Edward Augustus Freeman
THE sudden death of Professor Freeman, last March, was a great calamity to the world of letters. Although his achievements in the field of historical writing had been so varied and voluminous, yet some of his most important themes — some of those which had been slowly ripening and most richly developed in his mind — were still awaiting literary treatment at his hands, and at the time of his death he had just finished the third volume of a colossal work which was still in its earlier stages. His end was premature, and it is with a keen sense of bereavement that we take this occasion to pay a brief word of tribute to so dear and honored a teacher.
Edward Augustus Freeman, son of John Freeman of Redmore Hall, in Worcestershire, was born at Harborne, Staffordshire, August 2, 1823. His life was always purely that of a scholar and teacher, and a chronicle of its events would consist chiefly of the record of books published and offices held at the university of Oxford. He was graduated at Trinity College in 1845, and remained there as a Fellow until 1847. In 1857, 1863, and 1873 he served as Examiner in Modern History. In 1880 he was chosen honorary Fellow of Trinity, and in 1884 Fellow of Oriel. In the latter year he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History, succeeding Bishop Stubbs in that position. It is not necessary to enumerate the honorary degrees which he received from Oxford and Cambridge, and from universities in various European countries. At the time of his death he was a member of learned societies in nearly all parts of the world. For many years he had been a Knight Commander of the Greek Order of the Saviour. He had also received honors of knighthood from Servia and Montenegro. In 1868 he was a candidate for Parliament, but failed of election, and that seems to have been his sole venture in the world of politics. His travels upon the continent of Europe were many and extensive. When at home he lived in rural seclusion, — “ far from the madding crowd,” — upon his estate at Somerleaze, near Wells and its noble cathedral ; only in these latter years he made a home for himself, during the Oxford terms, at St. Giles in that city.
From the very beginning Mr. Freeman’s historical studies were characterized on the one hand by philosophical breadth of view, and on the other hand by extreme accuracy of statement, and such loving minuteness of detail as is apt to mark the local antiquary whose life has been spent in studying only one thing. It was to the combination of these two characteristics that the preëminent greatness of his historical work was due. We see the combination already prefigured, and to some extent realized, in his first book, A History of Architecture, published in 1849, although this can hardly be called such a work of original research as the books of his maturer years. Two years afterward appeared the learned Essay on the Origin and Development of Window Tracery in England, a work which I do not feel able to criticise, but which I am sure is very charming to read. I believe that this book was fallowed by at least three others in the same department, Architectural Antiquities of Gower, The Antiquities of St. David’s, and The Architecture of Llandaff Cathedral, but I have never seen them. In the preface to the essay on window tracery Mr. Freeman alludes to Rev. G. W. Cox as his “ friend and coadjutor in many undertakings,” and I have heard of a volume of poems “ by G. W. C. and E. A. F.” published in those days, but I know no more about it. It is to be hoped that these early works, which have become very scarce, will now be collected and reprinted.
When, after these publications on architecture, Mr. Freeman began publishing books and articles on ancient Greece and on the Saracens, I presume there were many of his readers who thoughtlessly assumed that he had changed his vocation ; he must more than once have had to answer the stupid question why he had gone over from architecture to history. But in his broad philosophical view the evolution of architecture was never separated from the course of political history; and the effect of these early studies in architecture, which were indeed never abandoned, but kept up with enthusiasm in later years, was to give increased definiteness and concreteness to his presentation of historical events. When I use such a word as “evolution ” in this connection, I do not mean that Mr. Freeman was in any sense a “ disciple ” of the modern evolution philosophy. There is nothing to show that he ever gave any time or attention to the study of that subject, or that he had any technical knowledge even of its terminology. Whether consciously or unconsciously, however, he was an evolutionist in spirit. From the outset he was deeply impressed with the solidarity of human history, and no student of political development in our time has made more effective use of the comparative method.
