LOCAL HISTORY IN THE UNIVERSITY
An Inaugural Lecture delivered in the University of Leicester
26 May 1964
By H. P. R. Finberg
[Extracted from Finberg, H. P. R. and V. H. T. Skipp Local History: Objective and Pursuit David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1967, pp. 45-70.]
It is not given to many men to deliver two inaugural lectures in one and the same university; but I have come uncomfortably close to that experience. In 1952, when the University College of Leicester did me the honour of placing me in charge of its Department of English Local History, I was invited to inaugurate my tenure of office by delivering a public lecture, and I accepted the invitation; but when the lecture came to be published, I was told, gently but firmly, that it takes a professor to deliver an inaugural; so we described it on the title-page as an "introductory" lecture. (1) The truth is that I was ill prepared by early training to appreciate the niceties of academic class-distinction. As a small boy at a preparatory school I was initiated into the art of swimming by a personage as bald as an eggshell, and of approximately the same shape. With or without academic warrant, he was styled "the Professor." At rare intervals he would himself descend into the water and regale us with a series of aquatic feats more impressive as physical contortions than as examples of professorial deportment. He was my first professor. Years passed, and I went to the university; but the professors at Oxford in my time knew their business far too well to let me come within hailing distance. And so it was not until I came to Leicester many years later, with half a life-time of non-academic work behind me, that I at last had an opportunity of discovering what professors really are. Even now I have not fully recovered from the impact of that revelation.
Today, however, by the generous decision of our governing bodies, for which I am indeed grateful, I find myself a member of that select company. It is now my duty and privilege not merely to practise and teach English Local History, but to profess it ex cathedra. When I have expressed, however inadequately, my thanks for such a signal honour, what more should I say? The custom on these occasions of paying a more or less glowing tribute to one's predecessor is one with which, at a pinch, I could no doubt comply; but it would come with an ill grace from me, since I am succeeding myself. On looking through my "introductory" discourse of 1952, I find little or nothing in it that I would wish to unsay now; and in a more recent publication I have developed the argument in fuller detail. (2) Nevertheless, although the subject has numbered fine scholars among its votaries from the sixteenth century onwards, there has never until now been a Professor of English Local History, and the Leicester department has attracted a good deal of public notice by the very fact of being unique. In such circumstances I should be failing in a due sense of the occasion if I did not attempt to lay before you some further thoughts on local history considered as an academic discipline.
There are other reasons for studying history besides the fact that it helps us to understand the world we live in; but it does help us to understand the world we live in, and if only on that account its future seems tolerably well assured, for all the growing emphasis on technology and the natural sciences. But if the proverbial visitor from another planet should take the trouble to examine the organization of historical studies in the universities and university colleges of Great Britain, he would note some puzzling features. Leaving aside the few remaining institutions in which a solitary Professor of History and his staff are apparently expected to cope with the entire human past, he would find that History as such is distinguished at Swansea and Southampton from something called Modern History, and at Brighton from European History. No fewer than ten institutions appear to believe that history can be divided into three categories: ancient, medieval, and modern, though I should add that the Ancient History studied at Edinburgh turns out on closer inspection to be Ancient Scottish History. Modern History is not recognized, at least under that name, at Bristol ; Kent as yet has no use for any other; and Oxford, unlike Cambridge, has no chair of Medieval History .
There are other classifications which cut clean across the chronological scheme. One very large class confines itself to the history of some particular sphere of human activity. Here, as if to justify Napoleon's taunt that we are a nation of shopkeepers, Economic History leads the way, with seventeen professors and I know not how many other teachers. But the things of the spirit are not neglected: Ecclesiastical (or 'Church') History and the History of Art (or 'Fine Art') run it pretty close. University College London teaches the history of Political Thought, and Manchester - appropriately enough - that of Economic Thought. Peace has been neglected so far, but the History of War has its professor at Oxford. Farther afield we encounter such rarities as the solitary lecturers in Social History at Manchester and Business History at Glasgow.
