Presidential address delivered before the American Historical Association at Rochester, December 28, 1926. Published in the American Historical Review 32, no. 2 (January 1927): 219–31.

War and History

One hundred and twenty years ago the National Institute of France set as a subject for a prize essay: “To examine the influence of the Crusades upon the civil liberty of the peoples of Europe, upon their civilization and upon the progress of knowledge, commerce and industry.”

This marked a change in the conception of the Crusades. In the preceding century the prevailing point of view had been expressed by Voltaire: “Thus the only fruit of the Christians in their barbarous crusades was the extermination of other Christians.”

The action of the Institute led to the writing of several essays; in particular two, which shared the prize and are well worth reading at the present day.1 Both of these treated briefly of the influence of the Crusades on history, a subject which has been almost entirely neglected in the more recent discussions of the results of the Crusades.

What influence upon history and historiography was exerted by this great series of wars? It was threefold. First, the Crusades broadened the subject-matter. In the centuries preceding the First Crusade historical writing had been confined to annals, chronicles, and biographies; statements of facts, accounts of prodigies or miracles, eulogies of saints or rulers. The writers were usually so concerned with strictly local interests that it is often possible to detect the name, or at least the habitat, of an anonymous author by the events which he recorded, or left unrecorded, because his outlook was so closely limited to his own monastery or its immediate neighborhood.

Just before the First Crusade there was some broadening of outlook and interests due to the struggle over lay-investiture and of the wars of conquest by restless Normans. The latter had only a slight effect, introducing new geographical names and some interest in the new lands, the scenes of conquest. The struggle over lay-investiture led to an eager, but not very fruitful, study of history for precedents by which either papal or imperial partizans might bolster up their claims to hegemony of papacy or empire. The very barrenness of their efforts shows how little they could know of history.

The Crusades brought a great change, especially in France. As Molinier says:2 “It is perhaps in historiography that the results of this great movement were the most marked; up to that time, for more than a century, each section of the former kingdom of Charles the Bald had lived in isolation, thrown back upon itself as it were, confined by a narrow horizon. Now the barriers fall and Europe begins to be self-conscious; it has common interests and common enemies, and above the petty quarrels of its princes soars a higher ideal, that of the Christian community in strife with Islam.” “By the contact with the Orient, the historical horizon of the Western writers was marvellously extended, the impulse was given and the time was ripe in France for the composition of universal chronicles.” New countries and new peoples came within the ken of history. The abbot Guibert, in his history of the First Crusade, felt it necessary to give an account of the prophet Mohammed and the religion of Islam. Other writers describe the glory and greatness of Constantinople, the fortifications of Antioch, the characteristics and antecedents of the Greeks, or Turks, or Arabs.

The second influence of the Crusades was the popularization of history. Men were impressed with the importance of the events in which they or their neighbors were participating. Robert the Monk wrote, in the preface to his history of the First Crusade: “If we except the salutary mystery of the crucifixion, what has happened since the creation of the world that is more marvellous than this which has been done in modern times, on this expedition of our men to Jerusalem? The more studiously anyone directs his attention to this subject, the greater will be his stupefaction.”

There were few parts of Western Europe which were not in some way brought into contact with one or more of the first three Crusades. The number of those who went on the First Crusade has been grossly exaggerated, both by contemporary writers and modern historians, but it was very great in comparison with the population at that time. The lines of march of the various contingents took them through many parts of Europe and those who stayed at home frequently had opportunity to see or hear of the expeditions. The participation of the kings of France and of Germany in the second great Crusade occasioned interest in the movement throughout their dominions. The necessity of paying the ransom of Richard the Lion-Hearted, when on his return from the Third Crusade he was held as a prisoner by the Emperor Henry VI., brought the matter home to everyone in England. We are told that every man, woman, and child in his kingdom had to contribute to raise the enormous sum of £100,000 which the Emperor demanded. Also it must not be forgotten that other monarchs went on the Third Crusade, thus spreading interest in the movement throughout their lands. When we recall the large number of other expeditions Outre Mer and their continuance for nearly two centuries, we can realize the interest aroused in the West concerning these new lands and their inhabitants.