From 1850 to 1863 Mr. Freeman’s published writings were chiefly concerned with Mediterranean history viewed on the broadest scale in relation to all those movements of progressive humanity which have had that great inland sea for a common centre. Here came those brilliant essays on Ancient Greece and Mediæval Italy, Homer and the Homeric Age, The Athenian Democracy, Alexander the Great, Greece during the Macedonian Period, Mommsen ’s History of Rome, The Flavian Cæsars, and others since collected in the second series of his Historical Essays. To this period also belongs the little book on the History of the Saracens, based upon lectures given at the Philosophical Institution in Edinburgh.
From these Mediterranean studies may be said to have grown two of Mr. Freeman’s three great works, — both of them, unfortunately, left incomplete at his death, — the History of Federal Government and the History of Sicily. Mr. Freeman was remarkably free from the common habit — common even among eminent historians — of concentrating his attention upon some exceptionally brilliant period or so - called “classical age,” to the exclusion of other ages that went before and came after. Such a habit is fatal to all correct understanding of history, even that of the ages upon which attention is thus unwisely concentrated. Mr. Freeman understood that in some respects, if not in others, the history of Greece is just as important after the battle of Chæronea as before ; and he became especially interested in the history of the Achaian League and other Greek attempts at federation. Thence grew the idea of studying the development of federal union as the highest form of nationbuilding, beginning with its germs in the leagues among Greek autonomous cities. The enterprise was arduous, involving as it did the determination of obscure points in the history of many ages and countries, more particularly Greece, Switzerland, and America. The first volume, containing the general introduction and the history of the Greek federations, was published in 1863, a stalwart octavo of 721 pages. It bore upon the title-page a motto from The Federalist, No. XVIII, — “ Could the interior structure and regular operation of the Achaian League be ascertained, it is probable that more light might be thrown by it on the science of federal government than by any of the like experiments with which we are acquainted.” This book is of priceless value, and if Mr. Freeman had never published anything more, it would have entitled him to a place in the foremost rank of historians. It deals thoroughly with a very important, portion of the world’s history to which no one before had even begun to do justice. Its admirable philosophical spirit is matched by its keen critical insight and its minute and exhaustive control of all sources of information. Its narrative, moreover, is full of human interest. Yet it never became a popular book. It was hard to make people believe that the Achaian League could be interesting, and in order to realize the philosophical value of the whole story most readers would need to have the later portions of it set before their eyes.
But this noble work, in some respects the grandest of the author’s conceptions, was never completed. The first volume was all that ever was published. For this fact I have sometimes heard Americans offer a grotesque explanation. The volume published in 1863, in the middle of our civil war, bore the title History of Federal Government, from the Foundation of the Achaian League to the Disruption of the United States. This title gave offense in America. It was too hastily taken to indicate that the author wished well to the Southern Confederacy, and regarded its independence as an accomplished fact. There can be no doubt that the title was ill chosen ; but to suppose, as some people did, that chagrin at the success of the Union arms prevented Mr. Freeman from going on with his book was simply ridiculous. It was not anything that happened in America, but something that happened in Europe, which caused him to defer the completion of his second volume. That volume was to deal with federal government as exemplified in Switzerland and otherwise in Germany ; and the war of 1866 between Prussia and Austria marked the beginning of organic changes in Germany which Mr. Freeman was anxious to watch for a while before finishing his book.
