Any division of history is doubtless arbitrary. But it is impossible for history to discharge all the obligations which, from a strictly scientific point of view, are incumbent upon it. If we accept the position that history is concerned with tracing the evolution of human affairs, we are continually being driven further back for our starting-point. The word “affairs” is generally supposed to indicate some definite movement; and the forces which rendered a movement possible must be supposed to have depended upon institutions which produced organised action. These institutions arose from attempts to grapple with circumstances by the application of ideas. We are thus carried back to an enquiry into the influence of physical environment and into the origin of ideas relating to society. We pass insensibly from the region of recorded facts into a region of hypothesis, where the qualities requisite for an historian have to be supplemented by those of the anthropologist and the metaphysician. A pause must be made somewhere. Humanity must be seized at some period of its development, if a beginning is to be made at all. The selection of that point must be determined by some recognisable motive of convenience.
The limitation implied by the term modern history depends on such a motive, and is to be defended on that ground only. Modern history professes to deal with mankind in a period when they had reached the stage of civilisation which is in its broad outlines familiar to us, during the period in which the problems that still occupy us came into conscious recognition, and were dealt with in ways intelligible to us as resembling our own. It is this sense of familiarity which leads us to draw a line and mark out the beginnings of modern history. On the hither side of this line men speak a language which we can readily understand; they are animated by ideas and aspirations which resemble those animating ourselves; the forms in which they express their thoughts and the records of their activity are the same as those still prevailing among us. Any one who works through the records of the fifteenth and the sixteenth century becomes conscious of an extraordinary change of mental attitude, showing itself on all sides in unexpected ways. He finds at the same time that all attempts to analyse and account for this change are to a great extent unsatisfactory. After marshalling all the forces and ideas which were at work to produce it, he still feels that there was behind all these an animating spirit which he cannot but most imperfectly catch, whose power blended all else together and gave a sudden cohesion to the whole. This modern spirit formed itself with surprising rapidity, and we cannot fully explain the process. Modern history accepts it as already in existence, and herein has a great advantage. It does not ask the reader to leave the sphere of ideas which he knows. It makes but slight claims on his power of imagination, or on his sympathy with alien modes of thought. He moves at his ease in a world which is already related at every point with the world in which he lives. Things are written clearly for his understanding.
It is of course possible to investigate the causes of this change, and to lay bare the broad lines of difference between the medieval and the modern world. In outward matters, the great distinction is the frank recognition in the latter of nationality, and all that it involves. The remoteness of the Middle Ages is partly due to the technicalities which arose from the persistent attempt to regard international relationships as merely forming part of a universal system of customary law. Motives which we regard as primary had to find expression in complicated methods, and in order to become operative had to wait for a convenient season. A definite conception had been promulgated of a European commonwealth, regulated by rigid principles; and this conception was cherished as an ideal, however much it might be disregarded in actual practice. Practical issues had always to justify themselves by reference to this ideal system, so that it is hard to disentangle them accurately in terms of modern science. This system wore away gradually, and was replaced by the plain issue of a competition between nations, which is the starting point of modern history. This division of history is mainly concerned with the rise and fall of nations, and with an estimate of the contributions made by each to the stock of ideas or experiments which influenced the welfare of mankind.
The growth of national feeling, and its recognition as the dominant force in human affairs, went side by side with a fuller recognition of the individual. The strength of national life depended upon the force of the individuals of whom the nation was composed. International competition implied a development of national sentiment, which needed the aid of each and all. As the individual citizen became conscious of increased importance, he was inclined to turn to criticism of the institutions by which he had previously been kept in a state of tutelage. The Church was the first to suffer from the results of this criticism, and modern history begins with a struggle for liberty on the ground which was the largest, the right of free self-realisation as towards God. The conflict which ensued was long and bitter. The issue could not be restricted solely to the domain of religion, but rapidly invaded civil relations. The demands of the individual constantly increased, and every country had to readjust in some form or another its old institutions to meet the ever growing pressure.
Hence, the two main features of modern history are the development of nationalities and the growth of individual freedom. The interest which above all others is its own lies in tracing these processes, intimately connected as they are with one another. We delight to see how peoples, in proportion to their power of finding expression for their capabilities, became more able to enrich human life at large not only by adapting in each case means to ends, but also by pursuing a common progressive purpose.
Side by side with this increase of energy went an extension of the sphere with which European history was concerned. The discovery of the New World is a great event which stands on the threshold of modern history, and which has mightily influenced its course. New spheres of enterprise were opened for adventurous nations, and colonisation led to an endless series of new discoveries. The growth of sea power altered the conditions on which national greatness depended. Intercourse with unknown peoples raised unexpected problems. Trade was gradually revolutionised, and economic questions of the utmost complexity were raised.
These are obvious facts, but their bearing upon the sphere and scope of historical writing is frequently overlooked. It is no longer possible for the historian of modern times to content himself with a picturesque presentation of outward events. In fact, however much he may try to limit the ground which he intends to occupy, he finds himself drawn insensibly into a larger sphere. His subject reveals unsuspected relations with problems which afterwards became important. He perceives tendencies to have been at work which helped to produce definite results under the unforeseen conditions of a later age. He discovers illustrations, all the more valuable because they represent an unconscious process, of forces destined to become powerful. His work expands indefinitely in spite of his efforts to curtail it; and he may sigh to find that the main outline before him insensibly loses itself in a multitude of necessary details. If he is to tell the truth, he cannot isolate one set of principles or tendencies; for he knows that many of equal importance were at work at the same time. He is bound to take them all into consideration, and to show their mutual action. What wonder that his book grows in spite of all his efforts to restrain it within definite limits?
