A “Memoria e Ricerca” roundtable stresses absence of Public History in David Armitage & Jo Guldi “History Manifesto”

The History Manifesto

Cambridge University Press History Manifesto Open Access Web Site at http://historymanifesto.cambridge.org/

There is a widespread feeling that public funds and private sponsorship should be used for what –many people think– matters in society. Economists, for example, enjoy broad acceptance as public mediators and interpreters of our contemporary world. University programs in the Humanities, by contrast, are facing a worldwide crisis. In Japan departments are closing and this also means that the Humanities are facing an identity crisis. Such a crisis is acute in the USA where, in order to maintain university programmes, you have to provide an answer to the «What for?» question and prove immediate relevance for the job market and society at large. The academic intellectual market is structured around metrics monitoring the impact and relevance of scholarship being produced so as to attract public and private funds, notwithstanding metrical forms of peerage don’t apply properly in the humanities.

Digital Humanities are, partially, an answer to this identity crisis. New or renewed methods or, even more, a brand new discipline,[1] is effectively addressing the digital turn that has deeply affected our societies as a whole. Indeed, Digital History overhauls the field of history, revamping traditional ways of dealing with archives and producing academic scholarship. Historians should take note of these global transformations in their discipline and raise their voices vigorously worldwide. Using the appropriate arguments they should explain why they must continue to receive financial support for research and teaching. In addition to Economics, History too is a relevant discipline for interpreting our societies globally.

This is what The History Manifesto wants to say, aiming for a global mobilization of the profession.[2] Armitage and Guldi ask historians to move on, adapt their methods and skills to fight for a better recognized and more effective public role: one which they have lost, entrenched as they are in their academic certainties and petty low range historiography, and trapped in a dialogue with few peers, ignored by the wider public. Whether the idealistic and ideological statements provided in the Manifesto are offering new solutions to this crisis is challenged by critics. The amount of criticism received is both an answer to the inadequacy of the contents and, on the contrary, it also proves that the Manifesto came at the right moment and has some powerful strengths.

But if these reasons adding to the growing public debate about the Manifesto, were not enough, what decided me to really look for the book, was an email correspondence I had at the end of 2014 with Arnita Jones, former executive director of the American Historical Association and, until December 2015, secretary of the International Federation for Public History (IFPH).[3] As a public historian interested in history and policy issues, Arnita raised strong criticisms of the Manifesto: « The History Manifesto […] has had high visibility in the US Chronicle of Higher Education […]. It’s about the future of the discipline, the role of academics in public culture, and the larger role in advising policy and decision makers that historians should play. Digital history plays a very big role in their arguments. But in the 125 or so pages there is not a word about “public history.” It is as if the field does not exist. [4] To some degree this may reflect a shift in the public history conversation to include museums, memory studies , etc., but still, The History Manifesto ignores the community of policy historians whose work appears in the Journal of Policy History, the Federal History Journal as well as The Public Historian.»[5]

Publicizing the Manifesto Georg G. Iggers write it is “an important attempt to make history relevant to a broad public…”.[6] But total blindness towards the many settings in which public Public Historianhistorians are working outside universities and influencing the public sphere and public debates about the past today affects the whole structure of the Manifesto. The absence of public history as an academic discipline existing for more than forty years in the USA -where an important national association and a well known academic journal are fostering the discipline-, is a critical issue with this book. What would be the mission of public historians working outside academic settings and engaging with who’s, sometimes, is dealing very successfully with the past in public? Armitage and Guldi aren’t answering at all to this central question.

In January 2015, few weeks after my conversation with Arnita Jones, my wife, Susanna Mancini, professor of comparative constitutional law, participated in a symposium at the University of Texas Law School about “Popular Sovereignty, Self-determination and Secession”. David Armitage, Lloyd C. Blankein Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Harvard University, is studying “secession”.[7] In Austin, Armitage delivered a lecture entitled “Three Concepts of Civil War: Succession, Supersession, Secession”.[8] She came back home telling me she had met a “very interesting historian” dealing with multidisciplinary approaches. Some months later, Armitage delivered two lectures in May 2015 in the History Department of my university, the European University Institute.[9]

For all these reasons, my curiosity was high also because of the bombastically short, declarative title of the book, The History Manifesto. This is clearly the kind of statement no historian should ignore! Other Manifestoes came to my mind: Carl Marx’s 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party and the “non-communist manifesto” written by Walt Whitman Rostow about the stages of economic growth[10] and also, because it was an important moment in my family history, the André Breton 1924 Manifeste du Surréalisme[11] and, the 1948 CoBrA manifesto “La cause était entendue” written by Christian Dotremont, close friend and one of the co-founder, with my father Joseph Noiret, of CoBrA, this last 20th Century Avant-Garde Movement.[12]

