Charles Homer Haskins
President of the Association, 1922
A paper read before the American Historical Association's annual meeting at New Haven, December 27, 1922. Published in American Historical Review 28, no. 2 (January 1923): 215–27.
European History and American Scholarship
European history is of profound importance to Americans. We may at times appear more mindful of Europe’s material indebtedness to us than of our spiritual indebtedness to Europe; we may in our pharisaic moods express our thanks that we are not even as these sinners of another hemisphere; but such moments cannot set us loose from the world’s history. Whether we look at Europe genetically as the source of our civilization, or pragmatically as a large part of the world in which we live, we cannot ignore the vital connections between Europe and America, their histories ultimately but one. The latest statue of Abraham Lincoln looks toward Westminster Abbey and toward the grave of the unknown British soldier who fell in a cause of liberty common to both sides of the Atlantic.
European history we shall always in some fashion have with us, but how? Shall it come to us entirely at second hand, either in the original packages of European authors, or derived therefrom as it is condensed, diluted, predigested, or reflavored to suit the local taste? Or shall we participate fully and directly in all phases of the historical activity of our time, collecting and sifting the sources for ourselves, making our own generalizations and interpretations, contributing freely of our thought as well as of our labor to the general advancement of historical knowledge and historical understanding? The question concerns the future of American scholarship, its dignity, its independence, its creative power.
It is, of course, both desirable and inevitable that a large part of the historical effort of every country should go to its national history. But while American history is our first business, it is not our sole business. Beyond the level of production necessary for the nourishment of local historical life, there must be a surplus product for the general good, and never was the need of our intellectual surplus so great as now. If every country had interpreted its obligations in a narrowly national sense, there would have been no Gibbon or Grote, no Ranke, no Mommsen, no Renan, no Champollion, no general histories; and the United States would lack the fine examples of Prescott and Motley, of Henry Charles Lea, Charles Gross, and Alfred Thayer Mahan.
The material obstacles to American research in European fields are so obvious that they require no elaboration. We are far from Europe’s libraries and archives; our own collections are inadequate, and the large repositories are few and often remote from the individual worker. Yet two generations of productive scholarship show that such difficulties are not insuperable, and what was hard for Prescott and Lea has become much easier with new photographic processes and the rapid development of great library centres. Of this the recent creation on the Pacific Coast of a great library of the World War offers a most convincing illustration. Nevertheless, historians of slender means require much in the way of travelling fellowships and research funds, co-operative effort, and wise and generous policy in the enlargement of libraries and facilities for publication.
Remoteness creates more serious disadvantages of an immaterial kind. American scholars are less well grounded in languages than are their European colleagues, both in the classical tongues which are essential for many periods of history, and in the vernaculars of to-day. The units of foreign language so laboriously accumulated in school and college lose little of their foreignness in the process; indeed the very word may be partly responsible for the prevalent timidity in attacking an unknown tongue. The least that will satisfy the bare requirement is too common an ideal even among advanced students. Unless we lose our fear of languages, much of our historical work must perforce be second-hand and superficial. Still harder of acquisition is the familiarity with persons and places, the sympathetic appreciation of European habits and points of view which comes with prolonged travel and residence abroad and without which history is bloodless and unreal if not untrue. Important as this is for certain kinds of historical work, especially in recent epochs, it is not indispensable for all. Henry C. Lea visited Europe only once and that but briefly; Gibbon, to take a foreign example, wrote his famous seventeenth chapter without ever seeing Constantinople. Yet these were no provincials. Lea knew many tongues, ancient, medieval, and modern; Gibbon had his classics and, though he refused to learn the German necessary for a history of Switzerland, he composed his first book in fluent French, which he wrote more easily than his mother tongue. The historian must at least travel in his imagination, and for most of us it is safer first to travel in the flesh. As a New Jersey private remarked at the close of the late war, “There’s a hell of a lot of difference between Trenton, New Jersey, and Paris, France, and you don’t know it till you get to Paris, France!”
