This book seeks to reclaim E. A. Freeman (1823–92) as a leading Victorian historian and public moralist. Freeman was a prolific writer of history, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, and outspoken commentator on current affairs. His reputation declined sharply in the twentieth century, however, and the last full-scale biography was W. R. W. Stephens’ Life and Letters of Edward A. Freeman (1895). When Freeman is remembered today, it is for his six-volume History of the Norman Conquest (1867–79), celebrations of English progress, and extreme racial views. Revisiting Freeman and drawing on previously unpublished materials, this study analyses his historical texts in relationship to the scholarly practices and intellectual preoccupations of their time. Most importantly, it draws out Thomas Arnold’s influence on Freeman’s understanding of history as a cyclical process in which the present collapsed into the past and vice versa. While Freeman repeatedly insisted on the superiority of the so-called ‘Aryans’, a deeper reading shows that he defined race in terms of culture rather than biology and articulated anxieties about decline and recapitulation. Contrasting Freeman’s volumes on Western and Eastern history, this book foregrounds religion as the central category in Freeman’s scheme of universal history. Ultimately, he conceived world-historical development as a battleground between Euro-Christendom and the Judeo-Islamic Orient and feared that the contemporary expansion of the British Empire and contact with the East would prove disastrous.
This chapter considers Freeman’s determined public campaign against late Victorian proposals for Imperial Federation. Where proponents of this scheme argued for formal constitutional union between Britain and the white settler colonies, including Canada and Australia, Freeman maintained that such schemes were dangerously unprecedented in Western history. Joining forces with W. E. Gladstone, Freeman argued that a better model of co-operation, based on free and mutual friendship between the metropolis and its outposts, could be found in the loose federations of ancient Greece. Through an examination of Freeman’s letters to the press, his History of Federal Government in Greece and Italy, and Rede lecture on ‘The Unity of History’, I demonstrate that Freeman was a leading critic of the British Empire. Freeman was hostile to the Empire due to his fear of over-extension and disaster and because the Empire included non-Aryans. Ultimately, I demonstrate that Freeman viewed the West and the East as two separately co-existing and conflicting cultures and was anxious about the possible outcomes of contact between the two civilisations.
Chapter 1 examines Freeman’s magnum-opus, the six-volume History of the Norman Conquest. It begins by situating this work in relationship to traditions of writing about 1066 which had developed between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Against this background it is argued that Freeman attempted to incorporate several competing interpretations of history into his work – these included the myth of the ‘Norman Yoke’; the ‘Whig’ view of the past; the Liberal Anglican philosophy; and racialised Victorian Romanticism. Assessing the ways in which Freeman’s commitment to these tropes distorted his use of sources and his narrative, I argue that he was not a straightforward panegyrist to English progress, as is commonly assumed.
‘History is past politics, politics is present history’
The introduction explains the purpose of the book as an attempt to reassess the works of the Victorian historian Edward Augustus Freeman. It highlights Freeman’s position as a leading scholar and public moralist of the nineteenth century and also considers some of the characteristics of his writing which limited his success. Freeman’s debt to the Liberal Anglican philosopher Thomas Arnold is discussed, as are Freeman’s racial views. There is also a review of recent literature on Freeman.
This chapter situates Freeman’s complex views on race and English nationalism in the context of his wider belief in Aryanism and narratives on European development. Through a study of his Comparative Politics – Freeman’s definitive work on race – I show that his racial theory was not idiosyncratic, but closely aligned with the scholarship of Thomas Arnold, Friedrich Max Müller, and Henry Sumner Maine. It is argued that Freeman defined the Aryan community in terms of political heritage and culture, rather than biology, and this led him to produce a narrative on Aryan development that was cyclical rather than unilinear. It is clear that, for Freeman, the success of a nation was determined by its ability to include all of its citizens in the processes of government. He demonstrates this argument by a consideration of the rise and fall of ancient Rome and ancient Greece. While the invention of representative government in modern Europe was an advance on the systems of the ancients, Freeman feared that imperial expansionism and over-extension jeopardised the stability of the modern nation-state.
This chapter considers Freeman’s hostility towards the contemporary Ottoman Empire as a representative of the ‘backwardness’ of Muslim nations. Freeman was especially incensed by the Ottoman rule over the Christians of south-eastern Europe as he believed that the Turkish Empire was preventing the Aryans of those nations from progressing. These attitudes were dramatically reinforced, for Freeman, by the news that the Ottomans had committed atrocities against their Bulgarian subjects in 1876. Together with Gladstone, Freeman led a nation-wide campaign calling on the British government to intervene on behalf of the subjects of the Ottoman Empire. That the Premier, Benjamin Disraeli, refused to do so was taken by Freeman as evidence of his natural sympathy for the Islamic power. I argue that the hysterical tone of much of Freeman’s writing on this topic was underpinned by his belief that Disraeli, as a ‘Jew’, was conspiring with the Muslim Turks in a plot to destroy Euro-Christendom.
Chapter 4 considers the first of Freeman’s two neglected volumes on the East, the History and Conquests of the Saracens. Drawing on the theoretical framework of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) I argue that Freeman consciously represented the East as the inferior and opposite ‘other’ of the West. In so doing, Freeman interlaced both racial ideas about the Orient and an intense form of Islamophobia. For Freeman it was the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad that are the leading cause of what he perceived to be the ‘backwards’ and ‘barbaric’ culture of the Arabic-Islamic world.
Chapter 6 focuses on Freeman’s second neglected volume on Oriental history, the Ottoman Power in Europe. Written at the height of the Great Eastern Crisis, which was the consequence of the Bulgarian atrocities, Freeman wrote the volume as a polemic against the Ottoman Empire. Freeman narrates the history of the Turks in order to demonstrate that their religion has meant that they have never been able to treat Christians fairly, and that they have consistently committed barbarous and violent acts. I argue that Freeman’s work is suffused by his fear of the ‘Oriental conspiracy’ between Jews and Muslims, and examine his call for a war which would, finally and permanently, remove the Ottoman power from Europe.
The conclusion draws together the themes of the monograph to reconsider Freeman’s thought in relationship to the new readings of his work advanced in this book. Far from being a confident proponent of white racial supremacy, Freeman’s writing shows that he was fearful and anxious about the future of the Aryan nations. For Freeman, British imperialism, the ‘Judeo-Islamic’ conspiracy, and contact with the Orient, each posed a threat to Western stability.