[Index of Biographies]

Johann Christoph Gatterer (1727-1799)

[This is a draft of an article in The Dictionary of Eighteenth Century German Philosophers, 3 vols., edited by Manfred Kuehn and Heiner Klemme (London/New York: Continuum, 2010).]

Johann Christoph Gatterer was born into modest circumstances on 13 July 1727 in Lichtenau (by Ansbach) and died 5 April 1799 in Göttingen, where he had taught for forty years as a professor of history. With his colleague A. L. Schlözer [bio], Gatterer developed a modern hermeneutical approach to historical knowledge that viewed cultural and individual perspectives as unavoidable. Rather than offering a merely chronological ordering of events, Gatterer aimed to write history ‘pragmatically’, meaning that events were to be systematized by describing their causal relations and thus by representing the ‘universal connection of things in the world’ (nexus rerum universalis) [1767, 85]. With this he hoped to bring the past before the understanding as though it were part of the intuited present. In all, Gatterer attempted six universal histories (1761-4, 1765, 1766, 1771, 1785-7, 1792), although his most enduring contribution was his developing into modern sciences several historical ancillary disciplines.

Gatterer’s illiterate father was a soldier stationed at Nuremberg and he had little interest in his son receiving an education. The boy nonetheless managed to attend the local gymnasium and then the university at nearby Altdorf, where he enrolled as a theology student in 1747, although his interests soon led him to history, primarily through the influence of Johann Heumann, a professor of national law (Staatsrecht), who encouraged Gatterer’s interest in the field of diplomacy. After receiving a magister and habilitating in 1752, he was brought back to his old gymnasium in Nuremberg where he taught geography, history, and related subjects for seven years. In 1756 he added to this position a professorship of national history and diplomacy at the Auditorium Aegidianum. Publication of a groundbreaking genealogical history of a local noble family (1755) resulted in his being called to Göttingen in 1759 to replace Johann David Köhler (1684-1755) as professor of history. Here he began lecturing in all areas of history (especially German, medieval, and universal history), but competition from more talented colleagues — Johann Stephen Pütter [bio] , Ludwig Timotheus Spittler [bio], and especially August Ludwig Schlözer (who arrived at Göttingen ten years after Gatterer and who referred to him as the professor quasimodomortuus) — forced Gatterer to play more to his strengths in the ancillary disciplines of genealogy, heraldry, diplomacy, and physical geography. He developed these into modern sciences and further promoted them in his Royal Historical Institute (founded in 1764) as well as in two journals: the Allgemeine historische Bibliothek (16 vols., 1767-71) followed by the Historisches Journal (16 vols., 1772-81). These journals consisted of book reviews and essays, with the stated goal of lifting up good historical work and demolishing the bad. In his preface to the first volume of the Historisches Journal, Gatterer wrote that, regarding all ‘Humes and Robertsons and German Voltaires, no matter where we meet these insects, we shall hunt them down without mercy’.

Gatterer’s prodigious literary output won for him a considerable fame during his lifetime, and apart from his many histories and textbooks, he published numerous essays in his journals as well as in J. D. Michaelis’ [bio] Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen (1753-1801) and F. Nicolai’s Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek (1765-96). He was inducted into the Göttingen Academy of Sciences in 1776, and occasionally served as its director. In the history of ideas he is also remembered as one of two early developers of a university course on physical geography — the other being Immanuel Kant, who lectured on this subject for nearly the entirety of his teaching career at Königsberg.

In 1753 Gatterer married a handworker’s daughter, Helena Schubert (1728-1806), and together they had fifteen children, including the poet Magdalene Philippine Engelhard (1756-1831), and Christoph Wilhelm Jakob (1759-1838), a professor of government at Heidelberg.


Dissertatio praevia de adornanda in posterum Germania sacra medii aevi (Altdorf, 1752). [Gatterer's Habilitationsschrift.]

Historia genealogica dominorum Holzschuherorum (Nuremberg, 1755).

Handbuch der Universalhistorie nach ihrem gesamtem Unfange von Erschaffung der Welt bis zum Ursprunge der meisten heutigen Reichen und Staaten, 2 vols. (Göttingen, 1761-4; 2nd expanded edn, 1765).

Abriß der Universalhistorie nach ihrem gesamten Umfange (Göttingen, 1765; 2nd edn, 1773).

Synopsis historiae universalis sex tabulis comprehensa (Göttingen, 1766; 2nd edn, 1769).

'Vom historischen Plan' in Allgemeine historische Bibliothek, vol. 1 (1767), pp. 15-89.

Einleitung in die synchronistische Universalhistorie, 2 vols. (Göttingen, 1771).

Kurzer Begriff der Weltgeschichte in ihrem ganzen Umfange (Göttingen, 1785-7). Vol. 1: Von Adam bis Cyrus, ein zeitraum von 3652 Jahren. Vol. 2: Von Cyrus bis zu und mit der Völkerwanderung, ein Zeitraum von mehr als 1000 Jahren.

Kurzer Begriff der Geographie (Göttingen, 1789; 2nd, expanded edn, 1793).

Versuch einer allgemeinen Weltgeschichte bis zur Entdeckung Amerikens (Göttingen, 1792).

Praktische Diplomatik (Göttingen, 1799).

Other Relevant Works

Oratio de artis diplomaticae difficultate (Nuremberg, 1757).

Handbuch der neuesten Genealogie und Heraldik, 14 vols. (Nuremberg, 1759-72).

Abriß der Heraldik (Nuremberg, 1764).

Elementa artis diplomaticae vniversalis (Göttingen, 1765).

Grundriß der Numismatik (Göttingen, 1772).

Ideal einer allgemeinen Weltstatistik (Göttingen, 1773).

Epitome artis diplomaticae (Göttingen, 1773).

Abriss der Geographie (Göttingen, 1775).

Abriß der Chronologie (Göttingen, 1777).

Abriß der Genealogie (Göttingen, 1788).

Stammtafeln zur Weltgeschichte (Göttingen, 1790).

Praktische Heraldik (Nuremberg, 1791).

Abriß der Diplomatik (Göttingen, 1798).

(editor) Allgemeine historische Bibliothek, 16 vols. (1767-71).

(editor) Historisches Journal, 16 vols. (1772-81).

Further Reading

ADB, vol. 8, p. 410-13 (Franz Xaver von Wegele).

DBE, vol. 3, p. 582.

Hamberger (Lemgo, 1796), vol. 2, pp. 490-94.

Meusel (Leipzig, 1804), vol. 4, pp. 32-6.

NDB, vol. 6, pp. 89-91 (Lothar Graf zu Dohna).

Reill, Peter Hanns, 'History and Hermeneutics in the Aufklärung: The Thought of Johann Christoph Gatterer', in The Journal of Modern History, vol. 45 (1973), pp. 24-51.

—, The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism (Berkeley, CA, 1975).

—, 'Narration and Structure in Late Eighteenth-Century Historical Thought', in History and Theory, vol. 25 (1986), pp. 286-98.

Schlichtegroll (Gotha, 1804), vol. 1, pp. 1-24.

Selle, Götz von, Die Georg-August-Universität zu Göttingen, 1737-1937 (Göttingen, 1937), pp. 132-5.

Wegele, Franz X. von, Geschichte der Deutsches Historiographie, seit dem Auftreten des Humanismus (Munich and Leipzig, 1885), pp. 757-66, 786-91.

[Index of Biographies]