Welcome to the first in a series of debates being hosted on the History Compass Theory & Methods Blog:
“Is British History European?”
Dates: 6-17 October, 2008
Short position papers from each participant are posted below, both in PDF format and an onscreen version.
We invite all of you ‘attending’ online to comment and get involved in the discussion! Just use the comments feature on this post to share your views and respond to the issues raised.
The Blackwell History Compass has different editorial sections for Britain and for Europe. Anyone looking for literature on Britain will find next to nothing on Britain in the section on Europe – despite the fact that to all intents and purposes Britain is a European nation state and has been so for many centuries. Not only its geography indicates that it is at the margins of Europe but still it is clearly identifiable as European, and its membership in the European Union, somewhat reluctant at times, also seems to confirm its position as a European nation. Britain was integral to a range of European storylines in the past: the Industrial Revolution, democratisation, colonialism and imperialism, free trade, the world wars of the twentieth century, the Cold War, the development of popular culture and consumption patterns, to mention but the most obvious ones. And yet, British history, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, has a separate status from European history. People are hired at universities as specialists in either European or British history. Research centres are often designated as either British or European. Editors’ catalogues are subdivided into British (sometimes Irish is added here) and European sections, and, to come back to the beginning, our journal is also subdivided into British and European sections.
If we ask why this is so, the answer lies, of course, in history. I would argue that it has much to do with the prevalence of national history in history writing between (roughly) the 1850s and 1950s. This century saw the professionalisation and institutionalisation of history writing right across the European continent (earlier in some places, such as Germany, later in others, such as Britain). Such professionalisation went hand in hand with the thorough nationalisation of history writing to a point where, in all countries, national history became the dominant form of history writing (if never the only show in town!).[i] Hence it was regarded as ‘natural’ to establish national history chairs, national history journals, national archives and libraries, etc. dealing, above all, with national history. Even in the East European communist countries after 1945 university history departments were reorganised in a way in which they were subdivided into (larger) sections for national history and (smaller) sections for the rest (following the Soviet model, of course). And in Western Europe it was arguably a slow and torturous path to overcome the dominant forms of national history writing. Let’s remind ourselves that it was at the Oslo world historical congress in 1928 that Marc Bloch gave his famous lecture calling on his fellow historians to avoid national tunnel vision and move towards comparative history. But up to this present day, we have historical societies representing national histories, and we have historians trained to become experts in national history. And yet, we can also observe a move, from the 1970s and 1980s onwards, towards more comparative and transnational history. True, this move was probably less marked in Britain than in other parts of continental Europe and it was most certainly more oriented towards comparison with other English-speaking countries (the latter point in some part due to an ever-increasing and alarming mono-lingualism among historians of Britain). Nevertheless, in particular younger generations of historians today seem keen to overcome the national orientation in history writing and move to perspectives which sideline the national perspective. In this respect I would argue that the continued division of history into British and European history is mistaken, unhelpful and indeed a hindrance to innovation in the historical sciences.
A good deal of comparative, transnational and entangled history writing involves Britain. Indeed, in much of the literature on nineteenth-century Europe Britain emerges as a model emulated, misunderstood and adapted by a whole string of European countries. Yet equally Britain makes an appearance as an exceptional case, a country set apart from developments elsewhere in Europe. This peculiar tension between model and exception is worth exploring at somewhat greater depth. Britain was clearly an early developer and experimented with ideas and practices later adapted on the European continent. Thus, visual constructions of national identity appeared in Britain already during the eighteenth century, while most continental countries only developed them during the nineteenth. The British parliamentary system was upheld by liberals throughout continental Europe as a model to follow, and even those who wanted to reject or modify it, still had to deal with it. British civil society was the most developed of its kind in the first half of the nineteenth century, and again served as inspiration for many continental Europeans. The London Metropolitan Police served as a European-wide model for civil police forces, especially as it was widely perceived as having played a crucial role in the defeat of Chartism in 1848. The European-wide prison reform movement also looked to Britain for explanations about the meaning of prisons and ways of imprisonment. In particular the famous Pentonville prison became a model for continental European prison reformers.
