Hereditas Historiae

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G.R. Elton - Practice of History (1967)  


‘There have never been more historians at work in the world than there are today. Among these masses of active scholars, many have presumably at some time reflected upon their craft, but only few have published their thoughts. Though in this the many may have been wise, the practical result has been that, with the exception of manuals instructing in techniques of research, most books on history have been written by philosophers analysing historical thinking, by sociologists and historiographers analysing historians, and by the occasional historian concerned to justify his activity as a social utility. (…) When I read discussions of how historians think, how they can claim to describe that which no longer exists, or whether historical fact has an existence independent of the thinker about facts, I marvel at the ingenuity of the writers, for usually they are men who have never apparently themselves tried to do the work, to see the manifestly surviving evidence of past fact and event, or to practise critical judgment on the materials of history rather than the minds of historians. Though I have looked at a good deal that has been written around these matters, I have made no effort at an exhaustive or comprehensive investigation. What I have tried to do is to set down experience - my experience in the study, writing and teaching of history. This is a manifesto rather than a treatise, more an explanation of one working historian’s faith and practice than a systematic analysis with a series of proved conclusions. I know, of course, that my experience has been limited and that my examples, for instance, will seem to have been chosen from a narrow sector of history. (…)’  

The purpose of history

‘The future is dark, the present burdensome; only the past, dead and finished, bears contemplation. Those who look upon it have survived it: they are its product and its victors. No wonder, therefore, that men concern themselves with history. The desire to know what went before, the desire to understand the passage down time, these are common human attributes. Yet one must distinguish. Though creation myths and cosmogonies testify to this universal desire to give meaning to the past, not all civilizations have been equally concerned to know and write human history as it really was. Modern civilization is peculiar rather than ordinary in that it rests upon the two intellectual pillars of natural science and analytical history. (…)’

‘The study of history comprehends everything that men have said, thought, done or suffered. That much is commonplace, but also not quite true; some reservations have to be made. In the first place, not all the past is recoverable, and the study of history is necessarily confined to that part of it of which evidence either survives or can be reconstructed in the mind. That is to say, while history may commonly be thought of as the whole of mankind’s past life, it is in truth equal only to the surviving past. Historical study is not the study of the past but the study of present traces of the past; if men have said, thought, do ne or suffered anything of which nothing any longer exists, those things are as though they had never been. The crucial element is the present evidence, not the fact of past existence; and questions for whose answer no material exists are strictly non-questions. (…) The past is over and done with: it cannot be relived. It can be reconstructed - seen and understood again - only if it has left present matter behind.

Secondly, the definition given is in a way too wide because history is not the only form of enquiry which deals with man's past life. All the so-called social sciences - archaeology, anthropology, economics, social psychology, sociology ­ attend to man, and all of them can concern themselves with his past as well as his present. (…) These sciences are clearly autonomous; they deal in methods, questions and results which are peculiar to themselves. (…)

We can now rephrase the earlier definition of history. It is concerned with all those human sayings, thoughts, deeds and sufferings which occurred in the past and have left present deposit; and it deals with them from the point of view of happening, change, and the particular. Since no other treatment of man's experience answers to this definition, the autonomy of history - its right to be distinguished from cognate sciences - is established.’

‘The writing of history requires powers not universally available, but the name of historian need not always be denied to the man who cannot write well. What matters are the differences shown in the intellectual treatment of the questions asked. And here the fundamental distinction is that between the amateur and the professional. This is not always an easy distinction to make, for it is not identical with that between men who earn their living by the study of history and those who engage in it by the side of other occupations. The distinction I have in mind rests between the man who has learned his job and the man who, sometimes with touches of genius, comes to it in a happy spirit of untrained enterprise: crudely, the distinction between those who think that research means reading a lot of books and those who have grasped that research means assimilating into oneself the various and often very tiresome relics of the past. Examples of both are found inside as well as outside the academic profession.

