the cooperation of a considerable number of scholars) could only be carried out if large funds were made available for their support. Several of these projects are unquestionably of sufficient significance to justify an application to one of the foundations for funds. There are doubtless also individual scholars who are engaged in important projects of research and who are greatly handicapped for want of adequate funds, but the conference is without definite information concerning such individual needs.

We believe there is still a lamentable lack of fellowships for deserving graduate students in American universities. The number of such fellowships should be increased and, what is perhaps more important, the stipends attaching to such fellowships should be substantially enlarged. Also, as we have noted in Section III, it is particularly important that students in the field of mediaeval history should be given an opportunity for foreign travel and study. We would particularly urge that more and larger fellowships be provided for such use abroad.

It is evident that the fellowships and grants-in-aid which have recently been provided by the foundations for the assistance of more advanced students have been of great value in the furtherance of mediaeval research. We urge that the number of these be increased, that the awarding of them be administered with as much flexibility as possible, and particularly that provision be made for the prompt consideration of cases which arise late and by way of emergency.

C. W. David, Chairman
N. S. B. Gras, Secretary
A. P. Evans
W. E. Lunt
C. H. Mcilwain
C. R. Morey
J. W. Thompson

New York City,
May 29-30, 1931.

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