To satisfy this interest and the natural curiosity of the people histories were written and songs were sung. The best of the sources from a modern historian’s standpoint, the so-called Gesta Francorum, written by an anonymous layman, was considered unsatisfactory by his contemporaries. They criticized it because it was a bare, unadorned narration of facts and because it did not tell of the beginnings at the Council of Clermont. Using the Gesta as a basis, writers attempted to popularize the history by writing it in a more literary form, by arranging the facts in a logical order, by demonstrating the causes and results of these facts. Molinier says: “French historiography was profoundly transformed and the true meaning of history began to emerge.” But these works were written in Latin, the language of the learned, and others had to get their information from the songs or oral accounts. To reach a wider audience, and sometimes for purposes of propaganda, some writers used the vernacular, the language of the people.

A change is to be noted in the kind of men who wrote the histories. In contrast with the humble, often anonymous, monks by whom the earlier chronicles had been written, clerical leaders, abbot and archbishop, took up their pens to write the account in a more literary form. Men of action recounted the deeds in which they had had a part. As examples may be cited: William, archbishop of Tyre and chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem; Walter, chancellor of the principality of Antioch; Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre and cardinal; Ville-Hardouin, one of the influential leaders of the Fourth Crusade; Joinville, the friend of St. Louis. It may be noted that the last two, and other writers as well, were not members of the clergy; history was becoming laicized.

Among the Arabs the Crusades had a similar influence on history and historiography. For a long time before the Crusades little or no attention had been given by Moslems to the study or writing of history. The glorious events under Nūr-ad-Dīn and Saladin awakened the enthusiasm of the followers of the prophet. History became popular and its scope was broadened. The authors were usually men of high rank who had participated in some of the events which they described. Ibn al-Athīr was the son of an emir and served in the wars under Saladin; his position and prestige gave him access to the documents of the rulers. Imād ad-Dīn was secretary of state under Nūr ad-Dīn. Bahā ad-Dīn was cadi at Jerusalem and at Aleppo and was sent on diplomatic missions. Kamāl ad-Dīn was a vizier. Abū-l-Fidā was a kinsman of Saladin and sultan of Hamah.

Have other wars, in later ages, had a similar influence? If so, what importance does this fact have for the present day? Let us first determine the facts.

After the Crusades ceased to arouse popular enthusiasm the character of historical writing changed. Western Europe was no longer conscious of having common interests and a common enemy. Local interests were dominant and writing local chronicles again became the prevailing fashion. In France historiography often was merely a tool of propaganda. This can be attributed, in part, to the Hundred Years’ War when local feeling was strong and partizan writers used history to justify the alliances or defections of their lords.

The humanistic movement in its earlier period made little change in this respect; in fact, it emphasized the tendency to stress the history of a single locality and to glorify the policy of a ruler. To find a new impulse in history, a return to a larger canvas, we must go to Florence at the beginning of the sixteenth century. For, to restore history to a prominent position, to free it from its parochial tendencies, came after a long interval the invasion of Italy by the French king in 1494.

Florence went through a critical period, suffering terribly from the invasion and from the ensuing strife between the French and Spanish kings. Together with the other city states of Central Italy it lost its independent position in European affairs. It changed suddenly from the rule of the Medici to a republic, and it was necessary to establish a new constitution. In this respect its position was not unlike that of the American colonies after the Revolutionary War. History was studied for instruction in politics. Historians eagerly scanned all past history to which they had access. Every political event of the past or present was analyzed and its consequences examined because they hoped to find material for the formation of their constitution. But in their study of universal history they paid heed only to wars and politics, there was no interest in the history of culture. In order to win a larger audience they wrote in the vernacular. The historians were usually men of affairs who had interests at stake. Machiavelli and Guicciardini are only the most striking examples among a number who had held high office in the state. It is interesting to note, that in Florence “this efflorescence of historical writing lasted only as long as the struggle for the constitution lasted”.

In this case a war had the same three effects that the Crusades had had: it caused history to broaden its horizon; it created a greater popular interest, and history was more widely read, because written in the vernacular; lastly, authors were statesmen who had themselves participated in the events.

