Seventeen lectures on the study of medieval and modern history and kindred subjects/On the Purposes and Methods of Historical Study
ON THE PURPOSES AND METHODS OF HISTORICAL STUDY.
(May 15, 1877.)
LAST year, in fulfilment of my statutable obligation to deliver two solemn lectures annually on some subject of modern history or political biography, I took occasion of the fact that I was just completing my tenth year of service as Professor, to discuss some of the more obvious phenomena which had, during the preceding ten years, marked the progress of Historical Study in Oxford first and in Europe generally. As is invariably the case when one has written a book or made a speech, subsequent reflexion, after no long time, brings home to one the conviction that, besides saying much that were better unsaid, one has left out very much that ought to have been said if the intention were to be realised with which the discussion was attempted. In this particular instance, I confess, one whole region of my subject was left out of sight: my object, indeed, was principally to view the extension and advance of the study, and it was only incidentally that I felt called upon to say a word here and there on the method and purposes of it. But, judging from the utterances which have recently, both before and after the delivery of those two lectures, fallen from the mouths of some of the most clever and cultivated men of this generation, it would appear that the method and purpose of historical reading were points by no means second in interest to the external development of the study of history.
These utterances are in themselves valuable as the mature judgments of men who have at all. events known how to draw from history precious lessons on the subjects on which they desired to be taught; but they have an additional value in setting plainly before us, teachers of history, the views which popular opinion and the men who lead popular opinion upon educational matters formulate regarding the pursuit to which we have devoted ourselves. To us a great many of the statements as well as of the theories that find enthusiastic echoes in mixed audiences, are apt to appear either truisms, or fallacies, or both. In many of them there is an apologetic tone which reminds us to some extent of what we used to hear in common rooms when our History school was first started, as if the study was one that needed some vindication as a bona fide study, valuable in itself and in its results, before it could be allowed to compete with other older and more organised departments of learning. And, as usual, when that is defended which needs no defence, the theories of the advocate produce an effect diametrically opposite to that which he intended; he seems to hazard on the strength of some occasional or adventitious argument the claim which on its own merits is indisputable. Now far be it from me to attempt even to gather up or analyse, much less to review, the deliberate and elaborate utterances to which I have referred. I am not going to answer or to refute them where they need refutation, or to use them to strengthen my own theories where I agree with them: it may be enough to say that many of them contain good and sound suggestions which recommend themselves as soon as they are heard; that others are familiar as lecture-room words to all who have any experience in teaching; and that the worst that can be justly said of any of them is that they prescribe, for the general pursuit of the whole study of History, directions which are valuable in their way in relation to particular portions of it, or for particular purposes for which it may have been undertaken. Instead of reviewing them, then, I shall simply accept them as furnishing suggestions for a brief discussion on points on which it is my privilege to speak, and yours to judge whether what I have to say is worth saying. For I also will claim it as a professorial right to be allowed to utter truisms, and will claim, moreover, as one advantage accruing from our common heritage of error, that, if I utter fallacies, I may have the sympathy of men who know how easy it is, in matters where head and heart are alike engaged, to disparage truth by exaggeration.
Although I am not going to venture on any philosophical arrangement of my topics, or to lay down anything pretending to be a complete theory of the method of historical study, I will begin by saying that there are, as it seems to me, and as I doubt not it seems to you, three different sorts of object or aim in reading History: it may be read for its_own sake, it may be learned as a mental discipline, and it may be acquired as a piece of the furniture or apparatus of cultivated life. I have used the words advisedly, for they imply, with diversity of object, diversity of method also. In the first aspect History assumes the dignity of a science, in the second it is a great engine of education, in the third it is in its higher forms a graceful and useful accomplishment, in its lower an indispensable requisite for every-day existence in a civilised country.
The three aims are not by any means incompatible, and the results are of course coincident so far as they go. He who reads History for its own sake gains the educational result in the process, and possesses in the fullest way the stock of knowledge which enables him to read his newspaper, to give his vote, or to pass his opinion on any new book. The man who has gone through the educational training will likewise be able to do these things, besides benefiting by that disciplinary and formative process that qualifies him to give a sound historical judgment on passing events. And it is no small advantage to be able to give an honest, really intelligent vote and to take an interest in a really interesting book. Only, the man who has only read History for the purpose of education has not entered into the fulness of the blessing of the man who reads it for its own sake, and the man who has learned it as he learns French or German from a travelling conversation book, does not gain either the formative effect on the judgment, or the great inheritance of scientific study. These points need no insisting upon; I merely state them to set us clear at starting, and to point out that the method which may be with advantage adopted for one of these purposes will not be applicable for the other two; popular lectures may serve admirably to the third object, but be absolutely useless as regards the second; careful study of isolated periods may suffice for the second, but will not satisfy the instincts that axe aroused in the pursuit of the first. But I will not anticipate what ought to come later on.
