The Times, 1 May 2010

Elbert Hubbard defined history as gossip, well told. And recently, it seems that the historians have been taking their work home with them. David Starkey can always be relied upon for a good catfight: I suspect he cultivates them to counter the painful tedium of having twelve-year-old television researchers applauding his every pronouncement as gospel. And he especially loves to fight with the girls, which is presumably why he recently decided to accuse female historians of being quite pretty (the virtual definition of faint praise), of having names which begin and end with an A, and of writing books which are 'historical Mills and Boon'. Lady Antonia Fraser - who is undeniably inundated with As - was perplexed by Starkey's accusation. And Lucy Worsley - low on the As, but author of Courtiers: The Secret History of Kensington Palace - responded in kind: 'If it wasn't insulting and degrading to judge historians by their looks, I would point out that Dr Starkey looks like a cross owl'.

But if Starkey had really wanted to find some Mills and Boon prose, he should have been looking at the Amazon reviews of Orlando Figes' books. The literary world has been enjoying a real-life whodunnit, as an anonymous reviewer gave books by Rachel Polonsky and Robert Service a kicking. Yet the same reviewer loved Figes' book, The Whisperers, saying that it 'leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted'. Every sexual encounter Mills and Boon have ever published has someone awed, humbled, yet uplifted: that's just how a night with a handsome rake tends to play out. 'May he write forever,' swooned the reviewer, missing only the sunset over a harsh landscape, and perhaps a pony, to reach a full corset-ripping climax.

Figes denied he was involved, sent legal threats to the TLS when it suggested he might be, then claimed his wife had done it, before finally confessing that he was the miscreant. The moral of this story is that if you want to put the boot in to your rivals' books anonymously, then do it properly. Don’t use the online pseudonyms 'orlando-birkbeck', and 'historian', because those are the most incompetent disguises anyone has ever invented, given that they include your name, job description and place of work. The only thing missing was a National Insurance number. Super-spies, take note.

Figes now claims that his behaviour was motivated by a deep depression brought on by researching Stalin's crimes for his book, which is surely the only possible explanation. Which of us hasn't felt moved to demolish an academic rival after a tough day reading about a Gulag? Really, it's a wonder that the police - investigating horrific crimes every day - don't start slagging off their colleagues' arrest warrants as clichéd and dull.

Meanwhile, Niall Ferguson made a splash in the papers earlier this year, when he began a relationship with the Somali-Dutch writer and politician, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A friend of Ferguson's wife suggested he was acting 'despite all the lessons of history'. And perhaps it's true. Maybe Ferguson was so busy looking into the ascent of money that he missed the lesson which covered celebrity historians getting involved with women living under a fatwa.

Even death isn't enough to hold off the taint of scandal: Stephen Ambrose - the author of Band of Brothers, who died in 2002 - would surely be spinning in his grave if he knew that his master work, Supreme Commander, was now being dragged through the mud. Ambrose claimed that his two-volume biography of Dwight D Eisenhower was based on hundreds and hundreds of hours of research and interviews with the former president. "I think five hours is a generous estimation of the actual time they spent together," said Tim Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library. "I personally would push it back to less than two or three." When Rives dug through the footnotes of Supreme Commander, he discovered that Eisenhower wasn't even in the country on several occasions when Ambrose claimed they were meeting. And if there's one thing worse than being busted for submitting anonymous reviews of your rivals' books, it's being accused of having made up your research.

So what is going on in the seemingly staid world of historians? Could it be that they aren't the bespectacled tweed-wearers we thought? All that court intrigue might be contagious: spend enough time with Henry VIII, and his interchangeable wives start to seem like the only kind of women there are. Write enough counterfactual history, and you stop thinking, 'What if Hitler had been assassinated in 1944?' and start thinking, 'What if I was dating that hot celebrity lawyer?' And, of course, read enough about anonymous Stalinist denunciations and you'll soon be denouncing rivals, loved ones and eventually yourself.

But one leading historian believes that his profession is no more rife with scandal than any other. The accusations of plagiarism, he suggests, stem from sloppy working practice rather than venality: 'If an academic gives certain areas to research assistants to cover, a lazy assistant may simply paraphrase books he should be summarising. When the historian takes these notes, and puts them into his own language, this can often end up looking remarkably similar to the original work'. But for Ambrose' offence - inventing research - he has not an ounce of sympathy: 'utterly despicable behaviour.' He also points out that 'future historians will plagiarise him', so the damage is limitless.

And what of the anonymous reviewing? Well, Figes' folly appears to be that he was found out. Plenty of writers review their own books on Amazon, historians no more than others. It has been suggested that Figes may now struggle to command a large advance for his next book, after his adverse publicity. But perhaps he could make a virtue of it: David Starkey probably adds a zero to his royalty cheques every time he's in the papers. Indeed, the most surprising thing about his recent outburst is that it isn't timed to coincide with the release of a new paperback. And isn't the collective noun a malice of historians?