Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–1892)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Bach McMaster (1852–1932)
EDWARD AUGUSTUS FREEMAN, one of the most prolific of recent English historians, was born at Harborne in Staffordshire, England, on August 2d, 1823. His early education was received at home and in private schools, from which at the age of eighteen he went up to Oxford, where he was elected a scholar of Trinity College. Four years later (1845) he took his degree and was elected a Fellow of Trinity, an honor which he held till his marriage in 1847 forced him to relinquish it.  1
  Long before this event, Freeman was deep in historical study. His fortune was easy. The injunction that he should eat bread in the sweat of his face had not been laid on him. His time was his own, and was devoted with characteristic zeal and energy to labor in the field of history, which in the course of fifty years was made to yield him a goodly crop.  2
  Year after year he poured forth a steady stream of Essays, Thoughts, Remarks, Suggestions, Lectures, Short Histories on matters of current interest, little monographs on great events or great men,—all covering a range of subjects which bear evidence to most astonishing versatility and learning. Sometimes his topic was a cathedral church, as that of Wells or Leominster Priory; or a cathedral city, as Ely or Norwich. At others it was a grave historical theme, as the ‘Unity of History’; or ‘Comparative Politics’; or the ‘Growth of the English Constitution from the Earliest Times’; or ‘Old English History for Children.’ His ‘General Sketch of European History’ is still a standard text book in our high schools and colleges. His ‘William the Conqueror’ in Macmillan’s ‘Twelve English Statesmen’; his ‘Short History of the Norman Conquest of England’ in the Clarendon Press Series; his studies of Godwin, Harold, and the Normans, in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ are the best of their kind.  3
  His contributions to the reviews and magazines make a small library, encyclopædic in character. Thirty-one essays were published in the Fortnightly Review; thirty in the Contemporary Review; twenty-seven in Macmillan’s Magazine; twelve in the British Quarterly, and as many more in the National Review; while such as are scattered through the other periodicals of Great Britain and the United States swell the list to one hundred and fifty-seven titles. Every conceivable subject is treated,—politics, government, history, field sports, architecture, archæology, books, linguistics, finance, great men living and dead, questions of the day. But even this list does not comprise all of Freeman’s writings, for regularly every week, for more than twenty years, he contributed two long articles to the Saturday Review.  4
  Taken as a whole, this array of publications represents an industry which was simply enormous, and a learning as varied as it was immense. If classified according to their subjects, they fall naturally into six groups. The antiquarian and architectural sketches and addresses are the least valuable and instructive. They are of interest because they exhibit a strong bent of mind which appears constantly in Freeman’s works, and because it was by the aid of such remains that he studied the early history of nations. Then come the studies in politics and government, such as the essays on presidential government; on American institutional history; on the House of Lords; the growth of commonwealths, and such elaborate treatises as the six lectures on ‘Comparative Politics,’ and the ‘History of Federal Government,’—all notable because of the liberal spirit and breadth of view that mark them, and because of a positiveness of statement and confidence in the correctness of the author’s judgments. Then come the historical essays; then the lectures and addresses; then his occasional pieces, written at the request of publishers or editors to fill some long-felt want; and finally the series of histories on which, in the long run, the reputation of Freeman must rest. These, in the order of merit and value, are the ‘Norman Conquest’; the ‘Reign of William Rufus,’ which is really a supplement to the ‘Conquest’; the ‘History of Sicily,’ which the author did not live to finish.  5
  The roll of his works is enough to show that the kind of history which appealed to Freeman was that of the distant past, and that which dealt with politics rather than with social life. Of ancient history he had a good mastery; English history from its dawn to the thirteenth century he knew minutely; European history of the same period he knew profoundly. After the thirteenth century his interest grew less and less as modern times were approached, and his knowledge smaller and smaller till it became that of a man very well read in history and no more.  6
  Freeman was therefore essentially a historian of the far past; and as such had, it is safe to say, no living superior in England. But in his treatment of the past he presents a small part of the picture. He is concerned with great conquerors, with military leaders, with battles and sieges and systems of government. The mass of the people have no interest for him at all. His books abound in battle-pieces of the age of the long-bow and the javelin, of the battle-axe, the mace, and the spear; of the age when brain went for little and when brawn counted for much; and when the fate of nations depended less on the skill of individual commanders than on the personal prowess of those who met in hand-to-hand encounters. He delights in descriptions of historic buildings; he is never weary of drawing long analogies between one kind of government and another; but for the customs, the manner, the usages, the daily life of the people, he has never a word. “History,” said he on one occasion, “is past politics; politics is present history,” and to this epigram he is strictly faithful. The England of the serf and the villein, the curfew and the monastery, is brushed aside to leave room for the story of the way in which William of Normandy conquered the Saxons, and of the way in which William Rufus conducted his quarrels with Bishop Anselm.  7
