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A Matter of History

The Governance of Mediaeval England from the Conquest to Magna Carta

by H.G. Richardson, by G.O. Sayles
Aldine, 550 pp., $12.50

It is not often that medieaval history is subject for polemics and it is fitting that when it is, the object should be a man who has been in his grave sixty years and more. This book is an account of the growth of English institutions from 1066 to 1215. It is also a sustained and violent attack on the ability and reputation of a man who has some claim to be the founder of English mediaeval studies, Williams Stubbs.

Stubbs was Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford from 1866 to 1884. He was a clergyman, who laid the foundations of his scholarship through sixteen years of successive academic disappointments in rural exile in Essex. In an age of obsessive industry, when Newman thought nothing of standing fifteen hours a day at his desk, Stubbs was remarkable for his memory and his application: two services a day, a hundred sermons a year, besides his historical work, and he could yet boast that he knew every toe on every baby in the parish. He set himself, as he announced in his inaugural lecture at Oxford, to found a historical school in England; if, when his academic career ended on his consecration as Bishop of Chester in 1884, this aim had been largely accomplished it was chiefly through the most important and influential of his books, The Constitutional History of England.

In life a Tory, Stubbs was a Whig in print: The history of the English people as he told it was a redemptive process, the English a chosen people dwelling in their Anglo-Saxon origins in a primitive democracy, electing their kings, shaping their own laws. With the Normans came sin and the destruction of democracy: Over the next two and a half centuries the English people, endowed with a dawning sense of their own nationhood, journey out of bondage into a profounder, richer consciousness of their democratic heritage. Up the “Via Crucis of English Constitutional history” they go to find salvation and representation in the shape of parliament.

Stubbs was wrong, though how wrong it is not always easy to tell since he hedged his opinions about with modifications to the point of self-contradiction. But, as the authors of this book point out, it was not so much that his facts were sometimes wrong or his opinions often mistaken, but that the balance and stress of his account is false to the facts. English history was not a simple tale of liberty broadening down from precedent to precedent, nor was parliament the goal towards which all things tended. Certainly not at the end of the thirteenth century anyway, and when Stubbs made parliament spring fully armed from the brow of Edward I, the birth was not only illegitimate: It was also premature.

Why this should be so is easy to understand. It was hard for Stubbs, Tory though he was, to live through three Reform bills and not see Parliament as the golden thread that linked the past. Then too he was turned back from the comparative study of other institutions because available materials were scarce and indeed are only now becoming available in print. The study of the Exchequer, the Chancery, the Courts and the Council, which must have modified Stubbs’s conclusions, is the substance of administrative history, a study of characteristic of the twentieth century as constitutional history was of the nineteenth. One might, if one chose, see some significance in this. For administrative history is the history of the little man, history with the ideas taken out of it, made by men whose names we often don’t know, white collar history. Administrative historians are as authoritarian as Stubbs was the opposite: secret lovers of power, they hanker after neatness and order and long wistfully for a succession of strongarm kings like Henry II and Edward I.

Messrs. Richardson and Sayles are free of this fault but the story that they tell is very different from that of Stubbs. For them the Norman Conquest was an event of small significance, producing little change in English government or institutions. It was the fact that, contrary to William the Conqueror’s Intention. England and Normandy remained under one ruler, Henry I, which determined the precocious development of Anglo-Norman institutions. For England thus became a part, and under the Angevins not the most important part, of a much larger complex of continental territories. England, in virtue of the particular character of her institutions, demanded special provisions during the king’s frequent absences abroad in other parts of his empire: Henry II, for instance, spent less than half his reign in England. The gradual creation of permanent arrangements to remedy this deficiency—the growth of a kind of caretaker administration, originally under the king’s justiciar—was thus the beginning of the idea of the state existing over and against the king and apart from his person. This was the first stage in a revolution which was complete only when the circumstances which had called it into being disappeared, when the continental possessions were lost and English kings began to stay at home. For when they did so they found themselves fitted out with the handiest and most powerful set of governmental institutions in Europe. It is no accident that the baronial unrest and resistance to governmental pressures which resulted in Magna Carta should have occurred in the reign of John, the first of these stay-at-home kings. Sometimes the pattern sounds very familiar and not at all medieaval:

The fabric of government grows more complicated year by year and this development at once enhances and diminishes the king’s authority. His authority is enhanced in that his ministers exercise greater and greater control over the lives of his subjects: it is diminished in that he can act effectively only through his ministers…. Since no mediaeval king was ever, like Louis XIV, homme de bureau, his power, whatever his strength of purpose, was limited in practice by his inability to control in person a complicated administrative and judicial system. He was of necessity, as Bracton said; under the law.

How far we have come since Stubbs wrote can be measured by the difference between his conception of Bracton’s meaning and that of this book. For Stubbs, to be under the law was a vague obligation imposed upon kings by the Coronation Oath to observe the good laws of their predecessors, tempered by an even vaguer responsibility to God. For Richardson and Sayles, the phrase has a richer and more concrete significance: the law for them is assize and ordinance and administrative procedure, the case law of the courts, the rules and ritual of the Exchequer course; the king is shackled by the whole harness of the state.

If Richardson and Sayles were set on superseding Stubbs they have hardly succeeded. The Constitutional History, whatever its faults—and I’m not sure they don’t count it one of them—was a very readable book. It wove together narrative and analysis—political alternating with institutional history in a book which Maitland, though hardly the average reader, claimed to have picked up in his club and been unable to put down. With this book he would have had no problem. It has no discernible scheme; it is not a chronological survey but rather a book of essays on connected problems. No one who has not a detailed knowledge of the period would find it intelligible and then not without much patience. There is scholarship here—and over a range on which few mediaevalists could compete—but the authors know it and they do not scruple that their readers should know it too and be daunted by it.

If with the aid of texts unknown to us or perchance misunderstood by us,” they write in a preface which must be unique among scholarly works for containing not one single acknowledgement, “[our readers] are able to confute us, none could more willingly submit to correction. We would, however, be spared the censure of those who may be moved to contradict without examining the texts we have cited in our notes.” It is not simply the use of the first person plural that makes this sound both arrogant and priggish.

The authors’ constant attacks on Stubbs are wearing and often unnecessary. Wit would perhaps excuse them. But no Housman they. Here is neither grace or wit. They are at once coy, prim, and waspish, and the pity is that these are qualities which will impress and be emulated by undergraduate readers more than the solid scholarship that lies beneath. It is pseudo-controversy at its worst. In justification the authors postulate “a cult of Stubbs wherever Oxford men abide.” Neither Richardson nor Sayles is an Oxford man, nor, so far as I know, has the university ever done them much honor. Moreover, due to the flourishing school Stubbs founded, the teaching of mediaeval history in other English universities has until fairly recently been dominated by Oxford men. This is perhaps the real burden of their complaint. As it is, the sins of Stubbs’s omission are here and those of his commission, besides others the authors are sure he would have committed if only he’d known as much about his subject as they do: “One wonders sometimes whether Stubbs’s idealization of Edward I would have survived the discovery that his hero had at least one son born out of wedlock.” Conceivably, I suppose, one might so wonder but I’m sure Messrs. Richardson and Sayles would be the only ones actually to care. We learn too that Stubbs refused to meet a Unitarian minister, that he maneuvered a copy of Renan’s Life of Jesus out of the hands of J.R. Green into the waste paper basket. He also burned a copy of Herbert Spencer. Not liberal actions certainly, nor particularly open-minded ones, but since when have open-mindedness and liberal principles been the criteria on which we judge Regius Professors? Not many of them, and not least the present incumbent, could withstand such totalitarian scrutiny.

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