Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Meadville, Crawford County, Crawford County
Charles Homer Haskins is credited for reviving the importance of medieval science in the United States and was a key player in dividing the territories of postwar Europe at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I.
Charles Homer Haskins was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania, on December 21, 1870. After an education mainly at Johns Hopkins University, Haskins served as a Professor of History at Harvard University. Upon becoming Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Haskins revived the importance of medieval science in the United States, as well introduced the concept of interdisciplinary studies. Haskins also proved to be a key player in dividing the territories of postwar Europe at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I. Haskins died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 14, 1937.
Historian and Professor Charles Homer Haskins was born on December 21, 1870, in Meadville, Crawford County. He was the son of George Washington Haskins and Rachel A. McClintock Haskins. At an early age, he received an education in the classics from his father, learning Latin and Greek. He eventually studied at Allegheny College for a time, starting at age 12. He later transferred to Johns Hopkins University to receive his AB in History in 1887 at age 17.
Haskins’ first written pieces were later published in the American Historical Review - the first being “The Vatican Archives,” which appeared in 1896, and the second, “The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by Their Letters,” which appeared two years later. Haskins remained at Johns Hopkins for another three years to earn his PhD and later became an instructor there in 1889. Haskins eventually joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison from 1892 until 1902.
After a few years of teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Haskins left to begin teaching at Harvard as a Professor of History in 1902. It was at Harvard where some of Haskins’ greatest achievements took place. To start, more of his works began to appear in American Historical Review from 1903 to 1904. One such article was “The Early Norman Jury,” and Sally Vaughn, Medieval History scholar and professor, notes that the article “delved into Norman charters to study instances of the appearance of juries, challenging English opinions that the jury was an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon.” The theme of challenging the ideas of Anglo-Saxon superiority would resonate through much of Haskins’ career. Haskins also went on to publish “The University of Paris in the Sermons of the Thirteenth Century.”
Haskins would come to be a respected and supportive professor in the eyes of his students, primarily because of his talent of using historic manuscripts in his work, an ability which would prove useful in instructing his students. Lynn Thorndike wrote in Isis that “[Haskins’] mastery of both the original sources and the secondary literature in his field was remarkable: he was a keen and unerring investigator who knew the use of every implement of his trade.” He would even provide his students with historical documents when he believed it would help in their research. Vaughn writes that he “handled his classes with benevolent good humor and was always ready with a joke.” This characteristic of Haskins would allow him to establish stronger personal connections with his students. Moreover, Vaughn notes, “Haskins was equally in command when teaching large undergraduate classes.”
The ability to both establish meaningful relationships with his students and maintain discipline in his classrooms made him a very effective professor. This was reflected with the publication of Anniversary Essays in Mediaeval History, by Students of Charles Homer Haskins, Presented on His Completion of Forty Years of Teaching in 1929. This compilation of graduate student papers reflects the achievements of 18 students he taught in 1928, as well as mutual respect between Haskins and the student body. Reviewer James Westfall Thompson noted in Speculum that “Professor Haskins is the doyen of American mediaevalists, doubly remarkable as a creative and productive scholar and as a maker of students and teachers to follow in his footsteps” and that the collection is “distinguished both by the eminence of the scholar to whom it is dedicated and the quality of the contributions.”
Haskins’ greatest achievements in reforming the academic system of the time occurred when he became Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard from 1908 to 1924. With the help of fellow Harvard medievalists Ephraim Emerton and Charles Gross, Haskins worked to reinforce the importance of medieval history in the United States in several ways. One way he attempted to change the system was by experimenting with his History I class by reforming it in his search for the ideal history class. This would prove to be a fruitful experiment, as its products helped to improve the teaching of European history in the United States. Sally Vaughn notes the importance of this in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, saying:
But the future of American education was to be most influenced by a course initiated in 1879, History 1 –a survey course in medieval and modern European history, intended as a general introduction to more detailed study. It was Haskins’s [sic] experimentation with this class and later analyses of its function in the University education which contributed to the development of the teaching of Western civilization throughout the United States.
