Herbert Butterfield

Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter

Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 544
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  • Book Info
    Herbert Butterfield
    Book Description:

    Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) was an important British historian and religious thinker whose ideas, in particular his concept of a "Whig interpretation of history," remain deeply influential. In this intellectual biography-the first comprehensive study of Butterfield-C.T. McIntire focuses on the creative processes that lay behind Butterfield's intellectual accomplishments.Drawing on his investigations into Butterfield's vast and diverse output of published and unpublished work, McIntire explores Butterfield's ideas and methods. He describes Butterfield's lifelong devotion to his Methodist faith and shows how his Christian spirituality animated his historical work. He also traces the theme of dissent that ran through Butterfield's life and work, presenting a man who found himself at odds with prevailing convictions about history, morality, politics, religion, and teaching, a man who elevated the notion of dissent into an ethic of living in tension with any established system.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13008-9
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xx)

    “It was the fallacy of Whiggish history!” the student concluded her history essay triumphantly, and the professor, nodding in agreement, gave her the highest mark in the class. For decades the accusation resounded in colleges and universities throughout the English-speaking world. Little did most of the accusers know that they were evoking the rhetorical power of Herbert Butterfield.

    Butterfield’s little bookThe Whig Interpretation of Historymade his name as a historian. When he published it in 1931, he was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, a lecturer in history in Cambridge University, barely thirty-one, slight of build, and very shy....

  4. Chronology
    (pp. xxi-xxvi)
  5. 1 Aspirations
    (pp. 1-26)

    Herbert Butterfield became a historian without intending it. It was unlikely, in any case, that as a child he knew what a historian was, let alone fantasized about being one. He would have known even less what it meant to be a religious thinker. His experience of becoming a historian, and living out his life as a historian, illustrated a doctrine he proclaimed throughout his career: history is a process of unintended consequences, or as he would say in the religious language he loved, history is a process of learning to cooperate with Providence.

    Butterfield made it easy to cull...

  6. 2 Art and Science
    (pp. 27-50)

    The academic year 1922–1923 was traumatic for Butterfield. Within the intimacies of the college, Temperley took charge of him, like a master with an apprentice, and began to turn him into a historian. In the Cambridge of those years the importance of the college surpassed that of the university. In the humanities the college was the primary employer, and the writing of prize essays and election to a college fellowship were sufficient to set a person apart for the academic life. It was still unthinkable, indeed ungentlemanly, for a firstrate student in the humanities to study for the Ph.D.,...

  7. 3 Reconciler
    (pp. 51-77)

    With his big book on Napoleon finished in 1929 and no major research project on his agenda, Butterfield devoted himself to his undergraduate supervisions in Peterhouse and his lectures in the Faculty of History. His new position in the university History Faculty set him up for his third year of lectures, and his fourth year on the History Faculty list. A new statute for Cambridge University in 1926 had augmented the academic position of the university visà-vis the colleges, creating the Faculty of History and the position of University Lecturer. His name was swept on to the first list of...

  8. 4 General Horizons
    (pp. 78-101)

    Butterfield had not yet begun his search for a major project when in early December 1931 he received a resolute offer from an unexpected source. As he recalls the story, the venerable Trevelyan had just readThe Whig Interpretation of Historyand found it disturbing. Trevelyan summoned Vellacott to his rooms in Trinity College. “I am the last Whig historian,” he declared, pacing the room, and asked if the book was directed against him. Vellacott persuaded him it was not. Vellacott would have known that Acton was the target. But he also would have known of Butterfield’s paper on Charles...

  9. 5 Patriotic History
    (pp. 102-132)

    The movements leading to the Second World War in the 1930s as well as the war itself directly affected Butterfield’s work as historian. Throughout the thirties, while he continued his research on Fox and produced his lectures on general history, he felt the expansion of his world horizon. He began to shift his attention away from his narrow fixation on the notable Cambridge historians who had inspired him. He reflected on world affairs and read a wider range of historians.

    He felt most disturbed by the cacophony of voices in England and on the continent of Europe proclaiming their conflicting...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. 6 Professor
    (pp. 133-163)

    By the spring of 1944 the British and their allies could believe that the war in Europe had turned in their favour. The Italian Fascist government had collapsed in July 1943, and about the same time the Soviet army took the initiative against the Germans on the eastern front. The Allied armies of Britain, the United States, and Canada had been working their way through Sicily since July 1943 and up the Italian peninsula since September 1943. By June 1944 the Germans were routed from Rome and Allied forces landed at Normandy to begin the reconquest of France.

    In March...

  12. 7 Religion
    (pp. 164-201)

    Fox and general modern history were only two of the parallel, yet connected themes that Butterfield pursued after the Second World War, both with unintended results. Simultaneously he pursued another set of themes on history, religion, and morality which had also occupied his mind for many years. The outcomes were extraordinarily surprising.

