Elton at seventy

Patrick Collinson

  • Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study by G.R. Elton
    Cambridge, 128 pp, £16.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 521 41098 3

Sir Geoffrey Elton’s latest reflections on the state and status of his subject illustrate the Coleridgean maxim that a man is more likely to be right in what he affirms than in what he denies. Arising from lectures delivered, one imagines, off the cuff to an audience at the University of Michigan, they consist for the most part of soundings-off against a rogues’ gallery of ideological and academical types and tendencies which he believes constitute a threat to the proper study and use of the past. Like High Church Tories in the reign of Queen Anne announcing that the Church is in danger, he wrests the sacred ark of history out of the defiling hands of sundry Marxists, Whig progressivists, structuralists and deconstructionists. Reminding one of those early 20th-century French hard-liners who insisted on calling themselves Catholics sans epithète, Elton pleads for plain, unadorned history as he himself has practised it. As we learned from The Practice of History (1967), history for him is practice – doing, not theorising – which makes for some difficulty, since Return to Essentials is necessarily a book about the theory of the subject. Yet another polemical book ended with these words: ‘Enough of these reflections. It is high time to return to the thing itself.’

Some of these latest soundings-off are a little too close to caricature for comfort. But the justification of conventional historical method is magnificent in its experienced sanity and deserves to be inscribed in letters of gold. So, guided by Coleridge, I shall attend to what he has positively affirmed about the nature of history, not merely in these pages but in the achievement of much of a lifetime. Sir Geoffrey remarks that it is still too early to sing Nunc dimittis, and indeed there is little sign as yet of this pugnacious historian departing in peace. Nevertheless, Return to Essentials is an occasion for a kind of obituary, however premature, an encomium of a great scholar whose industry and productivity continue to shame younger colleagues and whose notoriously conservative opinions on the nature of history remain a professional sheet-anchor.

Elton’s attack on the hosts of Midian is elegantly symmetrical, history being squeezed by its own version of the Double Whammy. On the one hand, ideologues employ dogma to erect prejudicial accounts of the historical past which preclude its properly historical investigation. On the other, philosophical theorists, and especially deconstructionists, deny that the historical past can ever be reconstituted or reliably retrieved, thereby reducing the writing of history to those feeble fictions which do not even know that that is what they are.

Ideology means Marxism (and especially that ‘erring colleague’, Christopher Hill), but Elton reserves some of his ammunition for the alternative, liberal determinists, Arnold Toynbee, Sir John Plumb, J.H. Hexter, while not forgetting that morally admirable but woefully misled and misleading Christian Socialist R.H. Tawney, who was first denounced in Elton’s inaugural of 1968 as ‘a very good man’ whose work as a historian can never be trusted and who had had a ‘disastrous effect’ on the national self-consciousness.

If Marxism has erected signposts sunk in concrete, deconstruction removes all permanent landmarks from the landscapes of the past, downgrading or elevating history (according to your point of view) to an inherently unstable ‘discourse’ not anchored in sources but making whatever sense it currently chooses or needs out of no less protean ‘texts’. Theory in this sense, which is held to owe nothing whatsoever to first-hand acquaintance with the task of making sense of the past, is attacked in the persons of some relatively minor aunt sallies of whom not all readers will have heard, such as a certain Professor David Harlan. But behind these front men lurk the high-priestly figures, whom Elton hints will prove no less evanescent: Foucault, Barthes and M. Jacques Derrida, who is expected to share Sir Geoffrey’s company when honorary degrees are conferred in Cambridge Senate House this summer.

While many in the English historical tradition will identify with the robustness of Elton’s exposure of thinly-clad emperors, some of us will want to say that a great many of our documentary sources are texts, and not only, as Elton suggests, those of particular interest to intellectual historians. We cannot, therefore, entirely agree with the proposition that hermeneutics has nothing to do with the practice of history. According to Elton, whereas hermeneutics is the science which invents meaning, historical study depends on discovering meaning without inventing it. When, however, Professor Natalie Davis wrote about ‘fiction in the archives’ she made an important and valid point, although not all her fellow historians have chosen to grasp it. When Elton wrote that the Tudor martyrologist John Foxe did not invent a myth but recorded a truth about things which actually happened, he was right in what he affirmed, though wrong in what he denied. For Foxe was both a great historian and a great myth-maker.

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