A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century, Penguin, 553 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-0140283792
In Donna Tartt’s unforgettable debut novel, The Secret History, a group of student oddballs gather like bear cubs once a week around the table of a classics tutor named Julian Morrow. Their first class together has an almost erotically charged quality as Julian, “poised like an Etruscan in a bas-relief” mesmerises his young charges with talk of Plato’s four divine madnesses, a rendition of Klemonystra’s monologue over the slashed corpse of her lover (“Thus he died …”) and the Romans’ terror when initially confronted by the first Christians ˗ in their eyes little more than a wicked cult that worshipped the memory of an executed criminal by drinking his blood. When one of the students casually refers to their weekly classes as “work”, Julian, “the magical talker”, asks incredulously: “Do you really think that what we do here is work? I should call it the most glorious kind of play.”
One could just about imagine John Burrow in the role of Julian by the end of his enthralling account of history as a mode of expression and a kind of moral art since men first daubed on walls and looked no further than the next harvest. One senses here the same coup d’oeuil, the same playfulness and fierce commitment to the rhetorical dimension of historical exposition as that found in Morrow’s happy chambers. At the end of Tartt’s novel, the tutor discovers that the legato fluidity of his seminars on the “loss of self” has led his class to operatic alcoholism, drug addiction, incest and multiple murder, excesses, one hopes, avoided by Burrow’s legion of admirers at Balliol College, Oxford, where he graced the chair of European Thought between 1995 and 2001. For if deviance could be encouraged by eloquence alone, then Burrow’s Balliol would have been the most interesting spot in England.
In the current work he has a tangled road to negotiate, continually beset by various dead ends, crossroads and junctions. Faced with the task of explaining how the ancient histories met with the Christian imperative before emerging slowly from the Renaissance, blinking like owls at the daylight into a historical tradition which is recognisably our own, one could be forgiven for lapsing into jargon or abstraction. Yet Burrow never neglects the human dimension, having seemingly taken to heart Dilthey’s maxim that history is the arena where “life grasps life”. Ample space is made for every imaginable kind of historical madman, loser and fraud. At times the reader feels almost like Chaucer on his pilgrimage, or a visitor in some celestial Broadmoor, a feeling not unfamiliar to admirers of The Crisis of Reason, Burrow’s dense analysis of the European irrationalist tradition before the Great War. In the current book, we meet praetorian guards who put the Empire up for auction, ogres who bisect their prey with axes, monks who expire on their chamber pots, ancient philosophers who glory in the indiscriminate murder of their enemies, whores who are buried alive and all the riff-raff of the imperial Roman city.
Burrow’s survey, extending over some twenty-six languid essays-cum-chapters on historians as diverse as the church father Eusebius and Henry Adams’s American classics, betrays a boyish delight in a fracas. His trademark is the chuckle that implies an acceptance of imperfection. Such, it concedes, is life. He also shows a finely tuned radar for the taproom bore and the common room ranter. His humour, one senses, is just the external deposit of a disposition marked by some great inner tolerance and sensitivity. He is as alert to the trivial indignity as to the overwhelming reversal of historical fortune. The sorrows attending the deaths of medieval children sit alongside the piety of the churchman, occasionally giving rise to moments of rare dignity. His quotation from a monastic history written in the reign of King John is worth recalling in extenso. Twelve monks are deputised to open the shrine of their monastery, St Edmund’s, following a fire. They must move the embalmed corpse of their beloved saint, and their historian implies that theirs was a life lived according to love. One monk caresses the bones as a mother might wash a baby:
… taking the head between his hands, he said groaning, ‘Glorious Martyr, Saint Edmund’ … And he proceeded to touch the eyes and the nose, and afterwards he touched the breast and arms and, raising the left hand, he touched the fingers and placed his fingers between the fingers of the saint … and he touched the toes of the feet and counted them as he touched them.
