It was with these words that Lord Acton addressed his audience on 11 June 1895 in what is probably the most famous Inaugural Lecture delivered by a Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and I make no apology for repeating them here today. What brings us all here together, whatever our professional interests, is a love of learning, and although it’s unfashionable to say so at a time when funding bodies are measuring what we do increasingly by its quantity and its impact on the wider world, a love of learning for its own sake.
With true Victorian earnestness, Acton did not spend any time on welcoming his guests, but plunged straight into the meat of his lecture. But while this has much to recommend it, I would like to depart from his example for a moment to express my thanks to the Vice-Chancellor for taking time out of her busy schedule to be here, and for the kind words she has said by way of introduction. And I’d like particularly to welcome former Regius Professors of Modern History in this University and at Oxford. I’m delighted to see so many colleagues and friends here not only from Cambridge but also from Oxford, London, and further afield.
The Regius Professorship of Modern History at Cambridge is perhaps not the easiest of posts to fill. During the behind-the-scenes discussions that preceded Acton’s appointment, Oscar Browning, a Fellow of King’s, wrote to the Prime Minster, Lord Rosebery, advising him that ‘the post…should be occupied by a man of genius’. After declaring that he knew nobody else who fitted the bill, Browning then went on to propose himself for the post. When Acton was appointed to the job, however, such was his reputation that even Browning did not object. The appointment, Browning informed Rosebery, ‘does equal credit to the donor and the recipient. My only doubt’, he added, ‘is whether he is not too good for such a poor lot as our Cambridge historians are at the moment.’
Things have changed in more than one way since those days. In the recent Research Assessment Exercise, 40 per cent of the work submitted by Cambridge historians was judged to be world-leading, a higher proportion than anywhere else except University College London, a Department with only half as many historians as Cambridge. It’s an enormous honour and privilege to have been appointed Regius Professor, and to be giving this lecture today.
By custom, an Inaugural Lecture has sought to say something about the nature and study of history itself, and its place in the wider community, as well as speaking to the newly-appointed professor’s own particular field. I have tried to combine all these various features of the Inaugural in this evening’s lecture. I will addresses, and indeed celebrate, the long tradition of British scholarship on the history of the European Continent, a tradition of which I am myself a part. I will ask how and why this tradition has developed, why it has now reached its apogee, and what measures government bodies, schools and universities will need to take if it is going to continue. Of course this lecture cannot hope to match the impact of my predecessor’s Inaugural Lecture, Quentin Skinner’s Liberty Before Liberalism, any more than I can hope to attain in my field the extraordinary distinction he has achieved in his own. But I do hope to make a modest contribution to the growing literature on the history of history-writing in Britain, and more generally, to the ongoing national conversation about multiculturalism, Europeanism and British, more specifically English, national identity.
In his brilliantly written, entertaining and thought-provoking book The History Men, first published in the 1980s, the seventeenth-century English history specialist and regular reviewer for The Observer Sunday newspaper, John Kenyon, told the story of the development of the historical profession in England since the early modern period. The core of history teaching and research in England was, and should be, Kenyon thought, English history, and particularly English political and constitutional history. Casting a jaundiced eye on the new universities that had been established in the 1960s, he found, to his disapproval, that many of them included extra-European history on their curricula. He roundly dismissed this as faddish and ephemeral: ‘hastily cobbled-up courses on Indochina or West Africa faded away as soon as these areas ceased to be of immediate current concern’. Kenyon clearly thought that British historians had made no notable contribution to this particular, broad and important field. ‘Nor’, he went on, ’did the contribution of British historians to European history constitute an important or influential corpus of work.’ So he ignored this too.
Yet even in Kenyon’s day, British historiography spanned the globe and was astonishingly broad in its coverage. Contrary to what Kenyon claimed, British historians have made a major and distinguished contribution to the history of the British Empire and the many parts of the world that at one time or another belonged to it. Just as significant, however, has been the contribution of British historians to writing and teaching the history of the European Continent and the many countries it contains. A moment’s thought will reveal a dozen or more prominent British historians writing in the past few decades who have published major books about the modern history of Italy (Denis Mack Smith, Paul Ginsborg, Lucy Riall), France (Theodore Zeldin, Robert Gildea, Olwen Hufton), Germany (Sir Ian Kershaw, Richard Overy, Lyndal Roper), Russia (Geoffrey Hosking, Robert Service, Orlando Figes, Catherine Merridale), Poland (Norman Davies), Spain (Sir Raymond Carr, Paul Preston, Helen Graham), Greece (Mark Mazower), Romania (Denis Deletant), Sweden (Michael Roberts), Finland (David Kirby), Bulgaria (Richard Crampton), the Netherlands (Jonathan Israel, Simon Schama), and many others, while for many British historians of the medieval and early modern periods, writing on the European Continent is almost second nature. Books on the history of these and other European countries, and of Europe more generally, have frequently reached the best-seller lists in Britain. And these are merely the tip of a considerable iceberg, with substantial numbers of more junior historians writing on the history of various European countries, making their reputations and working their way up through the ranks.
