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 avoided Spain because of its oppressive Fascist regime. Not yet a popular tourist destination for the British, it was regarded with suspicion as a country of blazing heat, brutal animal sports, long siestas, and no dinner until nearly midnight. Yet in the 1950s two outstanding but personally very different English historians began their long engagement with the Hispanic world. It is perhaps not surprising that magisterial studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Spain should have come from the pen of a dashing figure like Raymond Carr, the Oxford don, well known for his colorful lifestyle and enthusiasm for fox-hunting, nightclubs, cigarettes, whiskey, women, and jazz. But it is harder to explain why the quiet Cambridge scholar John Elliott, Protestant, teetotal, and courteous, should have been so strongly drawn to the history of this Catholic, wine-drinking, and often violent country.

The answer is to be found in Elliott’s new book, History in the Making. There he tells us how he first fell in love with Spain in 1950, when he spent a summer vacation driving around the Iberian peninsula with a group of fellow undergraduates. He was impressed by the great central plain of Castile, “lying parched and yellow beneath the burning summer sun,” and by “the richness and beauty of monumental Spain.” Above all, he was overwhelmed by the paintings in the Prado, especially the work of Velázquez. Yet when he became a graduate student, his initial plan was to work on eighteenth-century British political history. He quickly discovered, however, that there was standing room only in that very crowded field. Early modern Spain, by contrast, was wide open for exploration, for, with a few notable exceptions, the study of Spanish history was as moribund in Spain as it was in Britain.

With the encouragement of the Cambridge professor Herbert Butterfield, Elliott made early modern Spain the subject of his historical research; and during the next two decades he took possession of the field, staking his claim in four highly influential books. The Revolt of the Catalans (1963) was a formidable work of research. It demonstrated his mastery of the archives and his understanding of the distinctive sense of identity that drove the principality into its rebellion of 1640 against the Castilian centralizing policies of King Philip IV’s chief minister, the Count-Duke Olivares. In Imperial Spain, 1469–1716 (also published in 1963) Elliott produced what still remains the standard one-volume survey of the subject. In Europe Divided, 1559–1598 (1968) he offered an accessible students’ textbook, designed, he tells us, “to bring some coherence to the history of an extremely complex period”; and in The Old World and the New, 1492–1650 (1970) he provided a penetrating analysis of the intellectual impact of the “discovery” of America on European thought.


There would be rival accounts of early modern Spain, notably John Lynch’s excellent two volumes on Spain under the Habsburgs (1964, 1969), the extensive works of another British historian, Henry Kamen, and, more recently, the writings of Hugh Thomas on the Spanish American empire. But Elliott, having established his authority when still in his thirties, went on to consolidate it over the next forty years with a long series of distinguished publications on seventeenth-century Spain and its empire. In 1973 he moved from Britain to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. There he devoted himself to his great project: a study of the Count-Duke Olivares, whose portrait by Velázquez in the Prado, embodying all “the arrogance of power,” had caught his imagination twenty years previously. Only in 1990 did he return to England as Oxford’s Regius Professor of Modern History.

As he is the first to admit, Elliott was fortunate to have chosen a field so underdeveloped historiographically, so much in need of a modern treatment, and so free of competitors. Imperial Spain was welcomed by Spanish academics, who had long been chafing under Francoist rule, and it became the standard textbook for generations of their students. All Elliott’s later works have also been translated into Spanish; and his contribution to the renewal of Spanish history has been recognized by the Spanish crown, the Spanish government, and Spanish universities, which have showered him with prizes, medals, and decorations. At ceremonial occasions in Oxford, he wears the gown of a Spanish honorary doctor, complete with long cuffs, white gloves, and a blue, tasseled biretta—an outfit that makes him appear a cross between the Inquisitor General and a walking lampshade.

Elliott’s reputation rests as much on his literary skill as his powers as a researcher. He is a master of the superbly balanced and penetrating work of synthesis, distinguished by cool judgment and a sharp analytic intelligence. His prose is invariably lucid and elegant, and he is incapable of writing a bad sentence. All these qualities are exhibited in History in the Making, an unusual mixture of intellectual autobiography and historical reflection. Elliott’s subject is the way in which the writing of history has changed during his lifetime. From personal reflections on his own career as a historian he moves out into a broader discussion of the kinds of history his books exemplify and the current state of the historical problems with which they are concerned.

This formula is effectively a new genre. The tradition of personal memoirs by historians goes back at least to Edward Gibbon and is nowadays more alive than ever, with notable instances in the last decade or so by, among others, Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Howard, John Burrow, and Patrick Collinson.1 Books on changing historiographical fashions are even more numerous. What is unusual, and perhaps even unprecedented, is Elliott’s skillful combination of the two.

History in the Making is relatively sparing on personal detail. Elliott tells us that his father was a preparatory school headmaster, that he was a scholar at Eton (where he specialized in modern languages) and Cambridge (where he read history), and that he likes looking at paintings. He recalls how he learned about Catalonia by living with families in Barcelona and he prints a photograph from that era in which he sports a mustache (though not a cigar), no doubt a necessary step in the process of assimilation. He describes some of his encounters with Spanish and French historians; and briefly mentions the seven months he spent traveling in South America. He also tells how he joined the board of the journal Past and Present in 1958, when it shed its Marxist associations.2 Otherwise he concentrates on his writings and their implications. His book is more like the philosopher-archaeologist R.G. Collingwood’s absorbing but austerely cerebral An Autobiography (1939) than Michael Howard’s vivid account of his military career or John Burrow’s wryly hilarious description of his adventures in academia.


In view of the nature of the book, Elliott can hardly avoid listing his many achievements (including the popularization of the term “early modern” as a label for the centuries between the 1350s and the 1750s3). But he does so with a decent minimum of self-congratulation and readily declares his intellectual debts: to Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and the Annales school, for showing that political and diplomatic history was insufficient without a social and economic dimension; to his graduate supervisor, Herbert Butterfield, who taught him the role of personality and contingency in history; and to Clifford Geertz, from whom he learned the importance of symbols and ceremony.Despite these polite obeisances, it is hard to believe that he could not have learned such lessons for himself. The historians who influenced him most were the Spaniards Jaume Vicens Vives and Antonio Domínguez Ortiz.

His own approach is firmly empirical. He loves archives and enjoys “the sight, the touch and even the smell of sixteenth- or seventeenth-century documents, the dried brown ink, the paper itself sometimes crumbling in one’s hand.” He explains that he has no interest in theoretical approaches to the study of the past, let alone postmodernist debates as to whether there is an objective past waiting to be discovered. Untroubled by epistemological doubt, he declares that

theory is of less importance for the writing of good history than the ability to enter imaginatively into the life of a society remote in time or place, and produce a plausible explanation of why its inhabitants thought and behaved as they did.

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.