Watts: Historian or Antiquarian?

Watt’s sources, Throsby and Nichols, are usually described as antiquarians, rather than historians.  What’s the difference, and what is the significance of the difference?  Today, despite a thriving network of long-established and well supported societies across the country, antiquarianism struggles to evade an image of musty manuscripts and dull glass cabinets in forgotten museums, not to mention snobbery from some sections of academic history profession.  Antiquarians are seen to have an over-riding interest in the bits and pieces of historical artefacts, rather than an interest in what, if anything, artefacts can tell us; collecting things and facts rather than telling stories.

But the professional roots of modern historiography owe a good deal to the antiquarian.  Throughout the early modern period, and increasingly through the C18th, professional gentlemen (and they were almost exclusively gentlemen; clergymen and landowners of ‘polite society’) had the time, money and interest to develop and interest in their pasts.  By digging up artefacts – whether texts in an archive or objects from the ground – they provide the raw materials for historians to create and write histories; the artefacts are the evidence on which histories can be judged; the wilder flights of the historian’s rhetoric can be checked and contextualised against real traces and evidence of the past.  Watts took the dry material of antiquity and used it to illustrate and explain her present to the Stranger.




Elite practice and audience, arcane, Latin and footnotes, data not information, often a clumsy style, records based, heraldry, focus on leading local families, genealogy and pedigrees for the local landed gentry and city fathers, county seats and estates, comprehensive detailed listing and descriptions of sources (descriptive rather than analytic), conspicuous consumption rather than for reading, backward-looking ‘history for its own sake’, author often gentry / church / alderman (access to records and antiquities), accumulative, charters and office holders, presenting the reader with facts to reach their own conclusions, texts left ‘bare’ to speak for themselves, non-narrative, raw materials, a form of a science: evidence the reader can actively re-work for themselves. Scholarly and ‘professional’.

‘New Urban Histories’:


Open, accessible, a story rather than information, people and places, present-focussed (C19th achievements as a development and escape from the barbaric past with the power of reason), new audience of the ‘novi homines / novi cives’, source selection to tell a story (often of a ‘whiggish’ local boosterism, but a story nonetheless), narrative and analysis, an explanation of the present, considers different explanations and weighs evidence, synthesis, information not data, creative of identity and commonality, author literate but from a broader social background (access to secondary sources), statistics – population, industry, prices, tolls, guiding and explaining to the reader, texts speak through the author, narrative, rhetoric, causality, a form of a literature: a guide for the reader, who is passive. Entertainment (or at least cognisant of a broader audience).