Page 5, 28th June 1963

28th June 1963
Page 5

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Locations: Cambridge, Rome


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The Historian and Character and

bridge. which lies in the heart of Puritan East Anglia, has scarcely been noted as an academic nursery of the traditional faith. The breezes of the Oxford movement. which carried Newman and others, in the nineteenth century, to Rome, were not much felt on the banks of the Cam, and even today there are far fewer Catholic undergraduates at Cambridge than are to be found at the other place.

Yet, rather unexpectedly, the Regius Chair of Modern History at Cambridge was held by the leading Catholic historian of his day, Lord Acton, till he died in 1902; and now, in our own day, Cambridge is lamenting the retirement from that same eminent chair of the greatest living Catholic historian, in the English language. Dom David Knowles, formerly a monk of Doiivnside Abbey.

Temperamentally these two historians seem far apart. Acton was all tire and passion, and deeply involved. behind Gladstone, in the controversies of his day. (Matthew Arnold once said "Gladstone influences all around him but Acton: it is Acton who influences Gladstone.")

By contrast David Knowles is gentle, detached, but with a mastery of language and a vein of subtle humour which make his lectures the joy of Cambridge's historical students. Where the two eminent men are alike is in their single-minded devotion to truth, their unceasing curiosity, and their immense knowledge.

Moved by the sad occasion of his retirement, David Knowles's colleagues. friends and pupils have presented to him this volume of his own essays. under the title of the fast. The Historian and Character, which was his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor.

Mostly these essays are on medieval topics; but there is a lengthy memoir of the great Abbot Butler of Downside, and one on Cardinal Gasquet whose achievement, much blown upon by Coulton, is now put in its proper perspective. Each essay is a joy apd an education to read; but to the amateur 1 would recommend. especially, the one on Archbishop Thomas Becket: here this cirenic historian shows he is also a master of historical drama.

He seldom uses ridicule, but when he does he is devastating. Exaggeration angers him; he quotes two striking examples of it from famous historians. One comes from Motley. who wrote of Philip II of Spain: "If Philip possessed a single virtue it has eluded

the conscientious research of the writer of these pages".

The other comes from Mommsen, who said of Julius Caesar: " . . . . Caesar was the entire andperfect man . . . Nothing is left for us but to deem those fortunate who beheld this perfection." Professor Knowles's comment is dry: the historian, he tells us. "must not write nonsense or present a character such as never was on sea or land." Everybody will wish Dom David Knowles many more years of fife and study. and of writing. too. All medievalists arc in his debt: so are all those lucky enough to have learnt from him that history, in his own words, is "a stream of eddying currents or a web of many threads", and the historian's craft "an exercise of patient and passionless menial discipline".

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