I shall say nothing about Archaeology, because although it enjoys a large and flourishing establishment of its own in several universities, any claim it may have to be regarded as an independent study rests upon a concept which archaeologists themselves now repudiate as obsolete. It was plausible only so long as they were supposed to confine their researches to a past remote beyond the reach of written records, a past ending if not before Ancient History began, at any rate well before the dawn of Modern History .Today no one thinks of their function in those terms. We find them busy excavating the sites of English villages deserted in the fifteenth century, while others search out early monuments of the Industrial Revolution. But in thus immensely broadening its range, Archaeology has revealed itself more plainly as the ancillary discipline it really is: in other words, as a combination of highly specialized techniques, the true and ultimate function of which is to illuminate the subject-matter of History.
Even without Archaeology, the posts I have enumerated form a large and motley establishment. But do they fall into any kind of rational pattern, reflecting a clearly defined conception of what history really is? The formal division of the subject into three chronological categories, ancient, medieval, and modern, dates from a time when Greco-Roman antiquity was thought of as being separated from our present civilization by a period of Gothic barbarism, for which a seventeenth-century Dutch professor invented the term 'Middle Ages'. It expresses an idea, or set of ideas, which becomes less and less tenable as time goes on, and when applied in any but a west-European context, it looks even sillier than it does here at home. (I might quote, for instance, a recent work entitled The Mediaeval History of the Coast of Tanganyika.) Again, what theoretical justification can be offered for dividing human experience into separate compartments and attempting to write a history of each? One of our honorary graduates, Sir John Summerson, reviewing a volume of the Oxford History of Art the other day, felt constrained to ask what was meant by art in this context, and to express a doubt whether any satisfactory way could be found of writing its history (3) Economic History, again, revolves around a figment called Economic Man; that is to say, it assumes that human beings engaged in winning a livelihood can be isolated, for purposes of study, from the same human beings engaged in painting pictures or studying in a university or playing cricket or singing hymns in church, and that it is intellectually profitable so to isolate them: neither of which propositions is self-evidently true. In hinting that they are debatable, however, I would not be understood to prejudge the outcome of the debate. Things which look odd on paper sometimes turn out quite well in practice. Not so long ago another honorary graduate of this university moved from the chair of Medieval History at Cambridge into that of Modern History without making any noticeable change of course in his research and writing. I doubt if the professor of Military History at Oxford attempts to talk or write about war in abstraction from the political and economic circumstances of the belligerents, and I know that economic historians often overstep, naturally and rightly, the ostensible limitations of their subject. A very great French historian has remarked that homo religiosus, homo oeconomicus, homo politicus, and similar abstractions, are convenient only so long as they are not allowed to cramp us; but he adds that if we concentrate our attention on these and suchlike fragments of human experience for their own sakes, not only shall we never know humanity in the round: we shall never really come to understand the fragments. (4)
The third category we must notice may be provisionally - but only provisionally-denominated territorial. It is represented by departments of English, Welsh, Scottish, French, Dutch, and American History, among others. And if there is to be division of labour among historians, as I think there obviously must, here at any rate we have a rational scheme of division. It is rational because our object should be not only to present the historian with a quantitatively manageable theme, but also to give him an intelligible field of study. And these divisions do so. The history of England or of France is an intelligible field of study in a sense which cannot be so securely predicated either of modern history as such or of abstractions like art or science. It is so not because it deals with only a limited portion of the earth's surface, but because the human beings born and domiciled in England and France form, and have long formed, distinct communities, each with a life-story of its own.
For historical purposes I have elsewhere interpreted 'community' as meaning "a set of people occupying an area with defined territorial limits and so far united in thought and action as to feel a sense of belonging together, in contradistinction from the many outsiders who do not belong." (5) As far back as we can probe into the human past the earth has been peopled by groups answering to that description, groups of human beings and as such distinguished, says Aristotle, from hives of bees by their moral perceptions and the power of speech, with all that these imply. Now if we want to understand the species to which we belong, we must make a study of those communities, 'for - again I quote Aristotle - one must be either more or less than man, either a god or a wild beast, to live outside one. And since the future is unknowable, our study can only be of their past: in other words, a historical study.
