ABSTRACT

In 1931 Herbert Butterfield published a typology of such approaches under the title The Whig Interpretation of History which gained a great vogue during the next two or three decades and fixed the nineteenth century, to its detriment, with a ready-made critique which lesser historians than Butterfield have applied mechanically to several generations of writers. Butterfield’s short meditation-it was hardly more than an essay-singled out no particular men for attack; it offered no index. It took its starting-point from discomfort in the face of writers (and here he plainly had Acton in mind) who used historical work as a way of executing judgement on the past and exacting vengeance on malefactors. Instead, ‘research’ had a different task. It should illuminate the past as it appeared to those for whom it was the present, rather than treating historical persons as though they were apprenticefigures, trying and often failing to be modern:

Real historical understanding is not achieved by the subordination of the past to the present, but rather by our making the past our present and attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own. It is not reached by assuming that our own age is

the absolute to which Luther and Calvin and their generation are only relative; it is only reached by fully accepting the fact that their generation was as valid as our generation, their issues as momentous as our issues and their day as full and vital to them as our day is to us.