The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 11. John Mitchell Kemble

The date of John Mitchell Kemble’s most important contribution to historical literature was earlier than that of Palgrave’s by a year or two; and, in the purpose to which he diverted his researches, he connects himself with the Germanist school rather than with what may be called Palgrave’s imperialist tendency. Kemble—though he appears to have known nothing of Waitz—is essentially Germanistic in the groundwork of his teaching; and, in the preface to his best known work, The Saxons in England (1849), written at a time when the foundations of existing European politics seemed giving way on all sides, declared his opinion that to her institutions and principles of government, bequeathed to her by Teutonic ancestors, England, in a great measure, owed her pre-eminence among nations, her stability and her security. No doubt, this work and, even more so, the Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici by which it was preceded, and the less important collection of later state papers, which followed it, were the productions of an antiquary rather than of a historian; The Saxons in England offers a series of dissertations on materials, unwelded into an organic whole. The writer has little interest in the traditions of the conquest as handed down by the Chronicle and Bede; what concerns him is the gradual evolution of institutions, mainly of Teutonic origin, although these began to spread among us while Britain was still under Roman dominion, and the population was even more largely Celtic than its lower orders continued to remain. In Kemble’s view, the social changes that accompanied the gradual establishment of these institutions were due to the conditions and new forms of landed proprietorship. Kemble, though he had no legal training, like that of certain other English historians of this age, by his study of the charters came to understand that the English system of land laws has an importance for English history not less than the Roman had for that of Rome; and this insight he owed, in the first instance, as he owed his perception of the Germanic origin of that system, to his Old English lore. Rarely has so great and direct a service been rendered to historical science by philological scholarship.