Yet the same is not true in reverse. On the European Continent, historian write and teach mainly about the history of their own country. British historians have few if any rivals elsewhere in chronicling and interpreting the history of the UK. They have achieved an absolute dominance of their own field that is disturbed only by the contributions of some American specialists and one or two Frenchmen, notably Halévy and Crouzet, both of whom wrote some decades ago. Only in the history of thought is the situation different, but thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are in effect universal figures whose writings attract scholars from many countries, just as do those of Niccolò Machiavelli, Immanuel Kant or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
These impressions can be buttressed by some unsystematic yet suggestive statistics on the research interests of university History Departments in a sample of countries. Strikingly, in the UK, some 44% of historians concern themselves exclusively with foreign history, compared to 23% of French historians, 15% of German historians, and 12% of Italian historians. In this respect, therefore, British historians are almost twice or even more than twice as cosmopolitan as historians in other major western European countries, though less so than American historians, perhaps reflecting the global reach of the USA in the 20th and 21st centuries. Comparative domestic and foreign history is relatively weak in Britain and the USA. Interest in foreign history is lowest in Germany and Italy, which did not possess major overseas empires, and where there is still a pressing need to explain the calamitous domestic developments of the 20th century.
The differences do not stop there. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that British historians’ books on European History have frequently been translated into the languages of the countries they cover, have sold well there, and have frequently exerted a considerable influence on the way those countries think about their own past. Again, the same is not true in reverse.
Explaining this inequality of impact is not at first sight very easy. In order to get closer to an answer to this and other, related questions about the remarkable British interest in the history of the European Continent, I sent a series of questions to a sample of British historians who work on France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia. From more than 60 responses, a fair degree of consensus emerged. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, in most Continental countries, British historians have a remarkable reputation for readability, combined with high standards of scholarship, in most Continental countries. This is a result of the literary traditions of historical teaching and writing, beginning with the undergraduate essay, in contrast, say, to the research report required of students in Germany. On the Continent, historical writing tends far more to conform to the less readable conventions of the social sciences. Then there is the fact that in Britain publishers, even university presses, have to operate on a commercial basis, and so prefer to publish work they think will sell, while in other countries, grants and subsidies are used to ensure the publication of dissertations and other scholarly work, so that there is no incentive to be readable. In Britain, one might say, the p;ublisher pays the author, on the Continent it’s the other way round. Beyond this, British historians have a reputation for being objective and detached; their contributions to Italian history, for example, are seen in Italy as largely standing above the political partisanship that characterizes so much domestic historical writing and are valued accordingly.
Some countries, of course, notably Italy, Germany, and post-Franco Spain, have been more willing to translate British historians’ work into their own language, while others, notably France, have been less so, though things are beginning to change there too. In Russia, the Putin regime is showing increasing hostility to critical assessments of the Russian past by foreign scholars. Nevertheless, the openness of most European countries to translations of British historians’ work has been remarkable. It remains important that British historians approach the past in a way that their potential Continental readers understand, and that they have the connections to smooth the path to the translation of their work. Given these conditions, British historians of Europe have been astonishingly successful in getting their work read in the language of the country they write about.
All this, however, raises some interesting and at first sight rather difficult questions. Where does this British interest in European History come from? Is it a recent development, perhaps? It seems on the face of it unlikely to be a product of Britain’s membership of the EU, since this has always been rather grudging and half-hearted, and in any case membership of the EU has not produced any comparable phenomenon in France, Germany or Italy despite the fact that they have been in it for much longer. Is it, then, a tradition of longer standing?
In the eighteenth century, ‘European History’ as something separate from British history did not really exist as a concept. During the Enlightenment there was an assumption of a common civilization based on the Classics. The first proper European History was William Robertson’s The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V, published in 1769, which took as its theme the emergence of a modern, secular, cosmopolitan Europe in the sixteenth century, but this too did not make any distinction between Britain and the rest of Europe. Robertson’s vision of Europe, however, was soon shattered by the cataclysmic event that above all others was to drive British concern with modern European history in the first half of the nineteenth century: the French Revolution. From this point onwards, British historians saw a huge gulf between their own country and the European Continent. Of course, the idea that Britain was different from, say, France or Germany, was common enough before 1789. But what the French Revolution did was to anchor in British culture, and therefore also amongst British historians, the idea that the history of the Continent was fundamentally different from that of the British Isles. In forging a specifically British national consciousness and identity, the French Revolution and the subsequent long series of wars with France, and, at times, much of the rest of the Continent, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, created in ‘Europe’ for the first time a definable other, which invited British historians to investigate its past as if they were investigating the past of some strange and remote foreign land.