American historiography shows three main phases, which chronologically overlap: the literary age of the second quarter of the nineteenth century; the middle period, devoted almost wholly to American history; and the last fifty years. The first phase, with its romantic interest in far-off times and places, widened the American horizon at the same time that it gave us the classical histories of Prescott and Morley, but it created no school and had little continuous influence. The second period, best typified by the romantic nationalism of Bancroft, touched Europe only indirectly, but brilliantly, in Parkman’s volumes on New France. The third period is less easy to characterize. Its historians have generally had an academic training of the European sort, and are mostly connected with universities and other learned bodies; they have given much attention to documentary research and publication; their attitude is at least to this extent more scientific and less impressionistic; they resemble their European contemporaries in outlook and manner of work. This epoch we must now examine more closely if we are to form a definite impression of American tendencies in relation to European history. A complete enumeration or a critical assessment of individual authors is of course out of the question, but a rapid survey may show the subjects which have chiefly interested American scholars and some of the general characteristics of their work.
In the history of ancient times America was naturally no pioneer, yet two of the foremost living Egyptologists are our compatriots, and others are attacking the papyri in our libraries. Babylonia and Assyria have also their experts, even though their dynasties have not been exactly our “top and cricket ball”, as they were to the youthful Gibbon. We have established ourselves in the field of Judaism and Oriental religion. As regards Greece and Rome, we have a definite place in the world’s scholarship in relation to Hellenistic Athens, Greek and Roman imperialism, the Roman assemblies, and the economic life of Rome, while we have received among us from an oppressed country the world’s leading authority on ancient economic history. Greek and Roman religion owe not a little to American scholars, while our schools at Athens and at Rome have done good work in archaeology. So far as it goes, the showing is good, but the workers in classical history are few in comparison with the amount of time and strength which has gone to the study of the classical languages and has produced too little that is fresh in the field of literary history and interpretation. Thucydides and Aristotle, the leading historical minds of antiquity, owe little or nothing to American interpreters. The vast field of the Roman Empire we are just beginning to explore. The “fall of Rome”, long reserved for patriotic orations and other forms of hortatory discourse, has recently become the serious concern of at least three American historians.
Of the various countries of medieval and modern Europe, England has naturally received chief attention, for English history is in a sense early American history. The half-century which has followed the appearance of the Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law has seen a steadily growing body of fundamental work on the part of American scholars, notably George Burton Adams and Cheyney, Gay and Gross, their pupils, and now their pupils’ pupils. The list is long of the subjects in which American scholarship has made a place for itself: the Saxon household and the Norman curia, Domesday and the Great Charter, the king’s council, Parliament both early and recent; the rise of political parties and the Cabinet, the political ideas and religious movements of the seventeenth century, and the old colonial system; the borough and the gilds, frankpledge, sheriff, coroner and county palatine, the jury and the justice of the peace; the Star Chamber and the High Commission; the manor, including villeinage, field systems, and enclosures; medieval and Tudor finance, customs and monopolies and the grain trade, the various trading companies, the stannaries, and the Templars; statutes of laborers and Tudor society, Chartism and related movements, as well as large portions of English legal and literary history. The standard general treatise on modern English government is by an American author, as is the best outline of English constitutional history. American writers have been tempted by the general political history of the Norman period, Tudor ideals, the reign of Elizabeth, by biographies of Canute and Thomas Cromwell, Walsingham, Arlington, Holland, and Nelson. The principal bibliography of English history is by an American, and Americans have had an important part in editing such records as the parliamentary debates of the seventeenth century, the volumes of the Selden Society, and the Year Books. Yet, with some recent exceptions, we have done relatively little for the period since 1783, almost nothing for Scotland, Ireland, and the non-American parts of the British Empire.
