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 Revisiting Freeman and drawing on previously unpublished materials, this study analyses his historical texts in relationship to the scholarly practices and intellectual preoccupations of their time.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.
discussions of the life of Muhammad, the nature of Islam, and the conquests of the Arab Muslims (or ‘Saracens’) in India, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Europe. Freeman’s own work on this topic, The History and Conquests of the Saracens (1856), was his first volume on a historical subject, and it was published when he was just thirty-three.
Based on a series of six lectures he delivered at the Philosophical Institution in Edinburgh the previous year, Freeman produced his Saracens ‘under the idea that a brief sketch of the principal facts of
While the perspectives presented by
the various historical actors in the first three chapters were far from
unified, they had certain characteristics in common. Almost all
understood Englishness as an ideal and as fundamentally different from
and more advanced than Islam and the values, customs and traditions they
associated with Muslim societies. This basic
‘end of days’, that shaped Freeman’s redemptive view of past and present politics and accounts for the urgency with which he engaged with contemporary debates on the nature of history, issues of race and imperialism, and the Islamic ‘other’.
An understanding of the importance of the Arnoldian framework in Freeman’s thought allowed, first, for a reassessment of his best-known work, the Norman Conquest . In Chapter 1 , I demonstrated that the connections Freeman made between race and politics served a specific historiographical function. The idea of a Teutonic race
It was during the Crimean War that Freeman first concluded that supporting Turkish rule in south-eastern Europe was an act of ‘deliberate wickedness’, as it meant facilitating the oppression of Christian subjects by a Muslim government. 1 In his first volume on Eastern affairs, The History and Conquests of the Saracens , Freeman had used the past to argue that the Islamic faith meant that Muslim rulers would always be despotic, that Muslim societies would always be ‘backwards’, and that Muslims could never live on equal terms with Christians. While the
set of lectures read before the Philosophical Society at its own request, Freeman had felt that ‘it would have been obviously out of place to do more than point the political moral of the story in a general way’. 5 Still, in tracing out the basic currents of Oriental history, Freeman argued that Islam posed a barrier to progress, that Muslim rule over Christians should not be tolerated, and that British support of the Ottoman Empire was misguided. By comparison, Freeman wrote the Ottoman Power in political circumstances which he believed required urgent action
‘History is past politics, politics is present history’
life which has not been fully explored. The purpose of this book is to deepen our understanding of Freeman and his response to some of the pressing concerns of the later nineteenth century, including the nature of history, issues of race and imperialism, and confrontation with the Islamic East.
In approaching Freeman, one of my aims is to situate his activities within the framework of ‘public moralism’ delineated by Stefan Collini. 2 Public moralists were (almost exclusively) men who enjoyed prominence in Britain between 1850 and 1930, and claimed a ‘right to be
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.
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 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.