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

§ 12. Freeman

The ruling principles of English historians of the Germanist group found their clearest and most vigorous exponent in Edward Augustus Freeman, the central figure of the Oxford historical school of the Victorian age—unless that title be disputed on behalf of Stubbs, to whom Freeman’s loyal friendship would have gladly yielded precedence. In a sense, Freeman’s method supplemented Kemble’s rather than followed it; for, in technical phrase, it was the written monuments rather than the sources—the records rather than the remains—on which Freeman based the conclusions repeated with unwearying persistency in his numerous books great and small, and in countless essays and reviews. He would not hear of Palgrave’s paradox as to the kinship between the Romanised Celts and the English invaders, and attributed to these a conquest which, with the exception of certain parts of the country, meant extirpation. On the other hand, the Norman conquest, of which he became the historian, seemed to him to have brought about no fresh change of an analogous kind, and to have fundamentally affected neither the nature and character of the population, nor the course of the national history. In the consecutive doings of the nation in war and in peace, in its enterprises and exploits as well as in its legislation and system of government in both church and state, its Germanic nature and character manifest themselves. Obviously, however, the historian, whose own interest is restricted to these relations, and who makes no pretence of entering into the social life of the people in any of its aspects save, in a more or less restricted measure, those of language, literature and architecture, omits a strong link in his argument.

Injustice would be done to the force with which Freeman explains and illustrates his general position, were it not added that he calls in the powerful aid of the comparative method, for which he was exceptionally qualified by his acquaintance with much of the medieval history of non-Germanic lands, as well as by his familiarity, noted in an earlier volume of this work, with the history, and the constitutional history in particular, of Greece and Rome. His training as a historical student may, in some respects, have been self-training only, and his advocacy of the principle of the unity of history may have suffered from his lack of intimacy (on which he was wont to insist) with periods which “were not his own” or to which “he had not come down.” Yet, through him, comparative history first became a living thing to English students, and the unity which he proclaimed with missionary zeal was gradually accepted as a reality, in spite of the time-honoured nomenclature of the schools.

Freeman’s literary activity seems extraordinary even to those who had some personal cognisance of part of it. His historical studies, at first, took a largely archaeological turn, and his early literary efforts consisted, in the main, of contributions to The Ecclesiastick and The Ecclesiologist, varied by Poems, legendary and historical, published in conjunction with G. W. Cox. He was, however, preparing for historical efforts in a wider field; by a fortunate chance, a university prize competition, on the effects of the Roman conquest (1845–6), led him to read the works of Thierry, Lingard and Palgrave; and he carried on the study of the subject after he had had “the good luck not to get the prize.” He was, also, early intent upon the acquisition of a pure and simple style, of which, as a historian, he was certainly master. There was never much grace, and still less play of humour, about what he wrote; but his manner of writing, which he seems, in a measure, to have modelled on Macaulay, was almost always forcible and, in general, dignified; and, at times, he could rise to a certain grandeur free from dogmatic admixture.

Although long interested in the question of the study of history at Oxford, and author of a series of lectures published under the title History and Conquests of the Saracens and of an earlier History of Architecture, besides having become, from about the year 1860 onwards, one of the pillars of The Saturday Review, it was not till a little later that he reached the full height of his powers as a historian. His reviews and other articles in weeklies (The Saturday and The Guardian in particular), as well as in monthlies and quarterlies, are, to a large extent, and where their intent was not essentially controversial, chips from the block at which he was working—of the same material and texture, homogeneous with his chief books in life and thought, and little differentiated from them in style. His pen was, in fact, as much his own in his journalistic as in his other productions—in other words, his periodical articles, though, for the most part, unsigned, invariably presented his own opinions. His literary activity, especially from 1859 onwards, was simply astounding.