Thus whatever may be true of the other themes which engage the attention of historians, the study of local, national, and supra-national communities as such is at least theoretically justified. And that being so, Leicester was taking a rational course, though an unprecedented one, seventeen years ago, when it set up a Department of English Local History. For the theme of local history, as the department has constantly proclaimed, is the Origin, Growth, Decline, and Fall of the local community. By 'local' here we mean, of course, a rural or urban community smaller than the community of the realm and forming part of it, just as the community of the realm usually forms part of a larger, supra-national entity. And in speaking of origin, growth, decline, and fall, we are defining the theme at its fullest extension; it is certainly not implied that we must wait until a given community is dead before attempting to write its history.
But, it may be said, granting that local history is or can be an intelligible field of study, are the qualities it develops in the student such as to justify us in giving it a place in the academic sun? I shall not attempt to answer this question categorically, for every one of my hearers will probably have his own idea of what can and should be expected from a university education. Instead, if you will bear with me, I will speak briefly of some personal experiences which may suggest part of the answer.
When first I took up active work in local history, I found, as local historians in England very often do find, that the earliest document relating to the community which interested me was a royal charter, one of those which have come down to us, in number between two and three thousand, from before the Norman Conquest. It is a grave reproach to English scholarship that we have no satisfactory edition of the whole corpus. Most of the charters were collected and printed without annotation by J. M. Kemble more than a century ago. In 1885 Walter de Gray Birch began to publish an edition with better texts, but he did not carry It beyond the reign of Edgar, so that we still have to fall back on Kemble for charters issued between 975 and 1066. The charter I had before me was dated 981, so it was not in Birch; and Kemble, applying the only form of criticism he allowed himself, had marked it with an asterisk, signifying that he doubted its authenticity. This put me in a quandary, for one cannot build a sound historical edifice on the basis of a spurious charter. Now if any question arose concerning the charter which Her present Majesty granted to this university in 1957, proofs of its genuineness could be adduced without much difficulty, in number and strength sufficient to satisfy a court of law. I know now that for a charter of King Ethelred II this cannot be done; the most that criticism can do is to answer more or less cogently such objections as may be urged against it. But at that time, isolated as I was by professional duties of another kind from any contact with the world of scholarship, I supposed that in some corner of that world an expert would be found who could declare oracularly whether the charter of 981 was genuine or not. So I wrote to a historian whom I had not met since we were fellow-members of an undergraduate club some twenty years before, and I asked him to put me on the track of such an expert. He is a very well-known, distinguished .scholar, and I am glad to say that we have since happily renewed our youthful acquaintance, all the more gratefully on my side because he conferred upon me the inestimable boon of never answering my letter. His silence put me in the position of a workman who is obliged to construct his own tools. Now the criticism of Anglo-Saxon charters not only demands a competent knowledge of two languages, or rather of three languages: Old English, Latin, and bad Latin; it is also, or should be, an exercise combining the techniques of history, topography, diplomatics, palaeography, and textual emendation. Far be it from me to claim anything approaching mastery of even one of these; but I did manage to grasp enough of the rudiments to produce anew edition of King Ethelred's charter, and in so doing to dispel the aura of suspicion cast over it by Kemble's asterisk.