In the distinction that I have drawn you will no doubt recognise your old friends, the professorial, the tutorial, and the popular view of history. I will so far admit the charge as to arrogate to myself the professorial right to make the first the largest half of my discussion, and devote this lecture to the first point, leaving- the other two for the second. But there is a prior question, prior even to the assumption that History should be studied for its own sake,—Is it worth studying at all? As I have said, the apologetic tone of many of its advocates renders it necessary that I should at once state why it needs no vindication. If man is not, as we believe, the greatest and most wonderful of God's works, he is at least the most wonderful that comes within our contemplation; if the human will, which is the motive cause of all historical events, is not the freest agent in the universe, it is at least the freest agency of which we have any knowledge; if its valuations are not absolutely innumerable and irreducible to classification, on the generalisations of which we may formulate laws and rules, and maxims and prophecies, they are far more diversified and less reducible than any other phenomena in those regions of the universe that we have power to penetrate. For one great insoluble problem of astronomy or geology there are a thousand insoluble problems in the life, in the character, in the face of every man that meets you in the street. Thus, whether we . look at the dignity of the subject-matter, or at the nature of the mental exercise which it requires, or at the inexhaustible I field over which the pursuit ranges. History, the knowledge of the adventures, the development, the changeful career, the varied growths, the ambitions, aspirations, and, if you like, the approximating destinies of mankind, claims a place second to none in the roll of sciences. Arising from one of the first and most anciently cultivated instincts, the desire to know how we come to be what we are, and how the world comes to be what it is, the love of history is certainly second in origin to no other sort of love of knowledge. As a search for truth it tries to investigate matters in which the truth may be more difficult to find than it is in mere matters of observation or deduction, but surely its difficulty is not an argument for its disparagement; as a hoarding up of knowledge, it collects facts and records, the results of which are less exact than those of strict science, but are not less precious even in the eyes of the man who would regard them as mere engines of power. It is not true that written history is a mere tradition of falsehoods, assumptions and illogical deductions, of what the writers believed, rather than of what they knew, and of what they wished to have believed rather than what was true; even if it were, it would be no reason why we should not do our best to unmask the falsehood and detect the fallacies. But we have all heard enough of that sort of thing before; there is, in the most exact science that has subject-matter at all, a mixture of the phenomenal and the real: even the falsehoods and misrepresentations of the record serve as a guide to the discovery of the truth of fact, and certainly serve to train the mind to distinguish historical truth.
Agreeing, then, that both for the great extent of its field of view, the grandeur of its subject-matter, the difficulty of its problems, and the value of its results, the study of history is worth pursuing; and that, for its own sake, not merely for its effects as an educational agent, or its usefulness in the business of life,—we may allow that, even for its own sake, it may be studied with some variety of aspect or approach. We may work simply for the love of discovery, that is the exercise of the investigative instinct and the pleasure of overcoming difficulties; or we may work with the beneficent idea of increasing the sum of human knowledge, or of unravelling the string which forms the clue to the history of human progress, or of making such generalisations as may constitute the laws of a new historic science. All these, and perhaps some other purposes may be arranged under our first head, because, although some of them may seem subsidiary to larger and wider general designs, they all have in common the belief in the real value of history itself. Of these purposes, the mere gratification of curiosity, even in its highest and most dignified form, ranks first and lowest; and yet without some infusion of it the genuine love of history is out of the question; and the usefulness of it, even in the humble office of providing materials for men who work with a higher purpose and idea, cannot be gainsaid. The mere archæologist, the mere genealogist, the mere antiquary, are not the parasites of historical study, as they are too often regarded by men who find it easier to borrow than to estimate the results of their researches; they are working bees in the hive of historic knowledge.
And the curious fact that the contemptuous toleration of archæological research is very often found in the speeches and writings of men who profess to set a high value on the study of original sources, a fact so curious as to lead to the conclusion that the critic is dealing on both hands with unknown quantities, may serve to lead on to the question — What are, and what is the value of the study of, original sources? We hear a great deal about them at the present day; not only are our bookshelves actually broken down with the weight of them, but the exact study of them is becoming a subordinate science with method and rules of its own, and with a great apparatus of material appliances in the shape of palæographical tests; a science of historical palmistry, if that is the word, that attempts to refer, by distinctions of penmanship, parchment, paper, ink, illumination and abbreviation, every manuscript to its own country, district, age, school, and even individual writer. Truly we may say the study ofis not to be approached without clean hands and an open mind. And after the initial investigation comes the criticism; first we have to identify, then we have to value our historical inventory. Both these processes are involved in the study of original sources; it means not merely the reading, or the restriction of reading to, the primary authorities, but the weighing and critical analysis of the primary authorities themselves.
