Namier’s eyes

May 6 2013

One of Namier’s eyes was a rabbinical scholar’s. He was proudly conscious of his descent from the Gaon of Vilna. The other eye was a Polish landowner’s. His family were Roman Catholic (Latin rite) landowners of Jewish origin in the eastern part of Galicia [post here]. Galicia was at that time one of the crown lands of the Empire of Austria. It is divided to-day between two Communist republics: Poland and the Ukrainian constituent republic of the Soviet Union.

Namier’s hereditary rabbinical eye for minutiæ is surely part of the secret of his success in applying the prosopographical method to the study of 18th-century British politics. After he and I had each struck out our different lines of inquiry, Namier once said to me that at least we resembled each other in dealing with history differently from the way followed by most contemporary historians.

“You,” he said, “try to look at the whole tree. I try to dissect the tree’s texture, leaf by leaf. Most of the others break off a branch and try to cope with that. You and I agree,” Namier added, “in not favouring that method.”

Namier’s vein of Jewishness was, of course, not exclusively intellectual. He had also inherited a Jewish emotional intensity and even fanaticism. [Toynbee has a habit of equating Jewish with fanatical. Namier’s Zionism led to a temporary rift with Toynbee.] So, when he discovered the 17th-century English Puritan writers, their spirit struck an answering chord in him. They, and not their Laodicean 18th-century successors, were Namier’s first love in his wooing of England past and present.

Meanwhile, Namier’s other eye – his Polish Roman Catholic one – was also making penetrating observations of English life; and here, too, Namier saw things to which our native English eyes had been blind, because we had taken these things for granted. I remember his excitement over his discovery of the emotional timbre that is given to the English language by the use of Biblical quotations and allusions. This was a stop which the organ of the Polish language did not possess, and which therefore caught Namier’s ear when he listened to the music of English speech. The Biblical note was lacking in the Polish language, for Roman Catholics of the Latin rite the Bible was imprisoned in the Latin of the Vulgate. There was no consecrated and familiar translation in the vernacular which could influence the living language, as King James I’s authorised version of the Bible has influenced the English language ever since it was published.

Lewis Namier, Historian, Encounter, Vol 16, No 1, January 1961 (more from this in yesterday’s post)

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