contributor.author: Brian Patrick McGuire

title.none: Southern, History and Historians (Brian Patrick McGuire)

identifier.other: baj9928.0508.024 05.08.24

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Brian Patrick McGuire, University of Roskilde, bpm@ruc.dk

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Southern, R.W. R.J. Bartlett, ed. History and Historians: Selected Papers of R.W. Southern. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Pp. x, 278. $64.95 (hb). ISBN: 1-4051-2387-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.08.24

Southern, R.W. R.J. Bartlett, ed. History and Historians: Selected Papers of R.W. Southern. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Pp. x, 278. $64.95 (hb). ISBN: 1-4051-2387-7.

Reviewed by:

Brian Patrick McGuire
University of Roskilde
bpm@ruc.dk

Robert Bartlett and the Royal Historical Society are to be thanked for making more widely available some of the less accessible writings of the late Sir Richard Southern (1912-2001), perhaps the leading medieval historian of the English-speaking world in the twentieth century. Southern grew up in the industrial city of Newcastle-on-Tyne, came up to Balliol College in 1929, and remained in Oxford for the rest of his life, except for a stint in the army intelligence in the Second World War and visiting professorships, as at Berkeley in 1968. As Bartlett points out in his brief but useful Introduction, Southern was Fellow of Balliol (1937-61), then Chichele Professor of Modern History (as anything after the Roman evacuation of Britain is called in Oxford), and finally President of Saint John's College (1969-81). It might be added that Dick Southern and his wife Sheila spent their last two decades together a few hundred yards from Saint Johns, in a narrow house on Saint John Street, where Dick had his study perched on the top floor, whose bathtub eventually filled up with his notes and papers for his final great project, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe. Two of the projected three volumes appeared, in 1995 and 2001.

As a former student of Southern's I am honored to be asked by The Medieval Review to write about this collection of his writings about history and historians, and I approach the task with one general exhortation to potential readers of my review: Do not read me; read Southern. Especially The Making of the Middle Ages, his first and justifiably best-known book, from 1953. After more than half a century it maintains all the freshness of style and brilliance of insight that came to characterize the Southern way of writing history. For those who are interested in the world that made Southern, however, Bartlett's collection of his articles will provide invaluable guidance.

He starts appropriately with Southern's four addresses as president of the Royal Historical Society: "Aspects of the European Tradition of Historical Writing" including 1, "The Classical Tradition from Einhard to Geoffrey of Monmouth" (1970); 2, "Hugh of St. Victor and the Idea of Historical Development" (1971); 3, "History as Prophecy" (1972); 4, "The Sense of the Past" (1973). Here is Southern at the peak of his career, when the duties of being president of Saint Johns gave him limited opportunity to devote himself to research. He had in 1962 completed the brilliant biography of Saint Anselm that he would redo in the 1990s, and in 1970 he published both his contribution to the Penguin History of the Church (Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages) and his collection of essays summarizing central interests of the first decades of his career, Medieval Humanism and Other Studies.

Southern's studies are a tribute to the problems and challenges of writing history. It is not by accident that he chose not to conclude with "History as Prophecy" but instead considered the contribution of English historians to the appreciation of the medieval centuries. In "The Sense of the Past" he looked at two turning points that inspired the writing of good history: the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and the century after the English Reformation.

It is remarkable that Southern managed to place England and English historians in the midst of his perception of medieval history. Starting out with Continental figures such as Einhard and Widukind, he ended his survey with an English gentleman, William Lambarde of Kent. Similarly he subtitled his study of Robert Grosseteste from 1986, The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe. For Southern England's first entry into Europe in the twelfth century was as important as his country's second entry in 1972, and the Oxford historian had all the hesitations and hopes about the European project that are still to be found in his homeland today. It is appropriate that his last publications linked a medieval product, "Scholastic Humanism," with "The Unification of Europe."

To this day Southern remains an English historian who is recognized and accepted in the English-speaking world but whose qualities are not similarly celebrated on the European Continent. In Denmark I was once lectured by an older colleague that it was inappropriate to make so much out of Southern's "paperback" treatment of the medieval Church. In France he has been generally ignored: perhaps here his iconoclastic study of the School of Chartres was considered to be a challenge to a national myth. In any case, the articles on historians found in Bartlett's collection show Southern's emphasis on English and especially Oxford medieval historians. His brief treatment of The Letters of Frederic William Maitland reveals admiration for toil and hard work, qualities that lie behind the elegant and seemingly effortless surface of Southern's own way of writing history: "He [Maitland] learned that the approach to history must be through drudgery, and that no amount of elegance, economy, and precision of mind can take the place of an enormous capacity for hard work" (142).

In the necrology of Sir Maurice Powicke (1879-1963) we meet one of the seminal figures in Southern's own life as an historian. Here as in the other portraits of his seniors at Oxford, Southern is both critical and appreciative of what he could learn from his elders. He describes both the individual and the group, as Powicke and his audience at his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor and his recommendation that the third year of undergraduate study at Oxford tackle advanced subjects in a manner that pre-shadowed the post-war transformation of Oxford into a university with both undergraduate and graduate programs. Powicke was immediately categorized as an undesirable product of the Manchester school of history. He lacked the political acumen of Southern, who as head of the History School at Oxford managed to broaden its content and scope without creating the same antagonisms. He learned from his distinguished predecessor and did not experience's Powicke's marginalization.