Haskins also helped to introduce a new way of understanding history to his students by promoting the use of “scientific” historical analysis. Haskins was a supporter of “scientifically” understanding history. This means that aspects of history are discovered solely through historical documents and not through unsupported, traditional beliefs. Haskins tried to instill this within his students by emphasizing the use of manuscripts. Vaughn notes this, saying, “In the lectures as in his other works, Haskins masterfully used the primary sources to give his student audience an intimate knowledge of his topic.”
But what may have been one of the greatest accomplishments of Haskins was his creation of cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary programs, something which did not originally exist in the United States. Before, programs were strictly focused on the subject that they represented; there was no exchange between subjects. However, Haskins recognized the significance of the mutual reliance between the subjects of history and literature and, therefore, helped to restructure the classes, ultimately achieving this goal in 1906. He also helped to establish student-interest areas of study, something else considered revolutionary at the time. The importance of this point is mentioned by Vaughn:
Haskins was one of a small group of professors who devised a new plan of study at Harvard that would cut across departmental and course lines and allow interdisciplinary approaches to the study of particular subjects or eras. Harvard’s appears to have been the first cross-disciplinary program in the United States.
Amidst Haskins’ academic work, he married Clare Allen in 1912, a Romance language scholar who was educated in Europe. Together they would have three children: George Lee, Charles Allen, and Clare Elisabeth.
Soon after, in 1915, Haskins published The Normans in European History. Haskins’ book is somewhat unique; though it is an academic text meant to inform its audience, it is written in a style which captures the readers’ attentions like a dramatic novel. For example, Haskins puts the reader in the center of Rouen, Normandy’s 1000th anniversary of existence in the introduction of his book:
In June, 1911, at Rouen, Normandy celebrated the one-thousandth anniversary of its existence. Decorated with the grace and simplicity of which only a French city is capable, the Norman capital received with equal cordiality the descendants of the conquerors and the conquered – Norwegians and Swedes, Danes of Denmark and Danes of Iceland, Normans of Normandy and of England, of Sicily and of Canada.
After the introduction which sets the scene, Haskins lists a variety of intriguing samples of Norman culture which were displayed at the ceremony. Such examples included music, theatre, and food. These descriptive details sound like something out of a travel article, but Haskins manages to place them within a historical text, while still maintaining relevancy. American Historical Review supports this idea, as its reviewer stated in a book review of The Normans in European History:
The reviewer takes pleasure in adding that he has read but few books which combine, to such an extent as this does, the virtues of good historical writing: wide and exact knowledge, rare skill in the presentation of facts, and a style which in addition to Norman strength and orderliness possesses the qualities of elegance and genial humor.
Haskins was also admired for his lecture style. After viewing Haskins’ address to the American Historical Association in 1924, his colleague F. M. Powicke complimented Haskins’ lecture style, saying:
As I listened, the simile of the builder came into my mind. Each sentence was like a block of hewn stone, lain in its place by a skillful mason. The operation was directed by a clear and powerful mind, but every stone, so to speak, was left to make its own impression, without the aid of external graces.
Haskins’ unique style is reflected in The Rise of Universities (1923), a compilation of three of Haskins’ lectures. Another powerful aspect of Haskins’ lectures was their use of primary resources. This focus on using primary resources was an element of the new “scientific” history and ensured high quality information by eliminating the potential faults of secondary sources.
Besides his work at Harvard, Haskins also contributed to politics. At the end of WWI, he was called by President Woodrow Wilson to serve on a board of around 200 advisers (mostly consisting of other college professors) at the Paris Peace Conference. This board came to be known as The Inquiry, and Haskins would come to be the Chief of Division for Western Europe. This board helped establish new borders for France and Germany. Haskins was also the American representative on the committees dealing with Belgian and Danish affairs.
In addition to changing the future of Europe, Haskins also believed he was displaying that the United States had become and deserved to be a world power and, therefore, had a right to have a voice in the division of Europe. Heather Blurton makes note of this in Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of ‘The Middle Ages’ Outside Europe, saying: “If, therefore, it was his experience of the Paris Peace Conference that convinced Haskins of the United States’ rightful position as a global power, that posture was present and available to him before the war in his historical methodology.”
