23 JUNE 1961, Page 24

Slicing the Past

Itv a recent review I put forward a plea for the co-operative writing of history. Now here is volume five of the New Cambridge Modern History, the major co-operative historical work produced in this generation. It is a fitting punish- ment. For even the most impassioned advocate of collectivism cannot regard the New Cambridge Modern History as having solved all the prob- lems involved. The present volume is edited by a distinguished scholar, Dr. F. L. Carsten, and the contributors are a set of able historians, chosen with obvious care. They have many interesting things to tell us. Yet though this volume is an improvement on the old Cambridge Modern History, it retains many of the latter's drearier characteristics.

What is wrong? In the first place, surely, the mere idea of mechanically splitting all history up into forty-year periods (or sixty-seven years in the case of some chapters in this book). Volunie five, as well as dealing with individual countries, contains eight general chapters. By a daring innovation, these are not tagged on at the end like an artificial tail, but occupy the first 200 pages. Yet even this is no more than a gesture towards synthesis. If he is restricted to forty years (and twenty-five pages) what can even Dr. Cole- man say about 'Economic Problems and Policies' for the whole of Europe, except that there are interesting similarities between the policies of some countries, and interesting differences be- tween those of others, and that we should be cautious in using the word 'mercantilism'? Pro- fessor Skalweit starts off promisingly on 'Political Thought' by reminding us that 'there were no


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Frenchmen among the leading political thinkers of the period.' He nevertheless goes on to devote seven of his twenty-five pages to France, and similar amounts to England, the Netherlands and Germany: useful generalisation for the whole of Europe is indeed impossible.

The remaining 400 pages deal with the history of individual countries, and with the relations between these countries and the extra-European world. Here again one must praise the editor's selection of contributors. It is excellent that a Frenchman should have been asked to write about French foreign policy, and that the Nether- lands, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Scandinavia are dealt with by natives of those countries. It is a pity the principle could not have been carried further, to Poland and Russia, each of which is in the hands of a professor of a West German university. But the structure of the series, or the forty-year period, or both, had inhibiting effects on the contributors, nearly all of whom felt it necessary to devote most of their space to record- ing military and diplomatic events. There are some stimulating asides; but for the most part mere narrative crowds out the analytic treatment which distinguishes history from chronicle. What is completely lacking is a unifying synoptic view. The fact that 1648 was a year of revolutions is never discussed (though this may find its place in another volume). Interesting remarks occur from time to time about the relations of culture and politics, about the different roads to absolute monarchy in eastern and western Europe, about the differing effects of 'the second serfdom' in the various countries of eastern Europe. But these remarks have to be sought for diligently in separate chapters: they are not the subject of consecutive analyses of any length.

This ruthless insistence on narrative would be fatal to any history, whether individual or collec- tive, since it means that each volume can only be a reference book, not a contribution to know- ledge. But the rigid national framework of two- thirds of this book, and the de facto national framework of the remaining one-third, together with the absence of any principles of historical relevance common to all the contributors, render the New Cambridge Modern History less than a fair test of the possibility of writing collective history. I still cherish the illusion that a team of scholars, sharing a common outlook on history and collaborating closely at all stages of research and writing, could cope with the big subjects which are beyond the first-hand competence of a single historian. But it will not be surprising if the New Cambridge Modern History proves as discouraging to such an attempt as its predecessor was two generations ago.

After this it is a little invidious to single out particular authors for mention. Mr. Ogg manages to say fresh and stimulating things about 'Britain after the Restoration,' a subject on which one thought he had already said the last word. Profes- sor Wittkower on 'Art and Architecture' comes nearer than other contributors to an all-European synthesis: perhaps because the 'conscious resur- gence of a Baroque wave after a generation's fervent belief in the eternal values of the classi- cal ideology' does form a self-contained theme. Mr. Harrison's chapter on 'The European Con- nection with Asia' is very interesting. Professor Hall on science, Mr. Von Leyden on philosophy, the editor's two chapters on Germany, and many of the others, will be useful to students. The volume contains hoary banalities like 'the prin- cipal motive which inspired Louis XIV during the whole of his reign was the search for "glory"' —a dashingly original conclusion which so capti- vated the editor that he repeated it in his intro-

duction. But they are balanced by thought' provoking remarks like Dr. Whiteman's : ^ whose difficulties one sympathises: but to whole conception of history as a political au military narrative relating to national unit tempered by separate generalising chapters. Jainii book covering an extensive period like