What are we to do about medieval history? No serious person would question its importance. What is nearest to us in time is not necessarily most relevant. The traditional Europe of our history books—the Europe of Napoleon and Bismarck, even the Europe of Hitler and Mussolini—is as dead as that of Charles the Great or Frederick Barbarossa, and we may disabuse our minds of the illusion that there is any immediate profit, from the point of view of contemporary affairs, in studying the deflated celebrities of the day before yesterday.

People treat the recent past as though it were the den from which the lion that is going to devour them is going to spring. In reality it nearly always jumps out unobserved from behind their backs. They might be better equipped to meet contemporary developments if (as Herbert Butterfield once observed) “they had studied in ancient history the deeper processes that political bodies have been observed to undergo over long periods.” For anyone who believes in the “relevance” or actuality of history, there is less to be gained, in the present world, from scrutinizing anxiously the origins of the Second World War than from studying Caesar and the Roman revolution, a revolution which may be paralleled sooner than we think in our own society.

Much the same may be said of medieval history. Those of us who study it do so not because it is medieval, but because we believe that knowledge of immediate causes and contemporary events may blind, and not illuminate, unless it is counter-balanced by a deeper understanding of the continuity of history and its underlying currents. Indeed, the very concept of “the Middle Ages” is misleading (as well as doubtfully valid), in so far as it cuts them off as a remote and separate period which has little bearing on our lives and fortunes. In reality, this was not only the time when the foundations of European civilization, as it exists today in east and west, were being laid; it was also the time when some of our stubbornest beliefs and prejudices took root, as well as ideals we would fight and die for. If (as I once wrote) we understood it better, not as medieval history, but as modern history—very modern history, in the sense that all history which means anything is contemporary history—we might understand ourselves better, as well as our problems and potentialities.

And yet no one surveying the scene today—particularly no one with the interests of medieval history at heart—can be entirely satisfied with the present state of medieval studies. During the past ten or a dozen years a great ferment has been going on in the historical world—a ferment expressed in the search for a new and more sophisticated methodology. Like all previous revolutions in historical thought and practice it has proceeded by absorbing and assimilating the achievements of cognate sciences. The first great advance of historical science in the seventeenth century was inspired by the principles of biblical criticism, the second in the nineteenth century by the methods of classical philology. The third, in our own time, draws on the example of the social sciences, and a very useful sample of its methods and results, at least so far as American historiography is concerned, has been put together by D. K. Rowney and J. Q. Graham. 1 It is an histoire mathématisante, as contrasted with the traditional histoire historisante or histoire événementielle, and its fundamental characteristic is quantification—that is, measuring and counting the incidence of various types of phenomena and comparing the quantities so obtained.

It is surely a significant fact that this “new history,” as it is sometimes called, originated in the field of medieval studies. It was the response of a generation of great medievalists, led by Marc Bloch, to the dissatisfaction they felt with the current state of their craft. Bloch in the 1920s became disenchanted with facts per se and with the descriptive history which was all most historians aspired to. He lost patience with minute investigations of no apparent relevance and with local studies unrelated to broader historical problems. The turning point came in 1931 with the publication of his greatest work, Les Caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale française; and it is a very great boon that an English translation of this classic has now been made available, together with a selection of Bloch’s papers on Land and Work in Medieval Europe, in a paperback edition.2

The publication of Bloch’s book marked the start of a movement of renewal which has gone on without break to the present day. It marked also a stage in his cooperation with the great French specialist on sixteenth-century history, Lucien Febvre; and the journal Annales, which Bloch and Febvre together edited, became a manifesto of their revolt against an outworn and outmoded methodology. Its impact was immense, outside as well as inside France. For a whole generation, from 1930 to 1960, the “school” of the Annales exerted a dominating influence. In particular, it shaped the mind and attitude of the great Spanish medievalist, Jaime Vicens Vives, “Spain’s first truly modern historian,” whose Approaches to the History of Spain—short, incisive, and pregnant with original ideas—is another seminal work worthy in every way of comparison with Bloch’s French Rural History.3


Bloch, Febvre, Vicens were the prophets of a generation in revolt against the debilitating effects of political history, of the fetish of “documents and nothing but the documents,” of the illusion that all the historian has to do is to uncover the “facts” of history and leave them to speak for themselves without the intrusion of hypothesis or theory. It would be tempting to quote at length from their programmatic statements. They should be made basic reading for all historians, for they go to the heart of the historian’s business, pointing the way out of the dilemma which has confronted historians ever since, half a century ago, the edifice erected by nineteenth-century scientific history began to crumble under the blows of German historicism.

