Tristram Hunt is a doofus.

But it is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent: its rhythms and cadences, the relationship of image to word, the passion of the argument or cold logic of the case.

from ‘Online is fine, but history is best hands on’ | Tristram Hunt at

Lucy Inglis’ response to Tristram Hunt’s deeply stupid comment piece in the Guardian ( ) has inspired me to add my two pennies on the subjuct – partly because I think Hunt has just dissed the work of all Classicists and Ancient Historians, who are generally NOT ALLOWED to get their hands on the original manuscripts without the modern equivalent of kid gloves (I’m pretty sure they’re not made of kid anymore), but mostly because I think he’s just missing the point. 

Yes, manuscripts are lovely – getting to see them in places like the British Library or the Fondation Bodmer near Geneva is a delight, but let’s face it, getting hands on with them just isn’t practical all the time – not even for practising historians, let alone the general public who are generally interested in history (or who we’re trying to get generally interested in history).

I work on Cicero. A lot of people work on Cicero. If everyone who now works or has worked on Cicero worked from his original manuscripts those would have been dust centuries ago. One of the texts I work with frequently is the lex Repetundarum of 123 BC. It’s a big rock that lives, in chunks, in the archaeological museum in Naples. I would love to go and get up close with it every time I need it – or even just once – but it s not practical and its not permissible. If everyone went and got their hands on it, the carving would be eroded slowly.

This is why we have published, scholarly editions of Cicero’s texts and of the Lex Repetundarum. We send a few very smart people who are very skilled at dealing with manuscripts to put on their gloves and go through the manuscripts and then we trust their results. The rest of us then use these editions, and occasionally, if we’re very lucky we get to go and look at them in glass cases. If we want to check something on the manuscript we have to go and get permission from places like the Vatican Library to go in and see them up close. This is a process we go through because its part of our job – most people don’t have the time or inclination, and to be perfectly frank, in the eyes of the places that hold these manuscripts, they don’t have the justification for getting touchy feely with a millennia old piece of parchment. That is a pleasure, and a privilege, and occasionally, yes, it is a necessity – but it’s not something everyone can do or wants to do.

As a professional ancient historian (or semi-pro, since no one actually pays me to do historical research just now…), I would love more digital versions of documents and works I use regularly. I love Perseus’ collection of ancient texts – which is incredibly useful when you’re stuck in Cornwall, two and a half hours drive from the nearest university library with a full collection of Loebs – or even when you’re in a university library and you want to quickly check a reference. Searchable, digital versions of Cicero’s letters are to DIE for when you’re trying to focus on a specific topic – I live for the day when I can tag such a database myself for future reference. I want Broughton’s three volume, out of print, Magistrates of the Roman Republic to be digitized and made searchable, and linked to more recent scholarship that updates and corrects some of the information in it. I love bright, historical blogs that introduce me to new information, ideas and people. I even, unfashionable though it is for someone in Classics to say it, appreciate the way that Mary Beard’s blog acts as something of a hub for Classics news and comment. But all of that (except perhaps the blogs, which are generally very accessible) is not what the new British Library’s Treasures app is about.

Mr Hunt seems to me to be missing the point of the British Library’s new app. He appears to think it’s been designed to give professional historians an easy ride, when it’s clearly intending to broaden access to these amazing documents and inspire people to inquire further into them and become more interested in our history. He seems to think we should either be working at the level of professional historians, or give it a miss altogether. He doesn’t seem to think that history is about everyone and for everyone, and is scathing about the ‘ubiquity’ of history. I’m not quite sure how you get OUT of history, but that’s another point entirely. We should have greater access to historical artefacts – national museums should be free to enter, and they should make their collections available to those who don’t live in the major centres like London.

Who is to say that someone viewing Magna Carta on the BL’s Treasure App won’t become the next great historian of mediaeval politics and eventually sit with the original document and come up with some brilliant insight – but the level of interest and dedication required to get there has to start somewhere. I don’t know how Tristram Hunt was introduced to the delights of historical research – but I doubt it was by sitting down with a manuscript in the British Library. And if it was, he’s clearly more privileged than the rest of us. 


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