Acceptance Speech – Berne, 16.11.1999


John Elliott

1999 Balzan Prize for History, 1500-1800

For his outstanding contributions to the history of Spain and the Spanish Empire in the early modern period. He has transformed our understanding of the problems confronting Spain and its leaders in the age of its incipient decline; his scholarly and elegant writings have brought the history of the Iberian peninsula back into the mainstream of European and world history.

Mrs. President,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The International Balzan Foundation, in conferring upon me this high honour, is above all recognizing the importance of what has proved to be among the liveliest and most creative areas of historical study in the years since the Foundation itself was established in 1957. The three centuries between 1500 and 1800, spanning a period now known among Anglo-American historians as the Early Modern era, have come to be seen as in some respects a distinctive and relatively self-contained period of European history: a period characterized on the one hand by profound continuities with the civilization of the medieval world, and on the other by a series of seismic changes – in the realms of religion, politics, ideas, and of geographical, scientific and technical knowledge – which ushered in, for good and ill, the world we see around us.

It is precisely the transitional character of this period, with its inherent tension between continuity and change, which has made it such an exciting and rewarding period for historical inquiry. Rich in every kind of record, it has attracted some of the liveliest historical minds of the post-war era, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to explore in the course of my professional career some of the paths mapped out by such a distinguished line of predecessors.

Like all historians of my generation I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the great masters of the French Annales School, and particularly to Lucien Febvre and Fernand Braudel, who between them opened my eyes in my graduate student days to the possibilities of that most impossible of all types of history, l’histoire totale. From them I grasped something of the importance for a historian of breaking free of the limitations imposed by the narrowly defined categories of political, social or economic history, and of looking for the connections, sometimes open, sometimes concealed, between the many distinctive strands that between them make up the web of civilization. L’histoire totale can, alas, never be satisfactorily written, but it remains the most noble of historical aspirations.

I also owe a more personal debt of gratitude to two other historians, one British, one Spanish, who greatly influenced the character and course of my historical research. My own temperament and convictions made it impossible for me to accept the geographical and economic determinism which I detected in so much Annales-style history, and my historical mentor at Cambridge University, Herbert Butterfield, taught me not to underestimate the accidental and the contingent, the role of human personality and choice, in my attempts to understand the historical process.

My other personal debt is to the Catalan historian, Jaume Vicens Vives, whose premature death in 1960 left a gaping void in Spanish historiography. It was he who not only introduced me to the enormous possibilities inherent in the history of Spain, to which I have dedicated so much of my career, but also to the vital importance of constantly re-thinking the past in the light of new evidence, even where this meant, as it did for him, challenging the most cherished assumptions of nationalist historiography.

Building on what I have learned from these and other historians, I have sought to re-think certain aspects of Early Modern history, bringing to the process, as I believe every historian should, contemporary concerns and preoccupations, as a means of identifying and illuminating important historical issues that may still possess contemporary relevance. In particular I have been concerned to incorporate the history of Spain into the wider history of Europe by showing, at a time when Spanish official historiography liked to insist that Spain was different, that important similarities existed between Spanish and general European historical experience in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

As an Englishman coming to maturity in the immediate post-war period, I was naturally exercised by the question of economic and imperial decline. This preoccupation played its part in attracting me to the study of the perception and the realities of decline, and the responses they evoked, in the Spain of the seventeenth century – a century that was also the Golden Age of Spanish art and letters. But investigations into Spanish history, beginning with a study of the revolt of Catalonia in 1640 against the government in Madrid, also alerted me to the interest and importance, not only for Spain but for Europe, of the historical relationship between the centralizing state and regions and provinces concerned to preserve a historical identity which they feared was in danger of being submerged and lost. This in turn encouraged me to think in terms of an Early Modern Europe of “composite” states or monarchies, which may have more in common with – and more to teach – the new Europe under construction today than it has with the Europe of nineteenth and twentieth century nation-states.

It is precisely the discovery of connections over time and place, and of the constant, and generally unpredictable, interaction of past and present, which has given me such pleasure in pursuing a historical career. By connecting and comparing – between Spain and Europe, between Europe and America – I hope to have made some contribution to the understanding of a past which has had, and continues to have, enormous implications for the present. I am profoundly grateful to all those who have helped me in this enterprise, and in particular to this great international Foundation, whose munificent generosity is a source of tremendous encouragement to all those of us who are engaged in seeking to explain both to ourselves and to others the present and the past.

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Fondazione Internazionale Premio Balzan