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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XIV. Historians

§ 10. Milman’s Latin Christianity

Henry Hart Milman’s History of Latin Christianity, and, indeed, the whole of his course as a historical writer, connect themselves so closely with the beginnings of critical history in England, already illustrated in the present chapter from the works of Arnold, Thirlwall and Grote, that it seems most appropriate to speak of him here, together with one or two other writers whose works, in part, cover the same ground as his.

The earliest work with which this rarely accomplished man of letters and courageous, though at no time other than reverent, thinker came forward as a historical writer was The History of the Jews (1829). The “poet-priest,” as Byron called him, was already conspicuous among the poetic dramatists of his generation, as he was among the writers of hymns; and he had very appropriately filled the chair of poetry at Oxford. The History of the Jews had, originally, been written for The Family Library, and, notwithstanding the candour of whatever came from its author’s hand, gave some indications of the reserve befitting sober treatment of its subject. Nevertheless, the book made its mark, in the words of a wakeful observer, as

  • the first decisive inroad of German theology into England, the first palpable indication that the Bible can be studied like another book; that the characters and events of the sacred history could be treated at once critically and reverently.
  • Even Arnold (whose personal feelings as to the Jews could hardly have entered into the matter) was not altogether comfortable. But Milman, in whose moral texture there was a strand of uncommon courage, was not dismayed, and, instead of accommodating the further work which he had in preparation to the requirements of the series in which The History of the Jews had appeared, prepared himself for its execution on a wider basis, while, at the same time, collecting materials for an annotated edition of The Decline and Fall. This was published in 1839, accompanied by a life of Gibbon and selections from his correspondence, and, enlarged and revised in a later edition with the co-operation of other eminent historical scholars, held its own till, in our day, it has been superseded in an edition embodying the results of more recent research. The History of Christianity from the Birth of Christ to the Abolition of Paganism in the Roman Empire was itself not published till 1840, and was followed in 1854–5, by the author’s magnum opus, The History of Latin Christianity, including that of the Popes to Nicolas V. This work raised the reputation of Milman as a historian to a high pinnacle. Froude (who had reasons for knowing Milman’s magnanimity) spoke of it as “the first historical work in the English language”; and A. P. Stanley described his future brother-dean’s achievement as “in fact, a complete epic and philosophy of medieval literature.” Such praise seems too high; for, while Milman’s book proves him capable of viewing a great subject both in its historical proportions and in its inner coherence, and of dealing with its main features and, indeed, with its main problems in a large spirit of comprehension and of insight into both men and institutions, it is lacking in certain other qualities. Of these, in view of Milman’s previous literary record, it would not be easy to explain the absence, if such deficiencies always admitted of explanation. In a word, Milman, in his History, seems to be without the imaginative force of his great predecessor, which, in Gibbon, reflected itself in the mirror of a truly grand style, such as, perhaps, no other subject could have so appropriately sustained. On the other hand, no commendations could be more just than those which, so long as the book continues to be read, will continue to be bestowed on its breadth and generosity of judgment—the qualities of which ecclesiastical history frequently stands in need, but with which the writers of it are too often insufficiently endowed. It was the possession of these gifts which led no less competent a judge than Milman’s later successor at St. Paul’s, dean Church, to express the wish that Milman should undertake a history of the reformation—a subject perhaps less august than that chosen by him, but one with which no man dwelling between Rome and the remote regions of Britain could have been more safely trusted than Milman to treat loftily, perspicuously, fearlessly, justly.

    The verdict of the world—the clerical world in especial—was, at first, less favourable, or, at all events, less articulate. But, in 1849, Lord Russell (he, too, not wanting in courage) promoted Milman from the Westminster canonry held by him together with the rectory of St. Margaret’s to the deanery of St. Paul’s, where he acquitted himself of the duties of his office admirably. At the time of his death (24 September, 1868,) his Annals of St. Paul’s was passing through the press: in his later years, he had written a memorial notice of Macaulay (for the Royal society), besides historical essays of value, which, likewise, were published posthumously. His chief work will maintain its place, because of the great mass of material which, with equal judgment and sincerity, he has compressed within its limits, and because of the open-mindedness and magnanimity which are even rarer in the historians of great periods and problems than is the constructive ability requisite for their comprehensive treatment.