At a later stage in my researches I had occasion to go through a series of episcopal registers. In one of them I found the text of a decree by which a thirteenth-century bishop deposed the abbot of the most important monastery in the diocese, and gave his reasons for this drastic move. He charged the abbot with scandalous maladministration. There was nothing improbable in the charge; not all abbots were or are good managers. But a little later I learnt from an entry in the Calendar of Close Rolls that some months before his deposition the abbot had begun an action at law against the bishop's steward. Later still I found in the Calendar of Miscellaneous Inquisitions the report of a special enquiry conducted by a royal commissioner, in the course of which three separate juries testified that the bishop's steward had been plundering the abbey right and left. Finally, in an unprinted Assize Roll at the Public Record Office I found yet another jury showing unmistakably that their sympathies lay wholly with the abbot. Here was an interesting object-lesson in the handling of documentary evidence, a vivid reminder that a document may be unimpeachably genuine, like the bishop's register, and yet not tell the truth, or not the whole truth: that, in short, authenticity must be sharply distinguished from veracity.
Some time before reaching that point, I had hunted up the eighteenth-century estate maps and copied the old name of every field on to the modern six-inch Ordnance maps. The area of approximately eighteen square miles with which I had to deal contained old houses of great architectural merit, as well as the ruined abbey and a fine parish church, a canal the construction of which represented a notable engineering feat in its day, the grass-grown quays of a deserted little river-port, an imposing railway viaduct, and extensive remains of copper-mines now worked out but in their time the richest in the world. All this in a setting of the utmost natural beauty. It was therefore a pleasure as well as a duty to explore nearly every acre on foot. To walk over a field called Forges at the farthest limit of a manor the lord of which at one time wielded powers of life and death, and to know from the name that here stood his 'forches', furcae, or gallows; to trace the line of a dried-up watercourse along the steep side of a wooded valley, to find that it led up to and straight through a huge pile called Raven's Rock, to crawl into the opening and to find evidence in the shape of interior chisel-marks that it had been made before gunpowder came into use for blasting, and to identify the watercourse from a contemporary manuscript as one made at the behest of King Edward IV to provide power for the argentiferous lead-mines in the neighbouring parish; to find amid lush meadows the crumbling walls of a deserted farmstead where, according to local tradition, Sir Francis Drake, when he had made his fortune, would have liked to settle down, and to notice lying among the nettles a piece of worked stone, all that remained perhaps of the little private chapel standing in 1388, when the owner, head of a yeoman family domiciled on that spot from time immemorial, obtained licence to have mass celebrated there: these and other such experiences, agreeable in themselves, were also highly stimulating to the historical imagination.
If I have indulged perhaps overlong in these personal reminiscences, it is because I think they help to answer our question concerning the educational value of local history. A pursuit in which the laborious accumulation of data and accurate transcription of documents are merely the first steps; which obliges one to sift evidence, checking one document against another; which keeps the imagination as well as the intellect at work; which more perhaps than any other form of historical enquiry quickens the sense of place and enables one to visualize the background against which a rural or urban community acted out the drama of its communal existence; and which imposes the final obligation of constructing a narrative precise and vivid enough to re-create that community in the fullness of its life and vigour: this is surely not a trivial pursuit, but one of which the intellectual and imaginative content render it not unworthy of a place beside the other arts and sciences cultivated in a university .
A place, then, in the university; but what place? It might seem that this question was answered once for all at Leicester in 1947, when the then University College decided to set up an autonomous department with a mandate covering the history of local communities all over England. But in the life of a twentieth-century university seventeen years is a long time. Faces change; old trains of thought are forgotten; and new claims arise. Moreover, I can imagine a specious but misleading analogy being drawn between historical and natural science. Two years ago our Professor of Biochemistry, in his inaugural lecture, gave reasons for holding that the best interests of the biological sciences and of the university as a whole would be served by grouping those sciences into a single academic unit, a school housing under one roof a number of specialities and perhaps containing "several chairs uncommitted by title." Whether his colleagues in the Faculty of Science interpreted this, in the language of the Stock Exchange, as a proposal for amalgamation by exchange of shares or as a 'take-over bid ', it was at any rate supported by weighty arguments both practical and theoretical; and to these last I shall return in a moment, since it is here that a misleading parallel might be drawn.