The hallmark of the amateur is a failure of instinctive understanding. This expresses itself most clearly in a readiness to see the exceptional in the commonplace and to find the unusual ordinary. (…)’

‘The purpose and ambition of professional history is to understand a given problem from the inside. This may well involve tedium, pettiness and pedantry, the main faults of the professional. He lacks the amateur’s saving grace, for he is not doing the thing just for the love of the thing and cannot rescue himself from depression by romance and sentiment. He is struggling, sometimes grimly, with the often repulsive reality of life, and if he is a petty man or a pedant he will soon convince the reader of that. But even at his worst he cannot fail to add to learning, understanding and knowledge; he contributes truth. (…) 

Professionalism is the product of a certain aptitude worked upon by a specific course of training. Good historians may be born, but true historians are made. (…) In the first place, he knows his evidence. He knows the range of it, how it came into existence, what people or institutions produced it, what it can tell and what can never be got from it. In consequence he knows the “right” questions - those capable of being answered and those that lead to further questions. (…)‘This distinction between the amateur and the professional deserves so much emphasis because it is really fundamental. Both kinds of historian require other capacities, such as ability to judge evidence, ability to construct an argument or a narrative, ability to write. (….)’


‘The study of history, then, amounts to a search for the truth. But whether in fact such a thing as historical truth can exist has been a much debated problem; in particular, some philosophers, who show no sign of ever having tried to write history, like to arrive at the conclusion that, since historical knowledge cannot, strictly speaking, exist, there is no way of establishing truth in history. (…)’

‘Historical method is no more than a recognized and tested way of extracting from what the past has left the true facts and events of that past, and so far as possible their true meaning and interrelation, the whole governed by the first principle of historical understanding, namely that the past must be studied in its own right, for its own sake, and on its own terms. It is a way of turning the evidence to account, and though there is nothing mysterious about it, it is nevertheless rigorous and not to be confused with the so-called common-sense approach of the intelligent but untutored enthusiast. lts fundamental principles are only two, and they may be expressed as questions, thus: exactly what evidence is there, and exactly what does it mean? Knowledge of all the sources, and competent criticism of them - these are the basic requirements of a reliable historiography. This essay can attempt no specific description of historical technique; that is a large subject of its own, covered in some useful textbooks.* (….)’

The Sources

‘To know all the evidence. Ideally the student should never consider less than the total of the historical material which may conceivably be relevant to his enquiry. Though in many circumstances this will be an impossible counsel of perfection, it remains the only proper ambition. One of the demands embodied in it can, in any case, always be observed: the historian must know the range and types of sources available to him, and he must have done his utmost to learn what has been written in and around the topic with which he is concerned. In other words, he must learn to compose a full bibliography of his subject and keep it up to date. Knowing what other historians have written is vital to a proper job, even though in the present context of explaining the connection between the historian and historical truth it has little importance. But knowing one’s fellow­workers at first hand is not only a sensible precaution to prevent needless duplication or the repetition of exploded error; it also assists in covering the range of the sources, suggests questions, and opens lines of fruitful discussion. That it can in addition provide the relief of disputation, anger and abuse is a further but accidental gain to writer and reader alike.

However, what matters are the sources, that is to say the physical survivals from the events to be studied. And here the first demand of sound historical scholarship must be stressed: it must rest on a broad-fronted attack upon all the relevant material. Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence which will answer a particular question; it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (…)

No doubt, the austere answer would be that when all the evidence cannot be seen that piece of history cannot be written. This might have the possible advantage of freeing the world from a good deal of so-called contemporary history, but it is clearly not an acceptable solution to say that the writing of history must wait for neglect, accident, water, fire and rats to do their work of rendering the labour possible by reducing the evidence to piecemeal obscurity. Historians must be able to produce sound and trustworthy history even in circumstances which do not permit them to see everything; there should be rules of scholarship applicable in forest before laying out the garden. (…)’

