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Johann Christoph Gatterer was a data gatherer. As a professor of history in Göttingen, from 1759 until his death forty years later, he compiled collections of medieval manuscripts, coins, heraldic tables, maps, and even weather reports. He did not only collect them: he also transformed his hoard into manuals for studying heraldry and medieval charters, drew up elaborate multicoloured charts and diagrams, and made highly acclaimed historical maps. He claimed that he arranged his data as strictly as Linnaeus had ordered the world of plants and animals. On top of that, he wrote some seven outlines of Universal History, that is, chronologies from Creation to the present. Although he had a rival in his colleague Schlözer, who collected more politically relevant contemporary data, and although he never wrote a compendium as large as the Benedictine Nouveau Traité de Diplomatique, he was arguably the biggest historical data collector of his time.
Much of that data collection was directly related to his teaching. The Gatterer-Apparat of medieval charters and transcripts was used to teach his students how to read and distinguish different types of medieval writing (‘diplomatics’), and the Apparat even expanded through their copying exercises. His historical maps were only available for his students, assuring him a double income from fees and sales, with the unfortunate side-effect that most maps are now lost. Fifty years before Ranke, he set up a historical seminar and even founded a Historical Institute, complete with its own largely one-man journal for reviews and miscellanea. In short, he did more than anyone else in the 18th century to turn history into a science.
The German Livius
And yet there is something tragic about Gatterer. While Voltaire and Raynal in France, and Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon in Britain became public figures and made huge amounts of money with their magna opera, Gatterer believed that he would emerge as ‘the German Livius’ by compiling data and forcing it into a systematic grid. But his idea of what history as a rigid science should be was quite different from what Ranke and Niebuhr, in the decades after his death, thought and made of it. So while they were canonized as the founders of modern historiography, and Ranke in particular as the arch-father of archive research, Gatterer became a curiosum for specialists in late early modern scholarship.
One should not imagine Gatterer like an embittered old man: he was at the centre of the German-speaking learned world, and his students became the next generation of specialists in the Hilfswissenschaften. But his inveterate data-collecting begs explanation. Apparently, it was never his intention to write a historical monograph; hardly any were written in German in his time. But why would someone write seven outlines of Universal History instead? And why did neither Gatterer nor Schlözer, who knew how important economic factors were, and who had the data, never attempt a historical analysis of economic systems?
Gatterer is the subject of a recent monograph by Martin Gierl, Geschichte als präzisierte Wissenschaft: Johann Christoph Gatterer und die Historiographie des 18. Jahrhunderts im ganzen Umfang (Stuttgart: frommann-holzboog 2012). At 458 pages and a forbidding price tag of € 148, it is not likely to find many readers – somehow, the book seems to mirror what it describes. Still, his book is the most telling portrait we have of a late Enlightenment scholar’s ideals and practices. Where authors of similar monographs – Brockliss in Calvet’s Web, Gossman on La Curne de Saint-Palaye’s medievalism, and Pocock in his recently finished six-volume study on Gibbon – have focused more on network analysis and historical context, with Gierl we get the book dust blown right into our face. And thus, in showing how history, in the past, was something different, he not merely gives us a glimpse of the past as a foreign country, he also shows us at length how exactly they did things differently there.
One outstanding way to see Gatterer at work is in the ‘Chronometer’, a paper tool for establishing the age and authenticity of medieval charters. Gatterer presents it at the end of his Praktische Diplomatik, the last of several dozen manuals he wrote, published in the year of his death. The procedure is simple. In the left-hand box, you fill in, row below row, all the characteristics of a medieval text: what kind of letters, abbreviations, initials, seal, paper, signature etc. Next you divide up the right-hand box into columns, one for each century, and for each characteristic, you tick the centuries in which this occurs. Now if there is a continuous line from top to bottom, then you know (or at least will have narrowed down) the approximate date of the document; if there isn’t, then it contains anachronisms, hence it must be false.
As a scholarly instrument, the Chronometer is unwieldy. No practicing historian would go through the trouble of running down the entire list when a few salient features would serve to ascertain or falsify the date on the document. Indeed, when Gatterer applies it to the Peutinger Map, he selects just those three features that prove it is from the 13th century. In its full version, the Chronometer can better be thought of as a didactic tool: for in training your students how to detect these salient features, such a long-winded procedure makes sense. Moreover, the Chronometer is one of the best illustrations of Gatterer’s idea of history as a rigid science. It does not entirely bracket out the scholar’s expert judgement – you still need that to identify Carolingian minuscles or Tironian notes – but it makes that judgement scrutable by subjecting it to a repetitive, mechanical exercise. It shows at once the link between Gatterer’s own research practice and his teaching, and the gap between ideal and practice – an ideal image of a perfectly lucid way of ascertaining or falsifying, and the messy reality in which we still don’t know how many medieval charters are false. Overly systematic, overly complete, and overly demanding, but still with always an eye on the didactic, the Chronometer is Gatterer in a nutshell.
For all his inveterate data-collecting, being systematic mattered more to Gatterer than being complete. He both revered and severely criticized the Nouveau Traité de Diplomatique (1750-65), the most encompassing compendium on the study of medieval charters (‘diplomas’) ever written, which completely overwhelmed its readers with a 3500-page inventory of medieval letter types, seals, signatures et al. For his Apparat, Gatterer literally cut up and re-arranged reproductions from his own copy – a forbiddingly expensive work in six folio volumes with a hundred plates and many smaller engravings. Gatterer preferred to boil it down to handy octavo manuals of praktische and theoretische Diplomatik.
