Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/37

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INTRODUCTORY NOTE.

Any division of history is doubtless arbitrary. But it is impossible for history to discharge all the obligations which, from a strictly scientific point of view, are incumbent upon it. If we accept the position that history is concerned with tracing the evolution of human affairs, we are continually being driven further back for our starting-point. The word “affairs” is generally supposed to indicate some definite movement; and the forces which rendered a movement possible must be supposed to have depended upon institutions which produced organised action. These institutions arose from attempts to grapple with circumstances by the application of ideas. We are thus carried back to an enquiry into the influence of physical environment and into the origin of ideas relating to society. We pass insensibly from the region of recorded facts into a region of hypothesis, where the qualities requisite for an historian have to be supplemented by those of the anthropologist and the metaphysician. A pause must be made somewhere. Humanity must be seized at some period of its development, if a beginning is to be made at all. The selection of that point must be determined by some recognisable motive of convenience.

The limitation implied by the term modern history depends on such a motive, and is to be defended on that ground only. Modern history professes to deal with mankind in a period when they had reached the stage of civilisation which is in its broad outlines familiar to us, during the period in which the problems that still occupy us came into conscious recognition, and were dealt with in ways intelligible to us as resembling our own. It is this sense of familiarity which leads us to draw a line and mark out the beginnings of modern history. On the hither side of this line men speak a language which we can readily understand; they are animated by ideas and aspirations which resemble those animating ourselves; the forms in which they express their thoughts and the records of their activity are the same as those still prevailing among us. Any one who works through the records of the fifteenth and the sixteenth century becomes conscious of an extraordinary change