Frailty and failure stand like sentinels throughout Burrow’s historical record, reminding us that tolerance can be more than mere pity, and that failure is no more final than sin is original.
His panoramic survey can essentially be read in one of two ways. It either shows that the development of the historical canon over this thousand-year stretch is really a story of emancipation and maturation, or the exact opposite. Either the development indicates that history has helped humanity to cross new thresholds of self-awareness and imagination or it shows that each generation is alone in the world and that each must begin their world anew. One reading of Burrow suggests that history is about emancipation, and that the refinement and elaboration of this unique way of patterning knowledge constitutes one of the greatest, if not the greatest, breakthrough in our collective experience. Here, the gradual emergence of the self-aware, “modern” historical sensibility looks not unlike the intellectual equivalent of the arrival of fire or the invention of the wheel.
There are four obvious hinge moments in the survey, four cruxes when the key characteristics of the historical craft or prism are transformed in some fundamental way and the base metals transformed into something more complex and polished. The great historians of the ancient world, with its mad emperors, pious court historians and seemingly endless succession of wars and conquests, replaced the primitive family genealogies found in the older Hebraic and Egyptian worlds with more abstract and self-aware narratives. There was certainly much to distinguish Herodotus from Tacitus or Sallust, but their moralised grand accounts of military victory and political collapse represented a new-found sophistication when compared with the personal and local accents of the accounts which preceded them.
The next great step came, of course, after the conversion of Constantine to Christianity. The Bible told a far more cosmic tale than the mere doings of kings and the travails of their battalions. Such stories as it did tell functioned as vehicles to convey the great fact of Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion and the inescapably Christian idea that time itself had been radically altered by this superficially modest human sacrifice in bronze age Palestine. Believers were invited once and for all to leave behind an identity that looked no further back than their most illustrious remembered ancestor or no wider than the fields where they planted their crops or buried their dead. The Bible sought to convey the idea of God’s duality, the glory of one who was simultaneously “the wailing child, and the supreme creator, the victim of death, and the lord of death, the despised of all, yet also the Lord of all”. On Burrow’s reading, the most powerful impact of the coming of Christianity was its insistence that time was in essence the pilgrim’s tragedy, the expanse through which men laboured as they tried to get closer to God. Nothing could be more mundane after this than the tyranny of mere tomorrow when rewards were promised on a different plane. As the scribblings of pagan gossips gave way to the bliss of Dante, so too did the Christian historical idea of Yahweh and the Kingdom of Ends submit to its own kind of contraction and coagulation.
Burrow focuses on the Italian sixteenth century as the moment when the Middle Ages made way for a new civic humanistic history, a republican sensibility instanced in particular by Machiavelli and the Florentine historian Villani. The European historical imagination acquired a new poise and froideur as the lessons of imperial Rome were applied to the contemporary scene. (Burrow is at pains to point out that he rejects the common assumption that the ancient historians lacked a sense of historical distance: they had it in spades, but it was of a different order to what would come later.) This civic humanist tradition, while still recognisably Christian and didactic as before, sired two powerful historical factions, which would play a key role in illustrating the potency of the historical perspective as applied to constitutional affairs, namely the English “Country” patriotic opposition, which saw the cloven hoof in all His Majesty’s dealings, and that extraordinary cast of characters in late eighteenth century America which would go one step further than Bolingbroke and Harrington and openly repudiate the claims of monarchy tout court. “Enlightenment” in her various guises peeps eagerly around the corner at this point.
This next hinge moment saw the moral aspect of ancient historians’ practice receive aggressive emphasis as historical laws were canvassed and proffered like so many mathematical axioms. For nearly two centuries some of the greatest philosophers and scientists argued that there were concrete social laws enciphered in the collective historical record of suffering humanity and that social development could be predicted, and thus manipulated, if these laws could be discovered through sufficiently rigorous empirical studies. Montesquieu, among others, saw history as a kind of grand sociological experiment. Never before had the discipline seemed so prestigious or so pregnant; never before had her secrets seemed so close at hand.