It is true, and has often been said, that neither Bloch nor Febvre evolved a consistent philosophy of history. I doubt whether either would have cared. For Bloch what was important was not to take up a theoretical position, but to set a practical example by writing the sort of history in which he believed, working out the details of the new goals, and elaborating a methodology to put them into effect.

By modern standards, perhaps, Bloch was not a “scientific” historian; in his day, after all, the new methods of quantification were still in their infancy. But, it has been well said, “even the reports on his research were discourses upon method.” With Vicens Vives, a younger man (he was born in 1910, Bloch in 1886, Febvre in 1878), we are in a new generation. Vicens saw his book quite specifically as a “contribution to the methodology of the future,” and emphasized the importance of “precise quantifiable data” and “statistical method” as “our primary instrument.” Statistics, he said, are “essential for the determination of values, fortunes and mentalities”; unless history is “approached through a minute analysis of prices, salaries, political trends and cultural tendencies, it is possible to understand nothing.”

But Bloch was executed by the Germans in 1944, Febvre died in 1956, and Vicens in 1960. What has happened since then to their influence on medieval studies? The answer, if my rather desultory reading is a fair index, is that medievalists in general have beaten a retreat. Bloch’s ideas, sometimes all too mechanically applied, are still effective in his chosen field of medieval agrarian history, but even here they are less a seminal force than the framework of a rather narrow specialism. Elsewhere, what is most apparent is a reversion to older models. Since 1960 not only has the influence of the Annales waned, but we have seen the beginnings of a determined and self-conscious counterrevolution.

Among the counterrevolutionaries few have been more outspoken than G. R. Elton, a historian well-known for his work on early Tudor government. It was Elton who, only a few months ago, denounced the search for new methods as “whoring after false gods.” In his two new books he returns with undiminished ardor to the fray.4

No one would deny that these books contain a solid layer of common sense, for Elton, with all his phobias, is too shrewd and experienced a historian for anything he says to be negligible. If he were simply telling the apprentice historian (to whom his volume on the sources of English history between 1200 and 1640 is primarily addressed) that he will not get far unless he knows and respects his materials, I should have much sympathy with his arguments. But I fear this is not all. The very title of his book, Political History, labels it as a manifesto of the counterrevolution, a point-by-point reply to Vicens Vives’s withering remark that “political history…cannot contribute anything new.” As for his book on English historical records, though it includes a rather perfunctory and condescending chapter on “non-documentary sources,” it is really a justification of what Vicens calls “pure philology, the myth of the document,” a reassertion of the techniques of documentary criticism elaborated in the nineteenth century, and an affirmation of their ability to provide a reconstruction of the past that is “true, or at least on the road to truth.”

Elton’s creed is very simple. We should return to the paths marked out by our forefathers. “The documents remain paramount”; “the written record dominates.” It is a plea which is particularly attractive to medievalists, because their basic problem is the paucity of their sources. How can they apply the sophisticated techniques of quantification if (as Elton never ceases to reiterate) the requisite data simply do not exist?


Jean Marczewski, the foremost French expert on the subject, seems to postulate that quantitative history cannot be carried back, with any degree of assurance, beyond 1660.5 If the impressive statistical apparatus assembled by Huguette and Pierre Chaunu on the trade of Seville in the sixteenth century (to name only a single example) is anything to go by, Marczewski’s view may be pessimistic.6 But even if statistical material is there in abundance in the archives of the fifteenth, fourteenth, or even thirteenth centuries, this is no consolation for the historian concerned with the trade (let us say) of tenth-century Amalfi or the agriculture of ninth-century Picardy. The essential difference between the modern and the medieval historian is that the former is oppressed by a superabundance, the latter by a drastic shortage of quantifiable evidence. And the essential problem for the medievalist is how to write history under these conditions.