Haskins’ leadership was vital not only to the Harvard University community, but also to the field of history in general. He served as President of the American Council of Learned Societies from 1920 to 1926 and of the American Historical Association in 1922. He was also one of nine founders of the Mediaeval Society of America in 1926, becoming its president as well.
Haskins’ health began to decline in the late 1920s, forcing his withdrawal from many of his academic and administrative duties. Due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, he retired from both teaching and writing in 1932. He later died of bronchial pneumonia and acute circulatory failure on May 14, 1937, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His last words to his wife were “C’est la mort qui vient” [It is Death that comes].
The American Historical Society marked his death: “the host of those who were privileged to know Professor Haskins as teacher or colleague or friend are likely first to think of something else: the keen personal interest in his students, the kindly encouragement, the ready help, the true sincerity of a great man.” Blake, Coffman, and Rand acknowledged in Speculum that “the Mediaeval Academy of America owes to Charles Haskins a debt second to none.”
In addition to the esteem in which his field held him, Haskins had been honored by foreign governments. The New York Times notes that he was an officer in the French Légion d’Honneur and a commander of the Belgian Order of the Crown.
After his death, Haskins’ legacy would live on. In 1981, the Charles Homer Haskins Society for Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and Angevin History was founded. This group would go on to continue Haskins’ studies, as well as represent their own studies at various scholarly meetings. Some of their past discussions were on the marital status of medieval women, reflections on Anglo-Norman history, and examinations of past rulers. The organization also has its own annual conference and a newsletter containing articles that are compiled into a volume annually.
A History of Higher Education in Pennsylvania. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1902.
The Historical Curriculum in Colleges. New York: Knickerbocker, 1904.
The Normans in European History. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915.
Norman Institutions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918.
Some Problems of the Peace Conference. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920.
The Rise of Universities. New York: Holt, 1923.
Studies in the History of Mediaeval Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924.
The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927.
Studies in Mediaeval Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929.
“The Vatican Archives.” Catholic University Bulletin 2 (Oct. 1896): 40-58.
“The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by Their Letters” American Historical Review 3 (Jan. 1898): 203-229.
“The Early Norman Jury” American Historical Review 8 (Jul. 1903): 613-640.
Altschul, Michael. “Haskins, Charles Homer.” American National Biography. Ed. John A. Garraty. Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 282- 284.
Blake, R.P., G.R. Coffman, and E.K. Rand. “Charles Homer Haskins.” Speculum 14.3 (Jul. 1939): 413-415.
Blurton, Heather. “An American in Paris: Charles Homer Haskins at the Paris Peace Conference.” Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of the ‘Middle Ages’ Outside Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 265-285.
“HASKINS, Charles Homer 1870-1937” Contemporary Authors. Ed. Scot Peacock. Vol. 201. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2002.
Haskins, Charles Homer. The Normans in European History. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1959.
“Historical News.” American Historical Review 42.4 (Jul. 1937): 849-862.
Rev. of The Normans in European History, by Charles Homer Haskins. American Historical Review 21.3 (1916): 580-582.
Powicke, F.M. “Charles Homer Haskins” The English Historical Review 52.208 (1937): 649-656.
“Prof. C.H. Haskins, Long At Harvard; History Professor Emeritus and Internationally Known Scholar Dies at 67.” New York Times 15 May. 1937: 19.
Thompson, James Westfall. Rev. of Anniversary Essays in Mediaeval History by Students of Charles Homer Haskins Presented on His Completion of Forty Years of Teaching. Speculum 5.3 (Jul. 1930): 325-326.
Thorndike, Lynn. “Charles Homer Haskins.” Isis 28.1 (1938): 53-56.
Vaughn, Sally N. “Charles Homer Haskins.” Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online: 122-144. Web. 1 April 2014.
Collin Snyder, supplemented by Alan Jalowitz
Written by Collin Snyder, supplemented by Alan Jalowitz, Spring 2014; supplemented Fall 2014