History in the Making

History in the Making

by J. H. Elliott

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An eminent historian offers rare insight into his craft and the way it has changed over his lifetime

From the vantage point of nearly sixty years devoted to research and the writing of history, J. H. Elliott steps back from his work to consider the progress of historical scholarship. From his own experiences as a historian of Spain, Europe, and the Americas, he provides a deft and sharp analysis of the work that historians do and how the field has changed since the 1950s.

The author begins by explaining the roots of his interest in Spain and its past, then analyzes the challenges of writing the history of a country other than one's own. In succeeding chapters he offers acute observations on such topics as the history of national and imperial decline, political history, biography, and art and cultural history. Elliott concludes with an assessment of changes in the approach to history over the past half-century, including the impact of digital technology, and argues that a comprehensive vision of the past remains essential. Professional historians, students of history, and those who read history for pleasure will find in Elliott's delightful book a new appreciation of what goes into the shaping of historical works and how those works in turn can shape the world of thought and action.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300186383
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/30/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sir John Elliott is a prize-winning historian and Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History, University of Oxford. He is the author of a sequence of major historical studies, seven of which are published by Yale University Press. He lives in Oxford, UK.

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Copyright © 2012 J. H. Elliott
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18701-4

Chapter One

Why Spain?

I became a historian of Spain largely by accident. In the summer of 1950, near the end of my first year reading history at Cambridge University, I saw a notice in Varsity, the undergraduate newspaper, saying that a few places remained for an expedition round the Iberian peninsula in an old army truck. With no plans in mind for the summer vacation I decided to sign on, and for six weeks in the heat of July and August we drove round Spain and Portugal, staying in cheap boarding houses or spending the night camping out in olive groves, sometimes to find ourselves woken at dawn by an annoyed peasant farmer who told us to clear off from his land.

Those six weeks represented my first exposure to Spain, and they made a deep impression. The country, only just beginning to take the first steps on the road to recovery in the aftermath of the Civil War, was miserably poor, and, especially in Andalusia, children would cluster round begging for food or coins as we emerged from our truck, or sat drinking coffee in the town square. Yet, amidst all the misery and the poverty there was also enormous dignity – the dignity of a proud people who were passing through hard times but knew their own worth. I was impressed, too, by the countryside, the open expanses of the great central plain of Castile, lying parched and yellow beneath the burning summer sun. The richness and beauty of monumental Spain, the cathedrals, churches and historic centres of the cities of the interior, like Toledo, Salamanca, Ávila and Segovia, fascinated me, and I was overwhelmed by the paintings in the Prado, and especially by those of Velázquez, whose work I barely knew.

Not surprisingly, I returned to Cambridge an enthusiast for the country, although at that stage with no thought of becoming a professional historian. I was still getting to grips with the history syllabus at Cambridge, tackling subjects that were quite new to me. At school, at Eton, to which I had won a scholarship, I switched as soon as I could from the classics to modern languages, where I specialized in French and German. But I had always had a taste for history and, in my early years as a schoolboy at the preparatory school of which my father was headmaster, would devour historical novels in the well-stocked school library, and pore over the text and illustrations of the capacious volumes, bound in green, of The Romance of the Nation: A Stirring Pageant of the British Peoples through the Ages, published in the mid-1930s. In deciding to read for the historical rather than the modern languages Tripos at Cambridge I was therefore returning to an early enthusiasm, although I was also motivated by the feeling that I now had sufficient knowledge of the two languages to continue reading the classics of French and German literature on my own.

The historical Tripos represented both a novelty and something of a challenge. The course at that time was very broad-based, covering as it did English constitutional and economic history, and general medieval and modern European history, together with the history of political thought. There was therefore a great deal of ground to cover, and for much of my first year I was struggling. But reading brought enjoyment, and enjoyment brought a growing sense of mastery. I was stimulated by some of the college teaching I received, not least in medieval history, where the contrasting approaches of my two tutors left me with an almost schizophrenic view of the Middle Ages: Walter Ullmann, the obsessive historian of canon law and the medieval papacy, fiercely inquisitorial in his tutorials, although often with a twinkle in his eye, and Steven Runciman, deceptively languid in manner, who would introduce me to what seemed highly esoteric topics drawn from the history of societies on the fringes of medieval Europe. I learned a great deal, too, from some of the university lecturers whose courses I attended: J. H. Plumb, delivering his exhilarating lectures on eighteenth-century England with machine-gun rapidity; Herbert Butterfield, piling up the complexities as he grappled with the enigmas of modern European history; and Dom David Knowles, gently but firmly guiding us through the intricacies of medieval philosophical argument. By the end of my third year I had decided that, if the opportunity arose, I would like to devote the next few years to historical research. My college, Trinity, was sympathetic and my tutors encouraging, and the way was open for me to embark on the life of a research student.

