From an enthusiastic Monumentist to an outsider

Henry Simonsfeld

  • * 15.10.1852 in Mexico City
  • ✝ 5.4.1913 in München

The son of a wholesale merchant who died at an early age, Henry Simonsfeld grew up in his parental home in Franconia. He went to Munich to study and, after a year in Göttingen, he decided to shift his focus to history instead of classical philology. He treasured a lifelong admiration for Georg Waitz and his Munich professor, Wilhelm von Giesebrecht, under whom he completed his PhD in 1876 with the predicate „summa cum laude“. Simonsfeld’s financial means were not sufficient to sustain him as a private scholar. In 1878, he turned down an offer to work as a „Hülfsarbeiter“ (assistant editor) for the MGH in order to take a more secure position in the civil service at the Hof- und Staatsbibliothek (the precursor of the Bavarian State Library) in Munich, where he remained until 1898. With his financial situation thus secured, he could follow his dreams of working in a scholarly position and quickly completed his post-doctoral thesis in 1878 to this purpose. Thereafter, however, his career stagnated despite the best of efforts. Full twenty years later, in 1898, he finally attained an extraordinary professorship for the „Historische Hilfswissenschaften“ at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, followed by his appointment to the ordinarius professorship for history and the „Hilfswissenschaften“ in 1912.

One of the hurdles for Henry Simonsfeld’s university career were his Jewish origins. As he attained his post-doctoral qualification, the Bayerische Landbote, a Bavarian newspaper, reported the „very concerning development“ that „the Jews“ were now also gaining access to „our university“. After he converted to Protestant Christianity in 1894, the Bavarian press referred to him derogatorily as „the baptised Jew.“ Simonsfeld’s scholarly work, however, reveals no traces of his Jewish background, in contrast with his obvious interest in migration, trade, and cultural contacts. Being a historian with national-liberal convictions, he rejected all confessional interpretations of the past.

Henry Simonsfeld was commissioned by Georg Waitz with editing Italian historiographical sources for the MGH and was paid for manuscript research related to various other MGH projects. From 1877 until the mid-1880s, he was the MGH’s most important researcher in Italy. Thereafter, as Oswald Holder-Egger started to develop an interest in Italian sources, Simonsfeld was relegated in this function. His edition of the Chronicon Altinate and other works of the earliest period of Venetian historiography in volume 14 of the Scriptores series were the only editions by Simonsfeld to be published in the MGH. A number of other finished edition manuscripts that he had sent in were set aside and ignored. This led to a rift with Holder-Egger and a more distanced relationship to the MGH. Simonsfeld was thereafter largely forgotten by the Monumenta, while he in turn developed other research interests and preferred to publish elsewhere.

Among Henry Simonsfeld’s other publications, the most noteworthy are his monograph on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and the first volume of his „Jahrbücher des Deutschen Reichs" under Frederick Barbarossa, both of which were reprinted in new editions in the 20th century. Also his cultural historical studies are based on a wealth of source material and still well worth reading today.

MGH editions

Other selected publications

  • Henry Simonsfeld, Andrea Dandolo und seine Geschichtswerke, München 1876; italienisch: Andrea Dandolo e le sue opere storiche (tradotto da Benedetto Morossi), in: Archivio veneto 14 (1877), pp. 49-149 - Dissertation
  • Henry Simonsfeld, Venetianische Studien I (Das Chronicon Altinate), München 1878 - Habilitationsschrift
  • Henry Simonsfeld, Der Fondaco dei Tedeschi und die deutsch-venetianischen Handelsbeziehungen, 2 Bände, Stuttgart 1887
  • Henry Simonsfeld, Jahrbücher des Deutschen Reiches unter Friedrich I. Band 1: 1152 bis 1158 (Jahrbücher der Deutschen Geschichte 17,1), Leipzig 1908

Reference literature on Henry Simonsfeld

A photo of Henry Simonsfeld in 1891