Such confidence hardly survived Victoria herself, and Burrow shows that such aggressive claims for the “historical science” always existed cheek by hostile jowl with various kinds of romanticisms that saw predictions of all types as the thief of character, the heart, if you like, of a heartless world. The gloom and relativism taught by the twentieth century’s myriad postmodernisms – be it the linguistic turn in philosophy, the various obsessions of identity politics or the anarchical lessons of critical literary theory – were not inventions of our own tired times. Far from it, Burrow’s account shows, since these were flowers that emerged from soil that had been well tilled a century previously by men who were in earnest, men like Nietzsche, Coleridge, Emerson and Bergson. “Postmodernism”, as Burrow wrote in the last chapter of his Crisis of Reason, “looks more like a gloss on Modernism than its historical grave-digger”. We are not as modern as we think we are, and here Burrow sounds like nobody more than Malthus, who observed that we come into this world “already possessed”.
To spend any amount of time with Burrow’s work is to feel that each generation labours under the illusion of newness or modernism in the sense suggested above. This yearning is deep and pervasive and Burrow has spent his career showing the extent to which these suggestions of radical historical discontinuities or separatenesses are usually exaggerated or even malevolent. His work suggests that intellectual history is less a tale of paradigm shifts or eureka moments – though these have certainly been very real, especially in the sciences – than a matter of variation, mutation and coagulation. His densely argued Carlyle Lectures from 1986, published as Whigs and Liberals. Continuity and Change in English Political Thought, is a classic in the genre and there he argues that self-consciously modern intellectuals like John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, Matthew Arnold and T B Macaulay had actually far more in common with their more aristocratic, easygoing eighteenth century ancestors than they cared to admit, especially in their ideas about public virtue, constitutional equanimity and democratic levelling. Burrow’s late Victorian intellectuals here resemble the characters in Plato’s cave, who gaze at the shadows on their walls as reflected by their modest fire and cannot see that they are transfixed by reflections rather than independent images. Burrow seems to suggest that life is as much about admitting and managing our essentially derivative nature as about bounding over the next fence. But there may be some consolation in remembering that being derivative is just another way of being connected; and so there are grounds for saying that we are our brothers’ keepers since we are our fathers’ sons.
And yet, as suggested above, Burrow’s book can be read to yield a very different lesson, one that insists that historians in each generation have confronted the reality of their isolation, as scholars, as moralists and ultimately as citizens. We see that each one of his historical epochs has been troubled by the idea that in some fundamental sense the past remains inherently alien, even impenetrable, and that on closer inspection it legacies melt, “like light dissolved in star showers, thrown” as Shelley had it. Many historians have questioned the idea of a meaningful historical tradition or the idea of coherent historical continuity, like so many sailors squinting at the skies for stars by which they might get home. And so each generation in some sense knew that we are alone. This theme of the past as an eerie reminder of one’s mortality weaves its way through these interlinked essays like an Ariadne’s thread, as Burrow shows how different eras grappled with this unhappy insight. Livy “knows very well that the Forum had once been a marsh, surrounded by the primitive huts of a shepherd population”, while the common ancient sensitivity to “a long term deterioration in Roman character and manners is itself a conception of historical change, implying the emergence of fundamental difference” between the generations. Sallust’s history suggested to later scholars that the ancient Roman mind was not attuned to the idea of cultural change in the later longue duréesense, that they were in some very real sense alien ancestors who left no legacy that could be passed on and used again. Philippe Ariès argued that the idea of childhood, for example, did not exist until the seventeenth century, while Lucien Febvre denied that atheism was even thinkable until well after the sixteenth.