Evidence and Criticism

‘There is no perfect substitute for total acquaintance with the relevant material, even as there is no perfect way of overcoming severe losses of evidence. Thus there is no absolutely satisfactory way of studying history, which to some may put the subject out of court, but to others, unwilling to see an end to their metier, may seem its chief attraction. In any case, it is not enough to have seen everything; a mere accumulation of pebbles does not make a building, or even a highway. It is certainly even more important that everything seen should have been looked at in the proper light. If the independent reality of history is ever to be apprehended, the real meaning of the surviving material must be elicited from the surface appearance. Once the first stage of discovering the evidence has been got through, the methods of historical research boil down to the orderly and controlled assessment of it. Here again, common sense is not quite enough. (…)’

‘Criticizing the evidence means two things: establishing its genuineness, and assessing its proper significance. The first is largely a technical problem. Forgeries have been successful in their time, but sooner or later they have got found out. (…)

It may in general be said that no one ever forged evidence to deceive historians; the intention, nearly always, is to deceive contemporaries, and most commonly a court of law. Financial statements and title deeds are the main preoccupation of the forger, and medieval charters the best example.

There is a single question which the researcher must ask himself in assessing his evidence: how and why did this come into existence? From the historian’s point of view, all evidence divides into two kinds: that produced specifically for his attention, and that produced for some other purpose. What survives from the past was put together either by someone who wished it to survive, or by someone who had a purpose to serve in which the prospect of the historian’s interest played no part. The first comprises in the main evidence of a literary and often secondary kind: chronicles, memoirs, notes of self-justification, letters intended for publication. To the second category belong pretty well all documents and records, most but not all letters and state papers, official memoranda whether published or not, reports of commissions and of lawsuits-the products of policy, business, and the ordinary events of life-but also the material relics of past societies, such as buildings or artefacts. These lists are not exhaustive; the categories are, and the historian should always first become clear with which of the two he is dealing. His task differs according as he faces an attempt to influence and persuade his like or an attempt to influence men long dead-or sometimes, to influence nobody. Material in the first category, being designed to affect the writing of history, can be judged with relative ease. The purpose which produced it was rational and therefore identifiable; the interests of the producer can usually be ascertained without trouble. Whether actor or himself historian, he is likely to have a case to make: his case once determined, one can judge both his own production and the material which he provides accordingly.

Things are rather more complicated with evidence of the second kind - far and away the most important and common. At first sight it might seem that a financial account, the record of a court case, or a house cannot bring trouble to the historian; as long as he can read or recognize them, they will, since they were never meant to deceive him, tell him the truth. But the point is, on the one hand, that to see them is not necessarily to understand them, and on the other that they may well have been intended to deceive someone else. A proper understanding of a given document involves separating the specific from common form and grasping the process by which it came into existence. It is here that professional learning comes into its own; only full ranging knowledge of what occurs in the papers of a given period or problem will prevent misapprehensions.

The understanding of all evidence depends on a proper apprenticeship in its use. The student would do well to suppose that he does not grasp the true meaning of his material until he has thoroughly acquainted himself with the organization that produced it, the purpose for which it was produced, and the difference between common form and the exceptional.

This phase of the job needs instruction and should receive it. The question of false intent needs intelligence and should receive that. Obviously a great deal of historical evidence now extant was at the time of its production intended to create a given effect. (…)’


‘The ultimate problem of historical evidence, as has often been recognized, is that none of it occurs in isolation. (…)

Evidence is the surviving deposit of an historical event; in order to rediscover the event, the historian must read not only with the analytical eye of the investigator but also with the comprehensive eye of the story-teller. The truth is the product of this double process: understanding what the evidence really says, and understanding how it fits together. But if the product is really to be the truth, controls, once again, are necessary, and here there are two: the asking of right questions, and the application of informed standards of probability.

Right questions means fruitful questions, questions capable of producing answers. They must therefore be geared to what is contained in the matter to be enquired from: the evidence need not by any means supply answers to all the questions the historian would like to ask. Secondly, they must be penetrating; they must really exhaust the possibilities of the evidence. (…)

The purpose of a proper research training must therefore include the recognition of the right questions, which means a penetrative analytical approach to the material with a mind alert to every possibility as well as the ready discarding of any questions which turn out to be wrong either because they yield no answer or because they result in no fresh knowledge. The framing of new right questions is the most difficult task the historian can face, and it is therefore reassuring to know that it is a task not often imposed on him. (….)