Perhaps you think that I am misusing terms when I speak of analysing primary authorities, but I will explain directly what I mean; only a word first on the interest and value of the processes I refer to. If I were drawing a comparison between ancient and medieval and modern history as remunerative studies, this is probably the first point in which I should claim superior interest for the latter. In ancient history we have wonderful models of thoughtful writing, and ingenious record of primitive tradition, tradition at least that is so far primitive that to us no further analysis is possible. There are exceptional departments even here; recent discoveries in Assyriology and Egyptology are opening up regions of interest which appear to me to be absolutely beyond parallel or comparison; new records of most ancient life which not only lie out of the scope within which criticism, up to the last twenty or thirty years, confined itself, but which must, if they be approached with due reverence and delicacy of touch, reveal a strange and hitherto unread age of the world's History, and in it the springs of an older cultivation than we have been used to dwell upon, and the links that bind the great civilisations of the Western world with the earliest, but not perhaps less magnificent, civilisations of the East. In these we may hope one day to read a new and clear page of the fair record of human history, of which we have bright but unconnected glimpses in the incidental notices of Holy Scripture. But outside of these, and the study of them is to most of us only in its beginning, the study of ancient History is mainly the study of classical History; and in classical History, splendid as our materials are, they have been in our hands for ages. Every bone of the great skeleton has long been put into its place: criticism upon it is becoming more and more every year the rearrangement of the critical material collected long ago, or the reconstruction of the History with all the charm which novel treatment, without novel material, can supply. Unluckily we can only, in a very fragmentary way, trace back, in commenting on Herodotus or Livy, the actual line of tradition by which they received what they report to us; as to Thucydides and Tacitus the chain is less fragmentary, and, of course, in the narrative of contemporary writers we look less for traces of earlier authority than for traces of sympathy and antipathy, personal knowledge and direct authenticity. But, as a rule, we may say the study of ancient classical History lies within a confined area, every manuscript, every inscription, every coin, and every map of which has long been known, into which rash speculation never ventures without having cause for bitter repentance, and in which anything like a new discovery, such as the recent finds at Troy and Mycenæ, is so very new, that when it does come to pass no one knows what to make of it. The very definiteness of all connected with this study makes it, for educational purposes, an incomparable discipline. As a study of knowledge for its own sake, as a field of discovery and profitable speculation, as a department in which the sum of human knowledge is likely to be largely increased, I confess I think that it promises perhaps less than the study of later History. As a ground for fresh and remunerative exploration, I am sure it is still less promising.
To return, however, to the original sources. We all know how large a debt modern and medieval History owes to the ecclesiastical writers. From the very beginning of the middle ages, Annals, Chronicles, and Histories poured in comparative abundance from the religious houses of England and the Continent, records which serve to check and correct one another at almost every turn, and which, for some of the more dramatic incidents of History, enable us to reconstruct a picture of the event, viewed by different minds from different points and in different lights, in a perfection which has no parallel at all in ancient history. Such, for instance, is the picture of the life and death of Becket; some great scenes in the life of Simon de Montfort; some portions of the history of the Norman Conquest. I mention these, not only because they are well known, but because they lie within the region for our knowledge of which we are altogether indebted to ecclesiastical writers. Now these ecclesiastical writers have for the most part two great points of interest in the direction of research. All, or almost all, are members of religious houses, and all are members of a great fraternity in close and direct correspondence. The annalist is the annalist of his monastery or his cathedral; his monastery or his cathedral has had a history, has records, charters, a library, a scriptorium for multiplying copies of record, perhaps a school of annalists of which the representative man appropriates and assimilates the labours. He is a member of a great fraternity of newsmongers; every visitor to the monastery, every pilgrim, every journey of the abbot or bishop up to parliament, every letter from abroad, contributes something to the multifarious store. Such a chronicle as that of Matthew Paris contains every one of those elements and perhaps more; he was an antiquary, zealous of the history and fame of his own monastery, skilled in charters and in everything bearing on its origin and growth, the position of its estates, and the character of its inmates: he was a compiler who appropriated and digested the work of a whole school of earlier annalists; he was an eye-witness of much that he records of contemporary history, acquainted with the great men of the day; he had travelled and learned much, he had stayed at home and learned more, asking questions of every one who came down that way. Matthew Paris is an original authority; but what a fine subject for analysis; what an admirable corpus for the Kritik der Quellen! Further back you have what is called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; one of the first set of books that was subjected to the process of speculative analysis, now fifty years ago, by a gentleman who dissected it out of his own consciousness. Our Professor of Anglo-Saxon has shown us what may be done in a part of the field of criticism on the Chronicle, by study of a small number of MSS. and dialectic differences. But there is still probably, in the region of Cartularies and Acta Sanctorum, and in the more minute study of other MSS., something to be done even for this. I may perhaps be allowed to point to my own edition of the Dunstan Memorials as showing, not any completeness of treatment, for I do not pretend to have effected that, but the singular variety and peculiar interest of the fields of investigation in which new discoveries may be expected.