The ‘Norfolk system’ of crop rotation had an important impact on continental versions of the agricultural revolution, even if historians more recently have dismissed ideas of a unilinear British model in the economic development of nineteenth-century Europe.[ii] There were many diverse paths to industrialisation. Thus it has been observed that the organisation of financial markets and industry in Britain and Germany provided diametrically opposed models in Europe. In terms of state building the British experience was characterised by the strength of aristocratic self-government which delayed state interventionism. If there was a European model of the state, it was the French, or more precisely, the Napoleonic state which became an export model with its centralised administration and separate educational facilities for technocratic state elites. State bureaucracies in Britain were only significant in one area: that of empire and British overseas expansion. But even allowing for diversity and dismissing ideas of a universal British model, it still remains the case that nineteenth-century Europe was looking towards Britain. It seems therefore all the more incomprehensible that many European histories, up to this very day, should exclude the history of Britain from the history of Europe. Jonathan Sperber’s argument about Britain inhabiting the same cultural world but on a ‘divergent track’ from the rest of Europe is intriguing,[iii] but ultimately does not do justice to the fact that, first of all, Europe was characterised by a multitude of different tracks, but all of them, including Britain, were part of the same railway system. Britain needs to be treated at long last as an integral part of the European experience. Any continued exclusion of the British Isles from continental Europe will only prolong the mistaken assumption of an alleged ‘splendid isolation’ of Britain within European history. The continued widespread division of university courses in Britain into British and European history is a most unfortunate one and needs to be challenged. The history of the European continent can neither be taught nor written without proper reference to the British Isles. Hence I conclude by calling for the abolition of distinctions between British and European history. As we have to start somewhere, I propose to dissolve the separate editorial sections in the Blackwell History Compass for British and European history and move to an extended European history section which emphatically incorporates Britain.
[i] I had the pleasure of chairing a five year European Science Foundation Programme entitled ‘Represenations of the Past: the Writing of National Histories in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Europe’ between 2003 and 2008, which examined the relationship between the nationalisation and professionalisation of the historical discipline in detail. For more information see http://www.uni-leipzig.de/zhsesf
[ii] Sidney Pollard, Peaceful Conquest: The Industrialisation of Europe 1760 – 1970 (Oxford, 1981).
[iii] Jonathan Sperber, Revolutionary Europe 1780 – 1850 (Harlow, 2000), pp. 43-46.
Stefan Berger argues that it is time to break down the artificial distinctions between Britain and Europe as objects of historical study. This distinction is based on the division of history into national units, which, as Berger suggests, goes hand in hand (in the case of British historians in particular) with a reluctance or inability to read sources and scholarship in other modern languages. This in turn is fed by monoglot training in (more recent) British history. There is already an area, however, in which national divisions are less relevant because British documents and other relevant texts are often in French or in Latin: in the medieval field.
It is hard to be a British medievalist without reading Latin, at the least, and that skill opens up the vast majority of documentary materials available for the study of Continental history. The key difference here between modern and medieval history, and between the study of British history and the study of a Continental topic by native speakers of English is the necessity, for the latter, of intensive and time-consuming language training at some point in their education. Yet all the administrative and institutional indicators point to increasing difficulty for students who need to learn languages: time pressure to finish dissertations ‘on time’ (meaning within four years) means that post-graduate students who start a degree without the necessary language skills will scarcely have time to develop them in such a short period AND write a dissertation (never mind those who must also go through a more or less rigorous exercise in ‘comprehensive’ or ‘preliminary’ examinations).
So while the goal of wiping out the historic national and linguistic distinction between British and European history is laudable, it will take a great deal more than drawing attention to the similarities and breaking down certain institutional barriers (as we are trying to do at my own institution). For such a development to function and not to produce adverse effects on the training of students in Continental fields, the conventions of British history regarding modern languages will have to be discarded, and all students in such areas will have to learn relevant languages — meaning that they will need more time and probably more resources to do so.
