This podcast, the next episode of Key Concepts in History, focuses on the historical practice of “abridgement.” Now, don’t go thinking that’s a good thing. I assure you abridgement is a faux pas, something to be avoided at all cost. But, unfortunately, it’s a common error, especially with budding scholars. This podcast focuses on Sir Herbert Butterfield’s cautioning about abridgement, a warning he made to budding historians all the way back in 1931. Give it a listen. 

Here is the transcript for the podcast:

It’s amazing to think about. A book, a really small book, and how it changed, literally, the way historians work.

Hello students, Joe Krulder here, and today on Key Concepts in History, I want to talk about a common error, a glaring mistake that had infested history for centuries. The fancy term for this historical wonder-blunder is called “abridgement.” Now, I bring abridgment to your attention because as students of history I think you can appreciate the mistake: because we all do it at some point. And we shouldn’t: which was Sir Herbert Butterfield’s point in his book. Yes, that small book of 132 pages. Butterfield gave it the title The Whig Interpretation of History and it was printed way back in the year 1931. That may seem like a long time ago, and it was, but that little pamphlet really shook the historical world. We know this to be true, because now, located here in the 21st century, the greatest insult as a historian is to be deemed whiggish. You know you’re a success when the thesis of your book becomes an adjective.

Herbert Butterfield's seminal work.

Herbert Butterfield’s seminal work.

The Whig Interpretation of History excoriated the practice of abridgement – which, according to Butterfield, was what many historians were practicing in the early 20th century. So what is this abridgment thing anyway?

Well the key word is bridge…

So, imagine one side of the bridge is connected to a piece of land called “today.” Now imagine the other side of the bridge connected to another piece of land called “the past.” So what does this bridge then cross over?

It crosses over … everything… and this was Butterfield’s point. That stuff that we just (ahem) abridged? that was the river of truth, the sweet waters of reality, the cold hard facts of time… What historians were doing by abridging was bypassing all this truth, reality, and time. But wait, it got worse. What historians were really doing was asking questions centered from where they lived, from their side of the bridge, from that place historians called home, which, if you remember was the land called “today.” Then, and only then, did this “questioning historian” cross the bridge into the land of the past to find their answers. Often time the historian would yell, “Eureka! I have found it!” And then share with the world his historical discovery. But that found treasured answer was carried over a bridge which bypassed all of time, all of what happened in between (aka reality), it even bypassed – in most cases – the truth. The historian bypassed it all. Abridgment, according to Butterfield, made you whiggish.

Now all of this sounds kind of weird, kind of out there, kind of abstract, so what we really need is an example. Thankfully, Butterfield provided one, one really good case where scholars and historians were looking backwards in order to justify a present. Butterfield’s exemplar focused on the Whig historian’s insistence that the civil liberties that we enjoy today were derived, by a straight line, from Martin Luther’s nailing of the theses on a church in Wurttemberg, Germany in the year 1517. To Butterfield, such a proposition was absurd. Luther attempted to reform the Catholic Church from within, to return Catholicism to its biblical roots, to remove corruption and replace it with a stricter adherence to ancient religious doctrines. Butterfield wrote that Luther was “in rebellion against the secularization of Church and society,”[1] just as much as he was in rebellion against the Papacy.

Moreover, the schism that grew between Luther and the leaders of the Catholic Church erupted into wars that plagued Europe for more than a century. In The Whig Interpretation of History, Butterfield openly wondered how Luther bore responsibility for English liberties and secular outlooks when those were the very factors Luther railed against. If Luther were alive today looking back, surely “Luther would confess that he had been wrong and wicked if it was by his doing that this liberty, this anarchy had been let loose…”[2]

It is out of the Reformation and the Counterreformation, out of the bloody conflicts, the more than one hundred years of war and destruction that the leaders of nation and city states began to question the value of these wars, indeed the value of religion itself. The move toward secularization began with Europe’s attempt to tie a tourniquet around its bleeding limbs of religiosity, to stop hacking away on its own population and resources.

Whig historians, however, glossed over this. They reached back into the past to claim Luther as their patron saint of religious and civil liberties. They used the Whig habit of abridgement; a method of historical research that avoids facts to produce a history that is “impossible if all the facts were told in their fullness.”[3] Whigs employed the three P’s: Providence, Progress, and Protestantism to write their history. Providence sent Luther so that England could break the shackles of a backward looking Catholic Church, so that England could study the Sciences – advancing technologically and progressively, thus basking in the forward looking Protestant spirit of liberty. Missing from the whig interpretation of Luther, then, is the tens of thousands of lives lost, the horrible inquisitions, persecutions, and banishments. Whigs constructed false abridgements in order to crossover such details.

In The Whig Interpretation of History, Butterfield challenges future historians, that’s you, to be aware of your own questions. For example, a good historical question might read “how did religious liberty arise?” Whereas, a whiggish historian would asks “to whom must we be grateful for our religious liberties?” The difference between the two questions – and the point to which Butterfield attempted to make – is that the first question – “how did religious liberty arise?” –  focuses entirely within the realm of the past, whereas the whig question – “to whom must we be grateful for our religious liberties?” – focuses on past and present.[4]

It’s not just “what” you ask but in the “way” that you ask it. Asking questions of the past while centered firmly in the present leads to historical error. Whigs drew references from the past to the present, while at the same time their work was performed with a set of eyes and cultural norms that were of the present. A bit semantic, perhaps, but nonetheless important.

Bottom line, be aware of the questions that you ask of the past. Make sure your query is devoid of the present, truly attempt to understand the decisions of past people by looking at their problems, in their time, in their language and culture. What you find may surprise you, and it also may be quite a bit closer to the truth than that found in the errant practice of abridgment. Till next time…

[1] Butterfield, 37.

[2] Butterfield, 36

[3] Butterfield, 24.

[4] Butterfield, 19.