In an extended sentence, Southern could sum up an entire approach to history, as in his characteristic of Powicke: "He was at his best in piecing together a few scattered facts, superficially of only casual or local interest, showing how they became significant when they were seen as local manifestations of great movements in European history" (161). There is no hero worship here, nor is there any attempt to expose and reveal secrets about colleagues. Even in describing Beryl Smalley, whom Southern remembered as a friend who had lived through difficult times, he betrays nothing of the confidences which might have been entrusted to him. In an age when every lurid detail of the lives of the great and famous is paraded before us, Southern refuses to simplify or to vulgarize. Perhaps this is why he once turned me down when I offered to be his biographer. He was not at all amused by the thought of a former American import to his world trying to interpret its meaning, rituals and beliefs.

Only in describing Richard William Hunt (1908-1979), the memorable librarian of the Bodleian, does Southern allow himself to come close to the enthusiasm and exasperation that can be combined in a lifelong friendship. Otherwise he keeps a respectful but affectionate distance, as in concluding about Vivian Hunter Galbraith (1889-1976): "I often thought it strange that a man who had so little patience for administration should have had so much pleasure in the contemplation of the administrators of the past" (192).

Because of my own attachment to Southern and to Oxford, I enjoyed these personal portraits greatly, but for the reader who is not so much in awe of this heritage, Part II of this volume, "History" will be more valuable than Part III, "Historians." Southern's inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor in 1961 presents his analysis of the study of history at Oxford and the challenges he saw to it with the transformation of British universities from elite to mass education. Here he made clear that the days of doing history in terms solely of politics and administration were numbered: he asked for a broader cultural history that in the last decades has become the norm rather than the exception in the West. Southern's vision is shown sixteen years later in his Rede Lecture, "The Historical Experience," where he surprisingly took central figures of the nineteenth century (Darwin, Newman, Ernest Renan, and Engels) in order to characterize visions "needed to break down the last defenses of a system of thought, going back in essentials to the scholasticism of the Middle Ages" (118). The result of what we today would call deconstruction was, surprisingly, not the end of history, but an assertion of the necessity of history. His point was that only by placing such central figures in the context of their age can we understand their significance and their limitations.

I remember Southern in the 1970s as discouraged about the direction of our civilization, and this lecture may have been an attempt to come to terms with the modern world and to see history as a way of understanding and taming its seeming brutality. After his retirement, Southern mellowed and stopped worrying about prophesies of doom. In his previously unpublished talk for the St. John's College Historical Society from 1988, "The Truth about the Past", he offered his own credo as historian. Southern asked a coming generation to consider the limitations of the creeds of their own time: "Nothing has done more to impoverish humanity than this absurd delusion of self-sufficiency, which ultimately leads to despair as its falsity comes to be recognized" (133). Southern asked his listeners to "look on the past as a treasury of unused wealth which is open to investigation, perhaps, appropriation without any losers." Here appears "a spiritual universe of which we know almost nothing."

Southern in these writings never used the now-fashionable term "spirituality." He once said to me, as he did the dishes in his Saint Johns Street house, that this word needs to be associated with concrete institutions, instead of being allowed to hover loosely and unattached to material things. Robert Bartlett claims in his Introduction that Southern's "own strong religious principles are well known" (6), but in these essays and in his life in general Southern generally avoiding mixing his duties as an historian with his spiritual vision of life. Only in this talk to the Historical Society, which he probably never intended to be published, did he allow himself to hint at some of the religious belief that underpinned his commitment to history.

Does one have to be a committed Christian in order to be a good European medieval historian? I would say that it would be a mistake to mix such matters. But I wonder how Southern would have answered such a question. There can be no doubt that because Southern underwent a religious conversion to Christianity in his student days, he found his place in the world and could go ahead with a lifetime commitment to the study of history. For those who would like to follow this development in Southern's life, Alexander Murray's biographical sketch in the Proceedings of the British Academy 120 (Biographical Memoirs of Fellows 2003, pp. 413-42) is the best presentation available. But for those who have limited interest in the person Southern but instead want to determine if his ways of looking at history can help them in their own concerns, Robert Bartlett's collection of Southern's writings is more than welcome. His index, annotated with brief notes about who people were and when they lived, shows that we live in a culture where there is no longer one set of facts that everyone knows, even within the relatively small field of medieval history. I am grateful to Bartlett for providing dates for now-forgotten historians such as T.F. Tout and James Tait. At the same time the contents of this collection show how Southern took it for granted that his audience knew who these historians were and when they lived.

We live in a new era, distant not only from Victorian professors but also from the Oxford of the 1960s that housed Southern and Clinton. With the help of this collection, many of us can either remain or become grateful to Oxford and to Southern for what they continue to give us.