Johns Hopkins provides an entire extra year of (funded) language training for incoming Ph.D. students who have demonstrated promise but who need to work on their primary scholarly language. That’s the kind of model that would allow us to begin, in our generation, to transcend complex and culturally entrenched national-linguistic divisions without enforcing the most-streamlined version of graduate training. But then there’s the issue of what those colleagues used to supervising in British areas without reading sources or scholarship in other languages and their students would then do: are we calling for a system that would require all students to work comparatively, or all colleagues to supervise only across national divides? Most are not prepared to do so, precisely because of their training. I think this is a much more intractable problem than Berger suggests; and only rather dirigiste strategies will produce rapid change at any level other than at the surface.
I had just drafted a blog post myself when Stefan Berger’s interesting and provocative message arrived in my mailbox, and I have now modified my piece to engage with his views and Andrew Gow’s response. At the outset I should say that in principle I agree with Berger entirely that Britain has always been part of Europe and that the separation of British from European history has effectively impoverished each. Reintegrating British history back into European history is a laudable goal that we in History Compass ought to pursue.
At the same time I think the practical obstacles are greater than he allows. The linguistic barriers Gow emphasizes are one barrier, which should not be underestimated. The challenge of becoming familiar with different archives and archival systems is another, especially now that many forms of historical research need to be conducted in local as well as national archives. In an ideal world we should all master five or six European languages and conduct research in at least three or four European countries; in practice relatively few of us will find the time to do this.
We also need to remember that we have to integrate not only histories but historiographies. Historiography has played a major role in perpetuating insular scholarship: most research agendas among English historians continue to be generated by conversations within the field of English history, some of which have now been going on for a century and more, rather than by questions raised by specialists in other European histories. There is certainly much to be said for bringing English, French, German and other European historiographical traditions into a conversation with each other, and questioning why issues that dominate one national tradition seem more marginal in others. But this is a demanding task, since it requires a real command of several dense secondary literatures.
In some ways the isolation of British from European history is also symptomatic of a larger problem: the tendency of our discipline to fragment into subfields and sub-disciplines as research accumulates and different methodological approaches proliferate. At the University of London not only is English history separated from European history; the history of seventeenth century England is essentially a separate field from studies on the eighteenth century, and the political history of the Civil War has become separated from the social and economic history of the same period. We all have to grapple with the problem of how to reconcile focused research agendas with the need to teach courses and design curricula intended to cover vast tracts of history. History Compass was founded to address precisely this problem. I am not convinced that folding British history into European history will necessarily get us very far unless we also simultaneously address the wider problem of how to prevent our discipline from fragmenting into narrow fields of study with relatively little connection to each other.
Finally we also need to recognize that virtually all nations continue to privilege their own histories in their University curricula. Those of us who teach in the United States are familiar with departments that devote more resources to 250 years of American history than to all other kinds of history combined. English universities devote a correspondingly disproportionate share of their resources to English history, while Scottish and Irish universities are bastions of Scottish and Irish historical scholarship. This may or may not be a good thing but it is a fact of life, unlikely to change in the near future, despite the influence of the European Union. One practical reason to continue a separate British and Irish section in History Compass is that since we are produced by a British publisher aiming at an Anglophone market, we are likely to have a disproportionately large share of readers for whom British subjects are of special concern.
In North America and other Anglophone societies the situation is more complicated but English and British history have undoubtedly benefited in the past from a perception that they have a special relationship to the histories of the English-speaking nations that originated as British colonies. This view has now become less fashionable and English history has declined, partly as a consequence. But it is not totally erroneous: the history of eighteenth century Britain does have a special relevance for American colonial history, or the story of the European discovery and colonization of Australia. British history also has an obvious connection to histories of the British Empire, which once encompassed a quarter of the world’s population – and therefore to fields like Atlantic History and the colonial and postcolonial histories of many African and South Asian societies. Finally, English history can also be connected to the study of English literature, which usually has a very large constituency in Anglophone universities. As literary studies have taken a historical turn, a situation has developed in North America in which certain kinds of historical questions are now being more thoroughly investigated in English departments than by scholars based in History. Many of these literary scholars are eager for cross-disciplinary conversations.
