THE volume before this brought us to the death of Charlemagne, with whom in many senses a new age began. He, like no one either before or after, summed up the imperishable memories of Roman rule and the new force of the new races which were soon to form states of their own. Although we are compelled to divide history into periods, in the truest sense history never begins, just as it never ends. The Frankish Kingdom, like the Carolingian Empire, is a testimony of this truth. It cannot be rightly understood without...
THE volume before this brought us to the death of Charlemagne, with whom in many senses a new age began. He, like no one either before or after, summed up the imperishable memories of Roman rule and the new force of the new races which were soon to form states of their own. Although we are compelled to divide history into periods, in the truest sense history never begins, just as it never ends. The Frankish Kingdom, like the Carolingian Empire, is a testimony of this truth. It cannot be rightly understood without a knowledge of the Roman past, with its law, its unity, its civilization, and its religion. But neither can it be understood without a knowledge of the new conceptions and the new elements of a new society, which the barbarian invaders of the Roman West had brought with them. It was upon the many-sided foundation of the Carolingian Empire that the new world of Europe was now to grow up. Yet even in that new world we are continually confronted with the massive relics and undying traces of the old. The statesman and warrior Charles, the great English scholar Alcuin, typify some parts of that great inheritance. But how much the Empire owed to the personal force and character of Charlemagne himself was soon to be seen under his weaker successors, even if their weakness has often been exaggerated. Such is one side of the story with which this volume begins.
We of today, perhaps, are too much inclined to forget the molding force of institutions, of kingship, of law, of traditions of learning, and of ideas handed down from the past. When we see the work of Charlemagne seeming to crumble away as his strong hand fell powerless in death, we are too apt to look only at the lawlessness, the confusion, and the strife left behind. In face of such a picture it is needful to seek out the great centers of unity, which were still left, and around which the forms of politics and society were to crystallize slowly. Imperial traditions, exemplified, for instance, in the legal forms of diplomas, and finding expression as much in personal loyalty to rulers of Carolingian descent as in political institutions, gave one such centre. The Christian Church, with its civilizing force, had even a local centre in Rome, to which St Boniface, the Apostle of Germany, had looked for guidance and control. Other ancient cities, too, in which Roman civilization and Christianity had remained, shaken but still strong, did much to keep up that continuity with the past upon which the life of the future depended. But beneath the general unity of its belief and its organization, the Church was always in close touch with local life, and therefore had its local differences between place and place. It had still much to do in the more settled territories which were growing up into France, Germany and England. On the borders of the Empire it had further fresh ground to break and new races to mould. Even within the Empire it was before long to receive new invaders to educate and train: Normans and Danes were to bear witness, before our period ends, to the spirit and the strength in which it wrought. As is always the case when two powers are attempting the same task in different ways and by different means, there was inevitable rivalry and strife between Empire and Church as they grew together within one common society. But such generalizations give, after all, an imperfect picture. Beneath them the details of ecclesiastical life, in Papacy, diocese, parish and monastery, are also part of the common history, and have received the notice which they can therefore claim.
Bury was born and raised in Clontibret, County Monaghan, where his father was Rector of the Anglican Church of Ireland. He was educated first by his parents and then at Foyle College in Derry and Trinity College in Dublin, where he graduated in 1882 and was made a fellow in 1885, at the age of 24. In 1893 he gained a chair in Modern History at Trinity College, which he held for nine years. In 1898 he was appointed Regius Professor of Greek, also at Trinity, a post he held simultaneously with his history professorship. In 1902 he became Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University.
At Cambridge, Bury became mentor to the great medievalist Sir Steven Runciman, who later commented that he had been Bury's "first, and only, student." At first the reclusive Bury tried to brush him off; then, when Runciman mentioned that he could read Russian, Bury gave him a stack of Bulgarian articles to edit, and so their relationship began. Bury was the author of the first truly authoritative biography of Saint Patrick (1905).
Bury remained at Cambridge until his death at the age of 65 in Rome. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.
Bury's writings, on subjects ranging from ancient Greece to the 19th-century papacy, are at once scholarly and accessible to the layman. His two works on the philosophy of history elucidated the Victorian ideals of progress and rationality which undergirded his more specific histories. He also led a revival of Byzantine history, which English-speaking historians, following Edward Gibbon, had largely neglected. He contributed to, and was himself the subject of an article in, the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. With Frank Adcock and S. A. Cook he edited the Cambridge Ancient History, launched in 1919.