Temperament, upbringing, chance and calculation – all come into play, although in varying combinations and to varying degrees, in determining why and how historians choose their subject. For a moment I toyed with the thought of research into eighteenth-century English political history, which I had found attractive as an undergraduate. But once again I felt the lure of Spain, and second thoughts prevailed. I had some talent for foreign languages; a foreign topic seemed to offer more exciting opportunities, both for travel and for discovery, than a subject chosen from the history of my own country; and already, in the early 1950s, it was borne in on me that, if I wanted to have an academic career, there was standing-room only in British history. During the summer vacation after graduating I went to Santiago de Compostela to take a summer course in Spanish, and although the course itself taught me little, the time spent in this most beautiful of cities confirmed me in my belief that studying the history of Spain and Spanish civilization was what appealed most of all.

Back in Cambridge I went to consult Herbert Butterfield, the Professor of Modern History, and told him of my interest. His response was enthusiastic, and he was encouraging about the need in British universities for a better knowledge and understanding of the history of Spain. Although Spanish literature was well represented in university departments of Romance languages, there were very few historians of Spain in the country, and least of all historians with a specialist interest in its seventeenth century, the period to which I felt most drawn. This may partly have been a consequence of the Spanish Civil War and its impact on the generation before my own. Many members of that generation, who had watched the Spanish Republic go down in defeat, refused to visit Spain as long as General Franco remained in power. I was too young to have any clear memories of the Civil War, and although strongly opposed to the regime, did not feel that my hostility to it should deter me from seeking to know better the country and its history. Somehow Spain drew me more than France and Italy, both of which I had visited in my undergraduate years. Spain, or so it seemed to me, was 'different', as claimed by Spain's ministry of tourism in the 1960s, with a slogan that would promptly be taken up and used for their own purposes both by supporters and by opponents of the Franco regime.

That sense of difference had been felt by generations of British travellers and scholars. British Hispanism has a long and distinguished history, going back at least to the eighteenth century, when Robert Watson published his histories of the reigns of Philip II and Philip III, and William Robertson, a far better historian than Watson, won international acclaim for his History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V, and then for his History of America. The appeal of Spain, which was felt in the nineteenth century by many artists, writers and scholars, including the historian and art historian William Stirling Maxwell and the incomparable Richard Ford, the author of the Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845),may in part represent the attraction of opposites. In embarking on research into Spanish history, I would be just one more in a long line of curious Protestant northerners driven by some inner compulsion to explore the alien world of the Iberian peninsula.

By the time of my visit to Herbert Butterfield, who agreed to accept me as his research student, I had some idea not only of the area but also of the subject on which I wanted to work. Among the paintings by Velázquez that attracted me on the two or three visits I had by now paid to the Prado, one in particular stood out. This was his great equestrian portrait of the Count-Duke – the Conde-Duque – of Olivares, the favourite and principal minister of Philip IV from 1621 to 1643 (Plate 1). There he sits on his rearing bay horse, a massive, rather hunched figure in black and gold armour with silver highlights, and wearing the red sash of a captain-general. He points with his baton towards a distant battlefield, but it is above all the face that commands attention. In three-quarter profile, displaying his tufted beard and upturned mustachios, he looks imperiously back to the left, as if to make sure that the ranks behind him stand ready to follow him into battle. No matter that in reality he never commanded his troops on this or any other battlefield. If ever there was a portrait that embodied the arrogance of power, this must surely be it.

The painting lodged in my mind, and left me curious to find out more about the man and his times. The early seventeenth century was the Golden Age – the siglo de oro – of Spanish art and literature. It was also the period in which Spain, the dominant power in Europe since the middle years of the sixteenth century, appeared to be manifesting the first symptoms of decline – a decline that would become pronounced from the 1640s onwards, when it would lose its European hegemony to the France of Louis XIV and become a society characterized in the eyes of contemporaries by economic and technological backwardness, religious obscurantism and a general torpor that left it lagging far behind its European rivals. A study built around the ministry of Olivares, as the man who governed Spain during those critical two decades, the 1620s and 1630s, when the country stood on the cusp between grandeur and decadence, might perhaps provide some clues to what had traditionally been seen as a historical conundrum, the 'decline of Spain'.

The field, moreover, seemed wide open. While Olivares made brief appearances in standard works on seventeenth-century Europe and the Thirty Years War, he received little space in comparison with that accorded to his great and ultimately victorious rival, Cardinal Richelieu. During my summer course in Santiago de Compostela I had come across an abbreviated version of what turned out to be the only modern biography of the Count-Duke, published in 1936, that most unhappy of years for modern Spain. This had been written not by a professional historian but by the eminent Spanish physician Gregorio Marañón (1887–1960), who would go on to produce other important historical works during the course of a distinguished career. As I made my way, with my still uncertain Spanish, through Marañón's book, I soon saw that, while this was a highly interesting biography and a fascinating early example of psychohistory, the author was more interested in unravelling the strands of his subject's complex personality than in examining in any great detail the trajectory of his political career and the nature of his government.

