The Right Historical Stuff

F.W. Maitland

by G.R. Elton
Yale University Press, 118 pp., $15.00

Frederic Maitland is arguably England’s greatest professional historian. Before he died in 1906, aged fifty-six, he changed the way historians worked on English medieval history. Almost alone among the Victorians he put into practice what German scholars were doing. Not that he spent time on Historismus or the attack upon positivist history by the Hegelians. Maitland learned from Germany the lesson that the historian must get into the archives and read. But he must read with a critical mind and ask himself what the words in a document were intended centuries ago to mean: he must not take evidence at its face value.

He understood what was wrong about the writing of history in his own country. “Then in the nineteenth century came the critical movement,” he wrote. “Would Englishmen see and understand what was happening in Germany? Would they appreciate and emulate the work of Savigny and Grimm? It can hardly be said they rose to the occasion.” He meant that whereas English historians were still obsessed by the politics of the struggle between Crown and Parliament, the Germans had interpreted the history of nations not through their rulers, the battles they had fought, and the treaties they had made, but through the origins of their law, their institutions, their language, and their folk tales and myths.

We use the names of Gibbon and Macaulay as shorthand in referring to their famous works. Not so Maitland, Other historians made their reputation by ranging over centuries in a free-flowing narrative. Faithful to his sources, Maitland refused to do so. He did not write a history of the constitution as Stubbs did or narrative history as did Freeman. He picked a single field and drew his conclusions from what he found in the documents. Apart from his Domesday Book and Beyond, the titles of his works are enough to make the common reader flinch. The Pleas of the Crown for the County of Gloucester before the Abbot of Reading, 1221; Township and Borough; Trust and Corporation; the three volumes on the Eyre of Kent; Three Rolls of the King’s Court—the texts he edited with introductions are legion. Perhaps his most renowned editions were the three-volume Bracton’s Note-Book and the Year Books from the reigns of Edward I and Edward II, which were compilations of notes made by students in court (though he mistakenly believed they were semiofficial collections of cases for the use of judge and counsel). His introduction to Memoranda de Parliamento put the study of parliamentary origins on a new level. But all he claimed to be doing was “to provide materials for the formation of opinions.” “He was introducing a set of documents,” said Edward Miller, “and not rewriting the history of Parliament.”

He did in fact once write a piece of narrative history on the Elizabethan church settlement and the Reformation in Scotland. But though it was scintillating he left that form of history to others. Let others write impressive tomes based on printed sources. He was…

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