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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

§ 44. Creighton; History of the Papacy

We have reserved, as the first of two particular groups, some of the ecclesiastical historians of the united kingdom not already noted in an earlier volume. Mandell Creighton, though his career connected him closely with several of the historians mentioned in earlier pages of the present chapter, cannot himself be appropriately classed as mainly a medievalist, although his chief historical work is, in part, concerned with the close of the Middle Ages in the very centre of their ruling ideas and influences. Modern Oxford has produced no more accomplished historian than Creighton, who united with a power of work of which it was not in his way to make show an insight into the force of ideas and the play of character which, in writing as well as in speech, enabled him easily to compass what he prized more than aught else—the establishment of his influence over others. On the other hand, although the cynicism at one time affected by him was superficial only, and was cast aside in face of the most serious purposes of his life, he was without the moral enthusiasm which, in different ways, reveals itself in writers so unlike one another as Freeman and Gardiner. In his History of the Papacy, this lack shows itself, not so much in the allowances made for the corruption and other vices of the times in which the lot of some of the pontiffs was thrown, and through which neither a Borgia nor a Medici could be expected to walk unspotted, as in the indifference exhibited towards the chosen spirits of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries on whom depended the preparation and the prosecution of the great work of religious reform. Creighton was, perhaps, less extensively read in the history of early sixteenth-century Germany than in the Italian portions of his subject; but what is missing in his fifth volume is not perception or even fairness of judgment (such as marks the contrast between the ideals of Raffaelle and those of Luther); it is, rather, a fellow-feeling with the consciousness of the mighty issues of the struggle which gave its extraordinary force to the movement set on foot by Luther. Nothing, on the other hand, could better illustrate at once the irony and the pathos of history than the characters, as here drawn, of the reformation popes—Leo X, who could not see why his improvements were insufficient, and Adrian VI, who could understand the necessity of real reforms from within, but was unable to give effect to his insight.

Creighton’s History of the Papacy during the period of the Reformation (1882–94), which should, at the least, have been carried on to the council of Trent, ended with the sack of Rome. But the book is neither a fragment nor a torso, and, at all events in its earlier volumes, sufficiently illustrates the qualities which the historian brought to bear upon the composition of it, and which made it something more than a supplement to Ranke’s greater work. The book could not satisfy the demands of lord Acton, who would have preferred an indictment of the papacy for its historic shortcomings; but it helps to explain, without seeking to palliate, and forms a memorable contribution to the history of learning. His style was well suited to his method of treatment, being wholly free from pedantry and artificiality, and sensitive to any of those lapses into exaggeration which were one of the chief faults noted by him in his favourites, the Italian humanists of the pontificate of Nicholas V.

Before Creighton addressed himself to his chief historical work, he had found many outlets for his critical powers, and had successfully practised the art of epitomising on subjects so different as a history of Rome and a life of Simon de Montfort. After he had exchanged his Northumbrian parish for the chair of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge, he engaged anew in varied historical work, wrote a life of cardinal Wolsey, a history of his native town, Carlisle, and, later, a biography of Queen Elizabeth, which attracted much favour. He was, also, associated, from 1886 to 1891, with The English Historical Review—a critical journal the foundation of which had, at various times, occupied the minds of J. R. Green and other younger historians, and of which Creighton was judiciously chosen as the first editor. It marked a very distinct advance in the method, as well as in the spirit, of English historical study, and maintained itself, without serious difficulty, on the level on which, with the co-operation of lord Acton and others, it had been placed at the start. But, in 1885, Creighton’s appointment to a canonry at Worcester had marked the beginning of the high ecclesiastical career that awaited him, and for the sake of which his historical labours had, ultimately, to be relinquished. The last volume of his Papacy was brought out while he held the see of Peterborough. But his work there and in London (whither he was transferred in 1896) must, like the episcopal life of Stubbs, be left out of sight in this place. His continued interest in historical studies is shown by the fact that, in 1896, the year of his appointment to London, he wrote the introduction to The Cambridge Modern History, in place of his friend lord Acton.