Except in Florence the men of the early sixteenth century did not produce notable histories. There was great activity in historical work but mainly as a tool for propaganda, and the writings were not of a character to arouse popular interest. Renan’s statement that “historical criticism is a daughter of Protestantism” has often been quoted and is partially true. But only partially true. Excellent beginnings in historical criticism had been made in the preceding period; for example, by Laurentius Valla, and by many opponents of the existing order in Church or State. But historical criticism was now used more extensively as a weapon to attack an adversary. It was very much like the search for historical precedents during the Investiture Struggle in order to prove that the other party was wrong. The great advance which history had made in the course of the centuries is clearly evident when the productions of the two periods are contrasted. The outstanding examples in the sixteenth century are the Magdeburg Centuries and the Annals of Baronius. A group of Protestant scholars in their zeal to prove that the Roman Catholic Church had been led astray by Anti-Christ and had become more and more corrupt throughout the ages, compiled and published at Magdeburg, in 13 folio volumes, a history of the Church from its origin till the close of the thirteenth century. To meet this attack Cardinal Baronius published his Annales Ecclesiastici to 1198, in 12 folio volumes. Neither of these productions was intended for popular reading. At first the cardinal’s work, filled with documents, drawn from the Vatican archives, seemed a crushing refutation of the Centuries. But Protestant scholars rushed to the fray; Casaubon published 12 folio volumes in refutation of the Annals; Holstenius is said to have detected more than eight thousand misstatements of fact in the cardinal’s volumes. This strife determined the main line of historical work during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Scholars occupied themselves in controversy over religious history or dogma, in seeking for and publishing new documents, or in critical studies of the texts; sometimes in forging documents which were useful for their cause. They did not confine themselves to ecclesiastical sources, but also collected and edited medieval material on the history of their native lands. In Italy and France, in England and Germany, the productive work was mainly in “catalogs of writers, publication of sources, collections of sources”.

Yet the wars of religion did have an influence on history, as the Crusades did. The scope of history was broadened. While most of the works produced could not appeal to popular interest, and most of the men of affairs who participated in the movement did so as collectors or editors or critics, there were notable exceptions, especially in the seventeenth century. Bacon, Raleigh, Clarendon, de Thou, d’Aubigndé, Grotius, Sarpi, and others, all of them men of affairs, produced valuable histories. Sarpi wrote the history of the Council of Trent, a polemical work. Bacon, de Thou, d’Aubigné, Grotius, and Clarendon wrote histories of their own times; Raleigh, during his imprisonment in the Tower, experimented in chemistry and wrote part of a history of the world, to while away the time. All of these authors were widely read and Clarendon, in particular, exerted a great influence on historical writing in England. The fact that the period of the wars of religion was not more productive of great historians can be attributed in part to the dominant interest in controversy over theological history and dogma, in part to the zest for collecting and criticizing documents.

The French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon had a profound effect upon history. In the early period, when for the young and enthusiastic it was bliss to be alive, privileges both feudal and ecclesiastical were abolished; the monarchy in France was overthrown; new constitutions were made; the rights of man were proclaimed; men of low degree rose to positions of power; but it is not necessary in this audience to catalogue the work of the Revolution. In the ensuing period the inevitable reaction set in and much that had been striven for in the Revolution seemed to be lost. But new and powerful factors combined to kindle the imagination of the people; in France, the worship of Napoleon, the possibility of securing a marshal’s baton by bravery, the ideal of glory, the pride in a victorious France against the world. In the other countries there was the seething of revolutionary ideas; there was the unwilling admiration and popular dread of the Emperor; Bonaparte, or “Boney”, became a bogey in England to terrify the children, as Richard the Lion-Hearted had been in Palestine six hundred years before. People became keenly interested in other lands and their history. The formation of new constitutions and the rise to power of hitherto obscure individuals diverted attention from monarchs and nobles to the men of the third estate; the scope of history was broadened.

The great historians came only in the next generation and they were not, as a rule, men who had participated in the events; in fact, most of them were in their infancy during the period of the Revolution. They were not confined to any one country: Guizot, Ranke, Thiers, Macaulay, Bancroft, Grote, Prescott, Carlyle, Parkman, Motley, to name only a few, of especial interest to us. Some of them were men of affairs and held public office; but the office was sometimes attained because of prestige as an author. The ability which had made a man pre-eminent in his historical work marked him as worthy to represent his country in an administrative position or as a minister at a foreign court.

