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

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.

Does Elton not uncover an Achilles heel when he admits that the historian is vulnerable to literary-theoretical criticism in that he has no choice but to express himself in words; and, we may add, to learn about the past in words – through language, rhetoric, texts? Lord Acton wrote that our studies should have the chastity of mathematics. But that can never be, and I, for one, should not desire it. Elton says that historical evidence is that deposit of past happenings which still exists ‘to be looked at’. But ‘to be looked at’ is a phrase which greatly underplays what Elton himself has justly described as an exceptionally demanding task. And what exactly does it mean?

The point can be illustrated by reference to one of Sir Geoffrey’s minor victims, Judith Anderson, author of a study of 16th-century life histories called Biographical Truth. One of Anderson’s subjects is that artfully artless book, George Cavendish’s Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey. As Cavendish’s narrative progressively contracts from public spectacle to the inner counsels of state, and eventually to the cardinal’s downfall and Cavendish’s part in it, it records a number of sensitive and secretive conversations conducted in the great recessed windows characteristic of Tudor palaces and manor houses. The suggestion that Cavendish may have employed this circumstance as a telling literary device, so contributing to the event (which Cavendish did not invent) an element of what an economist might call ‘added value’, is dismissed by Elton as ‘an absurdity’. Those conversations were recorded as having taken place in great windows because that is where they happened, for practical and understandable reasons. Does Elton think that the feeding of the five thousand was recorded simply because it happened? (Was it, one wonders, the only thing that happened on that particular day?) But this no doubt is a problem of hermeneutics, more appropriate in the discussion of the sacred text than of a text like Cavendish’s Wolsey. Nevertheless, if this is all that is entailed in ‘looking at’ the record of the past, there is a danger that some things will not be seen at all, or responded to adequately. To suggest that Cavendish did not intend the great window device to have a certain effect on his readers is to suppress the historical sense, not exercise it.

Yet Professor Elton is right. The Church is in danger. To pretend that the truth about the past is absolutely unattainable, that the past itself has no existence apart from various stories told about it, even to be as relatively indifferent to past facts and events as a New Historicist like Judith Anderson (with whom one can certainly do business), is, from the point of view of history, dangerous: and much more of a current danger than the crudely Marxist teleology which almost nobody now believes in, so that one wonders why Elton bothers to flog such a dead or dying horse.

The Elizabethan Sir Philip Sidney regarded historians with a kind of ironical contempt when he compared them with philosophers, on the one hand, and with poets like himself, on the other. But he did not misrepresent history when he complained that it remains lumbered with the ineluctable facts of what happened. The historian does not, cannot, join with the philosopher in discussing what ought to be. Nor can he, like the maker of fictions, invent might-have-beens, happy or morally improving endings to the story. Like Popeye the Sailorman, he is what he is and he ain’t what he ain’t, and this corresponds to the inexorability of the material which he studies, it being perfectly possible to establish the is-ness and ain’t-ness of most matters.

So Professor Elton rejects both the realism, as it were, of the Marxists and social scientists and the nominalism of the literary critics in favour of a third path, the humanism of history armed with the old slogan of ad fontes, back to the sources. History is not a form of some other intellectual enterprise. It is itself, a study different from any other and governed by its own rules.

To all this one can only say ‘amen,’ and amen too to what Hilaire Belloc called ‘these simple little rules and few’: 1. separate your question from your answer, allowing the evidence to suggest the question and imposing no answer on the evidence; 2. the historian enjoys hindsight, which is at once an advantage and a disadvantage – to be aware of that is what is meant by studying the past ‘for its own sake’, or, better, on its own terms; 3. keep an open mind, which means a willingness to admit that one may have been wrong.

Sir Geoffrey is here prescribing, not only for the kind of historian that he himself is, but for all of us, including those who may be less confident of hearing history itself speaking, ventriloquising through the historian something substantially objective called the record of the past. One may be more suspicious than Elton of one’s sources, more aware of their textual status and rhetorical resonances. But one must still strive to get it right, even if the notion of a single ‘right’ history is repugnant. And there are no safe procedures regulating this ceaseless striving other than those which Elton has laid down, here and in such earlier lay sermons as The Practice of History and the 1976 presidential address to the Royal Historical Society on ‘The Historian’s Social Function’. Here we find these additional rules: ‘all the available and potentially relevant evidence must be seen’; and no evidence must be invented, which may seem so obvious as not to require statement, until one remembers certain psycho-historians and enthusiasts for anthropological analogues.