As I explored further, I found that, outside the realm of art and literature, seventeenth-century Spain had not fared well at the hands of its historians. The most serious work done on the Olivares period had been produced by Antonio Cánovas del Castillo (1828–97), the nineteenth-century statesman whose historical interests inevitably took second place to his political career. Since Cánovas, not much significant archival work had been done on the period, although the topic of Spain's 'decline' remained a subject of continuing, and often agonized, debate. In general, Spain's historians had preferred to devote their attention to the great age of imperial Spain, the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V and Philip II, rather than get to grips with the more melancholy reigns of their lesser Habsburg descendants, Philip III and IV, and Carlos II, the last monarch of the House of Austria, whose miserable life and lingering death seemed to encapsulate the end of Spanish greatness.

Seventeenth-century Spain, then, seemed to offer ample opportunities for pioneering research, but it was far from clear what direction it should take. I was not tempted by a biographical approach, which anyhow appeared inappropriate for a doctoral dissertation. I was particularly interested in questions of government and policy-making, but my reading of Fernand Braudel's great work La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II, which had been published in the year I went up to Cambridge, 1949, had made a deep impression on me. It made me aware, in particular, that political and diplomatic history were only part of the story, and I responded strongly to Braudel's appeal to historians to commit themselves to the writing of 'total history'. This was the period when Marxist and marxisant history, particularly of the kind practised by the Annales school in paris, of which Braudel and Lucien Febvre were the leading proponents, was sweeping everything before it. While strongly resisting a determinist approach, i was, however, convinced of the need to pay due attention to economic and social history and incorporate them into the wider picture advocated by the annalistes. The attention paid to economic history in the Cambridge history Tripos had opened my eyes to its value, and in any event anyone interested in seventeenth-century Spain could hardly ignore the problem of the country's 'decline', on which economic historians had produced important work.

I did not, however, see myself grappling with price and wage statistics, and found myself casting around for a rather less austere – and no doubt less rigorous – approach to the Spain of Philip IV. One of the few general books on the period was by an amateur British historian, Martin Hume, whose The Court of Philip IV: Spain in Decadence was first published in 1907 and reprinted twenty years later. Hume (1843–1910) was descended on his mother's side from Andrew Hume, an entrepreneur who had been recruited to promote manufacturing in the Spain of Carlos III, where he took up permanent residence. The young Martin Sharp, as he then was, first visited his Spanish relatives in 1860, and became an immediate and lifelong Hispanophile. When the last of his Spanish relations died in 1876, he inherited their family property, which made him a man of independent means, and he assumed the name of Hume. After dabbling in business, politics and journalism, he drifted into writing about Spain and Anglo-Spanish relations. His publications earned him a growing reputation, but not, to his disappointment, a university chair. He was, and remained, an amateur, whose books, while drawing on his own archival researches and his first-hand knowledge of Spain, were written with the general public very much in mind.

Hume's The Court of Philip IV, although in many ways an exasperating book, proved a useful introduction to the period. While Hume had a penchant for the melodramatic and the picturesque, he had explored the archives to good effect, and his book provided me with some useful leads. When looking up his publications I came across an article he had written for a Spanish periodical in 1907 on 'the centralizing policies of the Conde-Duque'. In this article he depicts the Count of Olivares as a man determined to save an exhausted Spain from disaster. In the early years of the new reign he produced for the young king a lengthy memorandum outlining what, in his view, should be his governing principles. The dominant theme of this document, according to Hume, was 'centralization'. For Olivares, a Spain divided into different kingdoms and territories was no match for a united France. His plans for reform included a proposal for unifying the country under royal control. This proposal, too hastily imposed and implemented, would set him on a collision course with the various kingdoms and provinces that made up the Iberian peninsula: the Basque provinces, Portugal, and the territories of the Crown of Aragon – the kingdoms of Aragon and Valencia, and the principality of Catalonia – all of them anxious to preserve themselves from domination by the Iberian heartland of Castile.


Excerpted from HISTORY IN THE MAKING by J. H. ELLIOTT Copyright © 2012 by J. H. Elliott. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations viii

Preface ix

Acknowledgements xiii

1 Why Spain? 1

2 National and transnational history 40

3 Political history and biography 80

4 Perceptions of decline 114

5 Art and cultural history 136

6 Comparative history 168

7 The wider picture 196

Notes 219

Select bibliography 236

Index 238

What People are Saying About This

Joseph Bergin

'Here is a grand panorama of the most significant fields of interest in early modern historiography since the 1950s, which only a tiny few historians are qualified to write. It is timely, beautifully crafted, and invariably balanced in its judgements, and will be an invaluable road-map for a whole generation of younger historians.'—Joseph Bergin, Emeritus Professor of History, University of Manchester

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