After all - some one may say - whatever the differences between local, national, and ecumenical history, they have one great thing in common. They all deal with the human past; they are all, in a word, History .Their techniques of analysis and synthesis are fundamentally the same; the same rules of evidence hold good for all three; the documents on which they rely are not different in kind. Why then put them into separate departments? Why not combine them in one great School of History, with "several chairs uncommitted by title," or, as one might put it, professors professing nothing in particular?
The argument, I submit, will hardly convince anyone who looks below the surface. Professor Kornberg told us that "in all branches of experimental biology, the barriers which separate one biologist from another are tending to disappear," and a unitary approach is being imposed on all concerned by the very success of their investigations. "It does not require expert knowledge," he said, "to perceive that a lion and a dandelion differ from each other and from a bacterium, but these obvious differences which strike the eye have tended to obscure the fact that many basic features are common to all forms of life. One of the main achievements of biochemistry has been to reveal these basic features and to indicate that variations amongst living things are but variations on common themes, accentuated by the processes of evolution over aeons of time." (6)
The biochemist, then, seeks out and identifies, at the starting-point of lengthy evolutionary processes, a unitary principle of Life, and makes that the object of his study. By contrast, the historian is concerned not with unity but with diversity. He takes for granted that historic processes revolve around a being called Man, and he sets himself to re-enact the life of human aggregates as lived in all their rich variety through the centuries. If every man were just like his neighbours, there would be no employment for the biographer; and it is because nations differ that each of them has a history of its own.
And not only nations: the same is true of communities both larger and smaller than the nation. In the local, the national, and the supra-national community we have three distinct manifestations of social life, with different e tensions in space and time: in other words, three distinct fields of study for the historian.
I will not now repeat or elaborate the arguments I have used elsewhere to demonstrate that the nation is not the same thing as the village or the town writ large. Instead let me quote a single illustration of the difference between them. In 1574 the grammar school of Leicester was remodelled by the locally all-powerful earl of Huntingdon in strict accordance with the most advanced principles of the Elizabethan religious settlement. At that very time, and throughout the reign, the grammar school of Burnley, under far different influences, was sending forth one recruit after another to the seminaries in Flanders where the recusant clergy were trained for the English Catholic mission. In the broad perspectives of national history such contrasts tend to disappear. We know that the earl of Huntingdon was on the winning side and took Leicester with him; we know too that the victory was not quite total; but the national historian can scarcely be blamed for passing lightly over such details as the obstinate conservatism of Burnley. (7) The local historian, on the other hand, when he observes one Elizabethan market town being carried along with the national tide, and another battling not altogether ineffectually against it, is made vividly aware that the local community has not always conformed promptly and gracefully to patterns of thought and conduct imposed upon it from above.
Local, national, and ecumenical history, then, deal with three interrelated but yet distinct forms of social life, each with its own chronology and its own spatial extension. And once that is understood, it is logical, in a twentieth-century university where research and teaching are organized in professorial departments according to subject-matter, for Local History to be established in an autonomous department of its own. Any other status would imply a failure to recognize the true nature of the subject. It was largely this lack of understanding which caused Reading, after setting up the first academic post in local history, to discontinue it four years later, thereby throwing away the position of leadership it might have taken in this field, and leaving the initiative open to be seized by Leicester thirty-five years later. (8) The setting up of our department in 1947, with a mandate covering the history of urban and rural communities all over England and not only in Leicestershire or the east midlands, has been hailed in other universities, and by a very large extramural public, as local history's Declaration of Independence, proof that after a period of trial and error prolonged over four centuries and more than one false start, the subject has come of age, and its exponents are not to be regarded as mere antiquarian triflers, or drudges with no other function than that of providing footnotes for somebody else's History of England.
