Evidence and Aspiration

In a book I greatly enjoyed reading recently, I learnt an enormous amount about England’s connectedness to the wider late-medieval and early-modern world. I learnt that in the late thirteenth century, Italian and Catalan merchants sought to sell their goods to Flanders and England, in return for wool. I learnt that Henry VII, a couple of hundred years later, was advised by the Genoese sailor (with Venetian citizenship) John Cabot, when Henry authorised voyages across the Atlantic in search of land. In 1497, Cabot, seeking to outwit the Spaniards in their search for Asia, reached “new-found-land” and maybe even Labrador, where they found no spices but plenty of cod. Monarchs competed with one another but they did so using sailors, navigators and adventurers from other lands and the knowledge they produced was rapidly shared across Europe. The world described in this book is by no means one of European harmony and integration but it is unquestionably one of European interconnectedness. Indeed, in reading David Abulafia’s wonderful The Discovery of Mankind (Yale, 2008) I fondly imagined that the author must be, if not an advocate of fashionable terms such as “transnationalism”, then certainly a historian who, on the basis of his work, held no truck with exceptionalist nationalist myth-making.

'Very Well, Alone', David Low Evening Standard, 18 June 1940
‘Very Well, Alone’, David Low
Evening Standard, 18 June 1940

How wrong one can be. Yet if Abulafia truly believes that British institutions have embodied democratic values in ways that continental Europeans have not or that British values set our island story apart from those of our near neighbours, then I am a loss to explain how these beliefs can be squared with the evidence presented in his own work. That evidence is of an England intimately tied in with its European neighbours in terms of trade, exploration, dynastic marriage, technology, the transmission of belief systems, diplomatic conflict and warfare. The work does not seek to show that England was the same as other European “countries” (can one speak of “countries” at this period?), but then neither does it suggest that all European countries apart from England were the same as each other. What it does suggest is that they were all in tangled contact with one another.

That is something that makes perfect sense to me as a modern European historian. No one would argue that the countries of Europe have followed the same trajectories, for all the similarities one can find. But neither would most historians argue that modern British history diverges fundamentally from that of continental Europe to the extent that Britain is permanently in 1940, standing alone (well, alone with lots of Poles, colonial troops and others we prefer not to mention, like the Irish). No doubt histoires croisées or Transfergeschichte or other foreign rubbish can’t stand up to good solid British common sense. But when historians are so blinded by political fantasy that their explicitly political arguments contradict the findings of their research then they are relying not on British values such as empiricism and evidence-based research but on the far more dangerous, irrational, even “European” approach of trying to talk an aspiration into existence.

Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest book The Liberation of the Camps: the End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath is published by Yale University Press.

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