What is the way out of the dilemma? There are, it seems, three paths, and a sample of recently published work will serve to illustrate them. The first, particularly applicable in those periods (roughly down to 1200) where all the narrative and documentary sources have been made available, is to extract the last ounce from the existing evidence by meticulous criticism and analysis. It may be directed, as in Mr. Scholz’s edition and translation of two Carolingian chronicles,7 at establishing a spotless text, at reconciling apparent discrepancies, and at checking the writer’s statements by confrontation with other sources. Or it may be directed, not at the narrative sources, with their inherent subjective bias (the purpose of the Frankish annals, Mr. Scholz points out, “was obviously to influence public opinion and to convey to posterity the Carolingian version of Carolingian history”), but at the legal and administrative documents which are often said to provide an objective record of governmental activity. This is the basis of Professor Ganshof’s book, itself the outcome of a long series of still more meticulous studies of individual texts and documents.8

I do not wish to appear to cavil at work with such solid qualities and such high standards of scholarship. But we can admire the achievement and still question the underlying method and its assumptions. Mr. Scholz’s scrupulous textual edition, with its sensible Introduction and notes, and Professor Ganshof’s painstaking analysis of the “capitularies,” or decrees, of Charles the Great, represent careful reassessments of known sources which every serious medievalist will wish to have on his bookshelf for reference. But both take their stand, methodologically, on the canons of textual criticism established by nineteenth-century “positivist” historians, and the question is the adequacy of this methodological approach.

This is clearly no place for a discussion of so large an issue, but a few observations may illustrate some of the problems. In the first place, it is by no means axiomatic (as Professor Bryce Lyon appears to suggest in his Introduction to Ganshof’s book) that close textual analysis is a recipe for “objectivity.” It may be true that Professor Ganshof “seldom speculates or theorizes.” But the facts as marshaled underpin a very definite view of Charlemagne’s personal activity as a reformer of Frankish institutions which may or may not be correct, but which is certainly far more precise and concrete than the sources, taken at face value, warrant. Professor Ganshof, for example, is convinced that Charlemagne had a “program of imperial government,” which he systematically set out to realize; but this “program” is nowhere actually mentioned in the sources. It is a construction which we may or may not accept, but for which we have only Professor Ganshof’s word. He has, in other words, put his own imprint on the story; and the difference between him and more speculative historians is that his interpretation is implicit, while theirs is explicit.

But there is a more fundamental criticism still, and that is whether the whole structure of Professor Ganshof’s book, with its systematic division under such headings as “central institutions” or “judicial organization,” does not create a false perspective. Mr. Scholz emphasizes “the virtual absence from the Carolingian scene of properly organized governmental institutions.” There is, he says, “no central government but only the royal household,” the functions of whose members are “primarily domestic.” If true, as I think to be the case, how is this situation to be reconciled with Professor Ganshof’s cut-and-dried schematization? And this question leads on to a still more radical criticism of constitutional and institutional history, which Vicens Vives expresses in his usual trenchant way. The history of institutions, says Vicens, is “cold and sterile.”

Any institution, by the simple act of encasing a vital tension or of achieving a new equilibrium of forces, is stillborn or at least inert…. Neither regulations, nor privileges, nor laws, nor constitutions bring us close to human reality. They are formulas that establish limits, but nothing more than limits. The expression of life is to be found in the application of the law, statute, decree, or regulation; in the way in which individuals distort the desire of a state, of a corporation, or of an oligarchy to impose a certain order.

I should like to quote Vicens at greater length, but enough has been said to show that Ganshof’s book, though no one would deny its distinction as an example of its class, is not a refutation but, on the contrary, is rather a confirmation of modern historians’ doubts and hesitations about the traditional methodology. Of course, for periods where the record material is more ample—roughly from the twelfth century—there is, or seems to be, a simple way out; and that is to go to the archives for supplementary material. Vicens himself suggests that “instead of the great collections of laws, historians should consult archives where law clashes with life—notarial protocols, consular and commercial records, police archives, law-court decisions, and so on.” It is, in principle, the historian’s stock procedure, sometimes pursued deliberately to “fill a gap” or seek the answer to a specific problem, often undertaken more haphazardly in the process of research.