Now there are people who, when they have to sign a hotel register, will describe themselves as British rather than as English or Scots; and a day may come when they will think and speak of themselves as members of some even larger community. Such things have been known before. The third-century Briton proud to denominate himself a citizen of Rome; in the sixteenth century a Thomas More taking his stand upon an ecumenical tradition above and beyond the competence of any local king or parliament; a twentieth-century Marxist who might find himself in a dilemma if the interests of his country should clash with those of international communism: all these in their different ways personify the larger loyalties. It is therefore not extravagant to speak of a possible future in which patriotism as at present understood will be no more dynamic a motive than the mild sentimental attachment some people still cherish for their native village. But if that time should come, what will the student know of the genus Man and of the species Englishman unless history re-creates for him the background against which the national poet wrote of "this sceptered isle ... this precious stone set in the silver sea"? The thoughts and feelings which inspired those lines, and which nerved men to action on occasions of great peril such as the Spanish Armada or the Battle of Britain, are facts as real as any phenomenon studied by the chemist in his laboratory, and if ever they should recede into the past, it will be the historian's plain duty to bring them back to life in the consciousness of his disciples.
We are still near enough to the national state at the zenith of its power to recapture without difficulty a sense of its historical importance. It is not so easy to project our vision into the minds of local patriots for whom their own town or village was the centre of the universe. At a time when metropolitan boroughs with famous names are allowing themselves to be snuffed out of existence with only faint murmurs of protest, it needs an effort on our part to conjure up remembrance of the city of Exeter refusing to admit the Norman conqueror within its walls except upon its own terms; or the county of Kent appearing by its spokesmen before the justices in eyre in 1313 and demanding that when their inherited customs diverged from the common law the custom of Kent should prevail; or the inhabitants of the Isle of Axholme in 1650, answering Parliament's demand for compliance with measures destructive of their traditional husbandry by calling it "a Parliament of clouts" and declaring roundly that "they could make as good a Parliament themselves." For most of us, in short, the local community is already as much a thing of the past as I have pictured the national community becoming some generations hence. And here too a large tract of social experience is involved. It is the business of the local historian to put that experience on record, and we should encourage him to do so, for unless he does, our knowledge and understanding of human relationships will be sadly impoverished.
At a time like the present, when the power and importance of the national state are visibly on the wane, it is not surprising to hear voices urging a change of direction in historical studies; and those voices may well grow more insistent as time goes on. Having said that the future is unknowable, I shall only invite ridicule if I indulge in prophecy; but it does seem not unlikely that the next generation of students will be hearing more about Russia, China, and America than about "1066 and all that," or, shall we say, more about western Europe as a whole than about the Wars of the Roses and the precise shades of difference between one group of Whig partisans and another. If so, if the fortunes of the national state cease to occupy the central position they have occupied in our historical studies until recently, the present widespread interest in local history is likely to be intensified rather than diminished. In my introductory discourse twelve years ago I may have seemed to imply that people are moved to take up local history chiefly by nostalgia for a vanished and supposedly more agreeable past. Of some this may be true; but I think the real secret of attraction is the relatively small scale of the subject. The horizons opened up by ecumenical history are dazzling in their immensity. People turn from them with relief and quickened interest to something nearer home, nearer even than Whitehall. It is the local historian's great advantage that he can explore his chosen area on foot and talk to its inhabitants. But the immediacy of his theme is more than merely topographical. The hamlet, village, or town is, next to the family, the smallest social unit we can study, and no other brings us into such intimate touch with past generations of living, breathing fellow-countrymen.
Whether or not this is the secret of attraction, it is an unquestionable fact that a very large and heterogeneous public now takes an enthusiastic interest in local history. From this widespread popular interest the subject draws much of its vitality. The circumstance also invests our department, as the only existing university Department of English Local History, with responsibilities not limited by academic frontiers. And now that the department speaks with professorial authority, it is incumbent on me to declare how we interpret those responsibilities.