Evidently all wars do not create an interest in history or produce great historians. If they did Europe would have had a constant succession of great historians during the last four hundred years. It is not sufficient-to beg the question by saying that only the great wars cause changes in historiography. Dynastic wars did not; nor did civil wars if we can judge from the Civil War in England or in our own country. The former did incite Clarendon and produce a great interest in history as is shown by the mass of pamphlets; and the latter is true of our own Civil War, witness the wealth of articles on history in the popular periodicals of the ’eighties. If an analysis is made of the wars which seem to have influenced historiography, certain facts emerge. They were wars which excited the popular imagination; wars in which men were conscious of common interests; wars which were due to or caused a change in the social polity; wars by which men’s interests were broadened or directed into new channels. This is emphatically true of the Crusades and of the French Revolution and may explain their great influence on historiography.

New ideas seem to have been the most important factor. Great wars seem to have accelerated the change in ideas by the horror which they aroused, compelling men to evaluate their opinions and to discard those which were in part, at least, a cause of war; by producing changes in government or administration which required study and thought to make them effective.

The nationalism which characterized the nineteenth century is frequently explained as a result of the French Revolution. It is not necessary here to challenge this generalization. At all events the concept of nationality was given a great impetus by the Revolution and developed rapidly after it. The revolutionary ideas had been eagerly accepted in many parts of Germany and it might be argued that the German nation was a product of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. When the editors began their work on the Monumenta Germaniae Historica they chose as their motto Sanctus amtor patriae dat animum, and this sentence is the key-note to much of the historical writing of the nineteenth century.

It would be inaccurate to credit all the advance made in historical work to the Revolution. The ground had already been prepared. In the eighteenth century Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and others had influenced the thought of the age; Robertson, Hume, and Gibbon had produced their great works; Adam Smith had written the Wealth of Nations. It would carry us too far afield to catalogue other products of the eighteenth century which were influential in shaping the historical thought of the following age. Some of the characteristics on which the last century prided itself were already in evidence in the preceding: the attempt to secularize history; the attention to the third estate; the stress upon the national character and the spirit of the age as explanations of historical phenomena. To consider all the advance as the result of the French Revolution would be to fall into the error, already discarded by some writers in the eighteenth century, of attributing changes in human history to a succession o f catastrophes.

Changes in points of view which have not caused or been accompanied by great wars have often influenced history. The period of the Aufklärung has just been mentioned. The seething discontent and the changes which occurred in the ’thirties and ’forties of the last century are reflected later in the significant stress upon the people, shown by such titles as The History of the English People, The History of the People of the United States.

With these facts as a basis what can be said about the probable influence of the Great War? Will it produce great changes in history and historiography? Will the next generation be marked by great men who will write history because they realize its importance in molding the minds and conduct of their fellow-citizens?

No historian can prophesy what the future holds in store. He may argue from past analogies and traits already discernible in the present that certain results are probable. There is one consoling thought about any attempt at prophecy—only posterity can prove the prediction false.

Some influences of the Great War are readily apparent. Along certain lines it has given a new impetus to forces already at work; e.g., in actually enlarging the domains of history. Theoretically, before the war, history embraced all that men had done or thought or striven for since man’s first appearance on this earth. James Harvey Robinson in his New History had argued that the historian must assimilate the results obtained by the natural sciences and give a new orientation to his subject. “The New History” became a name to conjure with and was eagerly adopted by a host of imitators. The attempts at an economic, or a geographic, or some other interpretation of history led many into new fields from which they sometimes garnered a rich harvest. Freeman’s dictum that “History is past politics” was almost universally condemned as inadequate; and, as Webster has remarked, as a result the field of foreign politics was generally neglected so that in 1914, in spite of “the feverish haste” with which scholars attempted “to repair the omissions of past years, men of action were left almost entirely to the tender mercies of the journalist and the sciolist”. Many here present will recall the “feverish haste” with which scholars in this country were asked to supply data for the Peace Conference. The studies made for Versailles called attention to many neglected fields. The rise of racial consciousness among the Arabs and the expulsion of the Turkish sultan has caused a re-examination of Moslem history and the correction of some errors, such as those concerning the position of the caliph. The rapidly increasing opposition in Asia to Western civilization, the Russian Revolution, the attempt to control immigration into this country, have given incentive to study of new fields. Even our text-books are showing the result of the broadening of the horizon of history.

