Hereditas Historiae

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G.R. Elton - Return to Essentials (1991)  

‘The main theme of these lectures will revolve around the current debates on the nature of history, debates that are especially active in the United States, but I must say at once that I cannot claim to offer an exhaustive discussion. I propose to home in on a selection of the arguments that are at present running around, and I apologize from the start to all the disputants whom I shall not be able to mention. I should also like to make it plain from the start that I shall be defending what may appear to be very old-fashioned convictions and practices. My views and attitudes were formed by some forty-five years of trying to understand the historical past and write about it, and in some people’s eyes I shall unquestionably appear ossified, even dead. However, I can only preach what I believe, and I do believe in those entrenched positions concerning the reality of historical studies. Perhaps there is virtue in now and again tackling the champions of innovation and new fashion from a position of mere experience.’

The burden of philosophy

‘Yet where do we stand today? Ever since historical study became professional - that is to say, systematic, thorough and grounded in the sources - it has time and again destroyed just those interpretations that served particular interests, more especially national self-esteem and self­confidence. The blatantly jingoistic imperialism of late-Victorian England quickly succumbed to historical inquests which by the I930s had removed all unthinking satisfaction with England's imperial past. The conventional view which treated the American War of Independence as a purely idealistic assertion of principle against foreign tyranny has undergone repeated revisions that have left almost none of it standing, at least among the more serious readers of serious history. (…) The liberal myths which have of late forwarded what is called selfgovernment everywhere - myths which combined noble intentions with a striking ignorance about both past and present - have, since the 1960s, killed far more people in previously imperial territories than 200 years of building those empires ever destroyed. And they have powerfully assisted the emergence of tyrannies. To the historian the ironies of history have their attraction, but this one seems to me to have gone too far; it is yet another facet of the truth that the world is now in the hands of adolescents.

I am not, of course, suggesting that people must always be able to foresee the consequences of their actions, especially actions based on honest and generous convictions, which is to say myths. Admittedly, it would help if now and again they looked at the sort of history that undermines myths. When it can be shown that such actions, in the past, were misconceived because they in their turn rested on myths about that past's past, the better understanding brought by informed hindsight and sound historical investigation should not be shut out of the public mind. (….)’   

‘One of the most interesting cases of the myth problem occurred in Germany, the original home of advanced historical science. Since the notable nineteenth-century historians there were nearly all fairly simpleminded patriots, they accepted myths about the medieval empire which they came to treat as the model and paradigm for a Germany reunited in their own day. Thus on the myth they erected interpretations which demanded profound loyalty to the nation and its expansionist state. The myth survived the First World War and played an important role in the rise of Nazism. The Second World War, assisted by new historians, destroyed it, to a point where a wholesale revulsion against the national past seemed to have set in; it has taken thirty years or so for the German educational system to return to an interest, now sober and generally sensible, in that past. Even so, this has been achieved in the main by eliminating the middle ages from the story altogether and, even more impressively, by forgetting Prussia at the speed of light. So far as I can tell, in West Germany, at least, history is unusually free of myths among the consumers, and it will be interesting to see whether this state of affairs can endure. Will there be new myths to absorb an interest in the past and give comfort to the present; or will Germans insist on seeing the past unclouded by myths; or will the death of myth in the end terminate anything like a serious concern with the past? That country looks likely to provide an interesting laboratory experiment.’

‘Some years ago, Sir John Plumb, aware of the threat both to the general mind and to the survival of his profession that the undermining of ancient convictions could pose, in effect advised historians to write the sort of history that helps people towards a contented and more cheerful life. But surely that is to back corruption: we are not to tell what for good reason we believe to be much nearer the truth if it upsets people. Besides, it cannot be done. All history upsets some people: what Plumb really called for was the sort of history that supported the social attitudes, ambitions and behaviour that he preferred.

No, it is the search for truth that must guide our labours, which is why that attack on the very possibility of discovering a truth of history is so very devastating - leaving aside the fact that it rests upon much ignorance of what seeking that truth actually means. It is only by providing as truthful an understanding of the past as we can obtain that we can offer to the present a past which can be useful to the present, a past from which it can learn. I have preached this gospel often enough, though I do not seem to have converted all that many of my fellow historians. Partly this is because I cannot pretend to bring much comfort, especially in the face of the philosophers and social scientists who question the very notion of a truth in history. They will not accept that it is there, in the events of the past, and open to investigation, even if it will never be recovered in full and beyond all doubt. That uncertainty around historical truth and a true view of the past arises from the deficiencies of the evidence and the problems it poses, rather than from the alleged transformation of events in the organizing mind of the historian. That doctrine, however dressed up, leads straight to a frivolous nihilism which allows any historian to say whatever he likes. We historians are firmly bound by the authority of our sources (and by no other authority, human or divine), nor must we use fiction to fill in the gaps. And though gaps and ambiguities close the road to total reconstruction, the challenges they pose lead to those fruitful exchanges, even controversies, among historians which do as much as anything does to advance our outworks ever nearer to the fortress of truth. That shall be the theme of my last lecture.’