Indeed history, unlike other branches of knowledge, cannot prescribe limitations for itself. It is not only that men need the experience of the past to help them in practical endeavours, to enable them to understand the position of actual questions with which they and their age are engaged. For this purpose accurate facts are needed,—not opinions, however plausible, which are unsustained by facts. At the same time, the variety of the matters with which history is bound to concern itself steadily increases. As more interest is taken in questions relating to social organisation, researches are conducted in fields which before were neglected. It is useless for the science of history to plead established precedent for its methods, or to refuse to lend itself willingly to the demands made upon its resources. The writer of history has to struggle as he best may with multifarious requirements, which threaten to turn him from a man of letters into the compiler of an encyclopaedia.
This continual increase of curiosity, this widening of interest introduces a succession of new subjects for historical research. Documents once disregarded as unimportant are found to yield information as to the silent growth of tendencies which gradually became influential. The mass of letters and papers, increasing at a rate that seems to be accelerated from year to year, offers a continual series of new suggestions. They not only supplement what was known before, but frequently require so much readjustment of previous judgments, that a new presentation of the whole subject becomes necessary. This process goes on without a break, and it is hard in any branch of history to keep pace with the stock of monographs, or illustrations of particular points, which research and industry are constantly producing. However much a writer may strive to know all that can be known, new knowledge is always flowing in. Modern history in this resembles the chief branches of Natural Science; before the results of the last experiments can be tabulated and arranged in their relation to the whole knowledge of the subject, new experiments have been commenced which promise to carry the process still further.
In sciences, however, which deal with nature, the object of research is fixed and stable: it is only man’s power of observation that increases. But history deals with a subject which is constantly varying in itself and which is regarded by each succeeding generation from a different point of view. We search the records of the past of mankind, in order that we may learn wisdom for the present, and hope for the future. We wish to discover tendencies which are permanent, ideas which promise to be fruitful, conceptions by which we may judge the course most likely to secure abiding results. We are bound to assume, as the scientific hypothesis on which history is to be written, a progress in human affairs. This progress must inevitably be towards some end; and we find it difficult to escape the temptation, while we keep that end in view, of treating certain events as great landmarks on the road. A mode of historical presentation thus comes into fashion based upon an inspiring assumption. But the present is always criticising the past, and events which occur pass judgment on events which have occurred. Time is always revealing the weaknesses of past achievements, and suggesting doubts as to the methods by which they were won. Each generation, as it looks back, sees a change in the perspective, and cannot look with the same eyes as its predecessor.
There are other reasons of a like kind which might further explain the exceeding difficulty of writing a history of modern times on any consecutive plan. The possibility of effective and adequate condensation is almost abandoned, except for rudimentary purposes. The point of view of any individual writer influences not only his judgment of what he presents, but his principle of selection; and such is the wealth of matter with which the writer of modern history has to deal, that selection is imperative. In the vast and diversified area of modern history, the point of view determines the whole nature of the record, or else the whole work sinks to the level of a mass of details uninformed by any luminous idea. The writer who strives to avoid any tendency becomes dull, and the cult of impartiality paralyses the judgment.
The present work is an attempt to avoid this result on an intelligible system. Every period and every subject has features of its own which strike the mind of the student who has made that period or subject the field of his investigations. His impressions are not derived from previous conceptions of necessary relations between what he has studied and what went before or after; they are formed directly from the results of his own labours. Round some definite nucleus, carefully selected, these impressions can be gathered together; and the age can be presented as speaking for itself. No guide is so sure for an historian as an overmastering sense of the importance of events as they appeared to those who took part in them. There can be no other basis on which to found any truly sympathetic treatment.
From this point of view a series of monographs, conceived on a connected system, instead of presenting a collection of fragments, possesses a definite unity of its own. The selection and arrangement of the subjects to be treated provides a general scheme of connexion which readily explains itself. Each separate writer treats of a subject with which he is familiar, and is freed from any other responsibility than that of setting forth clearly the salient features of the period or subject entrusted to him. The reader has before him a series of presentations of the most important events and ideas. He may follow any line of investigation of his own, and may supply links of connexion at his will. He may receive suggestions from different minds, and may pursue them. He is free from the domination of one intelligence—a domination which has its dangers however great that intelligence may be—striving to express the multifarious experience of mankind in categories of its own creation. He is free at the same time from the aridity of a chronological table,—a record of events strung round so slight a thread that no real connexion is apparent. Each subject or period has a natural coherence of its own. If this be grasped, its relations to other divisions of the work will be readily apparent and may be followed without difficulty.
This is the main idea on which the method pursued in these volumes is founded. The mode of treatment adopted is not arbitrary, or dictated by considerations of convenience. It springs from the nature of the subject and its difficulties. Specialisation is absolutely necessary for the study of history, and it is impossible for any one master mind to coordinate in one product the results of all the special work that is being accomplished around it. Elements of interest and suggestiveness, which are of vital importance to the specialist, disappear before the abstract system which the compiler must, whatever may be the scale of his undertaking, frame for his own guidance. The task is too large, its relations are too numerous and too indefinite, for any one mind, however well stored, to appreciate them all. It is better to allow the subject-matter to supply its own unifying principle than to create one which is inadequate or of mere temporary value. At all events, this work has been undertaken with a desire to solve a very difficult problem, and to supply a very real need, so far as was possible under the conditions of its publication.