The first and in many ways the most important fruits of this discursive shift can be seen in the work of William Smyth, a Fellow of Peterhouse who was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1807. At first sight Smyth seemed to be the same kind of appointee as his predecessors: he owed his appointment to the fact that he was tutor to the Whig politician and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s son Tom, and he was mercilessly satirized by the caricaturist Gillray in 1810, who here portrays ‘a petty professor of modern history, brought to light’, fashionably dressed underneath his gown, with the verse: ‘All Granta’s nobs by sundry jobs were brought to hear a lecture, but set at naught, their lesson taught, and yawned beyond conjecture!’ ‘Ponder long what your shoulders refuse’, says the verse from Horace inscribed above the picture, ‘and what they are able to bear.’
Yet Smyth, as the cartoon suggests, took his duties seriously, the first Regius to do so, and delivered a lengthy series of lectures on the French Revolution, which were in fact very popular; they were eventually published in three volumes in 1840. The 54 lectures provided a full and detailed narrative, and lost no opportunity to demonstrate, as he wrote, ‘all the great measures of the popular leaders as ill judged or criminal’, from their ‘usurpation of power’ from the Estates General onwards. As for the cause of the Revolution, Smyth put much of it down to the French love of fashion. ‘A cry for the States General became the fashion; they were therefore to be called. The Revolution was the fashion; there was, therefore, to be a revolution. Anything old was out of fashion; there was a call, therefore, for everything that was new.’ Such frivolous subservience to the dictates of fashion was, Smyth scarcely needed to imply, quite alien to the conservative and traditionalist cast of mind that had preserved social peace intact in Britain.
Other British historians of the French Revolution were similarly convinced that the French Revolution demonstrated the superiority of British institutions. The great exception here was Thomas Carlyle, who saw in the Revolution an outbreak of elemental forces in human history, to be celebrated rather than eondemned. More typical was Sir Archibald Allison, whose best-selling History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 was published in no fewer than twenty volumes between 1833 and 1842, reprinted ten times by 1860, condensed in a one-volume edition and simplified still further for use as a school textbook. It surely owed much of its success to the glow of satisfaction that must have spread over its British readers when they contemplated the contrast between France, still after 1815 groaning under what Alison called an ‘Asiatic despotism’, and their own fair country. The Table of Contents gives some idea of the flavour of this comparison:
Diminished morality among the people of France – Diminished material comforts of the French people…Astonishing successes of England in the war. Prodigious maritime successes of Great Britain during the war – Great colonial conquests of England during the same period – Internal growth and prosperity of England during the same period…How has this vast dominion arisen – First cause – the energy and perseverance of the British people.
In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, however, British historians’ interest in the French Revolution began to wane; the 1848 Revolution inspired not further apprehension, but liberal optimism, as the prospect of a more progressive and democratic France began to open up, at least for a while. Far more important, however, was the fact that French historians, notably Taine, de Tocqueville and Sorel, were now writing major works on the Revolution of 1789, which were translated into English and so widely read that it scarcely seemed necessary for English historians to tackle the subject. Nevertheless, European History continued to be taught in the universities. Smyth’s successor at Cambridge, Sir James Stephen (1789-1859), lectured on modern French history until his death in 1859 at the age of 70. Stephen’s successor Charles Kingsley lectured on ‘the Ancien Regime, as it existed on the Continent before the French Revolution’, relying heavily on Tocqueville, and concluding with typical mid-Victorian optimism: ‘There exists in Britain now, as far as I can see’, he proclaimed, ‘no one of those evils which brought about the French Revolution’.
A belief in the superiority of British values and institutions continued to characterize British work on European history in the second half of the nineteenth century. It can be found, for example, in the three-volume biography of the Italian nationalist leader Garibaldi published by G. M. Trevelyan in the years before the First World War. The Whig interpretation of history which Trevelyan represented was not purely confined to the English past. On the contrary, it was a universal doctrine with universal application. The benefits of parliamentary rule and civil freedoms, English liberals believed, should and would in the fullness of time be extended to the rest of Europe and indeed the world. For Trevelyan, Garibaldi was a Carlylean hero, but a liberal and not in any way – and here he was to a degree mistaken, I think – an authoritarian one. In fact it is arguable that Garibaldi’s career contained the seeds of later Italian authoritarianism. By the time Trevelyan became Regius Professor, in 1927, Mussolini was in power and Trevelyan was deploring his attempts, as he said, to turn the Italians into second-rate Germans.