Professor Baldwin, for example, tells us how, while gathering materials for another project, he “came across” unpublished manuscripts “which immediately caught his eye.” The result is two large and erudite volumes retailing at length the views of a group of theologians in Paris around the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries about a variety of subjects—“mercenary soldiers, taxes on movables, commercial partnerships,” among many others—“affecting the practical existence of medieval men.”9 I have immense respect for Professor Baldwin’s learning, but a certain impatience with his subject matter. Were these learned dissertations of preachers and philosophers really worth all this diligent effort? Too often they are concerned with “the moral lesson,” not “the literal truth”; when they talk about taxes and government revenues, it is not to “investigate systematically” but “to protest abuses.” As Professor Baldwin admits, their “conventional and pietistic moralizing…prevents them from seeing contemporary conditions realistically.”

Professor Baldwin sees it as his task “to recount” their views and place them in “their historical context.” He is well aware that many historians will find this method old-fashioned. Medievalists today, he says, are “less patient to listen to the recitation of social conditions by contemporaries and more eager to formulate their own questions.” Employing “material susceptible of statistical analysis,” they attempt “to understand the underlying structure of society, its essential mechanisms and its total mentality.” The question, surely, is who is right?

Behind the attitude toward history which Professor Baldwin exemplifies there is, it seems to me, an assumption which I find it hard to endorse. It is the assumption, in J. B. Bury’s words, that “a complete assemblage of the smallest facts of human history will tell in the end.” What it will tell, and when, is another question; but it is a sobering thought that, after writing 600 pages, Professor Baldwin concludes that all he has contributed is “an exploratory study” and that “it would be presumptuous to regard my conclusions as definitive.” The assumption that the answers lie ready-made in the archives waiting to be dug out is easily made, but logically quite unjustifiable. And though the accretion of knowledge may round out our picture of medieval society, who can put his hand on his heart and say that it has clarified it? On the contrary, it seems to me it becomes more complicated, more perplexing, less easy to grasp, with every new article and monograph.

An unkind critic once said of historians that they know more and more about less and less. I sometimes think that, on the contrary, the present tendency is to know less and less about more and more. As Philip Ziegler remarks, “In medieval history…the more precisely a question is defined, the more certain it is that no answer will be forthcoming,” and he proceeds to formulate what he calls “Levett’s Law”: “The enunciation of any authoritative statement shall immediately be countered by the accumulation of evidence leading to its contradiction.”10 But Mr. Ziegler is an amateur who comes to his task (as he cheerfully remarks) in what Professor Elton calls “a happy state of untrained enterprise.” Personally, I am grateful to him, and consider that he has done a good job. The Black Death, as he says, “was of the greatest economic and social importance.” Much new information has come to light (I have even noted three new local studies since his book was published), and it is a real service to have garnered and digested it. But it is a curious situation that no book on the subject (except for a “whimsical monograph” by Dr. Coulton in 1929) has appeared in English since 1893, and that it has been left to a nonprofessional to fill the gap. The professionals, no doubt, are waiting until all the materials for a “definitive” work have accumulated.

If, as Mr. Ziegler says, medievalists are awfully good at “the work of destruction” but significantly reticent “when it comes to deciding what actually did happen,” the fundamental reason is surely their devotion to the critical method. They criticize the texts, or for preference criticize each other. Their work, as H. A. L. Fisher once observed, “is all related to controversies among the learned and not to the lives of men.” When they write about the Norman conquest of England, for example, they ask where Round was wrong and where Hollister is right, not what we can learn from Domesday Book. The work of Jenkinson and Galbraith is acute and elegant; but since they got to work, no one, it seems, is concerned with the contents of Domesday Book, but only with the document itself, and the way it was compiled. The important thing is “the extraordinary complexity of the process by which the information was brought together.”11

And yet Domesday, as I have insisted elsewhere, is “an incomparable record.”12 It is the record of the transformation of a society—not merely, as Hollister says, of a “military aristocracy”—and it is a record in such detail that it must be capable of statistical analysis. Naturally, it is not straightforward, something which can be tabulated off the cuff, like a modern census; but what historical document is? Nevertheless, it seems to me that what modern historians, with their abstruse sophisticated controversies, are doing is making the document unusable for historical purposes. No one any longer dares to try to establish once and for all the demographic facts about the Norman Conquest. No doubt a statistical analysis of Domesday Book is unlikely to be right the first time off. But the statistics can be refined and improved—once they are available. Otherwise, we are left floundering in a bog of subjective judgments and technical controversies.