Our first duty, as I see it, is to propagate a reasoned conception of the subject. Local history still suffers from a lack of theoretical discussion. It will take more than one academic lifetime to undo the mistakes of the pioneers. Popular interest and zeal are not enough: they need to be reinforced and guided by a proper understanding of the local historian's business. Far too many people still find themselves in the position of the amateur who wrote to me some weeks ago to ask for guidance. He explained that for five years he had been accumulating notes on the history of a Wiltshire village, but he was quite at a loss to interpret his materials or put them into shape; and he concluded by saying, with cheerful pessimism, that his collection now lacked only the detailed genealogies of the lords on the manor to make it quite ready for the dustbin. Such appeals impose on us a duty of missionary effort. We have to work out and persistently expound a theory of local history that will provide a sound basis for the work of its practitioners both inside and outside the university.
A student of mathematics would not get very far unless he knew his multiplication table, and one cannot master a foreign language until one has learnt to conjugate its verbs. Just so, in history, there is an aggregate of elementary fact which must be assimilated before the subject can be pursued at all fruitfully. It was doubtless not much fun for Sir Thomas Bertram's daughters to learn by heart "the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns ... Yes, and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus," but besides giving them something to plume themselves upon by contrast with their cousin Fanny, it did provide a framework into which more advanced knowledge could have been securely fitted had their studies been prolonged. It is the business of the schools to equip their pupils with this apparatus of elementary fact, and not to send them forth as sketchily informed as that elderly Yorkshireman who after listening for an hour and a half to a lecture on the dissolution of the monasteries given by an experienced extramural tutor, rose at question-time and said; "Do you mean us to understand that those old monks were all Roman Catholics?"
I am told that the method of study by what are called 'projects' is gaining ground in the schools. The pupil is given a theme and turned loose to gather such relevant information as he can find out for himself. Having never taught schoolchildren myself, I am not competent to pronounce an opinion on the merits of this plan, but I imagine that it does help to arouse and activate the pupil's interest. I imagine, too, that the materials need to be fairly close at hand. Elementary textbooks will supply regnal names and dates, but the local scene will supply monuments which the pupil can sketch or photograph, and other visible evidence in plenty. Hence the growing popularity of local history in schools. Many schools now organize lectures, excursions, field-clubs, and exhibitions, in all of which local history plays a part. The secondary modern school, being less dominated than the grammar school by the need to prepare its pupils for public examinations, gives particular attention to this local approach.
On the other hand, in any future that can be foreseen the examinations which no schoolchild altogether escapes will not be examinations in local history .Hence the function of local history in school is, and is likely to remain, ancillary. This was indeed the place assigned to it in the earliest state paper which accorded it a place in the national system of education. A circular from the Board of Education in 1908 required teachers to make "constant reference to the history of the locality as illustrative of the general history." (9) In other words, the pupil is not to concern himself with the story of the local community as such. He is still learning his "1066 and all that" and local illustrations are brought in merely to lighten the tedium for him.
Later he goes to a university and tries for an honours degree in history .At first he will be fully occupied in extending his range of factual knowledge, filling in the gaps in what he learned at school. But even the amount of specialization implied in an honours course is expected to be truly educational, to turn out educated men and women, not just walking encyclopaedias. Therefore, since knowledge of facts develops only the memory, knowledge alone will not suffice: we expect an educated man to have acquired the skills necessary for organizing his knowledge and interpreting the facts. At this stage, accordingly, the student moves on from the text-books to the original sources. He is encouraged to think for himself, and required to put his thoughts in writing; and to make this possible, he concentrates on a chosen 'special subject'.
It is at this point that I believe the Department of English Local History can usefully co-operate with the Departments of History and of Economic History. For local history is not a body of knowledge which can be imparted through the medium of text-books. And even if it were, it is not the knowledge of which an undergraduate student has most need. I say this because the local community is the least crudely powerful of social entities. However vigorous its life and ethos, however stubborn its resistance to external pressures, it cannot escape them altogether. Hence the history of Europe and of England will do more to enlighten us about the history of Leicester or Barchester than vice versa. The knowledge of national and international history which the undergraduate has been acquiring are indispensable to the local historian. It is at that point in his course where the acquisition of knowledge begins to be coupled with the development of historical skill, that local history, in the form of carefully designed 'special subjects', can help the undergraduate by introducing him to original sources and pointing the way to their interpretation. To begin earlier would be to build on sand.
