No More Scissors and Paste
- History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood by Fred Inglis
Princeton, 385 pp, £23.95, ISBN 0 691 13014 0
In February 1938, R. G. Collingwood, then Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford and aged only 48, suffered a small stroke. It was the first of a series, each one more serious than the last, that would kill him within five years. The usual treatment in the 1930s was less effective than modern medical intervention but rather more enjoyable. His doctors recommended a prolonged period of leave from his job, lengthy walks and sea cruises. He was also encouraged to continue writing: even if teaching was deemed bad for the blood vessels, research was supposed to be good for them.
Vol. 32 No. 8 · 22 April 2010
What are we to make of the relationship between the two sides of R.G. Collingwood’s academic career, Mary Beard asks (LRB, 25 March). She writes that Collingwood’s ‘most famous book’ is The Idea of History, and wonders how that work relates to the posthumously published Roman Inscriptions of Britain. Yet I should have thought that the most read (or consulted) of all Collingwood’s books is one that goes quite unmentioned in the review: Roman Britain, the opening volume in the Oxford History of England. This was first published in 1936 and was revised and reprinted regularly until supplanted by Peter Salway’s like-titled volume in 1981. Salway’s is thorough (it has more than double the number of pages), but Collingwood’s remains an outstanding essay, with a comparative perspective and breadth not to be matched. It is known as ‘Collingwood & Myres’ and it’s often assumed that Myres was the collaborator, providing the scholarly weight. In fact Collingwood was solely responsible for the 320 pages on Roman Britain; Myres was solely responsible for the other 140 pages, on ‘The English Settlements’. These are two monographs bound as one, not in any respect a work of joint authorship. Collingwood is attentive to the latest discoveries, not least those revealed by the aerial photography of O.G.S. Crawford, the subject of Kitty Hauser’s Bloody Old Britain (2008); and he is speculative in a way befitting a professor of metaphysics. On the one hand, we are told about the inevitable anachronism in thinking about the past: ‘But we have to think as best we can, and unless we thought in the conceptual vocabulary of our own times we should not be able to think at all.’ On the other hand, this: ‘We think of the Romans as a great civilising power … But that assumption only seems natural because we unconsciously liken the Roman settlement of Britain to, for example, the English exploration and development of central Africa.’ This sort of observation shows Collingwood sharing at least something with his Oxford colleague Ronald Syme, whose Roman Revolution of 1939 is mentioned by Beard. Though outdated, as any work of scholarship must become, Collingwood’s Roman Britain remains intensely readable, elegant and provocative.
According to Beard, Collingwood in his autobiography is ‘vitriolic about those antiquarians, following in the tradition of Pitt-Rivers, who excavated sites out of mere curiosity’. Collingwood had, of course, the highest regard for Pitt-Rivers as one of the founders of modern archaeology. Voicing a long-standing consensus among professional archaeologists, Collingwood recommends Excavations in Cranborne Chase as ‘a classical example of archaeological method’.