No wonder that a great medievalist, Sir Maurice Powicke, complained a generation ago of “arid professionalism” and “absence of vision,” of research which was little more than “a pedantic chase after the insignificant.” And the example I have given is one, of course, which could be multiplied a hundredfold. It was, I think, Louis Halphen who, many years ago, demolished with fine critical exactitude the “sources” for the founder of the Frankish dynasty, Clovis, to such effect that, when he was finished, practically not one certain fact was left. Now V. H. Galbraith has done much the same for King Alfred, and a Belgian historian, it seems, is doing it for Charlemagne.13

Well and good, you may say: there is nothing to be gained from a history based on myths. And this, so far as it goes, is true. The trouble is that you are left, in the end, either with other myths—the myths historians have substituted for the myths of chroniclers or older historians—or with a vacuum: you are not left with the truth. And the reason you are not left with the truth is that history is not like a statue lying on the ground covered with leaves, and when you have cleared away the leaves, there is the statue, complete and perfect. On the contrary, history—or at least that kind of history—is more like the successive layers of leaves, and when you have cleared them up, you are left with nothing, with the bare ground.

That kind of history. And therefore historians—a younger generation of historians—have turned against that kind of history, because they feel, correctly in my view, that it is an endless task, like a dog chasing its tail. The old critico-exegetic method, which goes back to Ranke, still has its uses for subsidiary purposes; but as an answer to the fundamental dilemmas of the historian, it has fallen into disrepute. The endeavor to build up a sure body of fact by critical analysis has proved self-defeating. Instead, medievalists today, most if not all, seek to “feel” themselves into the spirit of an age, to relive and re-create the past in their own minds (as Collingwood advised them to do) by a sort of continuing conversation with its representative figures. Empathy has taken the place of criticism as the key to historical understanding.

This is the third of the traditional ways out of the historian’s fundamental dilemma, and today, without doubt, the most highly respected. It has a distinguished lineage—in England from F. M. Powicke via R. W. Southern to C. N. L. Brooke—and it has produced some extremely valuable insights. It is a method, or (more truly) an approach, which can be applied at a variety of levels, from Helene Nolthenius’s somewhat lyrical invocation of thirteenth-century Italy 14 to J. B. Morrall’s thoughtful effort to distill the essence of the medieval experience, its “uniqueness” and its “special identity.”15 It has even crept, as Mr. Adams’s example shows, into those manuals of “selected readings” from contemporary records compiled to introduce students to the original sources.16 Formerly these were carefully chosen documents, by analyzing and interpreting which the student was expected to sharpen his critical wits. Mr. Adams, on the contrary, seeks to unroll a panorama of medieval society, its ranks and classes, its pestilences, its scandals, its “juvenile problem” (how actual can we be?), and its sexual mores; in short, to impart a “feel” for a strange, unfamiliar world and withal a sense of its nearness.

The essential question, for all who approach history in this way, is the question Helene Nolthenius asks: “How shall we evoke this living past?” Success evidently depends in large measure on the quality of the individual writer, on his sensitivity and capacity for what Dr. Elton calls “imaginative reconstruction,” rather than on the accumulation of new factual information. This, in essence, is the difference between this sort of book and one like Professor Baldwin’s. It is a method with obvious dangers, and if it has produced some impressive works of interpretation, it has also produced some pretentious failures. Too often, the picture is larger and more colorful than reality. I suspect, for example, that any budding historian who, inspired and emboldened by Mr. Adams, proceeds to the archives and their dusty rolls and parchments, is in for a rude awakening. The distillation is one thing, the crude ingredients quite another, and far less palatable.

