Christendom

Conrad Russell

  • F.W. Maitland by G.R. Elton
    Weidenfeld, 118 pp, £12.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 297 78614 8
  • Renaissance Essays by Hugh Trevor-Roper
    Secker, 312 pp, £15.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 436 42511 4
  • History, Society and the Churches: Essays in Honour of Owen Chadwick edited by Derek Beales and Geoffrey Best
    Cambridge, 335 pp, £30.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 521 25486 8

This could be called a review of the three Regiuses. G.R. Elton is at present Regius Professor at Cambridge. Owen Chadwick, to whom tribute is paid in a festschrift, is his predecessor in the same chair, while Lord Dacre of Glanton, more commonly known as Professor Trevor-Roper, is the recently retired Regius Professor at Oxford. From this conjunction, a classical or prophetic scholar would no doubt bring forth a portent: if the conjunction of three kings signified so much, what might the conjunction of three Regiuses symbolise? Perhaps this is a line a mere reviewer should not pursue too far, for there are many other things to be said about these works. Only the festschrift is a conventional exercise in scholarly research. Professor Elton is writing for the new series ‘Historians on Historians’. The book tells us a vast amount about the historical creeds both of Maitland and of Professor Elton himself, but it is only occasionally that it tells us much about history that we did not know before. Professor Trevor-Roper has reprinted a collection of ephemera, reviews, talks and occasional articles. Yet these works do say something about the basic outlook of the historians concerned. What emerges most clearly from Elton’s work on Maitland is their love for archives, and in particular for the Public Record Office; and Elton, who has earned the undying gratitude of the profession by his contribution to saving the Public Record Office at Chancery Lane, is a fitting man to pay tribute to the work Maitland did there. Both of them emerge as men whose work grows from the records outwards, from the small piece of grit in the Plea Roll to the published pearl. In this respect, Professor Elton is entitled to his identification with his subject. So he is also in stressing their common respect for legal records, without falling into what Elton once called the ‘essentially a-historical’ attitude of lawyers searching for a precedent. As Maitland put it, ‘what the lawyer wants is authority, and the newer the better: what the historian wants is evidence, and the older the better.’

Though this volume is expected in much that it says about archives, it is somewhat unexpected in its revelations about Professor Elton’s bump of reverence. This is not a quality which those who remember the Elton of the Fifties would have expected, and though it has perhaps been clear for some time that they were wrong, it is still unexpected to find him entitling a chapter ‘Patron Saint’. To one who grows more aware that we are all sinners, the casting of any historian as patron saint is liable to raise a few hackles. When that is said, however, Maitland is likely to do a great deal less harm than most in such a position.

It should also be said that the similarity between these two historians is a good deal less than total: the man whose landlady said that ‘ ’e’s a-dried isself up a-eatin’ o’ too much dry toast’ is clearly something other than a previous incarnation of Professor Elton. The famous comment attributed to Maitland, on Round’s review of Hubert Hall, that ‘it proves Dr Hall to be no scholar, and Mr Round to be no gentleman’ is also in a tone not characteristic of his biographer. The broad conceptual sweeps that went into writing ‘The Political Creed of Thomas Cromwell’ are also ones in which Maitland did not much indulge. Where the two historians are closest is in their picture of Parliaments, what they were, and what they were for, and Maitland’s famous essay on ‘Memoranda de Parliamento 1305’ calls forth a quantity of vintage Eltonian comment in which the bump of reverence is less in evidence. He quotes Maitland’s dictum that the Parliament was ‘rather an act than a body of persons’, and holds forth vigorously on ‘strange notions of kings calling Parliaments which were designed to hamper their actions by opposing them’. It will come as no surprise to find that Elton now has Neale and Pollard in his sights, though there may be some surprise in the discovery of Pollard’s belief that ‘the failure of parliamentary institutions in Semitic or negroid communities is proof, not of the defects of parliaments, but of the political incapacity of those who cannot work them.’ Anglophone historians of parliaments have suffered from a remarkably Pharisaical willingness to thank God that we are not as other men are. However, though much of Professor Elton’s fire is well directed, the feeling remains that it would be nice if he had the leisure to get down to his own history of Elizabethan Parliaments. We now know what is the criticism of the old order: the real challenge is building the new one. If others, from Sir Keith Joseph downwards, will leave Professor Elton time to get on with his work, he should have another magnum opus up his sleeve.