Even eighteenth century luminaries like David Hume had black thoughts about the chaotic nature of time past, which made the search for proto-scientific laws look by turns presumptuous and ludicrous. Hume returned and again to the role of chance in history and to the moral implications of unintended consequences, which littered the historical record like so many groaning corpses. The historian d’Alembert dismissed the whole of history as a sub-section of human memory and hardly fit for inclusion in the scientific pantheon. And the French Revolution’s most unforgettable interpreter, Thomas Carlyle – the literary equivalent of a portable cathedral bell according to one admirer – expressed a different set of reservations about the intelligibility of the past with his brilliantly glancing observation that the great impediment to historical insight was “fear”, that is to say the recognition by would-be contemporary sanitisers and rationalisers that this was a cardinal ingredient in most human enterprises. The German-Jewish mystic Walter Benjamin made a similar observation in his terse and vaguely ludicrous “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, when he argued that a tidy, logic-bound account of tradition or the past risked stringing various events together like the beads of a rosary. There was comfort in this, certainly, but no insight. Burrow’s chapter on the pioneering twentieth century Dutch historian Johan Huizinga brilliantly conveys this uncomfortable feeling of dislocation as he summarises Huizinga’s argument that the Middle Ages thought in images and personifications rather than in terms of linear time or causal connections. Huizinga’s medieval “autumnal age” might as well have been on a different planet. Jacob Burckhardt’s account of the Renaissance registered similar ideas, seeing life before Michelangelo as a world warped by “faith, illusion and childish prepossession”. Here the past is less a possession in perpetuity than a brackish pool.
Burrow’s celebrated account of the Victorian British historical guild, A Liberal Descent, proclaimed the emergence of a consummate stylist in the British academy. His History of Histories contains similarly sublime examples of craftsmanship and urbanity, but here he also excels at what might be called the shooting or framing of his argument. A major theme of this book is the idea of historical distance, that is to say the sense of distance between the generations, and Burrow pans back and forth like a cameraman over these five hundred or so pages, giving an extraordinary sense of life, oscillation and energy. Some of his ancients, like Herodotus and later Christian moralists, saw no need to take account of any historical distance, since their histories seemed to annihilate historical time in contemplation of a common humanity. Enlightenment scholars like Gibbon and Hume shared a qualified faith here, though they argued that good research had also to be sensitive to the specific moment, the unique act, the felix culpa that propelled the centuries onward. As Burrow quoted Gibbon in an earlier essay, Gibbon, “history is the pathology of the human mind in action”.
The consummation of the common humanity school came in the nineteenth century essays of the British historian Thomas Macaulay. His celebrated contribution to the debate in the House of Commons on the 1832 Reform Act was based on the idea that 1832 was a kind of historical fulcrum for modern England, a moment when all the other major events in the English past seemed to come together in a fateful constitutional starburst, requiring, nay demanding, foresight and idealism and generosity from the placemen in the Commons. Burrow adores Macaulay’s rococo prose and his vivid imagination, noting here the sustained eloquence of his speeches in 1832 when he told colleagues that that year was really no different from the time when Cromwell took up the mace from the table of the House or when Caesar was stabbed at the Forum. This was patriotism with a vengeance, but there was also something warped and crippled about these sentiments, something inherently lame in the idea that the present is some faint echo or copy from other glorious times. And yet this, as Collingwood and other philosophers of history wrote later, is the central paradox of the historical mind, namely the idea that it thinks forward but understands backwards. In The Crisis of Reason Burrow wrote more severely about the sense in which certain kinds of historical analysis can be seen as a form of moral abdication or demagoguery, and the young Nietzsche led the charge here. His prodigious essay “On the uses and disadvantages of history for life” remains a quietly devastating document whose insights can still flay to the bone. Burrow summarises this complex paper with admirable rigour, noting that “[h]istorical over-awareness, the sense of living always retrospectively, paralysing the will to live, is in this essay the particular form which the burden of self-consciousness, to which Nietzsche’s writings constantly revert, assumes”. Macaulay and his heirs get off rather lightly by contrast.
