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Response to Review no. 13

In writing this response to David d’Avray’s review of the first volume of my Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe I hope that I – as indeed David has done – interpret aright the reason for this new initiative of the Institute as an opportunity for considering individual works in relation to the general shape of historical studies in our universities. If I understand your purpose aright, we are not simply considering the volume under review in itself, but rather as the product of a process of development, and perhaps as a possible influence of the shape of things to come. I certainly agree that there is a quite urgent need for general discussion on this matter, and it with this in mind that I make the observations which follow.

If this understanding is correct, I must first say that, having spent most of my working life within a system and syllabus that were still recognisably similar to, and derived from, the creators of History as an academic subject about a hundred and fifty years ago, we are now likely to diverge pretty widely from it.

The central theme of historical teaching during the first hundred years of this period was the tracing of institutional developments from the earliest period after the break-down of the Roman Empire to the present day. Of course this institutional theme varied in emphasis in different universities: constitutional in Oxford, legal and ecclesiastical in Cambridge; administrative and economic in Manchester; and so on. But the essential point in all these varieties was continuity in the governmental, administrative, and – rather later – economic aspects of (in the first place) British society,

These themes were certainly still dominant in the Oxford history syllabus when I was an undergraduate between 1929 and 1932; and, even for twenty years after the second War, the history syllabus was still largely based on an institutional and national approach to the past. Of course there were many varieties of emphasis; in Cambridge, the strong emphasis on religious institutions was fostered by David Knowles’s volumes on the monastic orders; in Manchester and Birmingham, and elsewhere, administrative and economic changes as elucidated by Tout and Unwin, Tawney and Postan and Rodney Hilton.

The important thing about all these varieties was that they were all in various ways institutional and public in their emphasis, and they could all be studied as extensions of a broadly institutional approach to history.

If this is broadly true oft the past, the question for the future of historical studies seems to be this: does this institutional approach still satisfy us; and, if not, what is to be put in its place? This is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer and I do not think that we are likely to get much help in answering it from the regulations for the study of History in the present university statutes – at least not in those, so far as I have recently seen them – of my own university. I am of course out of touch with the present state of affairs now is that I find the present regulations quite difficult to understand; and one has only to look at them to see that the subject has become apparently irretrievably fragmented.

I think it is against this background that I should like the book reviewed by David d’Avray to be judged. In a broad sense I see it as an extension of the new impetus given to the subject of medieval history by Powicke in the 1930s – as indeed David rightly points out. Of course there are still two volumes to come and I have no assurance at all that I shall live to finish them, but their most important theme is that scholastic thought, as developed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries provided the outlines of a common aim and organisation of life which, despite many varieties of dissension, was at its fullest expansion throughout western Europe by the end of the thirteenth century and thereafter disintegrated into a number of local varieties.

As for the source of this general view of European history David is right in thinking that my book is essentially an extension of what was going on in Oxford in the 1930s. I must however say that, although Powicke very firmly from 1929 onwards put into the History Faculty library the new review Recherches de theologie ancienne et medievale , which was the most important journal for medieval theological studies; and although he was in many other ways very largely responsible for introducing a consciousness of speculative elements in the past into the Oxford historical consciousness; and although his lectures on Stephen Langton were the initial inspiration for Beryl Smalley’s study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, he himself remained very strongly orientated towards politics and persons in political situations. He was really a law to himself and he would have found it quite difficult (as his Three last Lectures testify) to say what he thought the new structure of historical study in the universities should be.

Indeed, are we not still in that state of mind) And with this question I come at last to David d’Avray’s comments on my book, which are the occasion for your inviting me to make these remarks. To speak boldly, I should like to think of the first volume of my book as a contribution towards a fuller recognition of the complicated association of intellectual, religious and governmental influences in the formation of European society in the period of decisive growth and development in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The second volume will fill in some lines of intellectual development and their practical application; and the third will trace the causes of disintegration and provide examples of continuing scholastic influence and revival down to the present day.

I don’t think I can say more than this at present, except that I am grateful for David’s remarks and for the opportunity to review the reviewer. If History is to continue to flourish as an academic subject which satisfies the aspirations of the quite large number of those who study it, we certainly need to try to understand what our predecessors were trying to do, and in what ways – if any – we think we may be able to improve on their efforts.