Similar illusions were present in the Life and Times of Stein, the magnum opus of Sir John Seeley, another Regius Professor at Cambridge, who saw in the Prussian reformer of the early 1800s the embodiment of all the liberal, democratic values that Napoleon was trying to destroy. Seeley was trying to explain the origins of the recently united Germany, and portrayed German political culture from Stein to Bismarck as essentially liberal, not a view that would be widely shared today. His book, packed with tedious detail of Stein’s administrative reforms, was widely criticized but not widely read, and Seeley turned away from European History to the history of the British Empire. Indeed as Regius, his disillusion went so far as to lead him to oppose the teaching of European history, a subject which, as one College supervisor remarked, he thought best left to the ‘École Normale, Victoria University [of Manchester] and the inferior universities of Germany’. Survey papers in the Tripos, Seeley remarked, encouraged ‘the boarding-school view of history’ and opened up ‘a vista of unending cram’. His idea of Tripos reform was to abolish the Tripos altogether.
This was not a view shared by Seeley’s successor Lord Acton, whose cosmopolitan background, a mixture of French, South German and Italian family and education, predisposed him to take European History seriously. In his Inaugural Lecture as Regius Professor, Acton argued that Continental European history needed to be taught and studied in England because the unwritten, organic and almost unconscious formation of the British Constitution over the centuries failed to deliver any ‘equivalent to the vivid and prolonged debates in which other communities have displayed the inmost secrets of political science to every man who can read’.
In many ways Acton’s views were distinctly un-English. For British writers, for example, Napoleon was the arch-enemy of the long war whose culminating points had been Trafalgar and Waterloo; for liberal Continental intellectuals, by contrast, he was the man who destroyed encrusted despotisms, swept away petty states, reformed bureaucracies, modernized laws, and in general brought the benefits of the French Revolution to Germany, Italy and the Low Countries. Acton taught a Special Subject on the French Revolution, and his generally positive view of its achievements, which has been reconstructed from his students’ notes, signified the degree to which he stood apart from the long tradition of English writing on the topic.
Acton contrasted French liberty with what he saw, in the light of his South German, Catholic background as Prussian authoritarianism, and here he was more in tune with the times. As Seeley’s biography of Stein already showed, the attention of British historians was now turning instead to Central and Eastern Europe. This was not, initially at least, because of their past, but rather because of their present, more threateningly still, perhaps, their future. A new generation of British historians emerged who not only concerned themselves with the ethnic complexities of the region, but championed minority rights as a liberal cause, and above all during and immediately after the First World War worked closely with the Foreign Office in the formation of policy. Historians like Sir John Marriott, Sir Charles Grant Robertson, R. W. Seton-Watson, Harold Temperley, Sir Charles Webster, and in a slightly younger generation E. H. Carr and Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, were all active in public, political or diplomatic circles; most of them came to European History through international relations and an astonishing number of them were involved in one capacity of another in the Peace Settlement of 1919. Among these interwar diplomatic historians, only A. J. P. Taylor stood aloof from working with the government, too left-wing and too unpredictable to be co-opted by the British Foreign Office.
Some of these historians came to their subjects almost by chance. The pioneer of Russian history in Britain, Sir Bernard Pares, was a man of private means who first went to Russia in
Others came to European History through personal connections. Sir Adolphus Ward, for instance, author of numerous books on modern German history and Acton’s successor as General Editor of the Cambridge Modern History, had been brought up in Germany as the son of the British consul in Leipzig and Hamburg, was bilingual in English and German, and his works were sufficiently well known in Germany itself for him to be given an honorary degree from Leipzig University shortly before the First World War. More generally, in the late 19th and early 20th century, British historians flocked to Germany to learn the methods of research pioneered by the Rankean school of ‘source-criticism’. The belief which they imbibed in the ultimate arbitrating power of documents, was not shattered by the experience of the First World War, in which historians on all sides published documents showing that their own nation was not the one that had started the conflict. After the war was over, historians in all countries redoubled their efforts to unearth, publish and analyse as many documents as possible relating to the origins of the war. If only everything could be discovered and published, the truth might finally be known. This spirit, for instance, permeates Harold Temperley’s Inaugural Lecture as 1930 Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, one of many posts created in Britain at this time to research and teach the diplomatic history of the 20th century. Progress in historical research, he declared severely, was made only ‘by limiting aims, by increasing objectivity, and by abandoning vain speculation’.