By Dr. Elton’s standard of “controlled imagination,” Mr. Morrall’s modest little book comes out well. Helene Nolthenius, by comparison, is too apt to be carried away by the picaresque, by Salimbene’s racy stories, and by what she calls the “chiaroscuro” of the Duecento, while Dr. Parkes’s ambitious volume strains too hard for symbolic depth and transcendental meaning.17 This, to quote the publisher’s description, is “a sweeping overview”; but the outcome, it seems to me, is nearer to what Bloch, caustic as ever, called “a fuzzy conventional image, deceptively generalized.”

Mr. Munz’s biography of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa is conventional in another sense.18 Conventional, in the first place, in its overpowering apparatus of footnotes in the best German tradition, in which the author fights a running battle with everyone who has ever written on the subject; conventional also in its towering speculations and hypotheses. “Controlled imagination” is not Mr. Munz’s strong point. Professor Ganshof’s thesis that Charlemagne had an “imperial program” was plausible and at least he advanced it with all circumspection; but I can only express total disbelief in Mr. Munz’s strident and wearisomely reiterated assertion that Frederick Barbarossa was a “statesman” with a “Great Design.” No doubt, there is something to be extracted from this vast collection of information; what I find missing is that humility toward the intangibles and imponderables of history and that informed sense of the limitations of the possible, which are the marks of a good historian.

A far more representative example of the new style is Christopher Brooke’s short but extraordinarily vivid portrayal of “a few selected, creative men and women” of the twelfth century, and their relation to “the world in which they were born.”19 This (though perhaps I should not say so, since it appears in a series of which I am general editor) seems to me to be a very good book, and one has only to compare it with C. H. Haskins’s classical study of The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, first published in 1927, to sense the difference between the old school and the new.

Haskins, in the first place, was concerned essentially with the Latin culture of the age—with books and libraries, grammar and rhetoric. Brooke extends his horizon far beyond the schoolmen, to art and architecture and to the great vernacular poets, to the origins of the Gothic style, on the one hand, and to Wolfram, Gottfried, and Chrétien of Troyes, on the other, seeking to explore the links between them and the new humanism of St. Bernard and St. Ailred of Rievaux. But this, in a way, is a secondary consideration. Far more fundamental is the difference in their attitudes to the whole phenomenon which we call “the twelfth-century renaissance.” For Haskins, it was a reality, the origins and characteristics of which he wished to establish. Brooke quite evidently uses the term with repugnance and out of deference to convention. “The phrase,” he says, “has no precise meaning”; its use is only likely to involve us in “arid semantics.” Better to forget the “background” and concentrate on “individual works.” Do you wish to know what is meant by “French humanism”? The question “can best be answered by tracing the career of John of Salisbury….”

What Brooke seems to be saying is: “Let me take you by the hand and we will explore this strange, exciting world together….” Héloise, Abelard, Gilbert the sculptor, Master Gratian, Walter of Châtillon: when we know them better, when we have savored their lives, recited the passages which express their inward thoughts and emotions, seen their achievements in stone and painting, then we shall have some sense of “the originality and inventiveness of the twelfth century.” But if we try to capture it, to look for “common denominators,” to imprison it in the “concept” of a “renaissance,” immediately “we lose contact with the actual flow of human effort and events.” How characteristic is the passage in his concluding paragraph, in which Brooke asks, “What, in the end, was the movement we call ‘the Twelfth Century Renaissance’?”

It is as if we stood on the slopes above a valley between lofty hills: across the valley is a road running up the further slope and over the hills opposite to us. We cannot see clearly where it comes from, nor the route it takes when it has crossed the hill and gone out of sight. Such are the movements of history.

In this passage we have the essence of what, without disrespect, may be called the nouvelle vague. “Interpretation there may be,” says Brooke, “so long as it opens windows…and does not act as a screen, keeping the reader from direct entry” into the medieval scene. But in a perfect world, evidently, there would be no need or place for interpretation: we should stand on the threshold and peer in. It is an attractive doctrine, and it has produced some fine, sensitive books, of which this is one. But it leaves me, I confess, with certain misgivings; and with all deference, I had better in conclusion try to express them as briefly as I can, and thus come back to our point of departure.

