Hugh Trevor-Roper delivered a series of lectures at the University of Sussex in October 1963 which were broadcast (televised?), and reprinted first in The Listener in November and December and then, with changes, not necessarily in the passage I am quoting, as The Rise of Christian Europe, Thames and Hudson, 1965. This is from the first lecture as reprinted in the book. He is straying, a word to which he would probably have objected, outside his main area, seventeenth-century European history and thought.
“It is fashionable to speak today as if European history were devalued: as if historians, in the past, have paid too much attention to it; and as if, nowadays, we should pay less. Undergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion, demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.
“Please do not misunderstand me. I do not deny that men existed even in dark countries and dark centuries, nor that they had political life and culture, interesting to sociologists and anthropologists; but history, I believe, is essentially a form of movement, and purposive movement too. It is not a mere phantasmagoria of changing shapes and costumes, of battles and conquests, dynasties and usurpations, social forms and social disintegration. If all history is equal, as some now believe, there is no reason why we should study one section of it rather than another; for certainly we cannot study it all. Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped; or shall I seek to avoid the indignation of the medievalists by saying, from which it has changed?
“For on this subject, I believe, with the great historians of the eighteenth century, whom I find very good company (the good sense of the ancients is often more illuminating than the documented pedantry of the moderns), that history, or rather the study of history , has a purpose. We study it not merely for amusement – though it can be amusing – but in order to discover how we have come to where we are. In the eighteenth century men certainly studied Afro-Asian society. Turn over the pages of the great French and Scottish writers – Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume, Adam Smith, Millar. Their interest in non-European society is obvious. Indeed, in order to found the new science of sociology – one of the great intellectual contributions of the Enlightenment – they turned deliberately away from Europe. They read the accounts of European missionaries and drew general deductions from the customs of Otaheite and the Caribbees. But with Afro-Asian history, as distinct from society, they had little patience. When Dr Johnson bestowed excessive praise on a certain old History of the Turks, Gibbon pulled him up sharply: ‘An enlightened age’, he replied, would not be satisfied with ‘1,300 folio pages of speeches and battles’: it ‘requires from the historian some tincture of philosophy and criticism’. ‘If all you have to tell us’, said Voltaire, in his advice to contemporary historians, ‘is that one barbarian succeeded another barbarian on the banks of the Oxus or the Jaxartes, what benefit have you conferred on the public?’ And David Hume, pushing his way briskly through ‘the obscure and uninteresting period of the Saxon annals’, remarked that it was ‘fortunate for letters’ that so much of the barbarous detail was ‘buried in silence and oblivion’. ‘What instruction or entertainment can it give the reader’ he asked ‘to hear a long bead-roll of barbarous names, Egric, Annas, Ethelbert, Ethelwald, Aldulf, Elfwold, Beorne, Ethelred, Ethelbert, who successively murdered, expelled, or inherited from each other, and obscurely filled the throne’ of East Anglia? This is not to say that Hume was indifferent to problems of Anglo-Saxon society. His brilliant appendix on that subject disproves any such suggestion. But he distinguished between society and history. To him, as to all these writers, whig or tory, radical or conservative, the positive content of history consisted not in the meaningless fermentation of passive or barbarous societies but in the movement of society, the process, conscious or unconscious, by which certain societies, at certain times, had risen out of the barbarism once common to all, and, by their efforts and example, by the interchange and diffusion of arts and sciences, gradually drawn or driven other societies along with them to ‘the full light and freedom of the eighteenth century’.
“Today, though it is fashionable to be more sceptical about the light and freedom, I do not think that the essential function of history has changed. And if the function has not changed, the substance has not changed either. It may well be that the future will be the future of non-European peoples: that the ‘colonial’ peoples of Africa and Asia will inherit that primacy in the world which the ‘imperialist’ West can no longer sustain. Such shifts in the centre of political gravity in the world, such replacement of imperialist powers by their former colonies, have often happened in the past. Mediterranean Europe was once, in the Dark Ages, a colony of Islam; and northern Europe was afterwards, in the Middle Ages, a colony of the Mediterranean. But even if that should happen, it would not alter the past. The new rulers of the world, whoever they may be, will inherit a position that has been built up by Europe, and by Europe alone. It is European techniques, European examples, European ideas which have shaken the non-European world out of its past – out of barbarism in Africa, out of a far older, slower, more majestic civilization in Asia; and the history of the world, for the last five centuries, in so far as it has significance, has been European history. I do not think we need make any apology if our study of history is Europa-centric.”
Otaheite is an old name for Tahiti, Caribbees for the Lesser Antilles.
Toynbee said more than once that he had no love of barbarians. This was a reaction against a habit of some national historians when he was young of detecting signs and portents of the modern European nations’ futures in their dimmest primeval pasts; and an old-fashioned contempt for anything that was not high culture (twentieth-century popular entertainment was put into the same barbarian bracket). He could write, in the Study, about African cultures as barbarous while despising personal racism.
I am surprised that the term “barbarian” has not yet been written out of respectable discourse in relation to the European past. We still use it, but we are squeamish about using it in relation to other pasts, or presents.
Toynbee wrote a sort of book about Africa, Between Niger and Nile, OUP, 1965, and in it makes an aside as he flies over the historic Mediterranean –
France, Britain, Newfoundland, Alaska: these are countries without a history – or, at any rate, without any history to speak of.
– that is a swipe against Trevor-Roper, though he doesn’t name him. He would have investigated more African history if he had lived longer.
As to Egric, Annas, Ethelbert, Ethelwald, Aldulf, Elfwold, Beorne, Ethelred, Ethelbert, confusion among these and other names when I was young led me to despair. By the way, Hume repeats Ethelbert: that is not a misprint.
What did Egric, Annas, Ethelbert, Ethelwald, Aldulf, Elfwold, Beorne, Ethelred, Ethelbert mean? They were arrangements of letters. Texts that were crowded with these arrangements were worse than dull, they were incomprehensible. Egric only means anything different from Annas if you know Egric’s and Annas’s contexts; those contexts will be full of similarly meaningless descriptors until they are given contexts in their turn. I wanted to go outward, in widening circles, until I was studying the history of a civilisation or the world.
South Africa before the Portuguese (old post).
Between Niger and Nile, OUP, 1965