For the countries of the Continent less was to be expected, and less has been produced. The French Revolution, for example, has never ceased to excite interest throughout the United States, and materials for its history are found in several of our libraries, but, though there are many brief sketches and a special volume on its religious policy, monographic research has been sporadic, with excellent individual publications but no organized centre outside Fling’s seminary at the University of Nebraska. We have books on Napoleon, long and short, but as yet nothing definitive, nor have promising investigations of internal administration and commercial policy as yet come to fruition. Only quite recently have there been signs of awakening interest in nineteenth-century France, as seen in an elaborate biography of Lamartine and in volumes on Alsace-Lorraine and current political and social movements. Except for a brief general survey, work on the French Middle Ages has been scattering—Louis VII. and Philip Augustus, towns and universities and troubadours, the Normans and the Hundred Years’ War, lives of Joan of Arc and Charles the Bold, and valuable original investigations of architecture. The volumes of James Breck Perkins and Edward Lowell and Farmer on the old regime have been followed up chiefly in the field of economic and colonial policy; those of Baird on the Huguenots have been succeeded by biographies of Calvin and Catherine de’ Medici and studies of the contemporary economic and political movements in France and Geneva.1
On the Reformation in Germany the American contribution is significant: biographies, notably of Luther, Erasmus, and Zwingli, economic and social studies, new documents, investigations of special topics like the marriage of Philip of Hesse. For other periods of German history we have done less. Tuttle’s History of Prussia remains incomplete, as does a projected series of Prussian biographies, while Prussianism still awaits its historian. One scholar studies the epoch of Liberation and its immediate antecedents; another has re-examined investiture, the eastward movement, and other problems of the German Middle Ages; another is at home in many phases of modern Germany, including the antecedents of the Great War. German literature has its American historians and translators, and one general history of Germany has been attempted. Scholars of the present generation have contributed more that is independent than did their predecessors, who were more exclusively trained in Germany, and the war has compelled the re-examination of many phases of German history, especially the more recent. Since Motley the Netherlands have dropped out of the foreground, though we have added to our credit a biography of William the Silent, a narrative of the age of decline, and a study of the Dutch régime in Java. Switzerland has been of interest chiefly as a problem in democratic federalism and direct popular government.
With respect to the North and East of Europe not much can be said. Gustavus Adolphus and Peter the Great some years ago attracted American biographers, but the recent product is scanty. We have published a useful bibliography of Slavic Europe, but it contains exceedingly few American titles. There are signs of growing interest, and one American has already made himself an acknowledged authority on Poland, while we must not forget the labors of the American-Scandinavian Foundation nor certain recent publications on the medieval history of the North. In the Balkans attention has centred about Turkey, where two or three good studies could be listed. The Byzantine Empire appears to have left America cold, but the Crusades have called forth a considerable number of special investigations, chiefly the work of Munro and his students.
In medieval Italy American interest has been chiefly literary, concerned notably with Dante, as seen in numerous translations and essays, and not forgetting Petrarch and the Sicilian poets. One American has recreated medieval Siena, another devotes himself to Genoa, two others to Norman Sicily, still another has written a general survey of the thirteenth century. Few of our countrymen have utilized the vast resources of the Vatican archives, whether for medieval or for modern subjects. The Italian Renaissance can show little save on the side of art, and there is a wide gap between Columbus and the Napoleonic régime. The standard biography of Cavour is by an American, as every one knows, and the principal library on the Risorgimento has been collected by an American scholar residing in Rome.
Spain, so important for both Americas, can claim the noble volumes of Prescott, Ticknor’s History of Spanish Literature, and Lea’s monumental History of the Inquisition of Spain. A new awakening is apparent in the work of the Hispanic Society, in a comprehensive narrative of the rise of the Spanish Empire, in the growing activity of literary studies, and in monographs on economic topics like the silver fleets and the Mesta and on institutions in the New World like the audiencia. Indeed it is worthy of remark that some of the best research of recent years has been done in fields where European and American history touch—exploration and early cartography, the California studies of New Spain and Woodbury Lowery’s Spanish Settlements, Blair and Robertson’s Philippine Islands, Thwaites’s Jesuit Relations and the work of others on New France, a group of studies on the West Indies and the commercial relations in which these islands once played a large part, Alvord’s volumes on the French and British occupation of the Mississippi Valley, Burr’s researches on the Venezuela boundary, Jameson’s Usselinx, the collection of treaties and the series of manuals of European archives published by the Carnegie Institution, the various investigations of the origins of the Revolution now brought to a head in Van Tyne, Becker’s Declaration of Independence, and Coolidge’s United States as a World Power, and the brilliant studies of British colonial policy by the late George Louis Beer.