Let us start with a crude and mundane question. What is the use of history of this kind? To what end are we invited to sink ourselves in the story of Abelard or the thought-world of John of Salisbury? Professor Brooke and other historians of his persuasion would, I suspect, repudiate this question. They would say that it is not only grossly utilitarian, but also mistaken, that it misconceives the historian’s function, which is to open a vista, not to answer questions. We should be interested in the past for its own sake; in that way—and in that way alone—we shall enrich our awareness of human nature, of the human predicament and of man’s reactions to it. And that, of course, is true so far as it goes. The question is whether it goes far enough. No one was more fascinated with the Middle Ages than Marc Bloch. To study them, he gladly confessed, was an intense personal pleasure. But it was also something more; and it is that something more which seems to me in the end to matter.

It is natural—and salutary—that sensitive historians, aware of the richness and diversity of the Middle Ages, should revolt against “positivist” history, against the tendency (rightly castigated by Sir Maurice Powicke) to “arrange the past neatly as a process in which the most significant things are those which are most easily appropriated by the present.” Causal connections are never direct or obvious; there is always something mysterious and intangible about the way things relate. It is right to insist that concepts such as “the Twelfth Century Renaissance”—or, for that matter, “the Middle Ages” itself—are abstractions, and when we use them we impose categories which never existed.

This is even more true of that wraithlike apparition “medieval man,” who figures so prominently in Dr. Parkes’s pages. It is time that he was banished, once and for all, to the glades of limbo. But it is also true that the historian cannot get by without concepts, that history deals with concepts, that history is conceptualization. And one of the historian’s essential functions is to clarify concepts—for example, class, which, contrary to what many social scientists assume, is neither a “structure” nor a “category” but a fluid historical relationship, which must always be embodied in real people and in a real (that is to say, an historical) context if it is to be understood.

It is obvious that books like Professor Brooke’s, with their emphasis on individuality, originality, and variety, contribute little—except as a warning against hasty generalization—to this endeavor. There was certainly a class structure of some sort in twelfth-century Paris; but Professor Baldwin’s two volumes do not get me very far in identifying it. His observations on merchants and craftsmen, on prostitutes and actors, do not lend themselves to generalization. One swallow does not make a summer, and a random collection of anecdotes—no matter how “imaginatively and discreetly used”—does not add up to a picture of an age. It may be that Helene Nolthenius catches the spirit of thirteenth-century Italy; it may not. The point is that we have no objective criterion for judging. We may say that we trust Professor Brooke’s discrimination, his scholarship, his sensitive, imaginative empathy; we may say that his account carries conviction. But because it is convincing to me, that does not mean that it will be convincing to you.

Here, it seems to me, we come to the cardinal problem of medieval history as it is commonly practiced today. This problem can be summed up in one word: subjectivity. It was Robert Merton who once caustically observed that historians live in a “private world inhabited exclusively by penetrating but unfathomable insights and ineffable understandings.” Perhaps only a social scientist, impatient of the flabbiness and complacency of historical thinking, would have made so harsh a judgment; but it is not unfair to say that medievalists, in fleeing from the Scylla of nineteenth-century positivist history, have been caught in the Charybdis of aestheticism, unverifiable “insights” and subjective “explanations.” Or, at least, as a writer quoted by Messrs. Rowney and Graham puts it, they are so preoccupied with “the episodic, the unique and the individual” that they have “failed to draw attention to some of the most significant developments of our past.”

The essential point about the new quantitative history is that it offers a way out of the historian’s predicament. Its essential purpose is to establish objective criteria enabling history to move from “the chrysalid stage of protoscience” to a new level of scientific exactitude by the elimination—so far as is possible in any science—of subjective factors. It is not, as Messrs. Rowney and Graham appear to be content to suggest, merely an additional “set of tools,” supplementary to the historian’s traditional methods, nor simply the addition of “a new dimension of enquiry.” If it means anything, it is the substitution of a new methodology for an old methodology which has failed to deliver the goods. The critico-exegetic method beloved of nineteenth-century historians failed to produce the certitudes Lord Acton so confidently predicted. The intuitive method, eschewing certitude, produced some impressive insights, but, with its reliance upon the individual historian’s imponderable “flair,” left the door wide open to subjective judgment. The aim of quantitative history is to close that door. Its object is to replace inspired guesswork by exact verifiable data, or at least to enable the historian “to be objective when the facts are available, and to refrain from unverifiable pronouncements when they are not.”