But, what is a “manifesto” as such? A Manifesto is “a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, as one issued by a government, sovereign, or organization”.[13] The word “manifesto” -as a substantive- derives from Italian. In Niccolò Tommaseo’s Dizionario della Lingua Italiana, for “manifesto” we read: “scrittura fatta da chicchessia per fare pubbliche le sue ragioni, una sua impresa, un libro…”.[14] In Italian, “manifesto” was used for the first time between 1640 and 1650[15] in declarations during the Franco-Spanish wars.[16] Today, thanks to Google NGram Viewer –also described by Armitage and Guldi in chapter 4-[17] we can access the content of millions of books published between 1800 and 2000. [18] Searching inside English texts, we can discover many pamphlets and declarations issued by sovereigns and nations. These pamphlets are proclaiming independence, declaring wars and mostly dealing with foreign affairs. This is related to Diderot’s definition of what a «manifesto» was up to his own time. With the entering of “m(M)anifesto” as a keyword in Ngram Viewer, important literary works for the 19th and 20th Centuries can also be retrieved.[19]

Ngram-ManifestoBecause of the digital context framing A. and G.’s reflections, the Paris 2010 Manifeste des Digital Humanities must be mentioned too. It’s a significant declaration that takes into account what changed in the Humanities after the digital turn. It briefly defines some guidelines for a new cultural order dominated by the digital turn, new technologies and open access to scholarship we now have to cope with.[20] The “Manifeste” has many things to do with the History Manifesto’s aims. Asking themselves what the historian’s role in societies today is, A. and G. actively face the challenge of the digital turn that transformed the way historians work with archives, produce knowledge about the past and communicate such knowledge. When the authors talk about Big digital Data, they do not scratch the surface of this digital revolution, they offer examples of how historians can transform their methods when applying them to enormous corpora of digital documents, the kind of work over four centuries that has been done by Patrick Manning in the field of World History.[21]

Jo Guldi at Brown University influenced the writing of Chapter 4 on how to deal today with Big Data and the management -through new digital techniques- of what they call “dark archives” or invisible archives that governments do not want to let us discover until they are “declassified”[22] or, without their permission, made available through Wikileaks.[23] Guldi launched “Paper Machines: A Text Analysis and Visualization Toolkit for Zotero Libraries[24] which adds text-mining capacities applied to large text corpora.[25]With Paper Machines, scholars can create visual representations of a multitude of patterns within a text corpus using a simple, easy-to-use graphical interface”.[26] PaperMachine takes care of research with big digital data and is useful for producing significant findings in the long run.[27] For example, the Old Bailey digital project in the United Kingdom fosters long termism (or “longue durée”) as opposed to the heavily criticised short termism from a research perspective with archival corpora.[28]

In order to remain important actors and intellectual interpreters of contemporary societies, historians must understand the impact of the digital. This is why A and G. look at new tools and techniques capable of intelligently exploiting primary sources. They used Franco Moretti’s distant reading text-mining capacities when engaging with Big Data, [29] a very different approacThe History Manifesto Readh from close reading of single primary sources which leads instead to forms of short-termism in historical research.[30] Distant reading of sources allows researchers to answer “big questions”. Both ways of looking at our documentation are needed but A. and G. refer only to Moretti’s distant reading and text-mining concepts we briefly described here.[31]

Although the public they want to engage with their findings consists of history professors, writing a “manifesto” is about making a public statement disseminating it in the most effective way possible using modern web communication technology and hoping to be heard by as many people as possible, especially outside academic milieux and traditional university professors communities. “We want to hear from you!”, loudly and globally, the authors are saying.[32] The pamphlet engaged communities beyond peers in the discussion and the many comments became an essential online part of the book itself, “because we want to get the word out”. It is important that everybody enters the discussion quoting the Manifesto.[33]

The History Manifesto AuthorsWhat is undoubtedly successful in this book, is this global message brought by Armitage and Guldi to a community who, far from ignoring it, have instead in many languages tried to address the omissions of what is, certainly, a short and stimulating pamphlet.[34] Because one of its authors is Head of the History Department at Harvard, and because the book is written in English and is available in Open Access thanks to an important publisher like Cambridge, global reading of its contents is facilitated. And the message is clear: historians should deeply rethink their profession to remain qualified interpreters of our societies and embrace the challenges of our times. Historians should be better aware of their capacity to dig deeply into the past and explain contemporary issues by answering Serge Gruzinski’s question “l’histoire pour quoi faire”?[35]

Bringing history to the world as the authors of the Manifesto want to do, is not a matter of macro v. micro history nor is it onlyMemoria e Ricerca - Il Mulino - 1127-0195 about playing with big data in a digital context. Nevertheless, the queries brought to the discussion by the Manifesto are important and legitimate.