Such was the urgency and importance of this subject that the history of international relations quickly became the most prestigious and best funded branch of modern history in the interwar period. In the 1920s and 1930s British historians became interested in Continental countries not because they set a good, or a bad example for the British, or because they demonstrated the universality of British liberal principles, or because they taught lessons that British history did not, but because their history had suddenly impacted on that of the United Kingdom in the most brutal and dramatic possible way, in a world war, and therefore badly needed to be understood.
In an era of dictatorship, conflict and war, studying in Europe became well-nigh impossible, and contacts especially with Central European historians difficult to maintain. In the 1930s, however, traffic began in the other direction. A number of historians, particularly Jewish historians, were forced to flee the growing antisemitism of Central European states, above all Nazi Germany. Concerned groups of British university teachers successfully found them jobs or provided financial support. Some came over with their parents or were sent over from Europe as part of a scheme to take Jewish children out of danger – the so-called Kindertransporte . They received their university training and in some cases also their schooling in the UK, so that many of them became historians, in other words, as a result of their education in this country. Many of them, particularly if they entered the British army, or if they found their German name made getting a job too difficult, took British names: Siegfried Pollak became Sidney Pollard, Ernst Peter Henoch became Peter Hennock, Gottfried Ehrenburg became Geoffrey Elton, Hans Gubrauer became John Grenville.
Often they had to find their way into academic life through considerable difficulties. John Grenville, middle-class son of a lawyer whose fortune had been destroyed in the inflation, left Germany in 1939 on a Kindertransport at the age of ten. His scientific education at the Cambridgeshire Technical School was not successful: he got chemical poisoning and was told to get an outdoor job to recover. So he became under-gardener at Peterhouse, where he read voraciously in history in his spare time. ‘My request for permission to use the Peterhouse library’, he wrote later, ‘caused consternation. I was finally given permission, but only on condition that I would not attempt to enter Cambridge University as a student.’ The Master was sufficiently amazed by a College gardener reading books that he arranged a weekly session over cocoa and biscuits at which they discussed what Grenville had been reading. At 18, Grenville was accepted to read history in evening classes at Birkbeck College, London: on hearing the news that he was leaving, the Bursar of Peterhouse told him that the Fellows would have liked him to stay because, as he said, ‘you have the makings of a Head Porter’ (Grenville subsequently became Professor of Modern History at Birmingham University).
Others went through similar experiences, if not such quintessentially Cambridge ones. But by one means or another they forged academic careers for themselves. Sooner or later they gravitated naturally enough towards the history of the Continent they had been forced to leave: Elton wrote on Reformation Europe, Hennock on the comparative study of health and disease in 19th-century Britain and Germany, Grenville on the history of Hamburg under the Nazis, Pollard on the industrialization of Europe, Feuchtwanger on Bismarckian Germany, and so on. This was important, because by the time they had secured academic posts for themselves, in the 1950s, they were in a position not only to teach Continental history but also to attract postgraduate students to research it. Pre-eminent here was Francis Carsten, who for more than forty years in London University supervised a long series of research students on medieval, early modern and modern German history.
At the same time, the Second World War ripped a number of aspiring historians of university teachers away from their normal academic pursuits and plunged them into an unfamiliar, exciting and in many ways extraordinary series of experiences that they naturally wanted to write about after the war was over. Among these were Alan Bullock, Bill Deakin, Michael Balfour, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Sir Michael Howard, Donald Cameron Watt, William Carr. In parallel to the emergence of a generation of exiled European historians, therefore, there also emerged a generation of British historians of Europe who had been inspired to turn to the Continent as a result of their own experiences during the war. Some indeed were inspired by the war to change field entirely, most famously perhaps the Oxford Professor of Medieval History, Geoffrey Barraclough, who for some years abandoned his work on the medieval Papacy because he no longer thought it relevant, and turned to the modern world, and in particular Germany, instead.
It seemed even more obvious, indeed, after the Second World War than after the First, that history teaching in British schools and universities should include courses on Continental Europe. This created a demand that the wartime generation of historians stepped in to fill. Just as important, however, was the fact that the new generation of historians, as the example of Francis Carsten suggests, were not content to rely on printed sources but plunged into the Continental archives that were now opening up to researchers again. A key figure here was Richard Cobb, who spent so many years living and researching in France that he acquired what he called ‘a second identity, a crossing of the line that is the most important requisite for the English specialist of the history and culture of a foreign society.’ ‘The writing of history is a form of involvement’, he later wrote. ‘Since 1935’, he said some three decades later, ‘I have walked French popular history, drunk it, seen it, heard it, participated in it, walking hand in hand with fraternity and liberty, both first discovered by me in Paris, I have been deeply involved in every event affecting the French people during the last thirty-two years, I make no claim to impartiality, for I am inside not outside my subject; I have acquired a new nationality.’