It is these rules, this practice, history within the parameters of its own procedures and nothing outside them, which for Elton have always constituted the justification for history as an intellectual and socially defensible activity, and the question must be whether it is a sufficient justification? History has been called a deaf man answering questions which nobody has asked. At the heart of the matter is a paradox, the relevance of irrelevance, history being most useful at its most useless. Elton tells us that knowing about history does not make a man wise or endow him with prophetic powers. But trying to be a prophet can mar him as a historian.

It was not Elton who said that the only lesson of history is that there are no lessons to be learned from history, but he could have said it. The historian is the ultimate sceptic, mankind’s intellectual conscience. A world of the mind consisting of nothing but historians would be anarchy: but without any historians at all it would be ‘a collection of despotisms’. History is always uncertain and unpredictable and therefore always free.

Elton’s historical method, the condition of enjoying and imparting freedom in this sense, is either no method at all or the most exacting of methods. Since the historian brings no questions to the past from the present, even dispenses with any questions, at least initially, apart from the exercise of open-minded curiosity, he starts by having no idea where he is going. Nor can he have any expectation of arrival, only of travelling hopefully. ‘The historian’s intellectual life terminates only with his physical existence.’ Ockham’s razor is thrown away, for one cannot have too many entities, too much evidence.

But some kind of cutting instrument is indispensable, since, as Elton admits, for English historians it becomes very difficult as early as the 12th century to see all the evidence which might matter, and thereafter quite impossible. Elton’s own solutions to this problem are to be found in the corpus of his own work and this question too still stands: are they the right solutions, or, can there be any solution to the problem posed by the expanding universe which is the total record of human affairs? One Eltonian strategy has been to select a particular archive and to work it for all that it may be worth, allowing emergent questions to open up those paths through the trackless density of the jungle which reveal its worth. The archive which he selected at the outset was the great hoard of stale papers compiled by the Tudor statesman, Thomas Cromwell, and fortunately conserved as public property through the accident of Cromwell’s fall. Like Mallory’s Everest, the archive was there, but the circumstances which immersed Elton in it for more than twenty exceptionally fruitful years included the departure from the scene just when his career began of the ranking historian of Henry VIII’s reign, A.F. Pollard, and the consequential advice of Pollard’s pupil, J.E. Neale, whom Pollard had decades earlier directed into the adjacent Elizabethan period.

Some of the questions which presently emerged arose in the purest Eltonian fashion through reconstituting the archive in that original integrity which Victorian editors with their fetish about chronology had disturbed and rearranged. Others were brought on, as in a cold frame, by the need to construct a doctoral thesis, and these coalesced in the book called The Tudor Revolution in Government (1953) which credited Cromwell with a salient role not only in Tudor government but in the formation of the modern English state. When Elton told his Michigan audience to be prepared to modify their work on the basis of further study and fuller knowledge, he doubtless had in mind the debate which, like some tropical storm, has continued to circulate around this grand thesis for nearly forty years. Later, in his Ford Lectures, published as Policy and Police (1972), a study of Cromwell’s enforcement of the Reformation, Elton finally threw away Ockham’s razor altogether and, answering those critics who had complained of too little evidence, told them that now they could have as much evidence as they liked. It made for eight Fords rather than the more normal six. A book is finite, and even this book could not contain ‘all the available and potentially relevant evidence’. But the reader is given access to everything which crossed Thomas Cromwell’s desk in a single, given month, all the cases from a particular region. It is interesting to see what kinds of enquiry were found not to emerge from the Cromwell archive: not much on Cromwell himself, certainly not enough to make a biography, even in the conventional, pre-Freudian sense. It is notorious that Elton doubts the value of historical biography, while recognising its evergreen popularity.