This sort of study has two great charms, besides the value of the results; in common, to compare small things with great, with the discoveries of natural science—botany, for instance. In one way we take a historical series of events and work out the known items of the series, and range the persons and places of our action, until we know where to look for the missing links, and go to look for them and find them. Such a success, and every student of original sources working with zeal and modesty may hope for such, is in a small way like that of the astronomer who, when from calculating the perturbations and so on of the heavenly bodies he has inferred the existence of a hitherto unknown planet, some bright evening and with a new improved glass discovers the real planet of which he has been thinking, and sees in it, not only a great new fact of science, but a proof of the correctness of his computations, a substantial reward for his efforts. And the other is that in every such search, be it successful or not, the inquirer, who is wide awake, is sure to come upon material that is even more valuable than what he looks for; makes discoveries that are not less delightful because they are accidental.
Of course it may be said that a great deal of useless knowledge is accumulated in this way; what good can be done, it may be said, by analysing Matthew Paris, and determining how much of his narrative is drawn from ancient charters, or foreign letters, lives of saints, or such stribiligines: it is his historic power and authority that gives them value, not they that give authority to him. Not quite so, I think, and even if it were so, there might be a lesson in the mere proof of the fact; the analysis is necessary for the due estimate of his value as a historian; the writer who can pass such an ordeal where it is possible to apply it, may be trusted where it is not possible to apply it. But I take the higher ground and say, how far can any knowledge be said to be useless? there may be much useless learning, I allow; accumulations of other men's thoughts, and crude heaps of second-hand memories that are alike useless to their owner and to the world. But not real knowledge, not a substantiated fact, however remote it may seem from the interests and uses of the day, or the object of the day. It may serve to complete a chain of demonstration, the necessity of which is not as yet apparent; it may furnish, as an undesigned coincidence, an important element in a discussion yet in its elementary stages. How great is the debt that History owes to the ant-like instincts of collectors of memoranda, the recorders of births, deaths, and marriages, the savers of old letters and old newspapers, of the very things that seemed most useless. If there is any useless knowledge in History, we may say,—as Dr. Maitland said, when people talked of the Dark Ages, they meant the ages that were dark to them,—the uselessness of the knowledge is generally the fault of those who do not know how to use it.
It would be doing great injustice, however, to my subject if I were to lead you to suppose that I regard the great benefit arising from the study of original materials to lie in the gratification of our natural instinctive desire to get to the bottom of a thing. I suppose that such an instinct is given us for some good end, and that that which lies at the bottom of the historical well is historical truth: Truth that defies the all-dissolving processes of criticism, or at least such an approach to truth as may be credited to a record incapable of further analysis. The results of such minute study are the little pebbles of the concrete in which the foundations of the historic superstructure are laid. Every great historian has been his own Dry-as-dust, however much he may, as Carlyle does, point the moral of the lesson of labour with small type and inverted commas; for, I take it, the prophet does not adopt this plan as a means of disguise, but rather to show that to a great extent historical genius consists in an unlimited capacity for taking pains. The man who has, out of independent study, produced such results, has made a contribution, small or great as the case may be, to the great stock of sound material which constitutes real knowledge.