Ever since his first book, Evolution and Society, mapped the subtle ways that evolutionary doctrine shaped every aspect of mid-Victorian society, Burrow’s writings have marked him out as a man apart, an intellectual historian who is just as happy unravelling the intricacies of Lamarck’s organicist experiments as he is reliving the old debates between Macaulay and James Mill. His next book, A Liberal Descent, was formally a work of historiographical analysis, that is to say, an analysis of how history came to be written according to a certain Burkean idiom in nineteenth century Britain. It spoke equally to historians of nationalism in Ireland as to constitutional scholars in Britain. The Crisis of Reason again was a formal intellectual history of nineteenth century Europe, one which examined the myriad pathologies that brought to world to its knees in 1914 and again in the 1930s. And yet such was the breadth of the author’s frame of reference, such his command of a bewildering array of psychiatric studies and fringe pamphlets that it reads today as if written by an accomplished Freudian or a philosopher keen to augment his theories with a colourful historical parade.
Burrow remains hard to place within modern British history, though his interest in reaching diverse audiences shows that he learned a trick or two from his lively undergraduate tutor at Cambridge, Jack Plumb. The inspirational figure of Duncan Forbes, another Cambridge ghost from the 1950s, nods happily as Burrow elaborates on his sense of history as an expressive totality so to speak, a viable account of our common ruin, and as something more than mere “story” or the pawn of a polemicist in the next Kulturkampf. And yet he still remains aloof from his contemporaries, and we must look abroad perhaps for comparable minds that could have produced as rich and dense a work as this. Burrow’s interest in psychological states of mind in history, as well as his emphasis on the centrality of Nietzsche’s legacy in European philosophy sounds not unlike the work of the American historian H Stuart Hughes, except that Burrow is the better writer. He explicitly acknowledges his debts to other American historians of history such as John Clive and Mark Salber Philips.
However, the scholar who Burrow most closely resembles is Douglass Adair, the pioneering historian of eighteenth century America’s intellectual worlds and one of the best essayists to write on the development of American republicanism amidst the founding fathers. It is impossible when reading Burrow on English Whiggery or the Florentine idea of history as capricious Fortuna – that beguiling witch so wonderfully evoked in John Kennedy Toole’s comic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces – and not to think of Adair’s riveting analysis of how the American founders were themselves deeply enmeshed in a mental world which saw decay as inevitable. One finds the same generosity of spirit and exhilarating textual exegesis in Burrow as one does in Adair’s classic account of Thomas Jefferson’s obsession with the virtuous farmer ideal type (derived ultimately from Aristotle’s Politics) or his collection of essays on the historical perspectives which fired Madison’s constitutional vision, Fame and the Founding Fathers. Both work amid the long shadows of the Roman Republic, both share a common regard for Hume and both are sensitive to the mysteries of the intellectual personality which caution against bombastic scholarly summaries. One also senses that both only like to play at the bigger tables, since their scholarship shows an airy contempt for the pedantry of self-consciously “political history”, with its dreary empiricism and narrow, jealous vision. Both specialise in showing how deep currents gurgle chaotically beneath even the most placid surface, and how most insights are just compressions of many older ideas which have found life again in happier climates. To read either man is to feel that the historian can on rare occasions almost play the role of Adam, as he names his world as if for the first time.
Burrow’s journey takes him in the end to the twentieth century. There is a distinct sigh in these last chapters as he contemplates the state of historical play in our own day. We must pause for breath though. Readers have been taken on an extraordinary journey – from the Anglo-Saxon forests of Hengist and Horsa and Bede through the barbarian expanses which replaced a depleted and crippled Rome and thence to the New World of Bernal Díaz and Montezuma. We have tarried a while with the pilgrim historians of the Middle Ages, who cried for their own loss late one night on the pillow and yet thanked the God who arranged these things. We have held our collective breaths as Xenophon, poised at the head of his tiny army trapped in the Persian empire, finally reaches the coast (“The sea! The sea!”) and we have followed dumbly as Thucydides takes us by the hand to witness one of those many massacres which disfigured the ancient world, an era which lived by the axiom that “the mark of fanaticism is the pursuit of advantage without limit, the love of terror for its own sake”.