He therefore turned aside and took up the third of his three great works, — the only one that he lived to complete, — the History of the Norman Conquest of England, its Causes and its Results. Upon this subject he had thought and studied for nearly twenty years, or ever since the time when he was publishing works on architecture. As one turns the leaves of these stout volumes, each of seven or eight hundred pages, crowded with minute and accurate erudition, one marvels that the author could carry along so many researches and of such exhaustive character at the same time. Alike in Greek, in German, and in English history, along with abundant generalizations, often highly original and suggestive, we find investigations of obscure points in which every item of evidence is weighed as in an apothecary’s scale, and in all these directions Mr. Freeman was working at once. When it came to publishing, volume followed volume with surprising quickness. Turning aside in 1866 from the second volume of the Federal Government when a large part of it was already written, Mr. Freeman brought out the first volume of the Norman Conquest in 1867, the second in 1868, the third in 1869, the fourth in 1871, the fifth more leisurely in 1876. The proportions of this work are eminently characteristic of the author’s historical perspective. In order to understand the Norman Conquest, a survey of all previous English history, and especially of the struggle between Englishmen and Danes, is essential; and the first volume carries us in one great sweep from the landing of Hengist to the accession of Edward the Confessor, while the early history of Normandy also receives due attention. We now enter the region of proximate causes, which require more detailed specification, and the second volume takes us through the four-and-twenty years of Edward’s reign. His death hurries the situation to its dramatic climax, and the whole of the third volume is devoted to the events of the single year 1066. The completion of the Conquest down to the deatli of the Conqueror is treated with less detail, and the twenty-one years are comprised within a volume. Finally, in summing up the results of the great event, the last volume covers two centuries, and leaves us in the reign of Edward I., the king who did so much to make modern English history the glorious tale that it has been. In finishing his work upon these proportions, Mr. Freeman encountered many points in the reign of William Rufus that needed fuller treatment, and so in 1882 he published in two volumes the history of that reign as a sequel to the Norman Conquest. Taken as a whole, the seven volumes give us such a masterly philosophic analysis and such a picturesque and vivid narrative of the history of England in the eleventh century that it must be pronounced the monumental work upon which Mr. Freeman’s reputation will chiefly rest.
While these volumes were in course of publication, there was scarcely a year when its busy author, from his vast wealth of knowledge, did not bring out some other book. Sometimes it was what men count a slight affair, such as a textbook, albeit the textbook is perhaps the hardest kind of book to write well ; sometimes it was a brief monograph or course of lectures; sometimes a collection of earlier writings. There was an Old English History for Children (1869), a Short History of the Norman Conquest (1880), and a General Sketch of European History (1873). The Growth of the English Constitution was suggestively treated in a small volume (1872). There was a History of the Cathedral Church at Wells (1870), and there was a collection of Historical and Architectural Sketches, chiefly from Italy (1876), followed by Sketches from the Subject and Neighbour Lands of Venice (1881). In these two last-named volumes, illustrated chiefly from the author’s own drawings, one sees that his interest in Diocletian and Theodoric was scarcely less keen than in Alfred of Wessex or William the Norman. No other modern traveler has done such justice to Istria and Dalmatia. “ I am not joking,” he writes,
“ when I say that the best guide to those parts is still the account written by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus more than nine hundred years back. But it is surely high time that there should be another.” Mr. Freeman’s accurate knowledge of southeastern Europe and its peoples, coupled with his wide and comprehensive study of the contact between Christians and Mussulmans in all ages, led him to take very sound and wholesome views of the unspeakable Turk and the everlasting Eastern Question ; and in 1877, when public attention was so strongly directed toward the Balkans, he published a lucid and graphic little volume on The Ottoman Power in Europe. This book was a companion to the History of the Saracens, above mentioned, and the two together make as good an introduction to Mussulman history in its relations to Europe as the general reader is likely to find.
Among the host of side works which were issued during these years, two call for especial mention. In the lectures on Comparative Politics, given at the Royal Institution in 1873, Mr. Freeman analyzed and described the different forms assumed by Aryan institutions among Greeks, Romans, and Teutons. This book is his most distinct attempt to make his central theme the career of an institution, such as kingship or representative assemblies, rather than the career of a state or a people. In the History of Federal Government, the two kinds of treatment, analytical and synthetical, were combined in a way that would, I think, have made that his grandest work, had it been completed. In the lectures we get an able analysis and comparison, full of fruitful suggestions, and in our author’s happiest style. There is not the originality of scholarship here that we find in Sir Henry Maine, nor do we find the breadth of view that can be gained only when the barbaric non-Aryan world is taken into account. Such breadth was not to be expected twenty years ago, and before the path-breaking work of the American scholar Lewis Morgan. Mr. Freeman’s outlook was confined to the Aryan domain ; but he did not attempt more than he knew. His task was conceived with so clear a consciousness of his limitations, and every point was so richly illustrated, that the Comparative Politics remains one of his most useful and charming books.