This consciousness may be its own reward; but, as I said before, if the love of history for its own sake goes no further, such ambition ranks among the lowest forms of the historical spirit. We take a real pleasure not only in cutting out our sound and perfect stone, but in fitting it into its place in the building: we wish to increase the sum of human knowledge not only by the accumulation of facts but by following them up and making them a part of history. The botanist is charmed when he finds a new plant, and the astronomer when he discovers a new star, but we scarcely should call the one a botanist or the other an astronomer if he did not straightway go and fit in his discovery into the general system of his science, reunite the missing plant to its kinsfolk in genus, and species and variety, or find out the relation of his star to the rest, and assign it to its group and class in the map of the heavens. And I think that the somewhat compassionate condescension with which archæological inquiry is now and then spoken of, and the study of original sources also, is owing to the fact that so many inquirers do stop at some such point: hence it is that people are constantly discovering things which have often been discovered before, and trumpeting as new results of research points of fact that have long been ticketed and set in their places in books where they could easily have found them. The study of original sources is thus taken to mean the study of nothing else; a pursuit accordingly which has no other result than the gratification, by a laborious process, of a curiosity that might have been gratified by reference to a cyclopædia, or the amount of training, not itself to be despised if it be regarded merely as training, which makes the fact that one has worked out for himself infinitely more precious than one that he has simply looked out in the dictionary.
But I am not speaking now of the educational aspect of the subject. Let it suffice to say, that original sources to be studied remuneratively must be approached with all the apparatus and all the appliances that previous inquirers have accumulated for the illustration of them. If that be not done, we shall share the fate of the astronomer who searches for a new planet with the naked eye, and the mathematician who discovers perpetual motion.
And so we may go on to another point. The student of History, for its own sake, may approach his subject with the desire of adding to the mass of human knowledge by the ascertaining of truths hitherto imperfectly apprehended; the completing of series of developments, or delineations of character, or the explanations of out-of-the-way regions, or the rehabilitation and analysis of traditions. In these points he has a wide field of interest, and a most remunerative sphere of study in exercise and result.
But here we come upon another primary question, Is all History equally valuable? You may say to me, we have accepted your assertion that no knowledge is useless, except by the fault of the person who possesses it; but it does not follow that all is equally useful or equally valuable in itself. What history is the best worth studying for its own sake? Now to answer that question fully would take a long time, and involve a discussion, not only on the nature of History, but on its co-ordination with other branches of human knowledge, such as moral philosophy and theology, carrying us into regions into which I cannot offer to guide you, and must refer you to the philosophers. But if you wall be satisfied with a simple answer, I will say that the true field of Historic study is the history of those nations and institutions in which the real growth of humanity is to be traced: in which we can follow the developments, the retardations and perturbations, the ebb and flow of human progress, the education of the world, the leading on by the divine light from the simplicity of early forms and ideas where good and evil are distinctly marked, to the complications of modern life, in which light and darkness are mingled so intimately, and truth and falsehood are so hard to distinguish, but in which we believe and trust that the victory of light and truth is drawing nearer every day. The most precious Histories are those in which we read the successive stages of God's dispensations with man, the growth of the highest natures, under the most favourable circumstances, in the most fully developed institutions, in the successive contributions which those natures, regions and institutions have furnished to the general welfare of the whole.
But I can hear at least one critic say, Is not this assuming the truth of a doctrine that you are always practically denying, that the very designation of your professorship, your very raison d'être, forces you to deny—the Unity of History, the Continuity of Historic growth, the Education of the world? Well, if the Unity of History means what I have said, I certainly believe in it: but that is not the meaning which is commonly attached to the term, and it is not the meaning in which I have so often had to do battle with the idea. The false idea, or that which to me seems practically misleading in the term the Unity of History, is the acceptance as a practical rule or maxim that there are no new points of departure in human history; that modern life is a continuation of medieval, of ancient and medieval, history, by a continuity and unity that is at all points equally important, of the same consistency in fact. Now this idea has a truth only in the very highest regions of speculation. Every human soul has an equal value in the eyes of the Christian missionary and religious philosopher, but every human life does not convey lessons of the same practical value to the social investigator; every national history does not contribute equally valuable results towards the general progress of mankind, and so neither does every chronological epoch. That perhaps we all allow. Why then should not cycles of history, two, three, or more cycles of history, be allowed to exist, within which all the really important factors have their origin and development, and, it may be, work out their full destiny; successive great dramas of ages, the interest of which is self-contained, although there is enough of common ground between them and those which precede and follow to give them a simple continuity, and although there is doubtless in the divine mind one great plan of cosmical action in which each drama of the human ages serves as a single act or even a single incident? Let scripture history, classical and ecclesiastical history, medieval history and modern history, be read successively and connectedly, so much the