In response to:
What Is to Be Done about Medieval History? from the June 4, 1970 issue
To the Editors:
I would like to reply to Geoffrey Barraclough’s broadside (NYR, June 4) against almost all varieties of medieval history, and although I am one of his many victims, I want to prove my good faith by not defending myself against his unreasoned abuse of my Frederick Barbarossa which he incomprehensibly describes as a “biography.”…
His worries about medieval history are shared by all sensible people. But his article is so full of inconsistencies and contradictions that one is forced to doubt his credentials. His hostility to historians of the middle ages is indiscriminate and he lists so many different reasons for condemning almost every known variety of medieval history that it would be difficult to say exactly for which of them his own recent popularized Medieval Papacy ought to be condemned.
Barraclough, for instance, praises quantitative history and yet admits that in the middle ages the source material does not allow such an approach and then holds up Bloch as an example of quantitative history (sic!). He pleads for a concern with consequences rather than with origins, oblivious that the consequences of one event are at the same time always the origins of another. He consistently confuses sociological history with quantitative history. He attacks Ganshof for his schematizations but when Ganshof goes beyond them, Barraclough wraps him over the knuckles. He contends that one cannot build up a sure body of facts in medieval history but stridently reiterates that we ought to compile statistical information about the middle ages. There is no rhyme or reason in his whole article.
Department of History
Victoria University of Wellington
Geoffrey Barraclough replies:
I am glad at least that Peter Munz agrees that my “worries” about medieval history are shared by all sensible people. His letter would be more persuasive if, instead of attacking me, he had suggested some positive way out of the predicaments whose reality he does not deny.
I did not, of course, contend that one cannot build up a sure body of facts in medieval history, but only that the methods hitherto in vogue have failed to do so. My article was concerned with methodology; and though, as I wrote, I am not starry-eyed about quantitative history, it still seems to me that it offers possibilities which medievalists have been slow to explore.
It will, of course, require a radical shift of perspective, i.e., concentration on areas which quantification can illuminate, and these (hence, no doubt, Mr. Munz’s indignation) will not—indeed, cannot—include speculations about the motives and alleged designs of rulers such as Frederick Barbarossa. It will also, I hope, help historians to sidestep the quagmires of causality, about which Mr. Munz appears to have remarkably simple-minded views. Tracing back the origins of (let us say) Hitlerism deep into German history—to Hegel, to Luther, ultimately perhaps to the primeval German forests—is admittedly great fun, and a French historian once convinced himself, by Mr. Munz’s recipe, that the war of 1914 originated in the Treaty of Verdun of 843.
There will always be readers for this sort of thing, but can it seriously be contended that it has any value? A cardinal error of historicism is to suppose that everything is explained by its origins, as though nothing new or unexpected ever occurred. I am no more “oblivious” than Mr. Munz of the argument that “the consequences of one event are at the same time always the origins of another.” Philosophically, perhaps, it may be true; practically how does it serve the historian? Which of all the myriad events concern him, and which of all the multifarious consequences, and by what standard the one and not the other?
Tout once said that when we have traced the origins of a problem back through the ages, we are halfway to its solution. No argument could be more fallacious; and I suspect that too ready use of this fallacious argument, and disillusion when it proved untrue, is one of the things which have contributed most to bringing history into disrepute. Hence the need for new ways—to which, alas, Mr. Munz appears to be oblivious.
November 5, 1970