For Burrow the modern canon seems rather tired by comparison with what has gone before, and he can hardly suppress a sigh as he contemplates the mind-numbing empiricism of Geoffrey Elton’s Tudor histories, a series of squat monographs that seem to have confined the young Burrow to the Cambridge library for longer than seems fair. There have been other rough beasts slouching towards their literary Bethlehems in the last century. Burrow’s shudder is palpable as he contemplates the presumption and vulgarity of much of the modern Marxist canon, especially when contrasted with the roar and dazzle of Huizinga or Aby Warburg. Burrow includes a particularly bizarre quote from Eric Hobsbawn’s history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, where he argues that nothing vindicated the Marxist economic analysis more than the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989: “[r]arely has there been a clearer example of Marx’s forces of production coming into conflict with the social, institutional and ideological superstructure which had transformed backward agrarian economies into advanced industrial ones, up to the point where they turned from forces into fetters of production.” So this is what finally exposed the chaos inherent in the century’s most powerful Marxist state: Marxism.
One instinctively flicks back to Burrow’s chapter on biblical history when confronted with this kind of tautological analysis, both traditions sharing the same cyclopean belief that all of human affairs can be reduced to a single unifying theme. Burrow finds the French scholar Michel Foucault guilty of violence against the English language as he surveys the sheer ugliness of much of his mysterious prose, which could not even be starched by judicious translation. The so-called “linguistic turn” in philosophy could never be seen as anything other than a train wreck in waiting by an historian who places as much emphasis as Burrow does on pellucid clarity of exposition. Hayden White fails to get even a mention in the index, a fitting punishment for a scholar who argued that history was best understood as a “verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse”.
There are a few lights in this modern gloom however and Burrow discusses three books in particular that have moved him over the years. He lingers over Carlo Ginzburg’s account of the mental universe of the autodidact-cum-heretic Minocchio in The Cheese and the Worms, and Alain Cordin’s terrifying account of the torture and murder by peasants of a young French aristocrat in The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870. Burrow also greatly admires Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath, a sad and moving micro-history of the English Reformation as seen through the doctrinal travails of a small Exmoor parish as preserved in the meticulous accounts of the parish priest, Sir Christopher Trychay. Burrow’s book ends with his tribute to Ken Burn’s extraordinary television series on the American Civil War. In a television era dominated by Professor Starkey’s tantrums and Professor Ferguson’s hair, Burrow writes that “[r]estrained but informative commentary, sensitive editing, haunting photographs and music and readings from letters and diaries made this a deeply moving production, matching the scale of the events it recounted in a way no printed book could do. Considered as the presentation of an epic theme on a grand scale this has claims to be the outstanding work of history of the twenty-first century so far.” This is a particular thrillingenvoi for at least one of Burrow’s readers, whose schooldays were enriched by this documentary and for whom the Ashokan Farewell always recalls the slurring General Grant tell a subordinate that “Sherman is gone in the head”, or Sullivan Ballou’s luminous faith in a transcendent human solidarity. (“O Sarah, do not mourn me dead …”).
It is impossible to convey the charm and humanity of this book, which stands as both an inspiration to scholars to lift their eyes above the quotidian fray and a stimulus to further research. Much like Julian in flagrante at the head of his gaggle of misfits in The Secret History,Burrow throws off some startling and provocative asides which one can only hope he will attend to in more detail in his future writings. Mimicking Wilde’s insistence that “any man can make history, but only a great one can write it”, Burrow suggests at one point that “the depiction of great deeds in writing history belongs to the best life, no less than the performance of them”, a correlation between good hearts and good books that must rule out most of the madmen he has surveyed here and in The Crisis of Reason. He doffs his cap to Gary Wills in noting that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address had more than a dash of Pericles about it, while EP Thompson’s celebrated tirade against English Methodists is dismissed roughly as pastiche of that other great English enragé, William Cobbett.