The Great War has made history a matter of greater interest to the reading public. The popularity of H. G. Wells’s Outline of History and of Van Loon’s writings is a striking illustration. I may be permitted to add that the hearty editorial support in our leading newspapers of our campaign for the endowment of this Association has been a great encouragement to us. The amount of space which they have given to our publicity matter is a proof not only of the editors’ interest in history but also of their belief that the public has a similar interest. Publishers are including more histories in their lists. The situation to-day is different from that described in the recently published report on the Writing of History by the committee headed by Jusserand. The periodicals will eventually fall into line and will contain articles on history as they did for the generation following the Civil War. To increase this present interest it is absolutely essential, as the report urges, that histories should be better written and presented in a more literary form. It is necessary also to keep in mind the larger audience which is now interested, as Wells and Van Loon did. While the authors of the report are right in their general strictures on the style which has prevailed, there have been exceptions, for instance in the case of their own writings, which have not been dry as dust. The “spade-work” which has characterized the scholarship of the last two generations is not incompatible of combination with excellent literary expression and a presentation which will command popular interest. The learned work of Henry C. Lea on the Inquisition was translated into French, sold in a popular form, and proved a valuable political weapon in the struggle over the law for the separation of Church and State. A recent Scottish review of Cheyney’s two volumes on the last years of Elizabeth, a product of true “spade-work”, gives them high praise for their literary quality, “although”, to quote the reviewer, “they are based on original sources and conceived in a critical spirit”.

Because of these tendencies I think that we can predict that there will be a still greater broadening of the scope of history and a greater interest in it on the part of the public. The most interesting query is, will the next generation see a succession of great historians, and if such there be is it possible to predict how they will view history and undertake their task? Of course the first part of the question can not be answered except as a matter of faith. We may note, however, to quote Jameson, that “any study of the history of historical writing makes clear the fact that each great crisis in human affairs has evoked in the next generation a striking access of interest in human history and a crop of great historians to meet the need”,3 and living under the shadow of the recent war, we may believe that it was a “great crisis”. It has already evoked “a striking access of interest in human history”, and we may hope that the great historians will not be lacking.

Anyone who attempts now to predict how the great historian will undertake his task-will proceed, as authors of Utopias have always done, by setting forth what he considers desirable. His imagination would be handicapped because he is of this generation and has grown up amid the ideas and prejudices of the pre-war period, from which the historian, born during or after the war, will be partially emancipated. I shall not yield to the temptation of depicting an historical Utopia, which would have no greater reality than all the other Utopias. From an analysis of the present tendencies, however, it may be possible to make tentative statements as to some of the interests of the future historians. And it may be of practical utility to do so, in order that we may direct our energies, in part, to preparing the way for them.

Undoubtedly some, at least, will take a broad view and will be interested in social history in its broadest aspects. They will realize that it is as complex as life itself; that man does not live by bread alone; that he is swayed sometimes by one motive, sometimes by another, and that consequently any one method of interpreting history leads only to partial truth. They will give their assent to Sombart’s statement that the economic interpretation of history is no more true and no more false than any other single interpretation of history, and they will seek to profit by all the results obtained by the various methods of interpreting history.

Because of this attitude the future historian will use a wider range of sources of all kinds and will control them more carefully, as the “spade-work” improves in quality. In particular he will have no reverence for the diplomatic documents as something sacrosanct; the memoirs and revelations which are now appearing in such numbers will help him to evaluate their worth. He will keep in the background of his mind the scepticism caused by Bismarck’s statement, “As for using”, to quote him, “the diplomatic reports, some day, as material for history, nothing of any value will be found in them”. “Even the dispatches which do contain information are scarcely intelligible to those who do not know the people and their relations to each other.” “The most important points, however, are always dealt with in private letters and confidential communications, also verbal ones, and these are not included in the archives.” Bismarck was not wholly right, as Webster has pointed out.4 But it is necessary to subject each document to a very rigid study, before using it. And this is one of the fields in which the present generation can do useful “spade-work” in preparing the way. The study of modern documents demands a technic more rigid even than medieval diplomatics. The usages of each foreign office must be studied. These change, sometimes radically, under different administrations, as anyone at all familiar with our own Department of State is aware. The methods of the English Foreign Office differ from those of our Department, as is shown by Lord Grey in his chapter on the Foreign Office in his recent book Twenty-five Years. Until the usages in each foreign office are known, the documents issued by it can not be studied without grave danger of error. The points of view and opinions of the foreign secretaries and of the ambassadors and of responsible subordinates must be ascertained. In handling many other classes of sources an equally exacting technic will be necessary.

