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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 going to work from the actual documents which revealed how men thought about their legal and economic problems. In so doing he liberated from limbo not merely the documents but the dead themselves. The quantity and quality of his twenty-two years of research were remarkable.

Although he worked astonishingly fast, Maitland could only sample the vintages. He would concentrate on a single source and work outward to other sources. He got things wrong only when the speed at which he worked induced him to accept other men’s findings without testing them against the primary sources. The chips that fell from his hammer were as inspiring as the finished statue itself. Suddenly you find him telling you why the men of Kent were not bound by the law of primogeniture, but preferred the law of gavelkind, by which all offspring, and not just the eldest, inherit land. Or, in discussing the terms “sake” and “soke,” he will add in an aside that sake “is still in use among us; although we do not speak of a sake between two persons, we do speak of a man acting for another’s sake, or for God’s sake, or for the sake of money.” He rarely had theories; he preferred to give suggestive warnings. He warned against the prevailing practice of interpreting history in terms of unilinear progress. In some localities medieval customs survived for centuries whereas in others they disappeared never to be revived. When he wrote, “We dare not represent the stream of economic history as flowing uninterruptedly from a system of labour service to a system of rents,” he was identifying a site which Kosminsky and Munia Postan were to excavate in their studies of the medieval manor. Time and again Maitland’s hints have enabled later historians to write a major work.

He was not trained as a historian. He read a course at Cambridge which his university in its folly allowed to disintegrate only to see it revived at Oxford after the First World War in the guise of Modern Greats. It consisted of the study of philosophy, political science, and economics. He then took up the law and was called to the bar. The law is probably the worst training for a historian because lawyers while appealing to the past regard the most recent decisions of the courts as most authoritative and regard the past as valuable only insofar as it explains the present. As Maitland put it:

A lawyer finds on his table a case about rights of common which sends him to the Statute of Merton. But is it really the law of 1236 he wants to know? No, it is the ultimate result of the interpretations set on the statute by the judges of twenty generations…. What the lawyer wants is authority and the newer the better; what the historian wants is evidence and the older the better.

Most of the materials that enable historians to reconstruct medieval history are the records of the law and the courts, and you have to master, as Maitland put it, “an extremely formal system of pleading and procedure” and “a whole system of actions with repulsive names.” Maitland, who soon gave up the law and returned to Cambridge, had to do more than that. He read enormously in several languages, taught himself paleography to decipher the Gloucester roll of 1221 (“anyone who knows some law and some Latin will find that the difficulty disappears in a few weeks”), and produced a grammar of Norman French. He understood the limitations of the records and also what with squeezing they could yield. Whereas Freeman wanted to prove that the Anglo-Saxons cared as passionately about freedom as Gladstonian liberals, Maitland showed that medieval men reasoned in ways foreign to us. When we today perceive a wrong our instinct is to say that the law must provide a remedy. Maitland deduced that in the early Middle Ages men argued that if no remedy existed no wrong had been committed.

The secret of his reputation was that he wrote like no other medieval historian has written before or since. He went for a stroll with his reader, explaining the landscape, cutting a path through the thorns, and warning him of pits and bogs along the way. When at the age of eighteen I was told to read Domesday Book and Beyond I could not criticize his arguments because I lacked the skills and the knowledge to do so—nor indeed can I today. I knew that Domesday Book, the record of the general census ordered by William the Conqueror in 1085, was a central historical document, but I had not the faintest idea how historians interpreted what it meant. Yet the gate opened on a new landscape in history that I had never seen before, and Maitland’s style took me by the hand and led me through it.

Of course Domesday Book is not a treatise on jurisdiction…. On the whole we take it that the lord who enjoyed soke had a right to keep a court if he chose to do so…. We may in later times see some curious compromises. If a thief is caught on the land of the Prior of Canterbury [he is taken to] the court of the hundred of Wye, which belongs to the Abbot of Battle. Then if he is not one of the Prior’s men, he will be judged by the hundred. But if he is the Prior’s man, then the bailiff of Brook will “crave the Prior’s Court.” But a much more difficult case comes before us in Warwick…. We are likely to see here a relic of the ancient “house peace.” If you commit an act of violence in a man’s house, whatever you may have to pay to the person whom you strike and to the King, you will also have to make amends to the owner of the house…for you have broken his peace.

Maitland not only loved research. He loved to make a story out of his discoveries for his readers. “We can hardly go so far as to say….” “We might here pause to consider….” How can any undergraduate resist the charm of Maitland’s injunction: “Fidelity with a leaning to correctness should be our aim”? His style, G.R. Elton writes, “combines earnestness and wit, charm and sinew, in a manner so personal that any attempt to learn from it would be idiocy.” He avoided circumlocutions and illustrated abstract notions by showing how they affected in practice ordinary men and women. He was courtesy itself to those whom he found to be in error. Maitland treated Bishop Stubbs, twenty-five years his senior, with decent respect even though he was undermining the foundations of the bishop’s history of the constitution; and only the horrible Horace Round, who in controversy had the manners of a ferret, ever felt the edge of his tongue.

He could be funny about the contents of those dusty documents and he had a turn of phrase: “John Knox was shipped off with the rest, and was kept in the galleys for nineteen months, to meditate on faith that justifies”; he could be funny about the so-called feudal system, a term that schoolboys used to learn and proceeded for the rest of their lives to misuse, imagining it to mean a more or less stable form of government like parliamentary democracy. Maitland pretended in his constitutional history that “a learned and laborious antiquary,” Sir Henry Spelman, had introduced the term into England in the seventeenth century. Spelman observed that something like the English modes of land tenure and services existed on the Continent. So there must have been a system. His successors embroidered the theme to such a degree that Maitland declared that the feudal system attained its most perfect state of development in the eighteenth century. Scholarship, alas, he concluded, has revealed the difference rather than the similarities between one century and another and between England and the Continent, so that “it is quite possible to maintain that England was the most, or for that matter the least, feudalized; and that William the Conqueror introduced, or for that matter, suppressed the feudal system.”

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