  With all of this no fault is to be found. It was his cast of mind, his point of view; and the questions which alone concern us in any estimate of his work are: Did he do it well? What is its value? Did he make a real contribution to historical knowledge? What are its merits and defects? Judged by the standard he himself set up, Freeman’s chief merits, the qualities which mark him out as a great historian, are an intense love of truth and a determination to discover it at any cost; a sincere desire to mete out an even-handed justice to each and every man; unflagging industry, common-sense, broad views, and the power to reproduce the past most graphically.  8
  From these merits comes Freeman’s chief defect,—prolixity. His earnest desire to be accurate made him not only say the same thing over and over again, but say it with an unnecessary and useless fullness of detail, and back up his statement with a profusion of notes, which in many cases amount to more than half the text. Indeed, were they printed in the same type as the text, the space they occupy would often exceed it. Thus, in the first volume of the ‘Norman Conquest’ there are 528 pages of text, with foot-notes occupying from a third to a half of almost every page, and an appendix of notes of 244 pages; in the second volume, the text and foot-notes amount to 512, and the appendix 179; in the third, the text covers 562 and the appendix 206 pages. These notes are always interesting and always instructive. But the end of a volume is not the place for an exhibition of the doubts and fears that have tormented the historian, for a statement of the reasons which have led him to one conclusion rather than another, nor for the denunciation or reputation of the opinions of his predecessors. When the building is finished, we do not want to see the lumber used as the scaffolding piled in the back yard. Mr. Freeman’s histories would be all the better for a condensation of the text and an elimination of the long appendices.  9
  With these exceptions, the workmanship is excellent. He entered so thoroughly into the past that it became to him more real and understandable than the present. He was not merely the contemporary but the companion of the men he had to deal with. He knew every spot of ground, every Roman ruin, every mediæval castle, that came in any way to be connected with his story, as well as he knew the topography of the country that stretched beneath his study window, or the arrangement of the house in which he lived.  10
  In his histories, therefore, we are presented at every turn with life-like portraits of the illustrious dead, bearing all the marks of having been taken from life; with descriptions of castles and towers, minsters and abbeys, and of the scenes that have made them memorable; with comparisons of one ruler with another, always sane and just; and with graphic pictures of coronations, of battles, sieges, burnings, and all the havoc and pomp of war.  11
  The essays and studies in politics show Mr. Freeman in a yet more interesting light; many are elaborate reviews of historical works, and therefore cover a wide range of topics, both ancient and of the present time. Now his subject is Mr. Bryce’s ‘Holy Roman Empire’; now the Flavian Cæsars; now Mr. Gladstone’s ‘Homer and the Homeric Age’; now Kirk’s ‘Charles the Bold’; now presidential government; now Athenian democracy; now the Byzantine Empire; now the Eastern Church; now the growth of commonwealths; now the geographical aspects of the Eastern Question.  12
  By so wide a range of topics, an opportunity is afforded for a variety of remarks, analogies, judgments of men and times, far greater than the histories could give. In the main, these judgments may be accepted; but so thoroughly was Freeman a historian of the past, that some of his estimates of contemporary men and things were singularly erroneous. While our Civil War was still raging he began a ‘History of Federal Government,’ which was to extend from the Achæan League “to the disruption of the United States.” A prudent historian would not have taken up the rôle of prophet. He would have waited for the end of the struggle. But absolute self-confidence in his own good judgment was one of Freeman’s most conspicuous traits. His estimate of Lincoln is another instance of inability to understand the times in which he lived. In the ‘Essay on Presidential Government,’ published in the National Review in 1864 and republished in the first series of ‘Historical Essays’ in 1871, the greatest President and the grandest public character the United States has yet produced is declared inferior to each and all the Presidents from Washington to John Quincy Adams. A comparison of Lincoln with Monroe or Madison or Jefferson by Freeman would have been entertaining.  13
  Two views of history as set forth in the essays are especially deserving of notice. He is never weary of insisting on the unity and the continuity of history in general and that of England in particular, and he attaches unreasonable importance to the influence of the Teutonic element in English history. This latter was the inevitable result of his method of studying the past along the lines of philology and ethnology, and has carried him to extremes which taken by anybody else he would have been quick to see.  14
  An examination of Freeman’s minor contributions to the reviews—such essays, sketches, and discussions as he did not think important enough to republish in book form—is indicative of his interest in current affairs. They made little draft on his learning, yet the point of view is generally the result of his learning. He believed, for instance, that a sound judgment on the Franco-Prussian War could not be found save in the light of history. “The present war,” he wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette, “has largely risen out of a misconception of history, out of the dream of a frontier of the Rhine which never existed. The war on the part of Germany is in truth a vigorous setting forth of the historical truth that the Rhine is, and always has been, a German river.”  15
  Freeman was still busy with his ‘History of Sicily’ from the earliest times, and had just finished the preface to the third volume, when he died at Alicante in Spain, March 16th, 1892. Since his death a fourth volume, prepared from his notes, has been published.  16
  But one biography of Freeman has yet appeared, ‘The Life and Letters of Edward A. Freeman,’ by W. R. W. Stephens, 2 vols., 1895.  17

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.