By contrast, Professor Trevor-Roper is not among those whom one expects to find, in V.H. Galbraith’s inimitable phrase, ‘trailing clouds of glory down Chancery Lane’. He is more an essayist than an archivist, and prefers to wear his learning lightly. He writes, more frankly than either of the other Regiuses, for the enjoyment of the reader, and in a higher rhetorical style than is favoured by either. At its best, as in the essays on John Stow and William Camden, the method can produce work that is very vivid. Occasionally, the reader may be left wondering whether the vividness of the writing takes it a little bit further than the words of its source, or, as in the interesting essay on the Paracelsian movement (here published for the first time), whether the pattern which emerges is a little bit tidier than the evidence on which it is based. The work is full of phrases aimed at increasing our understanding, rather than our knowledge. For the major part of his career, Professor Trevor-Roper has been concerned, not for the accumulation of archival bricks, but for the grand architectural design: his philosopher’s stone has always been the insight which makes sense of a mass of material already collected.

The method carries the risk, of course, that it may come to seem a little old-fashioned. This is not just a matter of changing intellectual fashions, though as a profession we are by no means immune from fashion-consciousness. There is the more substantial risk of failure to keep abreast of a changing body of knowledge. To take an amusing example, there is one case in these essays in which Professor Trevor-Roper takes from one of Professor Elton’s early works propositions which Elton himself, in his book on Maitland, has engagingly confessed to be in error. The essay on Hooker is a clear example of this tendency to sound old-fashioned: it takes us right back to the historiographical simplicities of the 1950s, when we had Anglicans and Puritans, and never the twain would meet. There is no sign that Trevor-Roper has engaged with the vast body of information which is available now and was not available then. This is not a case of rejecting new-fangled interpretation: it is a case of ignoring new information.

Many of Professor Trevor-Roper’s works have been concerned with the tendency of the middle 20th century to apply social interpretation to religion, to set out to explain belief as representing a particular social status or social outlook. His famous article on the gentry is one of the conspicuous examples of this tendency. He is one of those historians who, even while vigorously resisting the historiographical influence of Marx, nevertheless accepted, at least in part, the central Marxist proposition that religious beliefs were outward and visible signs of inward and material realities. In the late 20th century, when Marx and all his works are coming to appear historiographically, if not yet politically, obsolete, such a concession may tend to appear unnecessary.

Professor Owen Chadwick and his friends and pupils, most of whom have always been frankly historians of religion, never made that concession, and their obstinate insistence that religion is religion now appears to be coming back into its own. Two historians among those contributing to the Chadwick festschrift have thrown down the gauntlet on this issue. They are Dr Morrill, writing about the attack on the Church of England in the Long Parliament, and Dr Blanning, writing on the role of religion in the European counter-revolution. Morrill straightforwardly argues that ‘it is my contention that what made civil war possible in 1642 was a crisis of religion.’ Unlike his predecessors of the Fifties, he does not attempt to explain religion as a cloak for something else: he thinks religion is something people believed, and that they did things because they believed things. He argues that in the Long Parliament’s first session, constitutional debates were conducted within an intellectual and rhetorical framework little different from the 1620s, whereas there was a significant shift in the frame of reference of religious debates. In a key formulation, he says that the division in the Long Parliament was between those who would go back to the pre-Laudian Church, and those who wanted something altogether more radical.

