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The outsider who came in from the cold

23 October 2004

12:00 AM

23 October 2004

12:00 AM

Herbert Butterfield C. T. McIntire

Yale, pp.499, 30

Professor McIntire disowns any claim to have written a conventional biography of the Cam- bridge historian Herbert Butter- field. His book is a detailed, scholarly study of the intellectual odyssey of a complex character, who wrestled all his life with the problems of writing history. As such it is not an easy read.a

His biographer presents his subject as a classic case of enduring parental influence. He ‘idolised’ his father. A textile worker, married to a domestic servant, the father was a deeply religious Wesleyan Methodist, forced by poverty to leave school at eight. The son, born in 1900, fulfilled his father’s hopes by becoming a Methodist lay preacher. Having an intense Protestant concern with his own spiritual life, it was natural that he should stress ‘the all- surpassing influence of human personality in history’. This was more than Carlyle’s dictum that history was the sum of ‘innumerable biographies’; it committed him to a Berlinesque defence of free will against determinism.

McIntire sees Butterfield as a residual legatee of the dissenting tradition of Wesleyan Methodism. But his father was far from the radical political dissenters like Cobden and Bright, praised by A. J. P. Taylor. The prospect of revolution horrified him: the ‘barbarian’ working class would be ‘civilised’ by imbibing the manners — he was a stickler for ‘respectable’ clothing — and ethos of their social superiors. As a Cambridge undergraduate Butterfield could write, ‘The whole cloak of respectable life is cumbersome to me.’ Yet he was an early example of the success of the ambitious scholarship boy from a humble home. Through slogging at his books he was to become Master of his college, Peterhouse, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge and Regius Professor of History. The outsider who retained his Yorkshire accent became an insider, ending up with a knighthood when knighthoods were still a prize worth getting.

His reputation as a dissenter was based on his Whig Interpretation of History, published in 1951; in it he demolished what he called the ‘presentistic fallacy’. Histor- ians had used the past to justify the present. Against these mistaken moralisers he set up the much quoted declaration of the great Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke:

History has been assigned the office of judging the past and instructing the present for the benefit of the future ages. To such a high office the present work does not presume; it aims only to show what actually happened.


Historians should write what Butterfield called academic or technical history. His own work was to demonstrate that such aseptic history was a mirage.

In the rise of the ‘Namier School’ Butterfield the dissenter detected a fallacy as grievous as the ‘presentistic fallacy’. Lewis Namier was a great historian, the iconoclastic hero of my generation at Oxford. He saw the politicians of George III’s reign as corrupt individuals manipulating a spoils system in their greed for jobs and sinecures. Any statements of political attitudes were sheer hypocrisy. Butterfield restores the politicians as human beings (in his case the patriotic King George III striving for the good of his people as he understood it) capable of ‘rational purposes and noble ideas’. Namier was himself scarcely human when under attack; his hatred of Butterfield became ‘a kind of obsessional rage’. Yet most historians would agree that Butterfield has struck what the admirable Linda Colley calls ‘a shrewd blow against’ Namier and his disciples.

Butterfield could deliver assaults on the orthodoxies of his professional colleagues. But the Wesleyism of his father was eminently respectable with its hatred of revolution. True, he shared the radical views of the students in the 1960s. But once student rebels demanded power in the university he dismissed them as ‘self-righteous’ egoists while he defended the traditional Oxbridge college as the ideal academic community. At a time when social history was becoming fashionable, Butterfield’s suggestions for a new Cambridge Modern History were, in McIntire’s words, ‘extremely conservative’: the old stuff of diplomatic and political history. The only exception was his promotion of the ‘scientific revolution’ of the 17th century as ‘the real origin of the modern world’, downgrading the conventional view of the importance of the Reformation and the Renaissance.

In an increasingly secular society he was a dissenter in that he saw that the essential difference between human beings was whether or not they believed in God, for ‘on that depends the whole interpretation of the universe and history’. To the non-believer, his attempt in Christianity and History (1949) to present the workings of God in the world as giving a higher unity to history must seem a profitless undertaking. McIntire remarks on his repetitious and often slapdash use of metaphor, the last resort of the religious mind to explain the incomprehensible.

What declares itself to be an intellectual history gives a clear sense of the private man and the Cambridge in which he spent his life. We see the chain-smoking workaholic; the academic politician, sitting on endless committees; the teacher who could inspire his pupils with the ‘flashes that came at random’. Like A. J. P. Taylor he was a public figure. But whereas Taylor was vain and sure of his judgments, Butterfield was a more slippery customer, a self-deprecating man obsessed with his shortcomings as a sinner. Much as I dislike his search for a higher unity in the workings of God’s providence, I found him an attractive figure. Hugh Trevor Roper, hardly a much-loved figure as Master of Peterhouse, was asked by one of its fellows whether he had met Butterfield. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘What did you think of him?’ ‘A likeable man.’ ‘Did you read his books?’ ‘Not if I could help it.’ The general public seems to share these views. My local library has not issued any of Butterfield’s works for the last decade whereas Taylor still commands the admiration of his intellectual groupies.

To obtain a copy of Where the Camel Strode by Clinton Keeling, published by Clam Publications and reviewed last week by Roy Kerridge, ring 01483 537547.


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