In a roundtable edited by Ramses Delafontaine (Fulbright Visiting Research at Stanford University) and soon to be published in English as issue n.1, 2016 of the Italian contemporary History Journal Memoria e Ricerca, three authors will review the Manifesto from different perspectives [36]. Delafontaine will engage with Public History and Forensic history to further question the future of the historical profession; Quentin Verreycken (PhD student at Saint-Louis University, Brussels) will question A. and G.’s conception of micro-history and denies the fact that the digital turn and big-data would exempt historians from looking at single documents and physical archives; finally, Eric Arnesen (George Washington University) will focus on the relationship between historians, the public sphere and public policies.



[1] Serge Noiret: “Digital public history: bringing the public back in”, in Public History Weekly 3 (2015), n.13, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2014-2647. On Digital Humanities see, Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth (eds.): A Companion to Digital Humanities, Oxford, Blackwell, 2004, <http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/>; Clare Warwick: Digital Humanities in Practice., London, Facet Publishing, 2012; Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte: Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader. London, Ashgate, 2013; Pierre Mounier (ed.), Read/Write Book 2. Une introduction aux humanités numériques, Marseille, OpenEdition Press, 2012, <https://books.openedition.org/oep/226>.

[2] J. Guldi and D. Armitage, The History Manifesto, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014, http://historymanifesto.cambridge.org/files/9814/2788/1923/historymanifesto_5Feb2015.pdf

[3] International Federation for Public History, URL: <http://ifph.hypotheses.org>.

[4] Claire Lemercier (CNRS in Paris) commented critically the Manifesto. She argues that the “longue durée” has never disappeared in historical research in the last decades. She reviewed A. and G.’s pamphlet looking at how open access to scholarship and blogs contributed to widen historians public presence worldwide. I added a specific comment about the absence of any reference to the public history discipline and to the role of public historians especially within the context the Manifesto was written: the US academic system. (Claire Lemercier: L’histoire et ses publics : une question d’historiographie ou de modes de diffusion ? in Devenir Historien and La longue durée : une histoire sans histoire ?; See also Devenir Historien.)

[5] Arnita Jones email to Serge Noiret, Thursday November 13, 2014 and Saturday October 24, 2015, when, in a further conversation she added to the former email that “a particularly egregious point of neglect is that of the impact of Harvard historian Earnest May, whose influential Thinking in Time was widely circulated in the US federal government and whose work as senior historian on the 911 Commission informed a report read by millions.

[6] Georg G. Iggers Publicizing the Manifesto.

[7] Armitage, David. 2010. “Secession and Civil War”. In Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements, ed. Don H Doyle. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, p. 37-55; “Cosmopolitanism and Civil War”. In Cosmopolitanism and the Enlightenment, ed. Joan-Pau Rubiés and Neil Safier. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016 and Civil War: A History in Ideas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

[8] David Armitage: Three Concepts of Civil War: Succession, Supersession, Secession, University of Texas, Austin. https://law.utexas.edu/news/2015/01/21/popular-sovereignty-self-determination-secession-symposium/

[9] Worlds of Civil War: Globalizing Civil War in the Late Twentieth Century and Horizons of History, Space, Time and the Future of the Past. Armitage had been already invited at the EUI a first time to speak about Republicanism and Federalism: European Pasts and Futures Republican conceptions of international relations and European federalism in the eighteenth century in 2006. David Armitage research seminar on Republicanism and Federalism: European Pasts and Futures Republican conceptions of international relations and European federalism in the eighteenth century: Wolff, Vattel, Kant in 2006.

[10] Walt Whitman Rostow: The stages of economic growth: a non-communist manifesto., London: Cambridge University Press, 1971, 2nd edition.

[11] André Breton: Manifeste du surréalisme, Paris: Éditions du Sagittaire, 1924, new edition, 1929.

[12] Christian Dotremont: La cause était entendue, first version of the CoBrA group’s manifesto, 8 November 1948, Yale University Library, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. On CoBrA movement see Willemijn Stokvis, Cobra: The Last Avant-Garde Movement. Aldershot: Lund Humphries. (2004).

[13]Manifesto” in Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc., (accessed: October 24, 2015).

[14] In Tommaseo Online.

[15] “Scrittura o dichiarazione pubblica, annunzio, avviso” in Ottorino Pianigiani: Vocabolario Etimologico della lingua italiana, Roma, Milano: Società editrice Dante Alighieri di Albrighi & Segati, 1907, 2 vols now available online as searchable database: and also scanerised.

[16] In the Encyclopédie, a «manifeste» is a «déclaration que font les Princes, & autres puissances, par un écrit public, des raisons & moyens sur lesquels ils fondent leurs droits & leurs prétentions, en commençant quelque guerre, ou autre entreprise; c’est en deux mots l’apologie de leur conduite.» MANIFESTE, s. m. (Droit polit.) dans The Project for American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language (ARTFL): Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, University of Chicago, 2001 and also the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres. Mis en ordre & publié par M. Diderot … & quant a la partie mathématique, par M. d’Alembert. Volume 19., Genève [Paris & Neufchastel], 1772; 1754-72 available through The Making Of The Modern World.