The other work calling for especial mention is The Historical Geography of Europe, published in 1880. Its object was “ to trace out the extent of territory which the different states and nations of Europe have held at different times in the world’s history; to mark the different boundaries which the same country has had, and the different meanings in which the same name has been used.” Such work is of great and fundamental importance, because men are perpetually making grotesque mistakes through ignorance or forgetfulness of the changes which have occurred upon the map ; as, for example, when somebody speaks of Lyons in the twelfth century as a French city, or supposes that Charles the Bold invaded Swiss territory. Historical writings fairly swarm with blunders based upon unconscious errors of this sort, and nowhere did Mr. Freeman do better service than in pointing them out on every possible occasion. No writer has so effectively warned the historical student against that besetting sin of “bondage to the modern map.” His exposition of historical geography is a book of purest gold, and no serious student of history can safely neglect it.
In 1881 Mr. Freeman visited the United States, and gave lectures on The English People in its Three Homes and The Practical Bearings of European History, which were afterward published in a volume. After returning home he published Some Impressions of the United States (1883), a very entertaining book because of the author’s ingrained habit of comparing and discriminating social phenomena upon so wide a scale. Gauls and Illyrians, Wessex and Achaia, come in to point each a moral, and show how to this great historian the whole European past was almost as much a present and living reality as the incidents occurring before his eyes.
In the same year, 1883, Mr. Freeman published his English Towns and Districts, a series of addresses and sketches in which he had from time to time embodied the results of his antiquarian and architectural studies in many parts of England and Wales. It is a book of rare fascination as illustrating how largely national history is made up of local history, and how it is impossible to understand the former correctly without paying much attention to the latter. In further illustration of the same point, Mr. Freeman projected the well-known series of monographs on Historic Towns, to which he himself contributed the opening volume, on Exeter (1886).
Having been called to the Regius Professorship at Oxford in 1884, Mr. Freeman’s next publications were university lectures on Methods of Historical Study, The Chief Periods of European History, Fifty Years of European History, Teutonic Conquest in Gaul and Britain, Greater Greece and Greater Britain, and George Washington the Expander of England (1886-88). Meanwhile, the colossal work on Sicily was rapidly assuming its final shape. This topic obviously touched upon Mr. Freeman’s other two chief topics at two points. Ancient Sicily was part of that Greek world which he had so thoroughly studied in connection with the beginnings of Federal Government. Mediæval Sicily was one of the most important of the Norman’s fields of activity. But the thought of writing the history of that fateful island did not come to Mr. Freeman as an afterthought suggested by his other two great works. On the contrary, the conception of the historic position of Sicily was among the first that stimulated his philosophic mind to undertake comprehensive studies. The contact between the Aryan and Semitic civilizations along the coasts of the Mediterranean is surely the most interestingtopic in the history of mankind, as the reader will at once admit when he reflects that it involves the origin and rise of Christianity. But, restricting ourselves to the political aspects of the subject, how full of dramatic grandeur it is! How stirring were the scenes of which Sicily has been the theatre! There struggled Carthage first against Greek, and then against Roman; and in later times the conflict was renewed between Arabic-speaking Mussulmans and Greekspeaking Christians, until the Norman came to assert his sway over both, and to loosen the clutch of the Saracen upon the centre of the Mediterranean world. The theme, in its manifold bearings, was worthy of Mr. Freeman, and he was worthy of it. His design was to start with the earliest times in which Sicily is known to history, and to carry on the narrative as far as the death of the Emperor Frederick II. and the final overthrow of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. The scheme lay ripening in his mind for nearly half a century, and its consummation was begun with characteristic swiftness and vigor. Two noble volumes were published in 1891, and the third was out of the author’s hands by the end of last January. But for a death sadly sudden and premature there was no reason why the whole task should not have been soon accomplished. The author seems to have fallen a victim to his superabundant zeal and energy. He had always been a traveler, visiting in person the scenes of his narratives, narrowly scrutinizing each locality with the eye of an antiquarian, exploring battlefields and making drawings of churches and castles, running from one end of Europe to the other to verify some mooted point. It was, I believe, on some such expedition as this that he found himself, last March, at Alicante, where an attack of smallpox suddenly ended his life.
