Cambridge Modern History. (Frontline)

By Bentley, Michael | History Today, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Cambridge Modern History. (Frontline)


Bentley, Michael, History Today


HISTORIANS WILL BE in anniversary mode over the next few years. It's the nature of the beast, of come; but also a reflection of momentous times in the world of history in the first decade of the last century. The British Academy was founded in 1902, Lord Acton died in the same year, John Bury grave a celebrated inaugural lecture as Regius Professor at Cambridge (in which he presented history `a science, no less and no more') in 1903, the Historical Association was born in 1906. Each will give rise to memorial conferences, public lectures and talks on Radio 3. At the centre of this list of deaths and new beginnings a century ago lies the Cambridge Modern History (CMH), twelve faded spines on the shelves of your local reference library, the recourse for nearly a hundred years of a million desperate A-Level candidates, `its twelve-volume unreadability', as Hugh Tulloch charmingly reminds us, `the despair of generations of students.' When its first volume appeared in September 1902, priced 15 shillings, few commentators could have guessed how remorselessly the project would progress toward completion over the next decade, far less who would complete it.

Many people believe that Lord Acton began the thing, though in fact he did not. What he did do was to impress his colleagues in Cambridge with his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History in 1895. His passionate advocacy of understanding history as a moral record and his appeal to historians never to debase the moral currency of their subject made up one part of his message; his concern to see the past entire and to think across centuries in order to achieve his perspective made up another.

In print the lecture seemed by turns elegant and choked: mellifluous in phrase but strangulated in footnotes that suggested that the author knew far too much and needed a huge canvas for his ideas. Cambridge University Press decided over the next twelve months to give him one. Reflecting the German scholarship of which Acton was Britain's greatest embodiment, the original notion involved inviting Acton to put together an enormous Weltgeschichte--a history of civilisation in which the great curves of Acton's story could receive full treatment. But by May 1896 Acton had persuaded the Press that the project would lose coherence over so cosmic a timescale: the new History ought to begin with the Renaissance and bring the account forward into modernity. Probably this intervention became the greatest single contribution that Acton would make to the Cambridge Modern History.

But not the most famous. Originally the publishers had hoped that Acton would oversee the entire venture and write all or at least part of the first volume. His poor health and premature death prevented him from achieving either task. Instead his contribution became a now-celebrated letter to his contributors--a personal manifesto setting out the aims of the project--which has since been excerpted and quoted more extensively than anything in the volumes themselves. He believed that history had moved to a new stage of sophistication that the CMH should embody. It would aspire to a higher level of impartiality and truth-telling and produce a text so objective in its findings that no one would know where a Catholic author finished and a Protestant one began; it would be so even-handed in its treatment that an event like the battle of Waterloo would stimulate an account read with equal pleasure by a Frenchman or a Briton, a Belgian or a Prussian.

Certainly the aspiration mattered. But it remained aspiration, more significant for what it tells us about the flavour of the moment than about what the finished history would contain.

Acton wanted his contributors to be the greatest experts available. Disappointingly, around a third of those approached refused to come in, though the editor at least had the advice of Frederic Maitland, a genius whose own health would prevent him from playing a greater role, and ah assistant editor whose qualities were the reverse of Acton's. …

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