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

§ 46. T. McCrie

In Scottish ecclesiastical history proper, the palm must be assigned to an earlier writer, Thomas McCrie, an “original seceder” from the established church. Through his Life of John Knox (1812), as the subtitle of the book indicates, he sought to throw light upon the history of the Scottish reformation. It was followed by The Life of Andrew Melville, and the two books, which were supplemented by material belonging to a later period, became standard narratives of the greatest historical movement in Scottish national life. McCrie further contributed to the history of the reformation two less exhaustive works, on its progress and suppression in Italy and in Spain. Whether, had he carried out his design of a life of Calvin, it would have proved equal to his life of the great Scottish reformer, it is, of course, impossible to say; but few ecclesiastical historians were better qualified for essaying even so thorny a theme.

The history of civilisation cannot rightly be described as a product of the nineteenth century; yet, on the one hand, the immense advance made in the course of that century in the methods, as well as in the range, of scientific studies, and, on the other, the unprecedented interest which, from about 1830 or 1840 onwards, began to be taken by historians, as well as by politicians, in the life and social conditions of the people at large, gave a wholly new impulse to the cultivation of this field of enquiry. Its originator was, of course, Voltaire; and, though, throughout the nineteenth century, this branch (if it can be called a branch) of history was vigorously carried on by writers of various kinds in Germany, France never lost her hold upon it. So early as 1830, Guizot’s Histoire de la Civilisation en France, as an organic part of a more comprehensive scheme, sought to execute the design which Voltaire had proposed to himself in his Essai sur les Mœurs. At a later date, the philosophy of history was incorporated by Comte in his system of positivism, and, more especially, in social science (or sociology), as intended to teach the evolution of social life, and to define the laws which govern its conditions and mutations. The philosophy of history, thus recast, ignored any but natural laws, although, not unfrequently, its disciples differed as to what justified the elevation of a particular experience to the authoritative position of a general law. Comte was neither a historian nor the intellectual progenitor of historians; but one English writer, at least, was led by his influence to attempt what amounted to a new departure in our historical literature, since Robertson and Hallam, while following Voltaire and Guizot respectively, had not gone far in developing their principles.