Moving With the Times? | History Today - 5 minutes read

This year marks the tercentenary of George I’s foundation of the Regius Chairs of Modern (i.e. post-antique) History at Oxford and Cambridge. Undergraduate degree courses in the subject are, however, a much more recent innovation. Oxford established its School of Modern History in 1872. The Cambridge History Faculty is marking the 150th anniversary of the foundation of its Historical Tripos. A lecture on the history of the Tripos was delivered in the ornate Victorian building which until recently housed the university’s collection of antique statuary. The venue was reminiscent of a grand music hall, but some of the audience were dimly aware of lingering shades of now departed, mythical heroes.

The lecturer was Michael Bentley, the historian of modern historiography. He considered to what extent the Tripos, through its many transformations, has expressed and engendered a distinctive ‘Cambridge approach’ to the subject.

In the 1874 guide for those reading for the new Tripos, emphasis was laid on compulsory elements of political philosophy, political economy, jurisprudence and constitutional history, because ‘without them the most valuable elements of historical knowledge cannot be adequately appropriated’. ‘Theoretical studies’ were, then, integral from the very start. They have remained a constant, long considered essential to the study of history as an ‘illumination of the soul’, in Lord Acton’s daunting words. Acton, who became Regius Professor in 1895, may never have written his projected history of liberty, but his pupil J.N. Figgis, and Figgis’ pupil C.N.S. Woolf, explored aspects of it. Quentin Skinner’s The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978) might be seen as in some respects its eventual realisation. Under Skinner’s aegis, ultimately as Regius himself, the faculty became the most important centre for the history of political ideas in the world.

As in the original scheme for the Tripos, that field was never discrete: to borrow the apophthegm of a heretical Oxford philosopher, in Cambridge all history really was the history of thought. Development in ideas informed every field of historical enquiry. In the later 20th century, one only has to think of the medievalists Walter Ullmann, J.C. Holt and Jonathan Riley-Smith, the early-modernists Geoffrey Elton (though he would deny it, vociferously but unconvincingly), John Morrill and Brendan Bradshaw, and the modernists Maurice Cowling and Boyd Hilton. Despite the variety (and some of them would think, quite stridently, incompatibility) in their approaches to their specialisms, they were all engaged in a common enterprise: understanding what people thought, and how thought informed action. Those of us brought up in this tradition remain convinced that this is the most challenging and rewarding form of historical inquiry.

The focus on ideas – their virtual reification – promotes the exploration of subjects over long stretches. The Tripos had been expanded to become – at least until its latest reform, instituted in 2022 – universal in scope. Unlike the Oxford Modern History School, it encompassed antiquity. It offered great freedom of choice and the opportunity to develop interests in particular problems over many centuries. This was one reason why law, whether common, Roman or canon, all of which almost require long-term treatment, often provided a connecting thread. F.W. Maitland might have turned down the Regius Chair of Modern History and remained in the Law Faculty; but his influence was perhaps greater in the faculty to which he chose not to move.

To judge from Maitland’s published lectures, or those of Acton or Figgis, it was their quality of mind which from the early days must have inspired audiences. We know that Maitland used to practise delivery in his study at home, because his daughter heard his voice flowing out under the door. More than a century on, read rather than heard, these lectures still compel intellectual awe.

Many lectures did so in my time: spellbinding series were given by some of those named here, and others. There were no circuses. Each series could be and often was a sustained, personal interpretation. The better lecturers attempted to convince their audiences that theirs was the most interesting and important subject on offer. This approach was not restricted to specialised, third year courses, but could range over one or more lengthy outlines papers. Or not. Duncan Forbes delivered 16 solely on Hegel’s political thought to a faithful audience, who would cheer his choicer epigrams: ‘If we send a bathyscaphe down into the depths of political intelligibility…’ The originality of such performances enthused not just in the short term, but sometimes for life. Of course, superb lecturing was not unique to Cambridge; but for a very long time it was the most striking manifestation of the faculty’s collective intellectual endeavour.

Tripos reform has happened intermittently over the past 150 years. The course has had to adapt in response to developments in the subject and in society. But how it should do so has been divisive: faculty members have considered their whole raison d’être to be at stake. Those in charge of implementation have bewailed their lot. George Kitson Clark, thus encumbered in 1966, considered stone-breaking preferable. Yet however radical the changes may have seemed at the time, what appears clear in hindsight is a continuity, which has sustained what was most distinctive and valuable about the Tripos from its start.

In 2022 universality of coverage disappeared and tuition in newly specified ‘skills’ and ‘methodologies’ was introduced. So was a compulsory first-year paper on how to read two history books. The earliest (by 40 years) of five on the faculty’s website is Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971); the others concern gender, slavery and global topics. History of political thought survives, now encompassing the environment and (again) gender, but excluding Roman law. At the 200th anniversary of the Tripos, will these changes all appear continuous with antecedent development, or not?


George Garnett is Professor of Medieval History at Oxford University, Fellow of St Hugh’s College and the author of The Norman Conquest in English History: Volume I: A Broken Chain? (Oxford University Press, 2021).

Source: History Today Feed