better; but why deny that classical history and medieval and modern can be advantageously studied apart? why confine the thoughts to the points on which they are conterminous, continuous and agreed, to the exclusion of those in which they differ, when it is on the points in which they differ that the great contributions to the real history of man are to be traced? In any other sense than that in which I have attempted to limit it and have accepted it, the Unity of History is either the crotchet of a sciolist, or the dream of a universal philosopher. For just think how the field of view expands; we can never know one thing perfectly unless we know everything; true, but we can try to learn here and there a thing as perfectly as it can be learned, without knowing everything. In the same sense in which the careful study of ancient history is absolutely necessary to the careful study of modern history, the careful study of the latter is absolutely necessary to that of the former. If you read the second alone, where do you find your causes? If you read the first alone, where do you find your consequences? Just in the same way, it may be said, the external history of man cannot be read without an internal reading of his history; no man can approach History without being a consummate moral philosopher; yet is it so? Then most of the great historians of the world have been great moral philosophers without knowing it. But how can a man pretend to understand the moral conformation of his fellows without knowing their physical conformation? Then the moral philosopher must be an anatomist, and the anatomist a chemist, a botanist and geologist, and the geologist an astronomer; i.e. instead of borrowing, and being content to borrow from the kindred and allied sciences what is necessary for the consistent pursuit of our own. study, we must know the principles of all, like the sophists of old, and we all know what that ends in, κακῶς ἠπίστατο πάντα. But my friend says, exaggeration is no argument, an answer which, by-the-by, may tell either way: ancient, and modern and medieval history, as you call them, have the same subject-matter, they are connected by certain visible and tangible lines of recorded fact, and they are, as yourself admit, acts of one great drama. Granted: first then, ancient history has much that is common with modern in the region of political thought; second then, the ancient Roman civilisation and literature constitute by themselves, and they are but one of many, a sufficient line of continuity to prove essential identity; third, but it is enough for you to admit the continuity of the world's progress.
Now, if I were arguing against the reading of ancient history in connexion with modern, such an answer would be complete; but, as I am merely protesting against the idea that it is impossible to read modern history from its own starting-point, I will observe, and content myself with observing, first that there are no doubt political thoughts common to ancient and modern life; nay more, that, as has been said, there is very much that is modern in ancient history and much that is ancient in modern history; and yet that that very element of continuity on which the whole discussion hangs is wanting. There may be, I will not say there is, a certain similarity of thought in a leading article of The Times and a chapter in Thucydides: the similarity of the circumstances of two political crises may bring out parallels and coincidences; Constantinople may be the Athens, Alexander II the Xerxes of the day, and anyhow the Bosphorus must be pretty nearly where it was. But the connexion of the political ideas is one of coincidence and not of continuity; there is not even the life that germinates in the grains of wheat found in Egyptian mummy-pits. Every factor is new, even the area, the nationality of the actors, the whole idea in its origin and every stage of growth is new. Or let the area be the same; what has modern Greece in continuity with ancient Greece, but the soil and sky and the, to it, unintelligible wreck of ancient magnificence, from which it fails apparently to draw even the ordinary lessons of civilisation: what period and region of the whole history of the world conveys a less important lesson than Greece during the Middle Ages of European History? It is scarcely less so with Italy, except for the fact that during a great part of those ages Italy was the centre and stage of Ecclesiastical History, in which, as I shall point out directly, and in which alone on any large or broad scale, the unity and continuity are to be found.
The vital interest of Medieval and Modern History lies in England, France and Germany, as certainly as that of the ancient lies in the East, in Greece and Italy; no small part of that of the future lies in the further Western world. The actors in the medieval and modern drama are the new nations, nations that were unheard of before the decline of the Roman empire began, and which inherited from the civilisation of that empire only the ecclesiastical culture, not the political system, or even the political map, which that system had laid out. The ideas of medieval and modern life are of medieval and modern growth, or if connected with antiquity, connected by a new birth of culture, a re-discovery, a re-creation, not a continuous impulse of vitality. Save in the one region, that of the History of Religion, Ecclesiastical History; yet in that also the one great fact of the Christian dispensation, which connects the ancient Hebrew isolation with the great Catholic Church life, is itself as much a break as a link of continuity; so immensely does the new transcend the old, that, in the apostle's words, old things are passed away and behold all things are become new. The Unity and Continuity of Ancient and Modern History is an idea which is realised on a great and intelligible scale in Ecclesiastical History only; and even there the unity is to some extent a unity of ideas, a coincidence of religious and moral motive influences, and not merely of historic continuity. It is in it that the continuity of the Latin civilisation, of the Holy Roman Empire and of the Latin language, Roman Law and Latin literature, is traceable, and to it that we owe them. To it, or to influences which it nourished or provoked, we owe the renaissance, that revival of ancient culture the very title of which is a denial of the continuity which its influences seem to claim for it. But I am not going to usurp the functions of a Professor of Church History, and I am very sure that Church History is not the ground on which the doctrine of the Unity of History is supposed by its advocates to take its stand.