Burrow also has an unusual take on the Federalist Papers, that classic of republican constitutionalism penned in the white heat of the ratification debates in the American Confederation by Madison, Hamilton and John Jay. Unlike other scholars who see them as obvious legatees of the civic humanist tradition, Burrow praises them here en passant as “cooly sociological”, a provocative summation that more evidently applies to Hamilton, the thrusting financial Bismarck, than to the more historical and gloomy Madison. To a generation reared on the polemics of Kédourie, Pierre Trudeau and Acton, it is bracing to be reminded by Burrow that nationalism as a doctrine was initially emphatically liberal in its orientation and implication, the more explicitly ethnic buailim sciath of its modern champions being a rather late arrival. Burrow notes that nationalist historical epics like Trevelyan’s Italian Risorgimento trilogy commingled liberal democracy and an easy patriotism. He notes that Charles Petit-Dutaillis’s Supplement to the work of Bishop Stubbs lamented the way nationalism “so long associated with Romantic, liberal versions of history” was capitulating to something darker, to an impulse that stressed domination rather than independence. The relationship between liberalism and nationalism is a tantalising one, and here Burrow reminds us of Isaiah Berlin’s famous observation that the gently, saintly Immanuel Kant is the real source of nationalism in modern Europe, not the usual suspects at their various barricades.
Burrow also cites the influence of the British philosopher and historian RG Collingwood in his introduction and again in his conclusion, while registering some reservations about the hyper-rationalist criteria Collingwood pioneered for understanding the historical processs – he is often accused of being so fixated with the mental states of individual historical actors in his key text The Idea of History that he makes little effort to understand the more irrational collective and social impulses which characterise certain historical epochs. (An overtly intellectual perspective only gets you so far in the analysis of say the Black Death of the fourteenth century or the total global wars of our own time.)
One would have liked to read more on Collingwood, and that more abstract philosophical tradition which spoke of history in explicitly epistemological terms, that is to say as a distinct way of organising and representing human knowledge, a cognitive process that is as distinct and viable in its own terms as that of the natural sciences. These philosophical concerns of Collingwood made him a very rare bird in modern British history. He himself acknowledged only one peer during his lifetime, Michael Oakeshott, who served as external examiner for Burrow’s Cambridge doctorate, which became Evolution and Society. Burrow’s previous monographs have been focused on the Victorian intellectual world. It would be a treat indeed in the future were he to give us more essays on that rare breed of Britain’s philosopher-historian in the twentieth century.
Burrow devotes a full chapter to the great eighth century English historian the Venerable Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People tried to place the various ethnic groups of England within an explicitly Christian framework. Reading Burrow’s book recalls Bede’s sublime metaphor of the pilgrim’s progress through life. A sparrow, tantalised by some errant flame in the gloom, flies towards its source and passes through a feasting hall at great speed. Flying through one door of the hall, he sees a multitude of things below him – tumult, feasting, comedy in all her forms – before he exits again out the other end into the oblivion of the night. Such was the Anglo-Saxon analogue of life, the passionate transitory. One could do worse than retune the image here and apply it to Burrow’s own kaleidoscopic historical survey, where we are guided through a veritable maze of personalities and ideas and deposited, gorged and breathless, next to the telly don at the end. However, the momentary intoxication of the flight has only partially masked the triviality of our own concerns and the boundedness of our academic lives compared to what we have just been shown. To turn the last page is to feel rather like Burrow’s monastic chronicler Jocelin of Brakelonde ,who confessed to his diary that he “understood as a child, and spoke as a child”. And yet, that we would register this feeling more as incitement than a rebuke is testament to the pilgrim soul that conceived the journey and mapped our course. For much as Xenophon did for his men, Burrow has brought us to the sea.
This essay was first published in summer 2009, when the author, John Paul McCarthy, was a doctoral student at Oxford University.