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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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The story of the life and career that Elliott relates is also a work of history in its own right—not in the conventional sense of an interpretation of parts of the past but, rather, of the history of the growth and transformation of the written history of Spain and its possessions over Elliott’s lifetime. To be sure, there’s much normal history here, too. Any reader will learn a great deal about metropolitan and overseas Spain during the past five centuries as Elliott takes us through the phases of his career by relating the development of the books he wrote, cowrote, and edited. But what that same reader will also gain is insight into how and why historical thought and interpretation change over time, especially in our era of fleet communication, easy international travel, and global interconnectedness. Elliott’s unassuming review of his influential histories surveys many of the historiographical themes that characterize his own and others’ works. What is astonishing about Elliott’s career is the number of these large issues and emerging scholarly approaches his own work advanced as he pursued his principal interests.

Elliott started out deeply influenced, as many historians continue to be, by Fernand Braudel’s histoire totale, a typically excessive French term for a genuinely powerful, if robustly contested, idea: that large forces, such as climate, geography, and deep enduring culture affect history more than individuals and passing realities like wars and regimes. Braudel’s example led Elliott to sidle from the history of one early modern nation-state into transnational history, the history of “international contacts at every level, and of the mutual influence and interplay of beliefs, values, cultural attitudes and political programmes between two or more societies.” 

If going beyond individual nations and even regions to investigate the general forces affecting entire continents and large cultures (such as that of Europe) may now seem commonplace in historical thinking, it is due in part to Elliott’s own work.

As a scholar of Spain, Elliott was also unavoidably drawn into reflecting on the rise and decline of empires and came up against the problematic explanations given then, as now, about the likelihood of the end of imperial governance and influence. Here, again unavoidably, he found himself part of the community of historians, thinkers, and political figures concerned about the breakup not just of the long-past Spanish empire but also more recently of the British. Permeating this debate in the United States, of course, has been the question of the fate of the world’s single remaining imperial power. Elliott’s deft chapter on the rise and decline of nations, a chapter thus relevant to us all, is a model of its sort: balanced and open to the many factors bearing in upon the life of powerful imperial nation-states. 

A similarly clear chapter on the challenges of comparative history—of which Elliott’s major contribution has been Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 (2007)—should be must-reading for anyone seeking an introduction to the way in which comparing two nations or empires can yield understanding that a focus on a single one cannot. I regret only that Elliott neglects to point out that comparative history can yield riches at many levels—not just in the comparison of large entities like nations and empires but also of lesser and other things, such as two adjacent towns, different modes of portraiture, or competing manufacturing practices. As Elliott says, comparative history has not yet lived up to its promise; but it may do so if its subjects are broadened while its methods are retained.

You might think that contributions to transnational, imperial, and comparative history would be contributions enough. But then you would fail to take a true measure of Elliott’s reach. He has also written a work of the most traditional kind of history, a biography of Olivares. His large body of writings has influenced and become part of the somewhat overworked yet valuable library on Atlantic history, an international effort to write the history of the interactions of people, cultures, tribes, and nations on both sides of a single ocean, from the Arctic to the southern tips of Africa and South America. Elliott’s youthful fascination with the art of Velázquez has also taken him into cultural history and the history of art, about which he also writes here.

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