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the rapid expansion of the British higher education system in the wake of the Robbins report meant that a whole new generation of British Europeanists entered university employment. Historians like Carsten and Cobb were encouraging archival research. Foreign travel was rapidly becoming easier and cheaper. New grants for research were becoming available. The perceived need to encourage friendship and co-operation between young people of different European nations and overcome the legacy of hatred left by two world wars had led to the endowment of a number of government grants for foreign study, international exchange agreements, and scholarships. The teaching and learning of European languages was still widespread in academic secondary education in Britain. And in the 1960s, Britain’s entry into the European Community, as it then was, created further opportunities, as well as a sense of commitment amongst thinking young people to the European ideal.. This intensification of contacts between British and Continental historians reflected in part a growing political and ideological convergence. To put it another way, it would not have been possible in the interwar years, when fascism and National Socialism created an intellectual gulf that would have been hard to bridge even had authoritarian and totalitarian regimes on the Continent not made contacts difficult in themselves or expelled so many democratic and liberal historians from their own countries. Democratic polities made exchanges easier on a number of levels.
All of this encouraged my own generation of British research students to go abroad to do our PhDs. There was a sense that jobs were easier to find in the new universities if you did not work on British history. The motives that drove young British historians to study the Continent varied, according to their own testimony, from the deeply personal to the operation of chance circumstance. They range from present-day political preoccupations to indebtedness to the traditional factors that have often enticed Britons abroad – the lure of the South in the case of many Italianists, a love of Russian literature in the case of many Russianists, an intellectual and political commitment among a number of Germanists, the romantic image of Paris or the South with many who have chosen France. To some extent, these motivations link up with those that drove the Victorians to engage with these foreign cultures: intellectual and philosophical in the case of Germany, for example, or the ‘Mediterranean passion’ in the case of Italianists. There is a long tradition of British scholars and travelers who ventured abroad, “went native”, learned the local languages, and returned home to enrich the Mother Country with their exotic tales. The romance of foreign countries was a powerful attraction for many. European history since the French Revolution has been beset by dramatic and cataclysmic events that have seemed to some to be more exciting, and to raise larger issues, than the relatively calm progression of British history in the same period.
The generation of British historians of Europe that emerged to occupy university teaching posts in the 1960s and early 1970s, is now, in the early twenty-first century, reaching retirement age: it was the product of a historically unique intersection of the baby-boomers, who came of age during this period, with the large cohort of more senior historians of Europe that had emerged in or immediately after the war itself. This, in essence, was the conjuncture that created the British European history tradition in the second half of the twentieth century.
But my own generation of British historians of the European Continent is largely failing to reproduce itself. For this, the decline of modern languages in the schools and universities must bear a heavy weight of responsibility. In the 1950s and 1960s it was still a requirement of all History undergraduates at Oxford that we should know Latin and one modern foreign language, and we were indeed examined on these languages at the end of the first term of our studies before being allowed to proceed any further. These requirements have long since disappeared. But Modern Languages at A Level have declined precipitously, from 52,000 candidates in 1996/7 to 31,100 in 2006/7. The number of students taking French at A Level has fallen from 28,800 to 13,700 over the same period, the number taking German from 12,100 to 6,000, in both cases a fall of more than half. The traditional European languages are fast disappearing from our schools, a process hastened by the British government’s decision that pupils need no longer learn any foreign language at all throughout their studies up to GCSE. Universities have inevitably responded by relaxing and then abolishing the requirement that candidates for entry should have mastered any language apart from English, and the decline in qualified entrants has led to one language department after another at universities being merged or closed down altogether.
This process has inevitably had a knock-on effect for postgraduate studies too. To carry out research in difficult manuscript material in French, German, Italian, Russian or Spanish archives demands a very high degree of competence in the relevant language, and most History undergraduates in Britain in the early twenty-first century simply do not possess this. Often, of course, historians learn the language they need specifically in order to do their postdoctoral research; I learned German only when I graduated, for example; but crucially, I already had Latin and French, and if you do not have any foreign languages at all, then it is virtually impossible to learn one from scratch when you are in your twenties.