Of course other European histories also have considerable relevance to the histories of non-western societies or interdisciplinary fields. The point is simply that there are various ways to integrate the programs of history departments and liberal arts curricula. Exactly which bridges end up getting built will inevitably depend on specific needs and circumstances and we shouldn’t be dogmatic about insisting that English history always has to be tied to Europe, rather than to Atlantic, imperial or interdisciplinary perspectives.
Having said all that, I nevertheless agree strongly not only with Berger’s general view that English and European historical studies would benefit by more contact with each other but many of the specific arguments he advances about how the two histories have long been intertwined. But at this stage, at least, I would also argue that dialogue is best promoted by exploring specific connections, rather than by simply collapsing British into European history. His comments are very suggestive about some ways in which we might pursue this goal, on which I hope we can follow up as an editorial team. To his suggestions I would like to add a few more, from my perspective as an English early modernist.
English political history in the early modern period has often been particularly insular because it has focused on Parliament, the common law and county government – all peculiar institutions that may appear to have been rooted in English traditions, rather than wider European patterns. But in several ways recent work has at least opened the door in to more international perspectives. Revisionists have argued that the court, rather than Parliament, remained the normal center of national politics in England for most of the seventeenth century. But the English court, like all major European courts, was always a highly cosmopolitan institution. Studying politics in ways that include the perspective of the court will therefore inevitably tend to highlight Britain’s ties to Europe. Research on English, Scottish and Irish soldiers has also begun to document the active involvement of some Britons in European warfare. Religion and religiously inflected political disputes provided other bonds, both during the early period of reformation in the 1530s and forties and later. As several historians have now recognized, the Thirty Years War and Louis XIV’s wars with the Netherlands had a profound impact on English and British society and politics, even before the reign of the Dutch King William III. Currents of political and religious thought also moved back and forth across the Channel and North Sea in both directions, in ways that have still not been fully explored, despite some important recent studies. Recent work on print culture and the precociously early development of a public sphere in England similarly cries out for a more comparative approach, perhaps especially with respect to the Dutch Republic.
Economic history would also benefit from wider perspectives. I sometimes ask my students how our perspective would have changed if the annals school had given us a northern counterpart to Braudel’s classic study of the Mediterranean, entitled The North Sea and the North Sea World in the Age of the Eighty Years War. Such a book would surely have demonstrated that many of the regional economies of England, Scotland and Ireland were tied as closely to specific parts of the continent as to the rest of the British Isles. It would also have documented the importance of the Wars of Religion and the English Civil War in setting in motion international patterns of migration and transfers of industrial technology and agricultural methods that ultimately influenced the trajectory of English, British, European and even global economic history. Finally it might have given us a far more nuanced view of both similarities and differences between the British economy and those of comparable northwestern regions that were both trading partners and competitors, especially the Northern Netherlands, Flanders and Normandy. The work of historians like Steve Murdoch and Alexia Grosjean in reconstructing political, social, military and economic ties between Scotland and Scandinavia can serve as one model of the kind of work that also needs to be done for England and Ireland.
This list of possibilities could easily be extended. The crucial task in moving forward is less that of identifying subjects that need exploration, however, than finding historians prepared to engage in serious comparative and integrative work.
 I have a departmental colleague specializing in the Russian peasantry who has frequently engaged me in conversations about the agrarian history of early modern history, which is of interest to her because theories of agricultural improvement devised in Britain had a significant impact on Russian policies in the nineteenth century, as well as policies carried out under British colonial rule in Africa as late as the 1930s and forties. I take it that this is an example of the kind of linkage Berger has in mind when he discusses ways in which the perceived exceptionalism of Britain had a much wider influence.
 I tried to explore this point more thoroughly several years ago through an edited collection: Malcom Smuts, ed., The Stuart Court and Europe: Essays in Politics and Political Culture (Cambridge, 1996).