Another strategy for making the study of history more managable than it could otherwise hope to be was to rehabilitate the late 19th-century definition of the subject as ‘past politics’, and to resist the promiscuity of the Sixties vogue for all kinds of ‘new ways in history’, together with the exotic and especially French intellectual influences which they projected. Has he ever praised a French historian? In Return to Essentials he remarks: ‘The absurd always sounds better in French.’

A marked preference for political history, accentuating its constitutional and administrative rather than personally interactive aspects, is expressed not only implicitly, in Elton’s scholarship and in that of the vast majority of his research pupils, but more explicitly in the post-Sixties work of polemic Political History: Principles and Practice (1970), where the historian is advised to stick to what is, after all, his last. In terms reminiscent of Dr Johnson on London and life, Elton pronounced: ‘Historians who can muster no interest for the active political life of past societies have no sense of history at all.’

Narrative political history was praised as history most literally and properly itself, and always the most popular history. Readability and accessibility is something to which Elton attaches the highest value, after scholarly integrity. In Political History it began to emerge that the historian whom Elton most admires is the truly great F.W. Maitland, the subject of one of his more recent books. Maitland wrote beautifully but he was not widely read. ‘He told no stories’. Similarly, Elton’s own forte is not narrative, but the close and technically faultless anatomy of the institutions of government. His recent book The Parliament of England, 1559-1581 is the most definitive study of the English Parliament at any period in its history, deliberately constructed as a riposte to the over-dramatised narrative history of those same Elizabethan parliaments published in the Fifties by Sir John Neale. In a review I wondered how many sixth-form students (sometimes said to be bored by Neale) would want to read Elton’s somewhat austere account of the same subject. (And what sixth-former, in the last thirty-five years, has not read Elton’s England under the Tudors?) Sir Geoffrey wrote courteously to say that he took the point. ‘By the way, did you read it? All of it?’

But what in Elton’s view will most appropriately restrict the otherwise boundless scope of history for the relief of hard-pressed students in this country is a proper priority for English history. This conviction is not unconnected with the adopted patriotism of a Central European asylum seeker who spoke no English in childhood and who cannot recall his first adolescent sight of Dover’s white cliffs without emotion. Elton is consequently more conscious than most of us of England’s strange neglect of its past. ‘In this country history is not very present.’ Not that he has written exclusively on English topics. Following in the steps of his father, the distinguished Classicist Dr V. Ehrenberg, his very first publication (1946) concerned Julius Caesar’s Gallic proconsulate. He is greatly admired in Germany as a historian of Reformation Europe and as a native-speaking contributor to historical conferences. Nevertheless, England has always absorbed most of his energies (and the spectacle of cricket the occasional moments of leisure) as well as satisfying his longings.

Elton was the first holder of a Cambridge chair to profess English History (and perhaps the last as well as the first to be known as a Professor of English Constitutional History). The title of his 1984 inaugural lecture as Regius (both inaugurals are reprinted in Return to Essentials) was ‘The History of England’, apparently the most historical of all histories since, just as history is ‘a study different from any other’, so England is ‘different from any other country I know’, its singularity best able to teach, above all to the English themselves, the unpredictable lawlessness of historical particulars and processes. One notes in this discourse the total absence of any mention of ‘Britain’, a term now universally mandatory, not least among Professor Elton’s fellow historians of the Tudor and Stuart periods. This was no accident. The inaugural was one long lament for the loss from the Cambridge historical Tripos of English history as a complete, continuous subject, and therefore the ‘lack of all cohesion’. Now, in retirement, Sir Geoffrey is completing a book on the subject of English history, from the beginning to the present. When did anybody last do that?

I shall not repeat my earlier discourtesy of asking who will want to read such a book, which would be a superfluous, rhetorical question. But what will the reader get out of it, in post-Maastricht, England-in-Britain-in-Europe? It can hardly be expected to revive a never very fervent English nationalism, nor will that be the author’s intention. For Elton’s professional scepticism extends to all the traditional, progressive reasons for studying English history; to learn about political freedom, or the Empire, or the industrial revolution. Presumably we shall find that the history of England has been a magical mystery tour, its destination as ever uncertain, three empires won and lost so far.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences