The Cambridge Modern History/Volume I/Preface


The plan of this History, as is indicated on the title-page, was conceived and mapped out by the late Lord Acton. To him is due, in its main features, the division of the work into the volumes and chapters of which it consists; and it was at his request that most of the contributors agreed to take a specified part in the execution of his scheme. In the brief statement which follows, intended to set forth the principles on which that scheme is based, we have adhered scrupulously to the spirit of his design, and in more than one passage we have made use of his own words. We had hoped during the progress of this work to be encouraged by his approval, and perhaps to be occasionally aided by his counsel; but this hope has been taken away by an event, sudden at the last, which is deeply mourned by his University and by all students of history.

The aim of this work is to record, in the way most useful to the greatest number of readers, the fulness of knowledge in the field of modern history which the nineteenth century has bequeathed to its successor. The idea of a universal Modern History is not in itself new; it has already been successfully carried into execution both in France and Germany. But we believe that the present work may, without presumption, aim higher than its predecessors, and may seek to be something more than a useful compilation or than a standard work of reference.

By a universal Modern History we mean something distinct from the combined History of all countries—in other words, we mean a narrative which is not a mere string of episodes, but displays a continuous development. It moves in a succession to which the nations are subsidiary. Their stories will accordingly be told here, not for their own sakes, but in reference and subordination to a higher process, and according to the time and the degree in which they influence the common fortunes of mankind.

A mere reproduction of accepted facts, even when selected in accordance with this principle, would not attain the end which we have in view. In some instances, where there is nothing new to tell, the contributors to this History must console themselves with the words of Thiers, “On est déjà bien assez nouveau par cela seul qu’on est vrai”; but it is not often that their labours will be found to have been confined to a recasting of existing material. Great additions have of late been made to our knowledge of the past; the long conspiracy against the revelation of truth has gradually given way; and competing historians all over the civilised world have been zealous to take advantage of the change. The printing of archives has kept pace with the admission of enquirers; and the total mass of new matter, which the last half-century has accumulated, amounts to many thousands of volumes. In view of changes and of gains such as these, it has become impossible for the historical writer of the present age to trust without reserve even to the most respected secondary authorities. The honest student finds himself continually deserted, retarded, misled by the classics of historical literature, and has to hew his own way through multitudinous transactions, periodicals and official publications, in order to reach the truth.

Ultimate history cannot be obtained in this generation; but, so far as documentary evidence is at command, conventional history can be discarded, and the point can be shown that has been reached on the road from the one to the other. To discharge this task satisfactorily, however, requires a judicious division of labour. The abundance of original records, of monographs and works of detail, that have been published within the last fifty years, surpasses by far the grasp of a single mind. To work up their results into a uniform whole demands the application of the cooperative principle—a principle to which we already owe such notable achievements of historical research as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, our own Rolls Series, and the Dictionary of National Biography. Without such organised collaboration, an adequate and comprehensive history of modern times has become impossible. Hence the plan of the present work, the execution of which is divided among a large and varied body of scholars.

The general history of Europe and of her colonies since the fifteenth century, which it is proposed to narrate in accordance with the principles stated above, is to be treated in twelve volumes. For each of these some historical fact of signal importance has been chosen as the central idea round which individual developments are grouped, not accidentally, but of reasoned purpose. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the United States of America, the French Revolution, Napoleon, are examples of such ideas, achievements or figures which give to each of these volumes in succession a unity not of name alone. The use of such characteristic designations frees us, to some extent, from the necessity of adhering rigorously to the precise limits of chronology or geography.

Thus the subject of the present volume—the Renaissance—possesses a unity of subject matter rather than of time. Neither the anterior nor the posterior limits of the movement are precisely marked. Again, the history of the United States of America, although intimately connected with that of Europe, and with that of Great Britain in particular, has an inner coherence of its own, which is best preserved by a distinct and continuous treatment. In another part of this work, dealing with the same events from a British or French point of view, the American War of Liberation will again find its place, in so far as it affected the national progress or interests of either country. What in one volume or in one chapter constitutes the main subject, in another may form a digression or furnish an illustration. But, throughout the varied treatments of successive periods, each in its turn dominated by historic ideas or movements of prominent significance, we shall consistently adhere to the conception of modern history, and of the history of modern Europe in particular, as a single entity. This conception has regulated the choice and the distribution of matter and the assignment of space to each division.

Certain nations or countries may at times require relatively full treatment. Italy, for instance, fills an exceptionally large space in the present volume. And the reason is obvious. From Italy proceeded the movement which aroused the mind of Europe to fresh activity; in Italy this movement bore its earliest and, in some branches, its finest fruit. Moreover, in the general play of forces before the Reformation, it was on Italian soil that nearly all the chief powers of Europe met for battle and intrigue. If to these considerations are added the importance of Rome as the capital of the Catholic world and that of Venice as the capital of commercial Europe, it will be seen that there is nothing disproportionate in the share allotted to Italy and Italian affairs in this volume. Other countries within the geographical limits of the European continent had little influence during the period of the Renaissance, and are therefore comparatively neglected. The Scandinavian nations were still in the main confined to their own immediate sphere of action; and it needed the Reformation to bring them into the circle of general European politics. Russia remained, as yet, inert, while the other Eastern races of Europe played but a minor part either in its material or in its intellectual development.

Our first volume is not merely intended to describe and discuss the Renaissance as a movement of European history. It is also designed as an introductory volume whose business it is, as it were, to bring upon the stage the nations, forces, and interests which will bear the chief parts in the action. Each chapter of this volume includes so much of antecedent, especially of institutional history, as seemed necessary for the clear understanding of the conditions with which it is concerned. Such an introduction was not thought requisite, in the case of Great Britain, in a book written for English readers.

That no place has been found in this volume for a separate account of the development of the pictorial, plastic, and decorative art of the Renaissance, may appear to some a serious omission. But to have attempted a review of this subject in the period dealt with in our first volume, would have inevitably entailed a history of artistic progress during later periods—an extension of the scope of this work which considerations of space have compelled us to renounce. Politics, economics, and social life must remain the chief concern of this History; art and literature, except in their direct bearing on these subjects, are best treated in separate and special works; nor indeed is this direct influence so great as is frequently supposed.

A full index to the whole work will be published when the series of volumes has been completed. A carefully constructed table of contents and a brief index of names accompany each volume. Footnotes are deliberately excluded, and quotations, even from contemporary authorities, are sparingly introduced. On the other hand, each chapter is supplemented by a full working bibliography of the subject. These bibliographies are not intended to be exhaustive. Obsolete works are intentionally excluded, and a careful selection has been made with the view of supplying historical students with a compendious survey of trustworthy and accessible literature.

Some of the points of view, to which this preface has referred, have been urged again in the introductory note from the pen of the late Bishop of London which is prefixed to the present volume. We have printed it with a few changes of a kind which we had Dr Creighton’s express authority to make, and we are glad to think that it shows both the cordial interest taken by him in the scheme designed by Lord Acton, and the agreement as to its main principles between the late Regius Professor and the eminent historian who like him formerly filled a chair in this University.

On behalf of the Syndics of the Press, and on our own behalf, we desire to express our thanks, in which we feel assured that Lord Acton would have cordially joined, for valuable assistance given in regard to the present volume by the Rev. J. N. Figgis, of St Catharine’s College, and Mr W. A. J. Archbold, of Peterhouse. Mr Archbold was also of much service in advancing the general distribution of chapters and other editorial arrangements. The advice of Professor F. W. Maitland has been invaluable to all concerned, and will, we trust, continue to be given. The ready and courteous cooperation of the Secretary to the Syndics, Mr R. T. Wright, of Christ’s College, has from the first been of the greatest advantage to the Editors. They confidently hope for a continuation of the aid which they have received and are receiving from historical scholars in this University and elsewhere. While all readers of this work will regret the loss of the guidance to which the undertaking had been originally entrusted, it is most keenly felt by those who are endeavouring to carry out the late Lord Acton’s conception.

A. W. W.

G. W. P.

S. L.

August 1902.