In the general history of modern Europe America’s outstanding achievement is the writings of Admiral Mahan on sea power, whether we consider their freshness, their admirable lucidity of thought and style, their wide appeal, or their influence on public opinion and the policy of nations; and his triumph should be an inspiration to the young historian. European expansion, intellectual as well as physical, has been suggestively set forth to the end of the eighteenth century; but the general history of the nineteenth century, summarized in certain noteworthy manuals, has drawn no author beyond the limits of one or two volumes. Yet “the day before yesterday” is coming to its own as regards social as well as political movements. Much attention has been paid to the history of diplomacy and international relations, especially under the impetus of the Great War, and more general works are now giving way to monographs, which for the recent period still suffer from the restrictions imposed upon access to archives by the governments of western Europe and the United States. The imposing series of volumes which the Carnegie Endowment is bringing out on the social and economic history of the war is American in plan and editorship, but is written by European authors.
In fields less political America has produced the standard manual of the history of religion, but fewer special studies than might be expected in this domain. The output in church history, apart from the Reformation and the apostolic age, would be disappointing were it not for the labors of Lea, who stands by himself as an historian of the institutions of the Roman church. Self-taught, untravelled, a business man most of his life, his eighteen solid volumes of pioneer work constitute the most considerable product of any American historian in the European field.2 The newer Catholic scholarship, though often trained in European methods, is devoting itself rather to the church history of the United States. Intellectual history is illustrated by Andrew D. White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, Henry Osborn Taylor’s Mediaeval Mind, with its forerunners and its continuation to 1600, Thorndike’s Magic and Experimental Science, Dunning’s History of Political Theories, with Sullivan’s and Emerton’s work on Marsiglio of Padua, Putnam’s Censorship, Babbitt’s Rousseau, James Harvey Robinson’s Mind in the Making, scattered writings of George L. Burr, and a number of more special studies, many of them issuing from Columbia University; while intellectual history is also emphasized in Paetow’s serviceable guide to the Middle Ages and in his special publications. Apart from certain general handbooks and a creditable review, Isis, our contribution to the history of science lies mainly in mathematics. Current interest in the history of art is noteworthy, and names like Charles Herbert Moore and Kingsley Porter in architecture, Marquand and Post in sculpture, Berenson and Mather in painting, are significant examples, not to speak of that unclassifiable book, the Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres of Henry Adams. We have made notable contributions to the palaeography of the early Middle Ages, to the history of language, especially the Greek and Italic dialects, the Romance tongues, and Old and Middle English, and to the comparative history of literature. Witchcraft and folk-lore have not been neglected, and anthropology, ethnology, and anthropogeography have their place. America has given considerable attention to questions of historical methodology, the scope and methods of historical study, and the history of history.
There are many gaps: Ireland and Scotland, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Portugal, most of northern and eastern Europe, many great epochs, much of the fruitful borderland between history and other subjects. Then there is general history, for, save for a single adaptation from the German, of our general histories the less said the better. We can show no undertaking of the type of Oncken or Helmolt, the Cambridge series, Lavisse and Rambaud, or the newer French enterprises. Nor, if it be urged that we lack the accumulated scholarship requisite for such extensive tasks, has any of our writers, whether historian or novelist, essayed a more concise synthesis beyond the limits of a text-book. None of our historians has the range of Acton, Freeman, or Bury; books such as those of Merz and Marvin must still be imported. We have, on the other hand, devoted a large amount of energy to the apparatus of teaching—text-books, syllabi, atlases, source-books, and more extended translations of the original materials of history for the use of students and the general public. We have a national fondness for cyclopaedias and bibliographies.
For the most part the characteristics of our work are individual and personal rather than distinctively American. Of that which is best much has been done in the history of institutions, political and legal, ecclesiastical and economic, for which our national experience helps to furnish the necessary basis of understanding. With notable exceptions, we have been less successful in the types of history which make large demands on the imagination. Diplomatic history has made a good beginning, naval history has scored triumphs, military history is in many respects in its infancy, social history is a new genre, stronger as yet in its programme than in its achievements. We have done something with the history of ideas, more with the history of art than with that of science and invention—a surprising neglect of a rich field of study for which Americans ought to possess special aptitude. We have explored foreign archives, especially those of England, France, and Spain, and have at times been the first to exploit historically important series of records previously closed or forgotten. Tasks of editorship and textual criticism we can perform, but we have an Anglo-Saxon tendency to think overmuch of the general reader even in our works of erudition, with the result that too many books fall between the scholar and the public, fully serving the needs of neither. It will be to the advantage of both constituencies when we cease to write with one eye on each and come to produce more abundantly books which only scholars need and books which make the results of scholarship really attractive to the wider body of readers.