So far as they go, these propositions are entirely correct. Here and there, they need sandpapering, and sometimes filling out on a wider canvas. The debates on the canons, especially as reported in Palmer’s diary, illustrate the impetus which dissent from the Crown’s religion gave to novel constitutional thinking. When Dr Morrill has a fuller canvas on which to work, he will no doubt fill in the rival pressures exerted by the King and the Scots on the two Houses of Parliament. The Scots, by completely changing the agenda of the possible, contributed very heavily to the increasing religious polarisation of the Long Parliament. Yet none of these qualifications, of which Morrill is well aware, changes the importance of the central proposition, and it is this proposition which marks a decisive shift from the historiography of the previous generation.

Dr Morrill has chosen to argue his case in isolation and on its merits only. By contrast, Dr Blanning has chosen to mount a historiographical offensive: he is joining issue with works in which, ‘when religious forces do make an appearance, they do so only as symptoms of a more fundamental social reality.’ While conceding that many have ‘put the methodological tools supplied by the social scientists’ to ‘good use’, he asserts that ‘a nagging doubt remains.’ By the time he has recounted many passages in which other historians, in true Jacobin style, have optimistically explained away evidence of religious conviction as simple manipulation by priests, the ‘nagging doubt’ is much reinforced. One is reminded of the fond hope of many early Protestants that the mists of Popery would disperse as soon as the glorious sun of the Gospel was allowed to shine upon them. No such luck. Traditional religion has proved to be a very tough force indeed. Blanning’s picture of a polarisation between the religious and the anti-clerical is strikingly similar to that provided by Dr Morrill for the English Civil War. Some of the descriptions of riots breaking out on the days of patron saints remind one of the fact that the second Civil War was begun by a group of people carrying a plum pudding in procession down Canterbury high street.

The case seems well made out, yet, as always, those involved in the swing of the pendulum risk being carried away by it: in one passage which a final rereading might have led him to blue-pencil, he expresses the hope that ‘religion may yet reclaim an autonomous causative status’ (my italics). In this passage, he gives a quite unnecessary hostage to potential critics, and claims more than, on the evidence of the rest of the article, he himself believes. In a vivid page on how Spain, facing Napoleon, set out to ‘fight in defence of the fatherland and of religion’, he shows himself well aware that, as religion defines a community, so also a community may define religion. Autonomous causes in history are very rare things, and the attempt to claim a major causative place for religion should not be confused with any attempt to claim the Holy Grail of autonomy. One final image this chapter left: reading the description of the way the Madonna of Smolensk was paraded before the Russian army at Borodino, after it had survived the onslaughts of the French, then reading ahead to Keith Robbins’s essay on 1940 and the defence of Christian civilisation, I remembered the swelling pride of looking at the dome of St Paul’s in 1944, and wondered whether the world had really changed so much.

In any good festschrift there are more good essays than can be pulled together in a review, but some must be mentioned whether they can be pulled together or not. Blair Worden, on Oliver Cromwell and the Sin of Achan, is inside Cromwell’s mind in a way few historians have ever been, and sheds important light on why he refused the crown. Boyd Hilton, on Evangelicals and Providence, distinguishes between those Evangelicals who believed, with Strafford, that ‘the prerogative is to be used, as God doth his omnipotency, on extraordinary occasions,’ and those who believed, with Calvin, in a separate Providence for each temporal event. The argument that this difference has something to do with their differing views on the role of state action is an example of the benefit to be got from taking seriously the religion of religious people. John McManners repeats Voltaire’s plaintive question about tithes: ‘Did God come down to earth to award a quarter of my income to the abbot of St Denis?’ French objections to the tithe recall the ill-judged objection of the Vicar of Perivale to coat and conduct money in 1640. He said this was much too heavy for him to pay: it was a tenth of his income. Keith Robbins gives us the incongruous spectacle of A.A. Milne portraying the Second World War as a war against Antichrist.