 David Trim, ‘Calvinist Internationalism and the English Officer Corps, 1562-1642,’ History Compass 4 (2006), 1024-48 has some suggestive comments along these lines that will be expanded in Trim’s forthcoming book on English mercenaries in continental armies. See also the essays in Nigel Goose and Lien Luu, eds., Immigrants in Tudor and early Stuart England (Brighton and Portland, OR, 2005) and Susan Doran and Glenn Richardson, Tudor England and its Neighbours (Houndsmills, Basingstoke, 2005). For Scotland see esp. Steve Murdoch, ed., Scotland and the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648 (Leiden and Boston, 2001) and the works cited below, n. 7; for Ireland, Gráinee Henry, The Irish Military Community in Spanish Flanders, 1596-1621 (Dublin, 1992) and R. A. Stradling, The Spanish Monarchy and Irish Mercenaries: the Wild Geese in Spain 1618-1668 (Dublin, 1994)
 For very different examples see Jonathan Scott, England’s Troubles: Seventeenth-Century English Political Instability in European Context (Cambridge, 2000) and Tony Claydon, Europe and the Making of England, 1660-1760 (Cambridge, 2007).
 See for example Diarmaid MacCulloch’s integration of the English Reformation and Marian Counter Reformation into a larger European history in The Reformation: A History (London and N.Y., 2003), the inclusion of English and Scottish material in Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven and London, 2002) and the strong argument for the international character of Scottish religious thought in Arthur Williamson, ‘Scotland and the Rise of Civic Culture, 1550-1650,’ History Compass 3 (2005): 91-123. Anthony Milton has recently embarked on what promises to be an illuminating study of intellectual exchanges between England and the Palatinate in the late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century. Despite frequent use of the term “international Calvinism” most studies of English puritanism still tend to take a fairly insular in approach. Connections between British Catholics and the European Counter Reformation also need closer study.
 Peter Lake and Steven Pincus, The politics of the public sphere in early modern England (Manchester and N.Y., 2007) acknowledges the need for such a comparative perspective but does not attempt to provide it. Joad Raymond, ed., News Networks in Seventeenth Century Britain and Europe (London, 2006) makes a beginning toward the sort of comparative and integrative perspective needed.
 Steve Murdoch, Britain, Denmark-Norway and the House of Stuart, 1603-1660 (East Linton, 2003); Alexia Grosjean, An Unofficial Alliance: Scotland and Sweden 1569-1654 (Leiden, 2003).
While I am extremely sympathetic to the notion that History Compass’s editorial division of “Britain” from the rest of “Europe” is arbitrary and should be abolished, I feel compelled to play the devil’s advocate and offer, at least for the Middle Ages, a defense of Britain’s separation from the Continent. I agree with Stefan Berger’s point that the main reasons for the division, by departments of history as well as by the editorial staff of History Compass, between European and British history are, in fact, historical, rooted in the predominance of national history-writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I equally concur with Andrew Gow’s assessment that the problem also arises from Anglophone graduate students’ lack of training in Continental languages, not simply those needed to read documents necessary to their studies, but also those required to converse with archivists and librarians in the course of doing that research. But, as Gow points out, in the medieval field, such linguistic distinctions are largely meaningless, since relevant texts for medieval England are often written in Latin or Anglo-Norman French. In fact, there are strong precedents for considering medieval Britain (or at least England) to be somewhat of an exception to trends on the continent. In the textbooks I grew up with, medieval English “exceptionalism” was virtually a given, and a modulated version of the same argument can be found among many medievalists today.
