Geoffrey Elton

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Sir Geoffrey Rudolph Elton FBA (born Gottfried Rudolf Otto Ehrenberg; 17 August 1921 – 4 December 1994) was a German-born British political and constitutional historian, specialising in the Tudor period. He taught at Clare College, Cambridge, and was the Regius Professor of Modern History there from 1983 to 1988.


  • English government has a special claim to be studied. It developed in comparative freedom from outside interference, producing a curious blend of decentralized and popular freedom with strong, efficient, and centralized administration.
  • [Replying to the criticism of J. P. Cooper] I hope to show that he has arrived at a mistaken view from partial, and partially misinterpreted, evidence. In a field in which things are far from clear or straightforward this is neither surprising nor shocking; it is more disconcerting to find that one who so readily chastises others for their supposed failings should himself be strangely inclined to inaccuracy in discussing other people's views and even in transcribing documents. A self-appointed hound of heaven ought to be more precise in his quest.
  • In history there are no authorities: history is a free study in which no man can claim rule, or credence for his mere ipse dixit, and in which the only true sin is to deny a hearing to views with which one happens to disagree.
  • Prolonged involvement with Parliament has in the end convinced me that the customary concentration on it as the centre of public affairs, however traditional it may be, is entirely misleading. This is a message, it seems to me, that needs to be absorbed into the general history of England.
  • [On postmodernism] We historians are, in a way, fighting for our lives. Certainly, we are fighting for the lives of innocent young people beset by devilish tempters who claim to offer higher forms of thought and deeper truths and insights – the intellectual equivalent of crack, in fact. Any acceptance of these theories – even the most gentle or modest bow in their direction – can prove fatal.
  • One of the chief tests of the quality of historical work lies in its readability. History, even serious history, is interesting, and the historian who makes it dull deserves the pillory.

Quotes about Elton[edit]

  • If we begin with Elton’s first and fullest consideration of the methods and purposes of historical study, his book entitled The Practice of History, we find a revealing metaphor running through the argument. The aspiring historian is pictured as an apprentice – at one point specifically as an apprentice carpenter – who is aiming to produce a first piece of work to be inspected and judged by a master craftsman.
    • Quentin Skinner, "The practice of history and the cult of the fact", Visions of Politics (2002)
  • Elton may well be right to stress the pragmatic element in the notion of explanation, an element perhaps best captured by saying that good explanations are those which succeed in removing puzzles about the occurrence of facts or events. But it hardly follows that good historical explanations will consist of anything that practising historians may care to offer us in the way of attempting to resolve such puzzles. Historical explanations cannot be immune from assessment as explanations, and the question of what properly counts as an explanation is inescapably a philosophical one. The question cannot be what historians say; the question must be whether what they say makes any sense.
    • Quentin Skinner, "The practice of history and the cult of the fact", Visions of Politics (2002)
  • A surprising feature of The Practice of History is that Elton makes no attempt to respond to these arguments by seeking to vindicate the social value or cultural significance of his own very different kind of research. He could surely have attempted – as several of his admiring obituarists did – to convey some sense of why the study of administrative and constitutional history might still be thought to matter even in a postimperial culture dominated by the social sciences. It is true that, a couple of years later, he made some gestures in this direction in his first inaugural lecture. But it is striking that he almost instantly stopped short, apologising for starting to speak in such a ‘very vague and rather vapoury’ way. Faced with the question of how a knowledge of history might help the world, he preferred to advise historians to ‘abandon and resign’ such aspirations altogether.
    • Quentin Skinner, "The practice of history and the cult of the fact", Visions of Politics (2002)
  • Elton’s fundamental reason for wishing to emphasise technique over content appears to have been a deeply ironic one: a fear that historical study might have the power to transform us, to help us think more effectively about our society and its possible need for reform and reformation. Although it strikes me as strange in the case of someone who spent his life as a professional educator, Elton clearly felt that this was a consummation devoutly to be stopped. Much safer to keep on insisting that facts alone are wanted.
    • Quentin Skinner, "The practice of history and the cult of the fact", Visions of Politics (2002)

External links[edit]

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