To the faithful students of his works the tidings of Freeman’s death must have come like the news of the loss of a personal friend. To those who enjoyed his friendship even in a slight way, the sense of loss was keen, for he was a very lovable man. Some people, indeed, seem to think of him as a gruff and growling pedant, ever on the lookout for some culprit to chastise ; but, while not without some basis, this notion is far from the truth. Mr. Freeman’s conception of the duty of a historian was a high one, and he lived up to it. He had a holy horror of slovenly and inaccurate work; pretentious sciolism was something that he could not endure, and he knew how easy it is to press garbled or misunderstood history into the service of corrupt politics. He found the minds of English-speaking contemporaries full of queer notions of European history, especially in the Middle Ages, — notions usually misty and often grotesquely wrong ; and he did more than any other Englishman of our time to correct such errors and clear up men’s minds. Such work could not be done without attacking blunders and the propagators of blunders. Mr. Freeman’s assaults Were not infrequent, and they were apt to be crushing; but they were made in the interests of historic truth, and there were none too many of them. Like “ Mr. F.’s Aunt,” the great historian did “ hate a fool; ” and it is clearly right that fools should be silenced and made to know their place.
Not only foolishness and inaccuracy did Mr. Freeman hate, but also tyranny, fraud, and social injustice, under whatever specious disguises they might be veiled. In matters of right and wrong his perceptions were rarely clouded. He never could be duped into admiring a charlatan like the late Emperor of the French. Upon the Eastern Question he wielded a Varangian axe, and had his advice been heeded, the Commander of the Faithful would ere now have been sent back to Brusa, or beyond. But while in polities and in criticism he could hit hard, his disposition was as tender and humane as Uncle Toby’s. Eminently characteristic is the discussion on fox-hunting which he carried on with Anthony Trollope some years ago in the Fortnightly Review, in which he condemned that time-honored sport as intolerably cruel.
Mr. Freeman was very domestic in his habits. When not traveling, he was to be found in his country home, writing in his own library. When he was in the United States, it amused him to see people’s surprise when told that he did not live in a city, and did not spend his time deciphering musty manuscripts in public libraries or archives. He used to say that, even in point of economy, he thought it better to dwell among pleasant green fields and consult one’s own books than to take long journeys or be stifled in dirty cities in order to consult other people’s books. His chief subjects of study favored such a policy, for most of the sources of information on the eleventh century, as well as upon ancient Greece, are contained in printed volumes. Now and then he missed some little point upon which a manuscript might have helped him. But one cannot help wishing he might have stayed among the quiet fields of Somerset instead of taking that last journey to Alicante.
It was chiefly with the political aspects of history that Freeman concerned himself, not in the old-fashioned way, as a mere narrative of the deeds of kings and cabinets, but in scientific fashion, as an application of the comparative method to the various processes of nation-building. I do not mean that his narrative was subordinated to scientific exposition, but that it was informed and vitalized by the spirit and methods of science. In pure description Freeman was often excellent; his account of the death of William Rufus, for example, is a masterpiece of impressive narrative. In description and in argument alike Freeman usually confined his attention to political history, except when he dealt in his suggestive way with architecture and archæology. To art in general, to the history of philosophy and of scientific ideas, to the development of literary expression, of manners and customs, of trade and the industrial arts, he devoted much less thought. I have heard that he did not fully approve of his friend Green’s method of carrying along political, social, and literary topics abreast in his History of the English People. Few will doubt, however, that in this inspect Green’s artistic grasp upon his subject was stronger than Freeman’s.
It is some slight consolation for our bitter loss to know that many of the great historian’s books were in large part written long before he felt the time to be ripe for completing and publishing them. Some of the unfinished portions may be brought toward completeness and edited by other hands. In this way I hope we may look for one or two more volumes of the Sicily, and perhaps for the second volume of the Federal Government, dealing with the Swiss and other German federations. Probably no other Englishman, few other men, of our time knew anything like so much as Freeman about the history of Switzerland. I once or twice begged him to make haste and finish that volume, but desisted ; for it was evident that Sicily was absorbing him, and an author does not like to be pestered with advice to turn aside from the work that is uppermost in his mind.