Some Prescriptions

‘It brings some comfort to the historian to learn that the sea of troubles in which he finds himself especially in the United States is by no means unprecedented. In the later middle ages, philosophers and theologians had so far refined their analytical techniques that no two people seemed able to agree with one another on any number of the main issues of the faith: confusion reigned as well as mutual abuse and denunciation. Some people, anxious to gain reassurance about their salvation, turned away altogether from what we are now asked to call the intellectual community; they took refuge in a mysticism which renounced reason and encouraged the generality to believe in magic. But the main response among the trained thinkers turned out to be different. From the confusion and excessive subtlety of the schools there emerged what came to be called humanism: a decision to cut the cackle and rediscover essentials. The humanist cry was “ad fonts” , back to the sources; and anyone today who is anxious to restore sense and soundness to history will be well advised to pick up that message.’

‘Historical evidence, as I have said, comprehends the extant traces of past events and experiences. If it is to be used it needs to be correctly understood; mere surface or immediate impressions are likely to be inadequate. The correct reading of historical evidence requires at least a measure of training, of professional skills properly acquired and applied, and although this fact may be more obvious when the past in question is a long distance away it remains true also for the supposedly familiar territory of recent history. (….)

Let me explain what I mean. Historians, as I have said, reconstruct some part and aspect of the past out of the relics which that past has left behind and which we call historical evidence. It includes everything that came into existence at the time studied and is still in existence at the time that study takes place. It therefore includes, obviously, writings of that day whether they be chronicles or sermons or treatises; it includes letters and memoranda; it includes records produced in legal processes or the running of affairs both great and small. There are orders by agencies of rule and reactions to such orders; financial accounts; last wills and testaments; analyses of landed estates and merchants’ dealing; and so forth. But it also includes unwritten survivals, whether they be town walls, field systems, artefacts and coins, again and so forth. The use of this motley collection of relics will naturally vary according to the questions put to it, but the one thing that unites them as a category - the fact that they constitute the positive bequest left by the past co the present - also poses the fundamental problem, which is the same for them all. Those relics have to be correctly understood, which is not at all the same thing as being processed through the historian’s personal mind. If the material is to be correctly understood we must always start from one basic question: how and why did it come into existence? The purposes served by the human beings who first created it, and the manner of their proceeding in so creating it, are the ways into a proper understanding of the historical evidence, which is to say that the fundamental questions we put to the evidence are independent of the concerns of the questioner and focused entirely on the concerns of the original creators. A few examples will show what I have in mind. (….)’

‘What, then, is the fundamental character of that historical method - allowing for the fact that different periods of the past and different questions asked of it call for the application of different techniques under the general aegis of that method? The method has been developed in response to the special problems posed by the desire to understand human experiences which unquestionably occurred at some time in the past but are now traceable only through such bits and pieces of evidence as the past had left behind. The work is thus governed by certain inescapable conditions. Reality has to be rediscovered and described on the basis of knowledge which is invariably incomplete, often highly ambiguous, and cannot be enlarged once all the relevant survivals have been studied, all of which demands constant decisions based on choice among the possibilities. That choice, however, must be exercised not on the ground of views and explanations contemporary with the historian; the present must be kept out of the past if the search for the truth of that past is to move towards such success as in the circumstances is possible. That partial and uneven evidence must be read in the context of the day that produced it; reading it must never be governed by any desire to justify or explain or even just to understand the present. The worst of all methods is one that I would call dogmatic: it uses past evidence selectively to underpin answers previously arrived at. (….) The next worst method reads the evidence under the general instruction of some critical or philosophical theory put up today (and usually soon replaced by another such clever device). (….) I repeat, nor can I say it often enough: if we seek such truth as historical enquiry is capable of finding we must study the past for its own sake and guided by its own thoughts and practices.

The operation, difficult enough in itself, is made more so by the only means that enables us to initiate it at all. That means is hindsight. Working on history means working on what is gone, even if the distance it has gone is only a short one. (….) Therefore, inevitably, we know what happened next, and the risk is always considerable that the historian will fall victim to the false old proposition, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the succeeding event being read as a necessary consequence of the earlier event. At once we are in the toils of predictability, in an extreme case even of predestination. And yet we neither can escape hindsight nor can we do without it, because only a knowledge of what came next draws attention to a given bit of the past as demanding treatment. (….) But this should matter hardly at all, once we have come to accept so basic a fact about the historian's existence. He must from the beginning understand and accept that all he says will lack the perfection of proof, will be subject to review and perhaps attack, and will constitute part of an ever continuing dialogue. If he does his work well he can also rest assured that much of his reconstruction will stand up to future tests and that even errors and slips will almost certainly, by the correction they provoke, contribute to an improvement in understanding. Everything, therefore, depends on what one means by the phrase, “if he does his work well”, and there certainly exist differences of opinion on that point. I can only state my principles, though I can claim that they are principles which I have seen employed successfully by myself and by others. Nor are they very obscure, and they do not need to hide behind pseudo-intellectual jargon.

