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The Empires of Elliott

In successive chapters, Elliott uses his own books as starting points for reflections on the different ways in which history can be written. His study of the Catalan revolt leads him to remark that every national community believes itself to be exceptional and will construct a semimythical history to buttress its own self-image, whether that be “chosen nation,” as in Britain and the US, or “innocent victim,” as in Serbia and Catalonia. He admits that the demolition of such national legends can weaken a people’s sense of solidarity. But he regards clinging to a distorted view of history as a worse option. He warns against the danger of projecting backward into a dynastic age the modern conception of a nation-state: the early modern period was the time of “composite monarchies,” whether large supranational groupings, like the Spanish monarchy, or smaller ones, like the union of England and Scotland; and the Catalan notion of the patria had a legal and constitutional dimension lacking today.

Elliott sees the history of Spain as a never-ending conflict between the country’s inherent diversity, as exemplified by Catalonian self-assurance, and the insistent pressure from the center for unity. On a larger scale, he argues that “the tension between the vision of a united Europe and the particularism of the parts into which it is divided has been a constant of European history from Roman times to our own.” Today the nation-state is challenged by the European Community from above, and by a host of suppressed nationalities from below. Current demands for Catalan independence give topicality to these insights.

The Catalan revolt was only one of a series of rebellions that beset the rulers of Spain, France, England, Italy, and the Netherlands in the middle decades of the seventeenth century. In the 1950s, Eric Hobsbawm’s suggestion that an economic crisis underlay these widespread upheavals sparked a lively historical debate on the so-called “general crisis of the seventeenth century.” Elliott regards this debate, perhaps with some exaggeration, as “a critical moment in the history of twentieth-century historical writing.” In his view, it dealt a mortal blow to the then-conventional view that such disturbances must have had social and economic causes. Instead he and others proposed that it was pressure from above, not below, that led to instability. International rivalries forced monarchs to make heavy fiscal demands on their subjects; and their troubled relations with parliaments and estates were exacerbated by religious differences and royal absenteeism.

This approach would be eagerly adopted by so-called “revisionists,” hostile to the notion that the English Civil War was brought about by long-term social change. The debate also made Elliott aware of the need to cut across national borders and engage in what is now called “transnational history,” that is to say the study of the interaction of different societies. Here he might have acknowledged his great predecessor G.N. Clark, whose remarkable work, The Seventeenth Century, did just that as long ago as 1929.

Elliott’s superb biography of the Count-Duke Olivares, the favorite of Philip IV, focused on the critical decades of the 1620s and 1630s, when Olivares was the principal minister. This was the turning point in the history of the Spanish empire, when Spain “stood on the cusp between grandeur and decadence.” Olivares attempted to combine domestic reform with the restoration of Spain’s international standing. But the two aims conflicted with each other and he failed to avert a slow decline. Reflecting on this failure, Elliott ponders the theme of national decline and the similarities between Spain in the 1620s and Britain in the 1950s. He was understandably gratified when a commentator applied his eloquent description of the seventeenth-century Spanish elite to the leaders of post-imperial Britain:

Heirs to a society which had over-invested in empire, and surrounded by the increasingly shabby remnants of a dwindling inheritance, they could not bring themselves at the moment of crisis to surrender their memories and alter the antique pattern of their lives.

From decline, Elliott turns to the more inspiring story of Spanish artistic creativity in the Golden Age of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He points to the links between art and power, but warns that it would be a mistake to generalize about the character of a society on the basis of the cultural artifacts created for a narrow band of privileged patrons. He also thinks that the balance has tipped too far in favor of social explanations of cultural phenomena: art, he maintains, has its own dynamic. A firm believer in the desirability of uniting history, art history, and museum curatorship, he joined the Princeton art historian Jonathan Brown in curating an exhibition at the Prado on cultural relations between Britain and Spain in the early seventeenth century. In A Palace for a King (1980), they had also collaborated on a “total history” of Buen Retiro, the palace built by Olivares for Philip IV. Ironically, Buen Retiro was largely destroyed in the Napoleonic wars by British forces under General Sir Edward Michael Pakenham, a distant kinsman of Elliott’s wife. Elliott would now like to see the restoration of the hall of Buen Retiro and the return of the paintings that used to hang there.