One word more; I do not deny this Unity in the high region of religious History or in the scarcely less comprehensive grasp which the political philosopher may take of Universal Human Life; nor do I deny it in the minute archæological investigations in which all particulars great and small have much the same value; nor do I deny that the student of modern history may gain lessons of immense value from the old. But I do maintain that it is wrong to say that the one cannot be studied without the other; for the things, persons, ideas, plot and scenery are different in the two; and more than that, save in the region of Church History, the precious lessons of the two are not those in which the approximate continuity maybe traced: the continuity lies in the less important, the great contributions of either to the world's growth lie in the less continuous influences; in the ancient world in a perished civilisation, in the modern world in one in which all the fresh springs are, by God's grace, in the new races.
You will, I hope, acquit me now of any desire to undervalue any kind of culture; but, put upon our defence, we must maintain the strong point, as it seems to us, of our position; and it is our duty, as well as our right, to say what we think. Most successful teachers of Modern History have passed through the gate of the ancient lore; but if they would look the truth in the face, they would see that the help which that ancient lore gave to the study of the modern, was first in the discipline of the mind, for which it furnishes an incomparable exercise, and secondly in the wealth of illustration with which it provides them; but the illustrations are not links in an historic chain, and the fact that the discipline of the mind has been beneficial by no means implies that the powers cultivated in the two studies are the same, or the method of the one applicable without much modification to the exploration of the other. And this is a point which is scarcely less important than the more ostensible and obvious one on which I have dwelt so long.
The method of historic investigation is different in the two or three regions which we have been comparing. Of that I have said something in reference to original sources, and I may have to say something more in reference to the educational view of Historic study. I will not therefore dwell upon it now; but rest content to base my argument on what I have said; that is, the Unity and Continuity are only traceable in the high regions which belong to other sciences and other studies, or in the lower departments of minute archæology; it is well to abstract, and well to make our own generalisations in the realms that are common to the two, but it is a poor result if, after fixing our thoughts on the things in which they agree arid excluding those in which they differ, we find that we have come to generalisations that might be discovered by intuition and cast away differences in which all that is new and true and precious was inherent.
But thus I come to the region of abstractions and generalisations, and to the old question, How about the science of History? As I hope I made clear before, I do not intend this lecture to be a systematic exposition of my own views or any one else's; and I certainly do not intend to attempt an analysis of History as the subject-matter of a science or philosophy. I am only trying, if possible, to adjust my own impressions to the maxims of our theoretical instructors, and to say a word or two on subjects which recent discussions suggest. It certainly seems curious that, although the advocates of the Unity and Continuity of History, and the believers in the science and philosophy of History, imagine themselves to be diametrically opposed to one another, the weakness of their respective positions seems to be the same. Both prefer to work out generalisations and collect coincidences, rather than to study the drama in its plot and personnel; both decline to look at the subject, as we might say, all round. It is true that this is a fault of theory rather than of practice: a really good historian may, as we all know, combine an earnest faith in the Unity of History with a power of creating most exact and minute reproductions of periods, scenes and characters; and such an advocate might almost convince us of the truth of his doctrine, because his practice is so completely free from the faults which that doctrine seems to the outside critic to involve. I am perhaps in error too on the other side, in speaking of the Science of History and the Philosophy of History in one breath; for certainly there is a Philosophy of History which is not content with abstractions, but busies itself with following up causes and following out consequences, goes behind the scenes of the drama as well as directs a microscopic vigilance on the stage; and there is a sense in which the Unity of History is itself a Philosophy of History. I will then leave out the Philosophy of History, and finish the lecture with a few words on the theory of a science of History.
Shall I be saying too much if I say at once that one great objection to the very idea of reducing History to the lines and rules of exact science lies in the fact I have already stated, that generalisations become obscurer and more useless as they grow wider, and, as they grow narrower and more special, cease to have any value as generalisations at all. Is not a historical science liable, if it can be elaborated at all, to become on the one hand a mere table of political formulae and on the other a case-book of political casuistry? And, in either case, is it not as a mere political weapon that it is sought for, not as an increase of knowledge, not as an investigation of truth, nor as a study of History for its own sake? And is not the fact that the idea of a science of History finds acceptation, not among practical historians, but among high-paced theorists, a proof that such a possibility belongs to theory and not to practice; that it is aimed at as a new grace for the all-accomplished doctrinaire, rather than as an object to be sought by those who seek after wisdom?