[17] They argue that “Google Ngrams offers a rough guide to the rise and fall of ideas […] the software produced reliable timelines of the textual dominance of certain words from generation to generation….”, cit., p.93.

[18] Ngram Viewer, URL: < https://books.google.com/ngrams>

[19] United States. Congress. House. Committee on Foreign Affairs: Report Or, Manifesto of the Causes and Reasons of War with Great Britain, Presented to the House of Representatives by the Committee on Foreign Relations, June 3, 1812, Éditeur: A. & G. Way, Printers, 1812; Antonio Mordella y Spotorno: Manifesto Addressed to Europe on the Atrocities Perpetrated by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Tyrant of France and Italy., Editeur J.Murray, 1808; The Late King James’s second manifesto, directed to the Protestant princes, answered paragraph by paragraph., London, 1697. The Making Of The Modern World, Web. 24 Document .

[20] Marin Dacos: Manifeste des Digital humanities, à THATCamp Paris, May, 18 and 19, 2010

[21] Manning uses Big Data when building a world-historical archive about the history of the last four centuries. See Patrick Manning: Big data in History., Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[22] Manifesto, cit., p.100.

[23] Ibid., p.101. Wikileaks

[24] Paper Machines, Review of the software by Adam Crimble in Digital Humanities Quarterly

[25] Zotero, URL: <http:”www.zotero.org>.

[26] This plugin completed Zotero discussed in that same chapter 4. See Manifesto, cit., pp.90-91.

[27]Applying Paper Machines to text corpora allows scholars to accumulate hypotheses about longue-durée patterns in the influence of ideas, individuals, and professional cohorts “ (Manifesto, cit., p.91). Guldi applied her software to global land reforms corpora  from the twentieth century. See Jo Guldi.

[28] The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court, 1674-1913, URL http://www.oldbaileyonline.org. The project is quoted in Manifesto, cit., p.94.

[29] Franco Moretti: Distant reading., London: Verso, 2013.

[30] “The academic discipline is invaluable in detecting and debunking myths about the past and future, say Jo Guldi and David Armitage”, in Times Higher Education

[31] “Humanists like Franco Moretti and historians like Ben Schmidt have been crucial collaborators in the design of tools for visualisation over time, in Moretti’s case collaborating with IBM to produce the ManyEyes software for ‘distant reading’ of large bodies of text…”, in Manifesto, cit., p.93. They quote in p.153, n.11, Franco Moretti: Graphs, maps, trees: abstract models for a literary history., New York: Verso, 2007. For understanding differences between close and distant reading from a historian viewpoint see: Frédéric Clavert: Lecture des sources historiennes à l’ère numérique.

[32] We want to hear from you!

[33] Media, Reviews, Blog Posts, Discussions, http://historymanifesto.cambridge.org/media/

[34] References to reviews are listed as a complement in the website of the book itself so, writing for an Italian journal, I am quoting only a recent roundtable available online: “Historians of the world, unite! Tavola rotonda su “The History Manifesto”, di Jo Guldi e David Armitage” in Ricerca di Storia Politica, ottobre 13, 2015 and two Italian reviews by Giovanni Bernardini, ‘Una storia che serva alla politica (senza esserne serva), in Mente Politica, 13 December 2014 and by Roberto Balzani: ‘Storici, fate grandi domande,’ in Il Sole 24 Ore: Domenica, February 22, 2015, p.25.

[35] Serge Gruzinski: L’Histoire pour quoi faire?, Paris: Fayard, 2012 available only in French up to now.

[36] The publisher Il Mulino, will not publish the roundtable in Italian in its first January-April 2016 issue. This policy is in line with new trends in Italian academic publishing fostered by the Agenzia Nazionale di Valutazione del Sistema Universitario e della Ricerca – ANVUR

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1 Response

  1. 14/08/2016

    […] This introduction to the Memoria e Ricerca Roundtable: Serge Noiret, Ramses Delafontaine, Quentin Verreycken, Eric Arnesen, «The History Manifesto»: a discussion, introduction by Serge Noiret, with contributions by Ramses Delafontaine (editor), Quentin Verreycken, Eric Arnesen, in “Memoria e Ricerca” 1/2016, pp. 97-126, doi: 10.14647/83225, has already been published by Serge Noiret: “A “Memoria e Ricerca” roundtable stresses absence of Public History in David Armitage & Jo Guldi “History Manifesto””, in Digital & Public History, February 12, 2016, <https://dph.hypotheses.org/882&gt; […]

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