Our recent publications comprise but few comprehensive works demanding what the French call “a labor of long breath”. This can be explained in part by academic and other burdens, in part by the growing difficulty of finding a publisher for a considerable work of the less popular type; but something must be set down to the vogue of the text-book and various forms of fugitive writing. Newspapers and magazines must needs be, and well is it if they find room for sound articles on historical subjects. Far be it from my purpose to imply that the American Historical Review is the only journal worthy of the American historian! Nevertheless, the temptation to write much and frequently on topics of current interest—“hot stuff on live subjects”—must be withstood if the historian hopes to accomplish a considerable and finely matured work. Thucydides would have found it hard to syndicate his account of the Sicilian expedition from day to day and still produce that “everlasting possession” which Ranke reread every year, and we may well ponder the example of one who set himself to write a book “for all time” rather than an essay “for the passing hour”.3 So, while a good historical text-book is a real achievement, the number at present in circulation is quite unnecessary, swollen as it is beyond that of any other country by the desire of each publishing house to have a complete series for all grades of instruction. Many a promising scholar has been turned aside from more important labors to compile a text for which there is no real need beyond the pecuniary needs of writer and publisher. Moreover, text-books make easy reputations in the public eye and often falsify standards of creative work. A recent survey of American civilization finds that but “three names suggest themselves when history in America is mentioned”,4 and with one partial exception these three are held up to admiration, not for the substantial achievement of each in other forms of historical activity, but as the authors of a remarkable group of school and college texts!
On the whole, the present state of European history in the United States calls neither for self-satisfaction nor for discouragement. There is a wide variety of effort, with conspicuous examples of achievement. We have shown that we can hold our own in many fields of the world’s scholarship, though the workers are relatively few, and much territory lies unoccupied. We have only to go forward. No field of inquiry is closed to us; each has its attraction and its opportunity. Like St. Paul at the Three Taverns, we can thank God and take courage. Indeed the mere mention of taverns shows what detachment we have recently achieved from the age-long customs of Europe! Detachment is one of America’s great advantages as regards many aspects of European history, but it has its dangers. Cut off from those who drank red wine and shed red blood and even waved red flags, we must not lose understanding of this seething life of an older civilization and write its history as that of another planet upon which we gaze like Olympians across “the lucid interspace”. For good and ill, it is all our world, to have “as in our time” the Wife of Bath would say, and the historian has constant need to remind himself that his theme is life, rich and deep and full-blooded, and not running pale beneath his pen. “In the joy of the actors”, says Stevenson, “lies the sense of any action.” “To miss the joy is to miss all.”
It is our world to-day but not to-morrow. If the future of history as a whole is immense, like Matthew Arnold’s future of poetry, no one can foretell which aspects of history are in store for coming generations in America. No form of history is final, yet each of us naturally looks for the perpetuation of that form in which he has immediate personal interest. Many historians find it easy to be historically minded respecting everything save only history. To them the world may change but the types of history must remain the same. None the less these, too, change, continually and, as Croce has finely shown, without repetition. In the writing of history, as in all other things, we cannot predict to-morrow save that it will be different from to-day.
One function of history, however, is likely to outlast our time, namely the interpretative function, and in none can the historical scholar perform a finer service. The Interpreter in Bunyan’s allegory is the master of Mr. Great-heart. As a people we tend to have short memories and quick impulses. We have hastily assumed that the several nations of Europe during the World War were something very different from what they had been before, and that they have again quite changed character and ideals with the peace. The historian knows better, and his countrymen need his steadying vision, which puts the present in its perspective and interprets it in the light of the past. The war was from one point of view a conflict of national psychologies, and the peace is much the same. Each nation, in Clemenceau’s phrase, “lives encased in its own past”, and its action is determined by its inherited mentality. To explain these mentalities historically to America is the historian’s no mean task. Indirectly, also, he interprets America to Europe. A certain large volume on America throws quite as much light on the workings of the German mind as on the United States, while Bryce’s American Commonwealth mirrors much of England at her best. Excellent American books on European history will increase respect for American scholarship, American fair-mindedness, mayhap American originality, and help Europe to understand the American mind. May we be judged by our best, and may our best be abundant! Such interpretation need not always be indirect. American historians have also the opportunity to do for their country what Lavisse has just done for France in those serene and luminous pages of farewell with which he concludes his literary labors and his co-operative Histoire de la France Contemporaine; and they might even find a common denominator between American idealism and the “very free democracy, always seeking a greater social justice, neither disturbed by violence nor seduced by utopias, reasoning and reasonable”, which the veteran historian pictures as the supreme ambition of France.
