The Empires of Elliott

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National Portrait Gallery. London
Historians of ‘Past and Present,’ in the National Portrait Gallery, London; painting by Stephen Farthing, 1999. Standing, from left, are Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Lawrence Stone, and Keith Thomas; seated, from left, are Christopher Hill, J.H. Elliott, and Joan Thirsk.

Moved though they are by intellectual curiosity, historians often feel a personal affinity with the subjects they write about. In Britain, Roman Catholic scholars from David Knowles to Eamon Duffy have been drawn to the history of the medieval church and the monastic orders. Wartime experience with the Coldstream Guards in Italy encouraged Sir Michael Howard to turn to military history, just as a nonconformist upbringing helped to make Christopher Hill a historian of Puritanism. Sir Lewis Namier’s studies of the eighteenth-century English aristocracy derived from his fascination with their twentieth-century descendants; and given their political views, it is hardly surprising that E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm should have studied the history of labor movements. Nowadays we are accustomed to feminist historians writing about women, gay historians about homosexuality, and black historians about slavery.

Such affinities are particularly evident among those who engage with the history of countries other than their own. Generations of American historians studied the history of England, either because, like Henry James, they venerated the multilayered antiquity and sophistication of the Old World, or because they felt a debt to the British legal and parliamentary tradition. Hedonistically-minded scholars have always been attracted to the art, antiquities, and sunshine of Italy, while France’s distinctive charms have encouraged many to take on a second, Francophone identity, though none so wholeheartedly as Richard Cobb, the wonderfully maverick historian of revolutionary France, who confessed that whenever he crossed the English Channel he became a different person.

Spain, by contrast, has attracted relatively few British historians. For most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Spain was the national enemy. Seen as a source of cruelty and fanaticism, it was notorious for the terrors of the Inquisition and the atrocious treatment of the natives of Central and South America. Only in the eighteenth century did British Hispanist scholarship get underway with William Robertson’s History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769) and History of America (1777), and John Bowle’s edition of Don Quixote (1781). The outstanding figure in this tradition would be Richard Ford, whose Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845) and Gatherings from Spain (1846) offered an entrancing mixture of Dickensian observation and Gibbonian irony. Ford shared the social and racial prejudices of his time, but in his brilliantly original essays on every aspect of Spanish life and mentalité, from gazpacho and the cigar to mustaches and the treatment of donkeys, he anticipated the social history of the Annales school of historians and the “thick description” of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

Ford had few successors. In the 1930s research into Spanish history was abruptly terminated by the outbreak of the civil war. After the Nationalist triumph, most foreign academics …

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