A Constitutional and Legal History of England

By Goldwin Smith | Go to book overview

Preface

ONE of the tasks of able and sympathetic instructors is to try to widen the first thin rays of undergraduate curiosity. The modern college student is interested above all in the present, the here and now. Sometimes the austere scholarship of the professor, as he labors with paleography and pipe rolls, causes him to forget that once, long ago, he was persuaded to adopt "a willing suspension of disbelief" as he hesitantly entered a classroom. Only by slow steps do we learn that "the roots of the present lie deep in the past." The undergraduate student does not usually study English constitutional history, or any other subject, for the same reasons as the professor. Often he "takes" a course because the local authorities require him to do so. Perhaps that is the main reason why he is now reading this book.

It might therefore be desirable to remind the student that the main elements of the British constitution and laws were made in the hot-blooded drama of human history by men toughened in the field of battle, the courts of law, and the cockpits of politics. All were realists, hard-headed fellows like ourselves. And today, in the running hours of world events, the constitution and the laws are changing still, altered by the hands and voices of practical men. Still true are the words of Aristotle: "In practical matters the end is not mere speculative knowledge of what is to be done, but rather the doing of it."

The modern college student, confronted with paragraphs and pages about English constitutional history, may regretfully conclude that much eludes him. He may feel that success does not swiftly attend his attempts to penetrate into the alien world of the curia regis, possessory assizes, crimes against the state and crimes against the person. If he bestows even a cursory glance upon the massive achievements of historians he may flinch and flee to the textbook, his main stockade against the terrors of the unknown.

In 1873 Bishop William Stubbs wrote these words in the preface to his Constitutional History of England: "The history of institutions cannot be mastered,--can scarcely be approached,--without an effort." Bishop Stubbs was right. "Learn not," says the proverb, "and know not." The road to knowledge about English constitutional history is hazardous and hard. Truth, as usual, is found among the rocks.

History, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is a discipline which records and explains, a discipline which evaluates the character and significance of events. To make history superficial, a watery broth without nourishment,

-ix-

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