Suppose now that our student, having taken his degree, wishes to engage in post-graduate work. He has learnt his "1066 and all that" ; he has had some practice in weighing historical evidence, and acquired some insight into the nature of historical processes. Now, when he is ready to undertake original research, local history may legitimately exert its full attraction. He will have to do a lot of fact-finding about his chosen town or village, but all the political, ecclesiastical, and economic history that he has learnt will be pressed into service when he sets himself to interpret the facts and organize his narrative. Since the greater part of English local history has yet to be written, there is ample room for all the skills of which a historian is capable.
The Robbins committee looks forward to a considerable expansion of post-graduate studies in the near future, and remarks that since it is plainly impossible for all universities to excel in all subjects, advanced work of high quality will inevitably be concentrated in institutions known to offer unique facilities in certain fields, (l0) So far as local history is concerned, Leicester is already in that position. Since our university acquired the power to grant its own degrees, the Department of English Local History has ceased to be one in which the chief, if not the only, duty of its members was held to be the prosecution and publication of their own research-work. In other words, it has ceased to be a research department pure and simple, and is now more properly described as a graduate school, with ramifications extending, as I have tried to show, on one side into the field of undergraduate studies, and on the other into that of extramural education. In all these spheres it is our duty to uphold the status of the subject as a branch of scholarship. Any idea that local history is a comparatively soft option must be firmly dispelled. We have to show by teaching and - so far as in us lies - by the example of our own work that it is as rigorous and exacting a study as any other academic discipline. Its perspectives are admittedly not so wide as those of national and international history , but then our curiosity extends to every corner of the local scene. Others may specialize in this period or that, in ecclesiastical or parliamentary or economic history : the local historian, for whom the urban or rural community is one entire whole, must embrace them all.
I should have liked to deal with a possible criticism that local history as understood at Leicester, so far from being a trivial pursuit, makes demands too far-reaching to be met successfully by any but a dedicated few. I might also have discussed the place of team-work in our study, and touched upon the possibility that twentieth-century techniques of communication may presently diminish the importance of books and articles in the dissemination of our work. But time presses, and I forbear. I hope I have said enough to set the ball of discussion rolling - outside the university if not within it. If so, it only remains for me to thank the University of Leicester, in the name of local historians everywhere, for all it has done to protect and foster our subject.
1 The Local Historian and his Theme, reprinted supra, pp. 1-24.
2. 'Local History', in H. P. R. Finberg (ed.), Approaches to History, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, pp. 111-25, reprinted supra, pp. 25-44.
3. Antiquaries Journal, XLIII, 1963, p. 322.
4. Marc Bloch, Métier d'Historien, 1952, pp. 76, 78.
5. p. 33 supra.
6. H. L. Kornberg, The Unity of Life, Leicester University Press, 1962, pp. 19, 21.
7. "The historian will not in ordinary circumstances need to take cognizance of a single discontented peasant or discontented village. But millions of discontented peasants in thousands of villages are a factor which no historian will ignore." - E. H, Carr, What is History?, Macmillan, 1961, p. 44. For "historian" here read "national historian."
8. In 1912 the Research Fellow in Local History at Reading was appointed Professor of Modern History, and the fellowship was allowed to lapse. The terms in which the Principal of the University College, W. M. Childs, referred to "the study of local history as a means of illustrating the wider study of national history" show that the history of the local community was not yet held to be a subject worth pursuing for its own sake. - Prefatory Note to F. M. Stenton's Early History of the Abbey of Abingdon, Reading, 1913, p. iv.
9. Board of Education Circular 599, dated 25 November 1908.
10. Higher Education (Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins), 1963, p.106.