PhD Challenges: The Tangled Web of Historiography

By Eleanor Russell

Any historian endeavouring to research an area of history must investigate its historiography (the scholarship of previous historians); not only using their evidence and arguments but analysing, revising, and, where appropriate, challenging them. For historians, this process can be fraught with tension and doubt: which texts do I need to read? Who has already been debunked? What are the prevailing arguments and when and how did they develop? And – crucial for PhD students – who CAN I challenge?

As a new PhD student, my biggest research challenge so far has been undertaking a far more in-depth engagement with my field than I had before. Previously, though I had been obliged to produce academically rigorous and innovative research, I was aware that it would neither be published nor be the determining factor in my hopes for an academic career.

The body of historiography can be vast, with trends that evolve over time as new sources are recovered and as contemporary socio-political situations (and thus the approach of historians) change. In the 1970s, for example, the rise of feminist scholarship launched investigations not only into women’s history but into the female experience in well-studied areas. A famous example is Joan Kelly’s 1977 article ‘Did Women Have a Renaissance?’. (Her answer: no). Similarly, the post-colonial period saw the emergence of a new branch of study, with radically different approaches and interests to the previously understood history of empire.

In some historical fields, the regular conflicts and tensions that run through historiography are amplified when a special significance (be it political, national, or personal) is attached to the topic being studied. Such is the case for my current area of study, the Hanseatic League. In Hanseatic scholarship, I soon learned that the League’s historical depiction as a defining element in German history meant that it would be impossible for me to leave out any of the number of significant works on the topic in order to be taken seriously academically.

The Hanseatic League, originally (from around the mid-thirteenth century) a loose partnership of merchants from a wide array of northern German and Baltic towns, and from the mid-fourteenth century a more united coalition, was created to promote commercial benefit and security. The League has been portrayed by German historians throughout the modern period as fundamental to the history of their country.

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the prosperity and international power of a German coalition began to attract attention as the idea of German ‘national history’ developed. Relatively understudied areas were suddenly politicised and came to the forefront of German scholarship as they were woven into a unifying German historical myth by contemporary authors. Northern German burghers were portrayed as the ancestors of the successes and values of the nineteenth-century German middle-class. The Hanseatic League, previously seen as backward and unimportant compared to the flourishing towns of southern Germany, was transformed into the leading German player in European economic development. As nationalism increased and a single German state was forged in 1871, the Hanse’s domination of the Baltic was increasingly emphasized as German historians sought to justify the German claim to Schleswig-Holstein and to promote the country’s maritime expansion.

The next significant change was the work of Fritz Rörig, who in his ‘Die Europäische Stadt‘ (1932) and Mittelalterliche Weltwirtschaft (1933), refigured the Hanse into a leading player in the economic and social development of Europe. Rörig’s approach illuminates the importance of contemporary socio-political contexts in understanding historical approaches. In his ‘Recent Trends in Research on Hanseatic History’ (1956), the eminent Hanseatic scholar A. von Brandt summarized Rörig’s argument without addressing the contemporary movements that birthed Rörig’s arguments, namely Lebensraum and Nazi ideas of the superiority of the German race. During the Cold War, opposing bodies of national thought emerged in East and West Germany. East Germany, which contained most the Wendish towns and shared USSR overlordship with the towns in Hanseatic Prussia and Livonia, produced largely Marxist scholarship. Attention was paid to the perceived class struggle of an uprising in Lübeck in 1408, when the patrician council was forced to appoint a committee promoting guild representation that was later thrown out by the New Council. This was ousted in turn by pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor.

Without the understanding of contemporary theoretical and socio-political frameworks around which historians construct their arguments, current historians overlook a major factor in the progression of historical scholarship. The co-option of areas of history by variously politically-minded scholars means that for PhD students, studying politically charged topics becomes an analysis of the socio-political contexts, agendas, and anxieties of the historians as much as it is an investigation of the historical context in which they sought to find an example par excellence of their contemporary views.


Further Reading

von Brandt, A., ‘Recent Trends in Research on Hanseatic History’. History 41/141-143 (1956), pp. 35-37

Rörig, Fritz, The Medieval Town (Batsford, 1967)

Wubs-Mrozewicz, Justyna, and Stuart Jenks, The Hanse in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Leiden, 2012)



‘Bildnis eines jungen Kaufmannes’/‘Portrait of a Young Businessman’, Hans Holbein the Younger, (1541). Image courtesy of the Kunsthistoriches Museum Wien Bilddatenbank.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close