- History in the Making by J. H. Elliott
“This is both an impersonal and a personal book,” Sir John Elliott warns the reader in the first sentence of his text, which he says is not meant to be an apologia pro vita sua. Instead, he explains, “the book attempts to explore some of the issues that have faced historians in general, and this historian in particular, over the past five or six decades as they have tried to make sense of the past.” One hopes, then, to read something like a Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture, in which we find very senior and successful scholars taking us behind the scenes of their working lives, inspiring us and our students with tales of opportunities found and lost, illustrating in fascinating detail the role that individuals and contingency make in history, despite the turgid protests of theory hounds and paradigm shifters from Paris to Palo Alto. Elliott, however, informs us early on that he has never “been particularly interested,” generally speaking, “in theoretical approaches to the study of the past.” He holds, indeed, “that theory is of less importance for the writing of good history than the ability to enter imaginatively into the life of a society remote in time or place, and produce a plausible explanation of why its inhabitants thought and behaved as they did.” Like it or not, though, this reflection in itself is a theory of history.
Elliott’s desire to know what people in the past thought and how they behaved led him to write his great biographical study The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline (1986). When Elliott began work on this daunting project in seventeenth-century Spanish history, the academic climate was unsympathetic to the notion, then deemed old-fashioned, that anything of value could come from a detailed examination of the life of a single individual, no matter how grand in his own time. “When I think of the individual,” Elliott quotes Fernand Braudel, “I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand.” Braudel’s magisterial total history La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen was published in 1949, the year that Elliott went up from Eton to Cambridge, and the book “made a deep impression” on him. Accordingly, when Elliott began casting about for a research subject and settled on Olivares’s reform program, he wrote to Braudel to ask what he thought of the idea. Braudel was not impressed, condemning Elliott’s topic as “one whose general conclusions can be guessed in advance.” Elliott seems to have kept the letter but ignored its contents.
If, as R. G. Collingwood posited, history “is the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind,” then who better than the historian to reenact his own past thoughts as they went through his own mind? “It is hard to know exactly what attracted me to the subject” of Spain in decline, Elliott writes, “but I suspect that, at some level, I was influenced by what was happening in my native [End Page 526] land.” Still, he claims that “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.” Elliott signed on and spent six weeks that summer demonstrating yet again the importance of contingency in history.
Few such revelations of what it was like to become J. H. Elliott follow on that one. Instead, this book is a sort of Pilgrim Historian’s Progress as he passes through the Slough of Macro-Analytical Comparative History or the Valley of Prosopography—a fascinating, nostalgic visit from the Ghost of Conferences Past. We see the young and then middle-aged Elliott encounter the General Crisis Debate, or History as Anthropology, while the events of...