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A Scholar’s Journey

From 17th-century Spain to the world at large.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By JAMES M. BANNER
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Historians’ memoirs have become a distinct subgenre of the memoir form. They’ve even been the subject of their own study: Jeremy D. Popkin’s History, Historians, and Autobiography. But why should historians’ memoirs be of interest to anyone, even to historians? Because, in addition to charting the life, thinking, and scholarly contributions of their authors, they shine light into historians’ practices, changes in historical thought over time, and the ways particular subjects metamorphose as new knowledge accumulates and generates new questions. They’re pieces of the history of historical interpretation—what we call historiography.

J. H. Elliott awarded an honorary degree at Alcalá University, Spain (2012)

J. H. Elliott awarded an honorary degree at Alcalá University, Spain (2012)

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The name of John Elliott, the author of this memoir, is not likely to be widely known. Sir John is a kind of historian’s historian, a scholar who has made enormous contributions to historical knowledge without having developed much of a public following. Born and educated in Britain, and a member of both the Cambridge and Oxford faculties, he was also long resident in the United States at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His career exemplifies the increasing passage across the world’s oceans of scientists and scholars who hold membership in the international freemasonry of research and thought. He is also among the rare figures who seem both to sniff out intellectual changes in the wind before most others do so and then to embody those changes in their own work. His writings thus represent something of a mirror to their intellectual age: the past 60 years.

Like so many other historians’ memoirs, History in the Making is about its author’s intellectual journey, for it’s this journey that has left its mark on the world. The book reveals nothing about Elliott’s inner life and offers only those biographical details necessary to fulfill his intention, which is to set down one man’s effort to make sense of the past—that is, to show, as he puts it, historical knowledge in the making. A scholarship boy at Eton, then a student at Cambridge, he was educated in the days when his alma mater’s history requirements were broad. He took an early fancy to 17th-century Spain and to its Catalan province, subjects little covered by British universities when he was a student. Encouraged to pursue his interests, this 20th-century Protestant northerner found “intense personal enjoyment” in “the alien world of the Iberian peninsula.” He sensed, even when young, what usually proves to be true: that an outsider to any place and time can bring fresh perspectives to conventional thinking and insiders’ assumptions.  

Elliott soon found himself, while struggling to master Catalan as well as the history of early modern Spain, embroiled in the intellectual politics of that region, where he resided and studied for a time. While historians may not live the boisterous lives of race car drivers or rock stars, their lives are not always filled with serenity and ease. Much of Elliott’s book is taken up with his struggles and frustrations in hunting down records of the century in which the Spanish empire faced off against Louis XIV’s France and the emerging British empire, as well as the struggles that Spanish historians (and occasionally Elliott himself) encountered under Francisco Franco’s rule. It’s a story of unremitting pursuit and, if not full triumph, at least enough success to lead, among many other books, to Elliott’s pathbreaking work on the Catalan Revolt of the mid-17th century—and to his later magisterial studies of the count-duke of Olivares and the British and Spanish empires in the three-and-a-half centuries after 1492. 

Someone wishing to learn how historians go about their work, how they face and overcome obstacles, how historical knowledge can quickly flow over into current politics, and how accidents as well as planning affect their efforts will find much to learn here. 

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