This problem is compounded by the pressure quite rightly put on PhD students by funding bodies to finish their dissertations in three or at most four years. This leaves too little time, however, for learning a new language, and pushes graduate students, encouraged by their supervisors, increasingly towards topics that are based purely on English-language sources. So the supply of young British historians willing and able to research and teach European history is drying up. Yet at the same time, interest in European history is certainly not diminishing, either among students or among the general public. It is being supplied increasingly by young historians from Continental Europe, particularly though not exclusively from Germany and Italy. A division of labour is emerging in British universities, in which British history is taught by the British, and European history by Europeans. This is of course a compliment to the open and well structured nature of British higher education, where the kind of clientage networks that exist in Continental universities barely exist, and where you don’t have to wait until your are forty until you get a permanent job, as you do in Germany. It’s also a tribute to the linguistic skills of the young European historians who come here to teach and research.
Some of the historians I questioned felt that this development was putting the British tradition of historical writing in a literary mode, addressed at a wide readership, in jeopardy. But to my mind this is excessively pessimistic. For one thing, a surprisingly large number of German and other European students decide to take not only their postgraduate but also their undergraduate studies at British universities. Moreover, even with those who have come directly from German or Italian universities, four or five years of taking a Master’s degree and a PhD in the intensive and distinctive historical culture that surrounds them at Cambridge and at other universities with large bodies of postgraduate students undeniably has an effect on the way they approach their work. Adjustment may be more difficult in the case of established scholars who come directly from Continental countries to fill posts in British universities, but even here, student expectations will surely have an effect in getting them to adapt. The key difference may be in the area of writing and publication, where directly imported established historians, as it were, often prefer to continue writing and publishing in their own native language, while those who have trained in the UK often have come to deploy an enviably stylish and fluent way with the English language by the time they publish their first book.
And of course it’s only ever been a minority of British historians who have possessed the skill, or the inclination, to write for a broad readership. While it’s this that has enabled many of them to appeal to readers in other countries, it would be wrong to suppose that other skills of historical scholarship were somehow less important: many of the most significant advances in historical knowledge and understanding have come, for example, from articles published in learned journals addressed exclusively to professional historians, or from the scholarly editions of documents and texts that provide the essential basis for so much of the work that we do. It’s important that we historians talk to a wider public, but it’s just as important that we talk to each other as well. In these ongoing dialogues, the historical profession in the UK is becoming rapidly more international and more cosmopolitan, and to my mind that can only be a good thing.
Let me come to the final part of this lecture. You may think, perhaps, that devoting my Inaugural Lecture to the question of European rather than British history is not quite appropriate as a way of talking about the functions of one of the premier History Chairs in the United Kingdom. But in fact I am reconnecting in a very direct way with the origins of the Regius Professorships of Modern History in this university and in Oxford.
Those origins go back to 16 May 1724, when King George I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor to complain of ‘the prejudice that has accrued to the… University from this Defect, Persons of Foreign Nations being often employed in the Education and Tuition of Youth’. To remedy this, he was going to appoint ‘a Person of Sober Conversation and Prudent Conduct, skilled in Modern History and in the knowledge of Modern Languages, to be Our Professor of Modern History’. The stipend was to be £400 a year, a sum ‘so ample’, as the University declared, ‘as wellnigh to equal the Stipends of all our other Professors put together’. However, from this sum the Professor was ‘obliged to maintain, with sufficient salaries, two Persons….well qualified to teach and instruct in writing and speaking the said [modern] languages’. These instructors were to teach twenty scholars appointed each year by the Crown, each of whom ‘shall be obliged to learn two at least of the said languages’.
The University, in its loyal address of thanks to the Crown, considered that the new arrangements would quickly ensure that ‘our Nobility and Gentry will be under no Temptation of sending for persons from foreign Countries to be entrusted with the education of their children’. Of course, as we know, these arrangements did not work out in practice; and the post became for several decades a mere sinecure, despite the fact that the terms and conditions of appointment provided for the Professor to be fined if he did not deliver at least one lecture a term. No more scholars were appointed after 1728, the annual reports required on their progress from the Professor were only submitted on two occasions, and the successors of the first Regius Professor kept the stipend for themselves rather than wasting any part of it on the appointment of language instructors.