Yet the dominant theme of this volume is not that of these essays: it is the one set in a memorable first essay by Henry Chadwick on ‘Augustine on Pagans and Christians’ (is Owen Chadwick the first scholar to enjoy the distinction of having his brother contribute to his festschrift?). The theme that emerges, to be picked up in many later essays, is the rise and fall of the Christian claim to monopoly. Henry Chadwick reminds us that ‘the pagans did not know they were pagans until the Christians told them they were.’ By grouping them all together under this label, the Christians ‘created an invisible social wall between themselves and their non-Christian neighbours’. To the manning of this wall, they brought the detestation of idolatry characteristic of the jealous God of Israel. For the first time, Christianity hoped to extend the God of Israel’s monopoly over the whole world. Granted the basic Christian convictions that idolatry is a sin, and that sin should be repressed, startling examples of intolerance logically followed. Some people, notably the Circumcellions, were liable to turn their intolerance on fellow Christians who appeared to have compromised with evil. The picture of them washing the floors of Catholic basilicas with salt and water, ‘as if they were disinfecting a public lavatory’, is one which calls for a good deal of thought. Henry Chadwick suggests that what was being demanded was new: ‘the two principal Christian concerns, right conduct and correct belief as a ground of social unity within the community, have hardly any analogy in ancient polytheistic practice.’ It was this claim which meant that Christians could say, ‘I am come, not to bring peace, but a sword,’ and create a situation which, in Professor Chadwick’s words, ‘perhaps only Ulstermen can understand’.

Augustine was not a devotee of toleration, but in this atmosphere his comments appear as an oasis. Thanks, in part, to his efforts, Christianity learnt to reduce to practical limits its claims to monopoly. Yet as soon as it did so, its success created increasing diversity within the Church. Professor Constable, in a pleasing essay, describes the widening of the acceptable limits of diversity during the 12th century. In a footnote, he produces a quotation from Henry Adams which is the keynote of the whole volume: ‘The movement from unity into multiplicity, between 1200 and 1900, was unbroken in sequence and rapid in acceleration. Prolonged one generation longer, it would require a new social mind.’

Professor Constable describes a situation in which diversity was still accommodated within the Church. Yet, as the volume progresses through its majestic chronological sweep, any notion of ‘the’ Church grows steadily more obsolete. First we have the development of Christian Churches, instead of the Church. As the limits of tolerance were strained, Dr Morrill notes examples of iconoclastic behaviour which recall the Circumcellions. Again, the centre of the story is the deep conviction, described by Professor Chadwick, that religious pluralism is wrong. By the time we reach Dr Blanning’s territory, people had accommodated themselves to the existence of Christian Churches, while still believing that religion was the foundation of all public life and of all morals, and that the toleration of irreligion was a form of sin. It is this conviction which the Jacobins outraged so profoundly and so deliberately, and which often moved in them an equal and opposite intolerance. Jacobins who tore down figures of Christ off the cross and speared them were behaving in ways Circumcellions would have understood far better than pagans ever could.

The attempt to preserve a monopoly for Christians was as unsuccessful as had been the attempt to preserve a monopoly for one sort of Christian: in this context, the whole history of French education since the Revolution may be seen as a losing clerical battle. At the end of the book, in Keith Robbins’s sad little essay on ‘Britain, 1940 and Christian Civilisation’, we have people repeating a creed with which they were growing increasingly unhappy. Lord Lloyd complained of reluctance ‘to go on with the task of building up a Christian civilisation in Africa and Asia, in the facile and foolish assumption that any other civilisation is likely to be just as good’. Stanley Baldwin, hearing voices, makes an unconvincing, and possibly unconvinced, successor to Joan of Arc. Canon Vidler complained of many of his contemporaries talking as if ‘Christendom is still a going concern which has to be defended instead of a kind of social order which has in future to be re-created’. Here, perhaps, we have the situation foreseen by Henry Adams – which would require ‘a new social mind’. That is something whose creation still awaits us.