Floreat Eltona

David Starkey

  • Tudor Rule and Revolution: Essays for G.R. Elton from his American Friends edited by DeLloyd Guth and John McKenna
    Cambridge, 418 pp, £27.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 521 24841 8
  • Essays on Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government. Vol III: Papers and Reviews 1973-1981 by G.R. Elton
    Cambridge, 512 pp, £27.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 521 24893 0
  • Which road to the past? Two Views of History by Robert William Fogel and G.R. Elton
    Yale, 136 pp, £9.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 300 03011 8

1983 was Professor Elton’s ‘grand climacteric’. For though the crucial age in astrology is 63 and he is only 61, there can be no doubt when a few short months saw the publication of a ‘birthday book’ by his American friends, his appointment to the Regius Chair of History at Cambridge, the appearance of the third volume of his own collected essays, and a short book in which Elton and Robert Fogel, doyen of American quantitative historians, debate ‘which road to the past?’ In these circumstances to go beyond a mere review to ask ‘whither Elton’ is a duty – and for some reviewers a pleasure. I approach the task differently: as a very grateful pupil, but mindful of the master’s own dictum that historians ‘neither are nor have authorities’.

The task is made easier by Elton’s inclusion in his own volume of many elements of, as he puts it, a ‘confession of faith’. This falls under two main heads: conclusions and methods. Particularly in those more unbuttoned moments (as in ‘Reform in an Age of Change’) when his stream of history is caught by a tape-recorder, he sticks to the view of the 16th century which he first formulated some thirty years ago: that the 1530s saw a revolution in both government and the constitution, and that this revolution was planned, legislated and executed by one man: Thomas Cromwell. He is similarly fixed in his methods. Now, as always, Elton believes in the self-sufficiency of the record. All the historian is required to do is to approach the evidence with an open mind, study it faithfully, and write up his results clearly: ‘that is how historical knowledge should advance, and that is how as a rule it does.’

All this is a little dry for some. Hence the suggestion that Elton’s English festschrift should be called History and Hard Work as a riposte to Trevor-Roper’s History and Imagination. But of course, as recent events have shown, the joke is not wholly against documentary historians. Meanwhile the apparent certainty of Elton’s conclusions, and the serene simplicity of his methodology (so much less confusing than all those philosophisings), is, for many people, powerfully seductive. Particularly, it would seem, Americans. In Tudor Rule and Revolution the authors protest a passionate discipleship on almost every page. In fact, they go so far as to differentiate their status between inner scholarii – who have been inducted into the mysteries as Elton’s own students – and discipuli, an outer and less privileged band who have only sat at his feet, without the benefit of formal instruction. Long ago, in my own very happy days in Elton’s seminar, we used to divide the group into Eltonians and Eltonettes. These were roughly to be equated with ‘us’ and ‘them’, English and Americans. Eltonians, we thought, grasped the essence of what Elton was trying to do without needing to imitate the style; Eltonettes reproduced the form to the last perfection of pedantry, but caught nothing of the substance. There is too much in this volume that confirms our arrogance.

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