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The "Disciplinisation" of Finnish Historiography

by Tuomas M.S. Lehtonen

Historical research and writing differ from that of most other disciplines in that they follow two distinct traditions. Historiography belonged almost from the beginning to the classical Western literary tradition. Modern historians continue the Old European historiographical tradition but at the same time they have been trying to play down its millenarian overtones and to win "scientific" status for their work. However, the position of history - somewheretopelius.jpg (11461 bytes) between scientific research and fiction - is vague.

Narration, the linking together of the traces of the past in a narrative form, is an essential part of historical writing. This treatment of the past includes "hidden" or allegorical elements that are present in all narrative. However, the allegorical and moral aspects of narration have been a more or less taboo subject among academic historians since history became "disciplined" as "scientific" research in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In Finland this change was personified in the career of Z. Topelius, famous novelist, poet and journalist. He was appointed Professor of History at the University of Helsinki in 1863 because of his distinction as a literary nation-builder. In 1843 he had asked in a lecture "if Finnish people had a history" before the country became an autonomous Grand Duchy - that is, before Finland was incorporated into the Russian Empire. There then emerged, according to Topelius, the preconditions for a separate nation in the Hegelian sense. Later, Topelius changed his opinion and created for Finnish people a sense of a history before autonomy - that is, for the period when Finland was a Swedish province. This meant a history which was not only a mythical and historical world of folk poetry but also a narrative with rulers, wars and internal conflicts between different estates and social classes. He created this history mainly in a series of novels written in Swedish called Fälskarens berättelser (The Surgeon’s Stories) which dealt with the Thirty Years’ War and the Swedish stormaktstid (great power period) which began in the 17th century and collapsed in the 18th. Interestingly, Topelius did not write his story about Finnish nationhood from the viewpoint of linguistic nationalism but as a republican story about relations between the people, the gentry and the King. The ultimate purpose of the deeply religious Topelius was to demonstrate how divine providence worked on earth.

Topelius was the last representative of Old European historia magistra vitae among the holders of professional academic chairs of history in Finland. After him the chairs of history were held by scholars who had achieved distinction through an academic system modelled on the German universities. Thus "scientific" historiography entered the Finnish scene.

The turnaround represented by Topelius in academic history is a delayed symptom of the great change in the profession of the historian and in academic historiography which occurred in most European countries between the mid 18th century and the mid 19th century. Historiography became disengaged from the Ciceronian concept of historia magistra vitae. Since then the discipline has been legitimised by the adoption of scientific method, i.e. the objective evaluation of sources and objectified narration.

Nevertheless, even if modern historiography does not directly propose teachings about life, the narratives told by historians are based on an underlying theory of human action. In fact they expound this theory by telling stories. This implied story is the teaching of history which can be understood without revealing the allegorical level.

Even if we do not share Topelius’ providential and theological notions there remains something of the moral content of the traditional historical narrative. Evidently there is still something to be learned from history.

Dr Tuomas Lehtonen works at the University of Helsinki’s Renvall Institute.

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