One factor often cited that distinguishes medieval Britain from the continent is the relative non-survival of Roman institutions after the British withdrew from the island in 410. According to this line of reasoning, that lack of a Roman heritage meant that Britain was less urbanized than the continent, that Roman institutions and laws virtually disappeared from Britain, that Christianity either had to be re-introduced later or else survived in a vastly different Celtic form, and that Germanic customs survived in a more intact form in Britain. In the stark language of Maitland’s classic History of the English Law (1895), “the language and the religion of Rome were effaced” from early medieval Britain, with “no trace of the laws and jurisprudence of imperial Rome” until the re-introduction of Roman law by scholars from Bologna in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. According to the 1976 edition of Robert S. Hoyt and Stanley Chodorow’s Europe in the Middle Ages, similarly, the extension of English rule to the Danelaw involved the absorption of a “kin-based society once common to all the Germanic peoples” of a type “destroyed on the Continent by assimilation in the more structured Gallo-Roman society.” And even in Barbara Rosenwein’s recent, widely-assigned A Short History of the Middle Ages, the example of England epitomizes the changes between the Romanized south and the non-Romanized north in the early Middle Ages. Traveling south across the channel in ca. 750, she observes, a pilgrim would see the same sorts of emporia as dotted the English landscape, but also, in northern Francia, “old Roman cities.”
A second distinctive feature generally attributed to medieval England is what Marc Bloch once called “imported feudalism.” Unlike the Continent (read: East and West Francia), the argument goes, where feudal structures developed gradually in the post Carolingian world, in England, as Hoyt and Chodorow put it, “feudal society failed to evolve,” and rather was introduced abruptly and almost completely from the outside by William the Conqueror, who made feudal tenure a cornerstone of royal control over his new kingdom. While many medievalists now prefer to eschew the terms “feudalism” and “feudal,” still one can find even among historians who express hesitancy about such language the notion that, in the words of A. Daniel Frankforter, “the monarchy of medieval England [was] unique.”
Other aspects of the medieval Britain’s unique character touted by historians range from differences in the place of the vernacular, the importance of the English common law tradition, and the distinctive nature of the Church in England. Thus, the Anglo-Saxon vernacular, it is argued, readily became a written language “used in every aspect of English life, from government to entertainment,” in Rosenwein’s formulation, even if she immediately backs off from this assertion of “the uniqueness of Anglo-Saxon culture” by pointing to similar developments in Ireland. The role of English common law—so beloved a part of American national identity—is frequently invoked to explain seemingly aberrant moments of tolerance, from the more benign treatment of the condemned Knights Templar in England to the relative paucity of executions for witchcraft in early modern England, when compared to Continental examples. And the English church, in the oft-cited analysis of Robert Brentano, was far more defined and structured than its loose, free-wheeling Italian counterpart.
Even at gatherings of medievalists, one can still see a tendency to separate out matters English. The International Medieval Congress meeting at Leeds (UK) this past July included sessions on Anglo-Saxon authors and their sources, English royal rituals of power, mercantile piety in late medieval Yorkshire, and women of the court in the Anglo-Norman world—their ranks of speakers largely filled with British authors. There were also, to be fair, sessions crossing national and linguistic boundaries, as well as panels devoted to matters Irish, Scandinavian, Byzantine, eastern European, and Iberian, all places that could equally mount a claim for “uniqueness” in the medieval world. In truth, the best current scholarship neither exaggerates Britain’s exceptional character in the Middle Ages nor ignores the distinctiveness of all medieval cultures. But there are precedents other than simply the institutional traditions of history departments for considering Britain separately from the continent.
 Sir Frederick Pollock and Frederic William Maitland, The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1895, 1968), 1: cii; my emphasis.
 Robert S. Hoyt and Stanley Chodorow, Europe in the Middle Ages, 3rd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), p. 218; my emphasis.
 Barbara H. Rosenwein, A Short History of the Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2004), p. 76.
 Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, trans. L. A. Manyon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 1: 216.
 Hoyt and Chodorow, Europe in the Middle Ages, p. 218.
 A. Daniel Frankforter, The Medieval Millennium: An Introduction (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1999), p. 150.
 Rosenwein, Short History, p. 87.
 E.g., Malcolm Barber, The Trial of the Templars (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 193-204; Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 3rd ed. (Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman, 2006), pp. 78, 218-19.
 Robert Brentano, Two Churches: England and Italy in the Thirteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968).
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