In another chapter he lauds the potentialities of comparative history, as urged long ago by Marc Bloch. Elliott practiced this in his Richelieu and Olivares (1984), which compared the Spanish minister with his French counterpart, and, more ambitiously, in his Empires of the Atlantic World (2006), a richly rewarding comparison of the very different societies created in America by Britain and Spain. He naturally hopes that the new perspective that this powerful work brings to bear on the two empires will have an impact on the way in which their history will be written in the future.

Finally, he discusses the relatively new genre of “Atlantic history.” He notes that he was one of its pioneers, having published a chapter on “The Atlantic World” as long ago as 1970, but he now thinks that the concept has its limitations. There was no real integration of the North and South Atlantic area before the late nineteenth century; and even then some indigenous peoples were unaffected. Moreover, it makes no sense to exclude the Pacific. The Vice-Royalty of Peru was part of the Atlantic system and so were the Philippines, which came under the Mexican Vice-Royalty.

Having dissolved the category of “the Atlantic world,” Elliott proceeds to demolish that of “empire.” He points out that all the European empires were highly porous, the movement of peoples, goods, and ideas often ignoring imperial borders. “Empire,” he asserts, is no more satisfactory as an organizing concept than “nation” or “state.” The future, he suggests, lies with world history, by which he means not the history of globalization, but the practice of viewing all topics in a global setting: making connections, for example, between the slave-based economies of the Caribbean, the Indian textile industry, and the growth of consumer societies in eighteenth-century Europe.

Here Elliott becomes a Samson pulling down the temple of conventional historiography: a temple, moreover, in which he has himself long worshiped, for hitherto he has accepted the categories of nation, state, and empire happily enough. Indeed there is little about the method or subject matter of his previous writings that would have startled Leopold von Ranke, the great nineteenth-century exponent of positivist, source-based political history. Elliott even observes that a modern version of Ranke’s The Ottoman and the Spanish Empires is an urgent desideratum.

Elliott’s allegiance to traditional ways is apparent in his unease about the intense specialization that has resulted from the multiplication of doctoral theses and the huge increase in the number of professional historians. “The past,” he remarks, “has become an open terrain over which representatives of all the humanist disciplines have felt free to roam at will.” He notes that history nowadays embraces the study of the hitherto excluded masses and of women, but he does not venture very far in either of these directions himself. Nor is he greatly interested in the history of everyday life: his Spain does not include Richard Ford’s donkeys and cigars.

He is uneasy about some current historical fashions, grumbling (with some justification) that it sometimes seems “as if the study of early modern Europe has been reduced to the study of its witches.” He is doubtful about microhistory, because he thinks that unrepresentative individuals, like Menocchio, the heretical Italian miller of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, tell us little about the “silent majority”; and he is famous for his quip that something is amiss when the name of Martin Guerre threatens to become better known than that of Martin Luther.

Yet though Elliott’s concentration on the issues raised by his own work necessarily excludes some of the preoccupations of modern historical writing, History in the Making remains a fine guide to the thinking of a great historian on a wide range of historical issues. In its acuteness and good sense, as well as its elegance, it makes an excellent introduction for young historians and beguiling reading for older ones.

It also leaves us in no doubt about why Elliott has never ceased to be fascinated by the history of Spain:

Here is a country and a people whose past saw the construction and subsequent deconstruction of complex religious and ethnic relationships as it stood poised between the worlds of Christianity, Judaism and Islam; a country that took the lead among European powers in conquering and governing a vast overseas empire, and that has persistently sought, and never quite succeeded, in reconciling the conflicting demands of unity and diversity on its own territory; and a country whose religious, cultural and artistic achievements over the course of the centuries have made an enormously rich if often controversial contribution to human civilization…. Fortunate the historian whose chosen country has so much to offer!

And, we may add, fortunate the country that has such a historian.

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