The Nouveau Traité is itself a revised and expanded version of Dom Mabillon’s De Re Diplomatica (1681), and thus, it is rooted in a century-old controversy between Benedictines and Jesuits. For the Benedictine compilers of the Nouveau Traité, it was still an issue to defend the authenticity of medieval charters (and the corresponding claims, privileges and possessions) against the skepticism of 17th-century Jesuit authors like Jean Hardouin and Daniel Papenbrouck. Gatterer assumed a middle stance, emphasizing the vested interest behind both positions: the Jesuits exaggerated, but “Ketzer irren nicht überall”.
Martin Gierl makes a lot of Gatterer’s ideal of a taxonomic ordering, his Linnaeismus Graphicus. That ideal, too, is most evident in his diplomatics: Gatterer traces the genealogy of different letter styles in various ‘series’ and ‘genera’, just like Linnaeus had divided natural history into hierarchical genera, phylae, and species. Gatterer’s colleague Christian Büttner, who had shared a room with Linnaeus in Leiden, even did the same for all the world’s alphabets. Still, all these are evolving letter types – and therefore different from Linnaeus’ static species. So even in this restricted domain, the analogy is far from perfect. In his Praktische Diplomatik, Gatterer even blames the Nouveau Traité of arranging its material in a ‘Linnaeic’ way, rather than genealogically – that is, filling tables with all occurring variations rather than selecting basic types. Does this show that Gatterer was inconsistent, that he lost faith in Linnaeismus towards the end, or that it never ran that deep? Arguably, for Gatterer, ‘Linnaeus’ always stood for a high point in organization and taxonomy rather than a ‘deep structure’ to his own data collections.
A history not written
In the 1770s, Gatterer fought out an ugly rivalry with his former pupil August Schlözer. Schlözer laid as much if not more emphasis upon the virtue of being systematic – System statt Aggregat was the slogan he repeated five times over in his Vorstellung seiner Universalhistorie (1772). But his system was built of different bricks. In the Vorstellung, Schlözer argues for ‘poorer, richer, and more useful’ history. ‘Poorer’ because it leaves out “I. Kritik II. Raisonnemens III. Chronologie IV. Reihen von Königen V. Kleinigkeiten”, ‘richer’ because it includes the whole world, and combines “Stats-, Handels-, Religions-, Kunst- und Gelehrtengeschichte”, and ‘more useful’ because it is both comprehensive, encyclopedic, and cosmopolitan. Partly this was also Gatterer’s agenda, partly it purported to be what Gatterer’s universal history was not. To support this, Schlözer filled his own one-man journal – A.L. Schlözer’s Briefwechsel meist historischen und politichen Inhalts – with economic and demographic data.
The struggle between Gatterer and Schlözer ended in stalemate, and it is the end of Gierl’s book. Just like his rival, Schlözer wrote handbooks and overviews rather than historical works in the grand style. There is a banal explanation for this. The German lands did not have the kind of reading public, cultural centres, and patronage that created space for such works; so German scholars clustered at universities and wrote textbooks. Also, given Gatterer’s and Schlözer’s standards, it is hard to see how they could have done otherwise: how could any sustained historical narrative have been more than mere Aggregat for them? However, the case of Gatterer and Schlözer also points to a larger problem in 18th century historiography: the failure to integrate statistics in historical arguments. It is not for lack of data, or for lack of awareness of economic-demographic factors. So couldn’t someone else have done it instead?
In the same decade that Gatterer and Schlözer clashed, Abbé Raynal brought out successive editions of his (and Diderot’s) Histoire des deux Indes. It contains both data on the size of colonial investments and the slave trade, and a moral argument against colonial repression and slavery. Yet even when Raynal claimed that slavery was not even economically profitable – free people will work harder – he did not use his data in support of that claim. Why not? Siep Stuurman’s explanation is that Raynal wrote in a rhetorical mode: he didn’t pursue one strict line of inference, but accumulated arguments one upon the other. One could add that ‘Raynal’ was not always the same author: the Histoire des deux Indes was at times almost a cut-and-paste job. The case is different from that of Gatterer and Schlözer: Raynal fails to make full use of his statistics for lack of systematics, while they rather suffer from an excess of it. But the conspicuous absence is the same.
Is there a dog that did not bark here? That, maybe, is stuff for another essay.
 Laurence Brockliss, Calvet’s Web: Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters in Eighteenth-century France (Oxford: Oxford UP 2002); Lionel Gossmann, Medievalism and the Ideologies of the Enlightenment: The World and Work of La Curne de Sainte-Palaye (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP 1968); J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion (6 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1999-2015)
 Gatterer, review of Nouveau Traité de Diplomatique, Allgemeine historische Bibliothek Bd. 1 (1767), pp. 161-212; p. 170
 Büttner, Vergleichungs-Tafeln der Schriftarten verschiedener Völker in denen vergangenen und gegenwärtigen Zeiten (Göttingen/Gotha: Dieterich 1771)
 Schlözer, Vorstellung seiner Universalhistorie (Göttingen/Gotha: Dieterich 1772), pp. 25-8. ‘Kritik’ and ‘Raisonnemens’ refers to antiquarian erudition and the style of the philosophes, respectively.
 Ibid, p. 29
 Guillaume-Thomas Raynal [and Denis Diderot, and others], Histoire philosophique et politique des établissemens & du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (6 vols., Amsterdam: s.n. 1770-74; 7+4 vols., Amsterdam/Maastricht: Dufour et al. 1773-81; 5 vols., Genève: Pellet 1780). For the mixed authorship of the Histoire des deux Indes, see Michèle Duchet, Diderot et l’Histoire des deux Indes : ou, L’écriture fragmentaire (Paris: Nizet 1978).