    Embedded within his important lecture in Dublin in April 1945, “Tendencies in Historical Study in England,” were a few brief passages about moral judgments in history which summarized where his thought on the subject had come. His message echoesWhig Interpretation of Historyof fifteen years earlier, but...

  13. 8 Public Figure
    (pp. 202-234)

    Butterfield did not wait around for his achievement of October 1949. He left Cambridge for the United States, and when his three books appeared, he was far across the Atlantic visiting the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, next to the university that had treated him well in 1924–1925.¹ He went by himself for the fall term, without Pamela, or the three children, who by now ranged in age from seventeen to ten. While he was crossing the ocean aboard ship, his thoughts wandered to his encounter with Bohemianism and Prohibition in Greenwich Village twenty-five years earlier, and the...

  14. 9 On War and Historiography
    (pp. 235-269)

    When things settled down after his father’s death in January 1952, Butterfield felt uncertain about his major projects. A few months earlier, and now again, he surveyed his recent life, and each time he confided in Paul Vellacott, the Master of Peterhouse. He admitted that he had spent too much time “in outside lectures and in forms of propaganda,” and acknowledged that he had done so by deliberate decision. He was pleased that publications resulted, but confessed that he regarded them as incidental. He catalogued what he counted as his real work, the historical writing which seemed to proceed only...

  15. 10 Master and Aggression
    (pp. 270-291)

    In January 1955, Butterfield became the forty-fourth Master of Peterhouse, the latest in a line that ran back 670 years. He remained simultaneously Professor of Modern History. He was the fourth historian among the six Masters in the twentieth century, the fitting successor to Temperley his teacher, Vellacott his protector, and Ward his personal link with Acton. He was the first Methodist head of the college and possibly the first Peterhouse Master with working-class origins. He accomplished his striking rise into the upper reaches of the gentlemanly class entirely by means of academic merit, scholarship money, and success as historian....

  16. 11 World Ideas, World Politics
    (pp. 292-318)

    In the wake of the Namier debacle, Butterfield followed his by now normal course and accepted what other people put before him. He confounded those near to him who observed how adept he was at engaging several themes all at once.

    Paramount among these themes was further study of historical thought and historiography, which he followed at the invitation of other people. Quite apart from the excitement surrounding Namier that occupied what little time he had for scholarly work during his mastership, his discourse on historiography took a startling new turn in the work he threw together on the side....

  17. 12 The Top and After the Top
    (pp. 319-333)

    Butterfield became vice-chancellor of Cambridge University on 1 October 1959, a few days before turning fifty-nine.¹ The year as deputy vice-chancellor had brought no particular difficulties, and had the merit of warning him of the mound of duties that would be heaped upon him for two years. When he was elected Master, his aim was to carry on with research and writing. He became instead virtually a full-time head of the college. Now he became the chief executive officer of the whole university as well.

    In outlook, sympathies, and approach, Butterfield very much remained the historian, the historian at the...

  18. 13 Going Global
    (pp. 334-362)

    The thing that most nourished Butterfield’s imagination after his vice-chancellorship was his love for historical thought. Thinking in general about history could go in his head while he was doing something else, even university administration. Subtly, without explicit resolve, he occupied himself more and more with the history of historiography. His thinking became comparative, and expanded to cover the whole globe. In spite of his exaltation of “technical history,” he had neither the time nor, apparently, the interest to resume the minutely detailed and seemingly unending research that his method demanded. He had already demonstrated that general historical thinking could...

  19. 14 Nothing but History and Religion
    (pp. 363-402)

    The new Sir Herbert and Lady Butterfield found their life in Sawston a delightful improvement over the Master’s Lodge. Sawston was removed far enough from Cambridge to allow them to make a fresh start, but, being right on the bus line, close enough for them to go into Cambridge whenever they liked. The Butterfields had neighbours again and made new friends, took walks in the village, and, for the first time in decades, did their own shopping and cooking.

    The village differed from Oxenhope. Sawston was smaller and, instead of hills, was surrounded by flat, fertile land, with new housing...

  20. Conclusion
    (pp. 403-418)

    Looking at Butterfield’s work over the long term of his career as historian, we cannot help but notice the versatility of his interests and projects. Yet, we detect a constant force pulling in one direction through all his work, no matter what the topic or theme ostensibly in view. In one way or another just about everything he treats becomes a question of general historical thinking. He is continuously engaged over the decades with the contemplation of the larger questions of human history and historical study, particularly those which induce him to ponder history and religion. When we consider what...

  21. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 419-420)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 421-472)
  23. Bibliography
    (pp. 473-492)
  24. Index
    (pp. 493-500)