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This article came from the Chronicle published Sep 1983. Page 63-64

 

OF HISTORIANS, LOCAL AND OTHER

Author: E.A.Batty

 

Then, one day, I lighted upon John Lingard’s portrait of ‘the most perfect ladye’. ‘She wore false hair of a red colour, surmounted by a crown of gold. Her eyes were small, her teeth black, her nose prominent. The collar of the Garter hung from her neck. Her bosom was uncovered.
She seemed to have inherited the irritability of her father. The slightest provocation threw her into a passion. Her discourse was sprinkled with oaths; in the sallies of her anger it abounded in imprecations and abuse Her courtiers felt the weight of her hands; she collared Hatton, gave a blow on the ear to the Earl Marshal, and spat on Sir Matthew Arundel.’

Now Lingard, of course, was a Catholic. As an historian he is not much read now, mainly for the wrong reason that he lacks intensity and personal warmth. But he believed the foundation of history was fact, and it was the historian’s duty to discover this. His method was to stand aloof from political and other prepossession’s, and of his portrait of Elizabeth, as of all the others in the eight volumes of his ‘History’, he could say with truth: ‘I have not set down aught in malice, nor am I conscious that I ever exaggerated.’

Another Roman Catholic historian, the great Lord Acton, once remarked that behind the apparent course of events there always lay a totally different and secret history. The remark emphasises the need to regard the ‘broad sweep’ of history with extreme caution, especially when another historian as eminent as Gibbon could write that. ‘history as we know it on the surface, is little more than accepted fiction and a register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind’. So it would seem safer for us to concentrate mainly on the minutiae which are by custom the province of the amateur.

Some writers, professional and amateur, digging about. what someone has called the dist-heap of history, pretend -to be able to , detect and pinpoint the hidden springs of every action. They call this establishing a philoso¬phy of history. While this might have pleased Acton, it is difficult to square this with Kant, whose system is usually considered to be the bedrock of modern philosophy. Kant believed the human will was never really free, and the most masterful spirits were simply working through irresistible forces. A sort of historical Calvinism, in short. A blinkered attitude such as this would seem to counter the possibility of written history ever becoming the science it is sometimes claimed to be. Inevitably it would become pointless and uninteresting. Herodotus and the ancients, I feel, might have agreed, but the idea is foreign to the critical spirit of Renaissant culture which had dominated Europe since the l5th and 16th centuries. Savoie tout, c’est tout comprendre.

To end, as I began, on a personal note, the librarian for whom I first went to work in the far-off days of 1926, professed to be able to find an error of fact upon every other page of Belloc’s popular ‘Sketch of the (first) European War’. Since he (the librarian) had once worked in the War Office (as it then was) this may well not have been an exaggeration. But, taken at its face value, the statement provides additional reason for distrusting ‘the broad sweep’ of received opinion. It should also encourage mere labourers in the vineyard like ourselves. For ‘Who dug the murex up? What porridge had John Keats?’.


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