Herbert Butterfield and the Interpretation of History by K. Sewell

By K. Sewell

This publication examines successive phases within the improvement of the concept of Sir Herbert Butterfield with regards to basic concerns within the technological know-how of historical past. In a gently nuanced approach it lays naked the unstated motivations and hidden tensions in Butterfield's debate with himself and with a bunch of up to date historians within the interval among 1924-79.

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51 The Peace Tactics explored the diplomatic manoeuvres that paralleled the military campaigns of the fourth coalition against Napoleon, leading up to the negotiations between the Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon at Tilsit during early July 1807. At Tilsit the Tsar deserted Prussia, his former ally, and formed an alliance with France, his former enemy. The volume concluded with a description of Austrian, British and French policy in the wake of Tilsit. 52 The human personality and human agency were its central themes.

So the ‘history of the text-books’, the disciplined historiography ‘that can be made up out of the recoverable facts of the past’, inevitably ‘fails the romanticist’. Its ‘shortcomings become apparent when we try to particularise’ and ‘see a definite picture’. 16 How, then, is the historian to determine what to include or exclude from a given map or chart, and how is the historian to regard the ineluctably interpretative basis of such decisions? Butterfield subsequently confronted this question as the problem of abridgments.

Butterfield subsequently confronted this question as the problem of abridgments. In The Historical Novel he avoided this issue and oriented his discussion towards the incompleteness of the evidence. 20 Such fiction seeks to achieve an ‘organic’ realisation of a past era. 22 For the great novelist, Butterfield believed historical knowledge is not a confining and cramping prison, but an inspiration that gives wing to his soaring imagination. Such a writer is fully at home and at ease in a past era. Rather than strain at its differences with the present age, the author is familiar with them to the point where they are no longer strange or unusual, and is fully at liberty to explore the manifold opportunities they offer.

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