2 JULY 1948, Page 22

History in Order

The Mediaeval Foundations of England. By G. 0. Sayles. (Methuen. 18s.)

PROFESSOR SAYLES is a tireless student of the law and institutions of mediaeval England, especially in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. 112 is best known by three massive volumes, published by the Selden Society, of select cases in the Court of King's Bench in Edward I's time, with elaborate introductions, and by the long series of papers and texts prepared in co-operation with his friend Mr. H. G. Richardson. In this book he appears as the competent and scholarly teacher, concerned " to bridge the gap between the monograph and the textbook," to incorporate in lucid discussion the results of recent scholarship on a thousand years of historical development, to " collect and fashion " in imitation of the bee. He tells us that he wrote the contents of the book in bits and pieces "in the night-watches of war," presumably as a relief from the heavy responsibilities which he undertook during the war in the University of Glasgow. Now, after the war, as a professor in Belfast, he has revised and arranged the pieces for publication. The book will, I think, be most welcome to the general intelligent reader who has a working knowledge of English history before the fourteenth century. It is clearly arranged and clearly written. As a guide to teachers and students it will not, I fear, be so helpful as it might have been. Or, on the other hand, it may be too helpful, creating a sense of safety and finality instead of the interest in discussion and the ways in which discussion is proceeding. Every good teacher tries to do what Professor Sayles set himself to do in this book ; he takes the conventional story, assumes that his pupils are acquainted with the main facts, and discusses with them, in lectures, tutorial instruction and criticism of their essays, the problems raised in the incessant process of contemporary scholar- ship. If he is wise, he is careful not to suggest that the last word has been said, though of course he will emphasise the signifi- cance of definite corrections of facts. I cannot but feel that, in his desire to write a lucid and spirited account in narrative form and to present his conclusions as a statement of established truth, Professor Sayles has given too much to the lazy and unwary and too little to the critical reader. His book may well puzzle the latter while it will be a godsend to the former.

It is intended, he says, to be a history of ideas in action ; but whose ideas ? It is a collection of facts and views, fashioned rather like the cells in a beehive, as though the study of history proceeded in an orderly way, step by step. Much of it is admirable ; it abounds in food for reflection, notably in the sections in which Professor Sayles, spreading his thought more spaciously, discusses the Norman impact upon Anglo-Saxon civilisation ; but it is hard to discriminate between the accepted and the debatable. This, is due, so it seems to me, to the refusal to link up his text with the lists of books and articles suggested for further reading. I have not the least doubt that Professor Sayles has carefully weighed every word that he has written ; but the dogmatic anonymity of his story is often perplexing. Sometimes one can trace a relation between his text and a learned article included in his " select reading " ; more often one can not.

It is impossible to say why some books and papers are included in this " reading," while others are not. The great writers are deliberately excluded because we are supposed to stand on their shoulders • but do we ? Certainly Professor Sayles does not. Stubbs, .'Maitland, Vinogradoff, Tout—or for that matter, Dugdale and Madox and other " old worthies "—are still our companions, people with whom we live, and by whose insight and learning we are inspired. What I should like to see from Professor Sayles is the discussion between Mr. Richardson and himself on all these historical problems ; a record of his reaction to those criticisms of which he says in his foreword that they were " so searching that it would require many books, and different books from this, to appraise them." One volume, I venture to think, would suffice to tell us how these distinguished men bridge the gap between the monograph and the text book, and where their companions in the study of mediaeval