Balzan Prize 2002 for the History of the Humanities
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 13.11.2002
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The news that I would receive one of this year’s Balzan Prizes came as a complete and stunning surprise. For the last quarter century and more, I have been engaged in an investigation of the practices of learning in the West, studying the ways in which scholars have read texts, written histories, and taught their disciplines to the young. These interests have led me into some of the darkest recesses of intellectual history. Pursuing them brought me to the brick house in Leiden, now a karate school, in which, in the years around 1600, Joseph Scaliger transformed the study of chronology. Ten years of work enabled me to find out how he reconstructed the calendars and establishing the epoch dates that still serve as the foundations of ancient and medieval history. They also took me to the libraries, archives and seminar rooms in Berlin in which, in the years around 1820, Leopold von Ranke transformed the writing of history. Happy weeks passed in his archive in Berlin, where I watched him transplant into narrative history the methods and literary forms of classical philology and antiquarianism. The pursuit of other technical questions about scholarship and its past has led me back to the ancient world and forward to the twentieth century, induced me to make the acquaintance of painstaking archive-keepers and unscrupulous forgers, required me to follow individual lives and to reconstruct institutions and disciplines – and given me endless pleasure.
This long walk down dark, and rather dusty, corridors has brought me more – much more – than information about my own professional predecessors. As a student, I came into contact with great teachers, learned men and women who guided me into the history of scholarship and gave me the example of their own remarkable practices. As a researcher, I met others who shared my interests and soon became my colleagues and my friends. Their advice and criticism have guided me for decades. As a teacher, finally, I had the good fortune to find students who shared my passion for my curious subject, and whose work has extended, corrected and superseded mine. If I have engaged in a long pursuit of an obscure and technical object, if I have dedicated myself to studies that few university teachers – and even fewer readers outside the university world – found interesting, I have done so with the best of guidance and in the best of company. No life of scholarship could have been more satisfying.
The Balzan Prize has crowned these decades of work at one of the darkest and most obscure coalfaces of scholarship with public recognition of a sort I had never expected to receive. I thank the Balzan Foundation and its advisers, from the bottom of my heart, for singling out my work. The Foundation’s generosity will enable me to continue my own studies in the best of conditions and to woo younger scholars to carry on this kind of research for another generation. Though I cannot claim to deserve the extraordinary distinction conferred upon me here, I accept it with deep gratitude, not only on my own behalf, but also on that of the subject which I have tried to develop and the teachers, colleagues and students to whom I owe so much.