There were days, centuries ago, when the schoolmen fancied that they could bring into class and line all human knowledge, and encroach to some extent upon the divine, by syllogisms and conversions and oppositions. Much precious knowledge those men handed down to us, with much verbiage and false logic; but even they for the most part left History alone. They ticketed every portion of man's moral anatomy, found a rule for every possible case of choice, a reason and a reward for every virtue, and a punishment for every conceivable crime; they turned generalisations into laws, and deduced from them as laws the very facts from which they had generalised. They benefited mankind by exercising and training subtle wits, and they reduced dialectics, almost, we might say, logic itself, to absurdity. I do not undervalue them, because the great men among them were so great that even such a method did not destroy them: in reading Thomas Aquinas, for instance, one is constantly provoked to say. What could not such a mind
have done if it had not been fettered by such a method? Such, I imagine, must be the result of every attempt to substitute abstract reasonings for minute examination of facts in the study of History. History repeats itself we know, parallels and cycles recur, the speculative mind can evaluate the curve in which political progress moves, trace the contortions of the unruly spiral, and eschew a cusp as a historic anomaly. But the dealings of human wills, in countless combinations, and circumstances which no theory can ever exhaustively calculate, are not the field for dogmatic assumption or for speculative classification. Perhaps you may think that I am talking at random, that no people ever were so foolish as to suppose that even an exhaustive knowledge of past history could enable a man to prophesy; for such should be the result of a scientific treatment, even if the subject-matter be akin rather to the subject-matter of meteorology than to that of astronomy. It may be so; but the idea is not strange. Experience of life, it is argued, qualifies us for dealing with men; knowledge of human history must qualify us for calculating on the results of even historical contingencies; the practical politician can arrange the factors of his problem so as to work out the solution beforehand; the theoretic explorer of History may so manipulate his factors as to provide for every conceivable combination. Again, I say, it may be so; but not in the regions of life that are worthy of real study; vague generalisations may form the stock-in-trade of the political empiric, but he is an empiric notwithstanding; readiness of observation and fertility of expedient, political genius, the power that interprets events and realises character and motive, are not the result of abstraction even from universal reading.
I grant that genius may do great things with poor instruments and out of small materials. But the scientific triumphs of genius all imply minute knowledge as well as the power of grasping the idea. Owen, from a single bone, could reproduce an entire archaic animal, the real existence of which later discovery vindicated: in that great exploit of scientific genius, there was not only consummate grasp of the idea but enormous knowledge of mechanical anatomy: he did not elaborate the beast out of his own consciousness, nor make a lucky guess; but he looked at his bone all round, and saw its mechanical capabilities, and realised the idea which only could explain the possession of such capabilities. So, to some extent, the historical genius can reconstruct character. From a very incomplete study of History Scott could create a Richard, the truth of whose portraiture careful historical scrutiny seems to assure. Out of an enormous amount of material, Carlyle reconstructs for us Frederick William I of Prussia, a living, moving, tantalising reality. In both there is the eye and the hand of genius, different as is the workmanship, distinct as is the result. But although genius can reconstruct character, it cannot reconstruct events: it flashes its lightning into the dark, and for the moment we see battles and alliances, life and death, growth and decline of heroes, cities and nations; but it would require many such flashes to produce one permanent impression; and for even an approach to an understanding of the vision we must go down and map out the land, photograph the heroes, and classify the populations of the cities. Patient study may not have much to do with genius; it has less to do with generalisations: but without patient study genius will flash with no productive efficacy, and generalisations will become mere formula, useful neither to teachers nor to learners, neither to statesmen nor to scholars; and even with patient study, what results? Surely that scientific generalisations are but by-play diversions and amusements, not real lessons: formulæ that are convenient for a moment now and then, but quite unsafe as implements of investigation or even as helps for memory: truisms, or fallacies, or both: or if containing truth, or aiming at universality, diluting the truth until it is useless; assuming a universality of rule which, when it comes to be applied, is met with a universality of exception.
There is a 'One in History' as a One in Nature, but it is not shown to the man whose idea of science is confined to making his inventory or ticketing compartments of his cabinet, even if the mechanism of his museum be ever so complete, unless he has studied and learned well the conformation and individual histories of the specimens which he attempts to classify. Sometimes men classify the specimens which other men have collected, and claim the character of philosophers without any direct acquaintance with materials at all.