By William Anthony Hay
Even setting aside iconic figures like Gibbon and Macaulay, Britain has never lacked for noteworthy historians. In the 20th century alone, there was Hugh Trevor-Roper on the history of ideas; A.J.P. Taylor on European diplomacy and great-power rivalry; and Richard Cobb on the French Revolution. J.H. Elliott, whose works have focused on Spain and the study of what is called early modern Europe, belongs in this august company. At age 82, he has now composed a memoir, "History in the Making," tracing his own intellectual development as well as the challenges that any historian faces when it comes to understanding, and reconstructing, the past.
Born in 1930, Mr. Elliott studied at Eton before entering Cambridge University. Reading history brought enjoyment, he found, and enjoyment propelled his studies, giving him a growing sense of mastery. J.H. Plumb and Herbert Butterfield (the author of "The Whig Interpretation of History") were among the scholars whose example he resolved to follow. A tour through Spain in 1950 kindled a special interest in that country and helped to guide him toward a lifelong subject of study.
As Mr. Elliott read older accounts by English travelers and scholars, he came to see just how rich Spanish culture was—and how different it was from that of Protestant Europe. For a young scholar in the 1950s, Spain also offered a relatively open field for research. Spain had been largely neglected by academic historians or folded into a deterministic narrative that emphasized its supposed backwardness and decline. (John Lothrop Motley's famous 1856 history of the Dutch rebellion against Spain in the late 16th century, for example, described Spain as a dark and backward place compared with enlightened northern Europe.) For the fledgling English scholar, moreover, Britain's mid-20th-century position as an exhausted imperial power grappling with reform echoed Spain's plight during the 1600s, when it had to contend with internal revolts, imperial war, and a fiscal crisis that hampered its efforts to regain its lost Dutch territories.
Mr. Elliott tells us that, for his first major project, he chose the Count-Duke of Olivares (1587-1645), a forceful personality whose policies imposed burdens that sparked revolts in Portugal and Catalonia, a province of northeast Spain with a distinct language and culture. Prolonged war had stretched the realm beyond its capacity. Mr. Elliott's archival research in Spain, alas, revealed to him that key documents had been lost, a familiar and painful experience for many historians. Instead of writing about Olivares per se, he decided to follow available sources to explore the bloody and thwarted Catalan revolt of the 1640s and 1650s, the study of which, in turn, raised larger questions about Spanish history.
History in the Making
By J.H. Elliott
(Yale, 249 pages, $26)
Any attempt at reform in Spain, Mr. Elliott came to see, required some degree of unity and centralized power, but Spain's diversity of languages and traditions—Catalonia's demands for autonomy make headlines still today—made reform especially difficult. And yet the conflicts that Mr. Elliott discovered in his Spanish research had parallels elsewhere in early modern Europe, as governments faced provincial resistance and administrative crisis. Along with other historians of his era—like Conrad Russell and Michael Roberts—Mr. Elliott discovered patterns across Europe that helped to define the early modern era (roughly 1350-1750) as a distinct period that blended medieval and modern elements.
Mr. Elliott's early research had taken him to Barcelona, where he learned the Catalan language and experienced Catalan culture firsthand. He describes his experience there during the Franco era as "a rude awakening." As he writes, "Nothing in the first twenty years of my life as a middle-class Englishman had even remotely prepared me for existence in a country without liberty, ruled by a dictatorial regime which even refused the right of many of its citizens to express themselves freely in their own language."
Spain had been especially isolated since the civil war of the late 1930s. Mr. Elliott thus began his work at an opportune moment, when the country was just starting to open up to the world. He became what he calls a "Hispanicist"—a foreigner who devotes a career to understanding Spain and who possesses thereby, or so it is hoped, a perspective less ideologically partisan or personally engaged than native scholars and intellectuals. Over time, Mr. Elliott notes, the effort to understand another culture can make the outsider begin to feel like an insider, as if picking up a second identity. This process, of course, affects any historian working to engage another time and place. It enabled Mr. Elliott to do important scholarship on Spain while explaining its history to foreign audiences in a compelling way.
The complexity of writing history is a recurring theme in Mr. Elliott's memoir. He writes that "no narrative is ever fully comprehensive, no explanation total, and the balance between description and analysis is painfully elusive." The best that historians can do, he suggests, is to sift through the sources and provide a plausible reconstruction of the past, one that is so effectively presented as to draw the reader in and make a persuasive case for a particular version of events.
Mr. Elliott eventually wrote a biography of Olivares, first gathering his letters, hitherto scattered though various archives, into edited volumes. But he has devoted his later years to the comparative study of the British and Spanish empires. His current focus is on the Atlantic world, viewing it primarily as an extension of Europe. It is dubious, he says, to claim that there is "a single Atlantic civilization embracing both sides of the ocean." But by studying "people, commodities, ideas and cultural practices around and across the Atlantic," he writes, we can often see "unsuspected connections." Discovering such connections is perhaps the essence of the historian's task, one that Mr. Elliott has performed, like his great predecessors, with remarkable skill and erudition over many decades.
Mr. Hay, a historian at Mississippi State University, is the author of "The Whig Revival, 1808-1830."
A version of this article appeared January 4, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Past Isn't Even Past.