I am no more starry-eyed about quantitative history than Professor Elton. The problems are formidable, and it would be ridiculous to underestimate them. But when Elton cites J. C. Russell’s studies of population in medieval England—Russell being the only medievalist included in Rowney and Graham’s volume—as an example of “dubious generalizations based on insufficient evidence” and proceeds therewith to cast doubt on the value of statistical analysis, we can only reply, with William D. Aydelotte, that “imperfections of method” in “individual monographs” are no ground for rejecting quantitative techniques altogether.20 As for the argument that “the facts of evidential survival” make the new techniques inapplicable to medieval studies, Bloch’s Rural History is a triumphant demonstration of the contrary. The essence of Bloch’s method was to start from the known—from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maps of fields and villages—and work back to the unknown, and to remedy the deficiencies in the written evidence from nonwritten records. This was his method of breaking “the secret cypher of the past.”

Naturally, it is easier to write history when there are written documents in abundance. But if not? Lucien Febvre provides the answer, and it is a characteristic one. Then, he says, the historian must use all the ingenuity he possesses, “making his honey, in the absence of the usual flowers,” with whatever he finds to hand. And he lists as examples: with words, with names, with signs, with field-systems and field-structures, with the countryside, with eclipses of the moon, with necklets and bracelets. He must enlist “the geologist’s expert knowledge of stones, the chemist’s analysis of the metal of swords.” But, above all else, he must never admit that there is no history where there are no documents, or that the only history he can write is the history in the documents, still less assume that what happens to have survived in the documents is history.

It is often objected—by Elton, for example—that quantitative history cannot provide “even remotely satisfactory answers” to the questions which historians commonly ask. There are two replies to this criticism. The first is that it does not seek to. The second is that ordinary narrative history does not do so either. It is high time that historians ceased worrying about such questions as whether Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell should be “credited…with devising the policy that led to the break with Rome.” It may be human, as Professor Elton puts it, “to want to know the why and how as well as the what,” to be interested in personal influence, motives, and responsibilities. We had better realize that such questions transcend the historian’s sphere of competence. Of course, we can speculate and guess, as Mr. Munz speculates about Frederick Barbarossa’s “great design”; and some guesses will be more inspired than others. But guesses they all remain. The interminable controversy about whether or not Hitler “willed” the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939 may make good reading; but we shall never know—though we may suspect—the answer, and it still seems far more profitable to me (though “obtuse,” apparently, to Dr. Elton) to concern oneself with the consequences of the war than to pursue an endless controversy about its origins.

In any case, there are more important things to do, and one main purpose of quantitative history is to steer historians away from their preoccupation with what Bloch called “the idol of origins.” Justifying his refusal to waste time discussing “whether Charles V succumbed to Spanish influences or was a universal emperor,” Vicens Vives said tersely: “This is a book for adults.” Too much history is a story for adolescents. It has not yet grown up. It is time to abandon the “stereotypes and platitudes,” and get down to “the basic factors”—in Vicens’s words,

…men, misery, and famine; epidemics and death; land ownership; the relations between a lord and his vassal, between a government official and the citizen subject to his jurisdiction, between an employer and a worker, between a monarch and his subject, between a priest and a believer, between one municipal government and another, between town and town, between national capital and province, between individual production and national income, between a soul and God.

In the battle between the “ancients” and the “moderns,” I am unreservedly on the side of the “moderns.” I do not mean that they have nothing to learn from the older generation in the way of a fastidious and scrupulous use of evidence. There at least Dr. Elton is right. The new methodology can be abused and misused, like any other. Some of its applications may fail. But the basic philosophy behind it offers more hope for historical studies than the minute critical investigations or the intuitive insights on which historians have so long relied. It offers the hope that history will take its place, which it has not yet done, among the sciences of man—the science (in Bloch’s words) of “man in time,” “the science of change.”

This Issue

June 4, 1970