Some of the future historians will probably make more use of co-operative work, because of their realization of the complexity of their task. The need of such organization in historical work is apparent, and the present generation is experimenting. We have our great co-operative undertakings such as the Dictionary of American Biography, the Guide to Historical Literature, the new Ducange. Everyone recognizes the necessity of co-operation in such tasks. In historiography too we have co-operative works, such as the Cambridge Modern, Cambridge Medieval, and Cambridge Ancient History. But in these each author writes his chapter, or chapters, independently, and the editors are not successful in fusing the material into an organic whole; in fact, they make little attempt to do so, allowing each author to express his own views and to follow his own methods of treating the subject; hence there are repetitions and contradictions. I am not decrying the usefulness of these works nor regretting that the authors are allowed such liberty. But I think you will all agree that the finished product is not especially attractive to anyone except a student, and he reads to obtain guidance or to criticize. A volume in one of these series is not enjoyed as a literary masterpiece or taken to while away a week-end.

There is much fruitful co-operation between professors and their students who prepare material for them and often illuminate a subject by discussion in seminar exercises. Every good teacher is indebted to his students for aid and inspiration. This approximates, I think, more nearly the method which the future historian will follow. He will realize the need of co-operative work, that the field is too extensive to be intensively cultivated by one man.

If he shall have been a statesman, or man of affairs, before taking to historical writing, he will have been accustomed to having material prepared for him and to discussing the various aspects of each subject with the assistants specially versed in the matter. This will seem to him the natural method of procedure and he will utilize the specialized knowledge of all the trained men he can secure. There will be ample need of “spade-work”. Each member of the group will have responsibilities and should have credit for his share in the finished product. But the leader, after full discussion, will, by his ability, fuse the mass together and produce an organic whole, in good literary form. In this way, I think, some great histories will be written.

Some of the historians will probably try to find and state historical laws and draw lessons from history for the guidance of their fellow-men. A tendency in this direction is already apparent. Langlois and Seignobos, nearly thirty years ago, laid stress upon the necessity of constructing formulas in history. The question whether it is possible to find historical laws was brilliantly discussed by Cheyney in his presidential address three years ago. There can be little doubt that this subject will command more attention in the future.

It is frequently asserted that the social sciences are lagging behind. The progress of the natural sciences has increased our national wealth, has prolonged human life, and has made our civilization ever more complex. Man has not learned from the social sciences how to organize government or administration to handle this complexity, so as to make life better worth living. To do this requires education and research in which history as the necessary foundation, in part, of all the other social sciences ought to take the leadership. This is being more fully recognized and is, in part, the cause of the greater interest in history. If any laws of history can be ascertained, it will be a great step forward in making the social sciences more useful for guidance. This fact will be a stimulus to historians in seeking to find historical laws.

It may be interesting to note, in conclusion, that while historiography before the war had a tendency to confine its attention mainly to the description of the normal life of a nation and to the study of its institutions and customs, neglecting, as far as possible, the portrayal of wars, the Great War has made history more popular and may lead to its wider usefulness.

Dana C. Munro (1866–1933) was professor of medieval studies at Princeton University from 1915–33. He was the author of Children’s Crusade (1914) and Middle Ages, 395–1272 (1921) and editor of The Source Book for Roman History (1904).



  1. A. H. L. Heeren, Versuch einer Entwickelung der Folgen der Kreuzzüge für Europa (Göttingen, 1808); Choiseul-Daillecourt, De l’Influence des Croisades sur l’État des Peuples de l’Europe (Paris, 1809). []
  2. A. Molinier, Les Sources de l’Histoire de France (Paris, 1904), vol. V., pp. xciii, xcvi. []
  3. J. F. Jameson, The American Historian’s Raw Materials (Ann Arbor, 1923). []
  4. C. K. Webster, “The Study of British Foreign Policy”, in Am. Hist. Rev., XXX. 730. []