The function of the historian as interpreter exists not merely as between nations; it concerns larger groups. There are common elements in European civilization which the American historian should be the first to discern and whose history he should be able to trace without those national prejudices from which his European confrères cannot wholly emancipate themselves. Thus Charlemagne to him is neither a German nor a Frenchman but a European figure. So, too, he is bound to see the United States as part of a larger whole. We speak, for convenience’s sake, of European and American history, creating separate professorships and sometimes even separate departments, and many people like to think of American history as providentially cut off from Europe by Columbus, or the Revolution, or the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles. It is the historian’s business to tie Europe and America together in the popular mind. For colonial and Revolutionary times the fundamental work has in large measure been accomplished by the scholars of the present generation; for the federal period it has only begun. Our connections with Europe have been most evident in time of war and often forgotten in the intervals of peace. The great European wars have in every instance also been American wars; they have even become world wars. “In order that he might rob a neighbor whom he had promised to defend”, writes Macaulay of Frederick the Great, “black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.” A century and a half later Frederick’s successor violated a neutrality he was pledged to respect, and a nameless American soldier lies at Arlington while thousands of his comrades sleep beneath their crosses at Romagne. Nor is the repercussion of events across the Atlantic confined to periods of war. Ireland has a potato famine in 1848, and Boron has an Irish mayor in 1922. Karl Marx and Engels publish their Communist Manifesto in this same 1848, and two generations later Bolshevism appears in the lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest. Even in the face of the World War, the man in the street does not see these connections and what they imply. The historian sees them, and it is his duty to make them clear to the man in the street and the man in public office. The historian sees them, whether he be occupied primarily with Europe or with America, for at this point the tasks of these two groups merge, and their very subject-matter conspires to bring about a unity which in methods of work and habits of mind they necessarily possess. The old dichotomy is passing as the New World grows old—prematurely old, some would say, or is it only a passing mood of disenchantment in both hemispheres, as when Barrie declares that “the war has taken spring out of the year”? Young or old, Europe and America are now in the same boat, along with the still older Orient, all common material for history. The historian’s world is one; let him interpret it as one, in relation both to scholarship and to the molding of public opinion!
The American Historical Association, ever since its foundation in 1884, has stood for a large and comprehensive conception of the historian’s task. It was established, in the words of its charter, to promote “the interest of American history and history in America”. The programmes of its meetings have been catholic and varied, including when possible foreign scholars; its Review has been open to workers in all branches of history while keeping its readers in touch with the historical movement throughout the world. The Association has had among its members men eminent in European as well as American history, occasionally writers like Henry Adams and Mahan who have shone brilliantly in both fields and have illuminated the common problems of the historical student. National in its membership, it has been international in its outlook. It has welcomed the work of both scholar and interpreter, new ideas as well as new learning. It has kept the unity of the historical faith, and conserved the freedom of history. The work of this Association and of its members is the best guarantee of the future of historical scholarship in America.
Charles Homer Haskins (1870–1937) received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1890, and taught briefly at John Hopkins and Wisconsin before moving to Harvard in 1902 where he remained until his retirement in 1931. Haskins was particularly noted for his work in the field of medieval history, including Normans in European History (1915), Norman Institutions (1918), The Rise of Universities (1923), The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927), and Studies in the History of Medieval Science (2nd ed. 1927).
1. On the work of Americans in French history, see the survey in the Revue de Synthèse Historique, XXIX. 251–277 (1919); and my article, “L’Histoire de France aux États-Unis”, in Revue de Paris, Feb. 1, 1920.