But even when the right questions have been asked and the resulting answers subjected to the rigid controls of technical scholarship, there remains one last aid in the search for truth. The answers must be probable; they must agree with what is known to be possible in human experience. (…)

Imagination, controlled by learning and scholarship, learning and scholarship rendered meaningful by imagination - those are the tools of enquiry possessed by the his­torian. He knows that what he is studying is real; he knows that he can never recover all of it and that within his area of recovery the certain, the probable and the speculative will coexist. In short, he knows that the process of historical research and reconstruction will never end, but he is also conscious that this does not render his work unreal or illegitimate. (…)’

Footnote (*): ‘E.g., on a descending scale of size: J. G. Droysen, Grundriss der Historik (first published, Leipzig, 1868, of ten reprinted); C. V. Langlois and C. Seignobos, Introduction to the Study of History (English translation, London, 1898); C. G. Crump, History and Historical Research (London, 1928); M. Bloch, The Historian's Craft (English translation, Manchester, 1954); G. Kitson Clark, Guide for Research Students Working on Historical Subjects (Cambridge, 1958).’

All Quotations are taken from: G.R. Elton, The Practice of History (Cambridge 1967).

 Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

The Practice of History is a classic, but also controversial introduction in the practice of academic history. Sir Geoffrey Elton was a controversial historian during lifetime. However, most recent introductions to the study of history still refer to his publications.  

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004): ‘It was the foundation-stone of Elton’s conception of the historian’s function that the past, and especially past politics, has a substantial reality which the skilled historian can and must establish, not telling partial and contestable stories but recovering the essential truth about the past. But the stories he told about the 1530s were hotly contested, first by critics in Oxford, writing in the journal Past and Present, and later, in the 1970s, by some of his own erstwhile pupils. (…) All Elton’s writings were strongly indicative of his philosophy of history; however, the formulation of any such philosophy was anathema to Elton, who would have associated it with the subversion of history by theorists, mainly French, who had never known what it was to be a working historian and were therefore disqualified from uttering on the subject. It was above all necessary to get on with it. The subject had its own rules and protocols, which only historians understand. His own theoretical and practical utterances were contained in four books, of which the most widely read and influential was The Practice of History (1967), usually read as a response to the Trevelyan lectures of E. H. Carr published as What is History?, but in fact directed at more than one Cambridge colleague of the time. This was followed by Political History: Principles and Practice (1970), in which traditional history fought back against the trendy “new ways in history” of the 1960s. If the historian was tired of past politics he was, like Dr Johnson's disillusioned Londoner, tired of life. The positive value of these books lies in a no-nonsense account of what the best historians are good at, and of how all apprentice historians should learn their trade. Their weakness lies in a shaky and perhaps even untenable epistemology, which refuses to face the fact that no historian can tell the whole truth about all of the past, and that he therefore has to select, shape, and even in some sense invent his material. At his most reasonable, as in a published dialogue with a historian of a very different tendency, R. W. Fogel, published as Which Road to the Past? (1983), Elton could acknowledge the existence of an almost limitless variety of “ways” in history: “We are all historians, differing only in what questions interest us, and what methods we find useful in answering them” (p. 109). At his most unreasonable, he merely lashed out at a range of dangerous heretics, whigs, Marxists, Weberians, postmodernists, in tones and terms that suggested that he thought them unworthy of engagement in serious conversation. It would have been better if the Cambridge University Press had not thought itself bound by an old association to publish his swansong, Return to Essentials: some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study (1991), which, in addition to his two Cambridge inaugural lectures, contained some lectures delivered in an American university which had found them an embarrassment.’ (written by Patrick Collinson for ODNB:  ‘Elton, Sir Geoffrey Rudolph (1921–1994)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004)

Sir Geoffrey Elton (1921–1994) was a German born emigrant. He was born as Gottfried Rudolph Otto Ehrenberg. His family fled to England to escape from Nazism. Nationalized as a Briton, Elton served the British army during the Second World War. Afterwards he started a career as an academic historian at Cambridge University, specialized in Tudor history.