I am not proposing that any of these arrangements be revived, although the idea of a stipend equal to those of all the other professors in the university is certainly an attractive one. Fortunately, perhaps, indeed, sll the conditions apart from that of appointment by the Crown were formally abolished in 1861. Of course the regulations of 1724 have to be seen in the context of their times. What worried the University, and the government, was the fact that the nobility and gentry were sending their offspring on the Grand Tour, accompanied by foreign tutors, rather than to University, so that, as the King’s letter remarked, ‘great numbers of young Nobility and Gentry [are] being either sent abroad directly from School or taken away from the Universitys before the Course of their Studys can be there completed, and Opportunities frequently lost to the Crown of employing and encouraging Members of the two Universitys by conferring on them such Employment both at home and abroad, as necessarily require a competent Skill in Writing and Speaking the Modern Languages’.
It will not have escaped the attention of contemporaries, of course, that King George I himself was German, and preferred to speak French rather than English, a language of which, as his biographer tactfully remarks, ‘his command was not extensive’. He also brought with him a number of Germans to occupy positions of influence at his Court. Not least by bringing Hanover, where he had previously been ruler, under the aegis of the British Crown, his accession to the throne had intensified Britain’s engagement with Europe, and with it the need for trained and qualified diplomats and administrators who were familiar with European languages.
In the intervening years, now amounting to not far short of two centuries, much has changed. In particular, Britain has become far more of a multicultural society than it has ever been. Britain is and will remain a multicultural society in which it makes no sense to narrow down History teaching to a patriotic recitation of ‘Our Island Story’, as some politicians have occasionally advocated. Traditional British values of tolerance, acceptance of immigrants and minorities, curiosity about other cultures, sympathy for the underdog in past and present, at home and abroad, remain vitally important and need to be cherished. An interest in European History has been an important part of this cosmopolitan national identity.
Cosmopolitanism of course cuts many different ways. British historians who write on the European Continent do not simply apply to their subjects the empirical and literary traditions in which they have been trained, they have also been heavily influenced by the theories and methods deployed by historians in the countries they study, including, notably, for example, the Annales school in France, the Bielefeld and Fischer schools in Germany, and the Gramscian interpretation of the Risorgimento in Italy. More generally, Continental thought has at many different times affected the way historians approach the British as well as the Continental past, from German historical method in the nineteenth century to the theories and approaches of Weber, Poulantzas or Foucault in the twentieth. German, Italian and other foreign-born historians, mainly of the younger generation, who are now teaching European History in British universities, bring with them many such theories and methods, as well as the experience of debates, arguments and controversies within their own national historiographical traditions just as the German exiles did in the 1940s and 1950s, and teaching and research, now as then, are all the richer for it. In particular, intercultural and transnational history would probably barely exist in British universities, given the reluctance of British historians to engage in comparisons and their general lack of the multilingual capacities that would enable them to do so, but for the influx of young history teachers and researchers from the Continent.
Both groups, the older British historians and the younger European historians now teaching in British universities, are cultural mediators between different countries, though in rather different ways; both, in the end, are hybrids; at least, that’s how I’ve always thought of myself, and I’m sure many of my colleagues think of their own roles in similar terms. On the Continent, the willingness of Italian, French and Spanish historians, students and the general reading public to enter into a dialogue with British (and American) historians about the history of their own country has few parallels in the United Kingdom, and bespeaks a kind of cosmopolitanism of its own. For British historians, indeed, distance from Europe has always been the essential precondition for studying it, and that remains the case today, notwithstanding Richard Cobb’s romantic vision of a ‘second identity’. British historians of Europe are thus undeniably cosmopolitan, but they are islanders too, and the Channel and the North Sea remain essential factors in conditioning their view. The fact that ‘British’ and ‘European’ History remain essentially separate in UK universities, a division that has no parallel in Continental countries or in the USA, has its own rationale and speaks volumes about the distance that still separates the islanders from the inhabitants of the Continent.
Where does this leave British history? It is in many ways rather artificial to oppose the study of British History to the study of European. In a rapidly globalizing world, we are more conscious than ever of the links that bind our country to others, and in the early twenty-first century it is clear that British historians are increasingly viewing the history of their own country in a series of wider contexts – European, Imperial, global. Comparative, transnational and intercultural history are growing at the expense of a narrower focus on the history of a single country, whether it be Britain, France, Germany, Italy or Russia. It remains vitally important to study the history of our own country at every level, from primary school to PhD and beyond; it is an essential part of our national identity. But our national identity coexists, as in fact it has always done, with many other kinds of identity too, local, regional, immigrant, European, ‘Western’ – and studying these kinds of History is important as well. However it is taught, and whoever teaches it, as one of the respondents to my questionnaire concludes, ‘Europe continues to inspire and fascinate the British imagination’, and if British-based European historians continue to produce interesting work, then ‘students will continue to want to study Europe’ and the reading and viewing public in Britain will continue to want to learn about its past.
Thank you very much.