The first principle reads: separate your question from your answer. By this I mean no more than that the question one puts to the evidence should not be biased towards an answer already in the mind. And this means that in the first place one solicits questions from the evidence. It is wrong to start with exact questions carrying built-in answers. (….)  

The second principle says: remember that you have the advantage and burden of hindsight, whereas the people you are talking about lacked this. This is one of the essential points in what I have called studying the past on its own terms, with proper respect for it and its inhabitants. This does involve the subjection of the historian’s self to the object of his study. True, it may not be an easy thing to achieve, but that seems to me no reason for not trying for it. (…)

The third and last general principle that I would propose says this: keep an open mind. Allow further study and fuller knowledge, whether it comes from your own work or that of others, to modify what you have thought and said. (…)  

However, all that this means is that all those basic principles, which it is the function of a professional training to instil in the historian, are hard to observe. Writing history correctly is a very difficult task, just because the subject matter is so enormous, lends itself so readily to partial and partisan treatment, and will, improperly treated, provide the appearance of proof for any answer. To cope with such problems is much more testing than to practise research in the sciences which reduce their subject matters to essentials and can rest positive conclusions upon them. This the historian cannot and must not do, for which reason his labours will always seem exceptionally hard and his results exceptionally provisional. But we have our compensation: none of our areas of study ever dies on us.’  

‘One of the chief tests of the quality of historical work lies in its readability. History, even serious history, is interesting, and the historian who makes it dull deserves the pillory. (…) However, there is a much more serious reason for demanding that historians should be able to communicate with people in general, a demand which rates clarity of thought and exposition well above that strangely desperate effort to seek the approval of philosophical guides and intellectual despots using secret languages of their own. That reason is found in what in the end must be the role the historian plays in the fortunes of mankind: his standing within his own time and place. I think I have sufficiently denounced the idea that the historian should have the present in mind when investigating the past, but that does nor entail ignoring the present altogether. The study of the past must be conducted in its own right so that those who wish to learn from the past can be sure that what is offered has not been shaped to suit some supposed purpose of theirs, or indeed the purposes of the scholar who is giving them access to it.

What really matters here is the meaning of that dangerous little phrase, learning from the past. A good many people seem to suppose that a sound understanding of history will give direct guidance for present action. Know how things have come to be as they are, and you will know what to do next. Yet attitudes shaped by past experience often offer quite misleading instructions to those who hold them. Take a case, a big case, of considerable relevance today. Owing to two World Wars largely unleashed by imperialist ambitions entertained by successive German governments, it is now widely felt that the resurgence of Germany once again threatens the peace of the world. But when, in 1870, Germany was united under the leadership of that (nowadays) notoriously warlike country, Prussia, the common reaction was very different. That event came after some two centuries of almost uninterrupted aggression by France, and it came as the result of a victorious war against that established disturber of the peace. Therefore, at the time and for some time afterwards, the unification of Germany was very widely regarded (outside France) as a most fortunate event, and Bismarck, later converted into a menace, received much praise and admiration. Attitudes were also much influenced by romantic visions of a romantic Germany. The simple idea that knowledge of what had happened told one what now to expect and to approve sadly misled a lot of well-meaning people. I cannot say whether the revival of Germany now will lead to a revival of German aggression, even though the world's experience between 1914 and 1945 might suggest that it will. It may or it may not - a useless conclusion but one characteristic of what happens when the idea of learning from history is employed in its usual and simple form.

Nevertheless, that idea hides within itself a true and useful meaning. Human beings learn primarily from experience; if they are to think and act profitably - with positive and useful results - they need as wide a vision of the possibilities contained in any given situation and any present assembly of other human beings as they can acquire. (….) The so-called lessons of history do not teach you to do this or that now; they teach you to think more deeply, more completely, and on the basis of an enormously enlarged experience about what it may be possible or desirable to do now. (…) A knowledge of the past should arm a man against surrendering to the panaceas peddled by too many myth­makers. This is known as growing up - outgrowing the arrogance of adolescence which, guided by moral principles unchecked by experience, will impose on suffering mankind the solution promoted by ignorance joined to faith. By enormously enlarging personal experience, history can help us to grow up - to resist those who, with good will or ill, would force us all into the straitjackets of their supposed answers to the problems of existence. Thus I will burden the historian with preserving human freedom, freedom of thought and freedom of action, a burden he bears because he knows what happened before when supposedly inescapable schemes of thought and action were forced upon people.’  

All quotations are taken from: G.R. Elton, Return to Essentials. Some reflections on the present state of historical study (Cambridge 1991). This book contains the “Cook Lectures” (delivered in April 1990 at the Law School of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) and a reprint  of the two inaugural lectures delivered at the University of Cambridge on 15 February 1968 and 26 January 1984 when moving into two successive chairs of history. All quotations are taken from the Cook Lectures. 


Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

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.