1987 Balzan Prize for Medieval History
Acceptance Speech – Bern, 13.11.1987
Mr. President ,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I must first express my gratitude to the Balzan Foundation for its generosity to myself and to the subject of my life-long studies – medieval history . For reasons which will become clear I can more whole- heartedly approve their choice of a subject than of a recipient , and in the few minutes available to me I shall try to justify both my confidence and my doubts.
With regard to the subject , I am confident that it is admirably adapted to the noble aims of Angela Balzan and her father for maintaining and enlarging the liberal and humane traditions of our civilization. It was during the medieval centuries that our best habits of thought – our attitudes to nature and to each other and to God – were painfully shape d by the amalgamation of two great streams of thought and experience: the religious tradition and teaching of the Old and New Testaments; and the philosophy, literature and art of Greece and Rome. To have combined these two apparently irreconcilable traditions in a single whole is the greatest contribution of the European Middle Ages to the world .
There were of course , then as at all other times, very serious blemishes and deplorable cruelties and fanaticisms. But the essential task of creating a new civilization from these diverse elements was accomplished, and it is one of the first duties of Europe in the present day to preserve this inheritance. I would particularly stress the Jewish and Muslim contributions, made often under conditions of frightening inhumanity and persecution , but bringing nevertheless indispensable elements to the learning and science of Europe.
It was a wise saying of one of the great teachers of the Middle Ages, Bernard of Chartres, that we are pigmies on the shoulders of giants. But, he added, we can see further than the giants, because we stand on their shoulders. This task of seeing further with the help of the past is imposed on all of us. But it is the peculiar duty of historians, who are professionally engaged in this work, to see that it is faithfully carried out. It is equally their duty to communicate the results of their work as widely as possible. No doubt some sciences by their nature are incomprehensible to non- professionals: when this is the case, we must be content to receive the results with silent gratitude. But history is not such a subject: it must be communicated if our society is to receive the benefits of its past. I venture to think that the intention of the Balzan Foundation, in allotting one of its prizes this year to medieval history, was the hope of contributing in some measure to this aim, and it will give me great satisfaction to do whatever I can to this end .
This brings me to my second and, as I warned you, more critical point. In reading the rules of the Balzan Foundation, I noticed two which (I fear) my nomination infringes in spirit if not in law. I must in justice bring them to your notice. The rules lay down that the awards shall be indivisible and shall not be made post humously. But l come to you as one who owes everything to scholars who are now dead. I must apply to myself those words of Bernard of Chartres: I am a pigmy standing on the shoulders of giants. There have been some great historians who have cut away through the jungle of the past by the strength of their own genius alone: such men as Ranke . Mommsen, Mabillon, Gibbon, needed no masters. I cannot say the same of myself. I should never have been a historian without the inspiration, friendship, and advice , of my masters, colleagues and pupils at Oxford: Galbraith and Powicke chief among my masters; Richard Hunt among my colleagues; and among pupils I shall mention only one, the most gifted and widely ranging of all, who died young before the results of his deep researches could be published: Franco Giusberti of Bologna. Then, further afield, there are those masters under whose influence or direction I had t he good fortune to work for all too short a time – long enough only to realise their vast superiority: Ferdinand Lot in Paris; Rudolf von Heckel in Munich; and the great Benedictine scholar Dom Wilmart everywhere. In addition , there are the founders of the tradition of medieval historical studies in Oxford , to whom I owed the whole idea of studying medieval history seriously: above all, to Bishop Stubbs, who brought Oxford – a university somewhat resistant to change – to accept the scientific standard s of the great German universities, not indeed as enthusiastically as he desired , but still in its own way to adopt them as its own.
These are the scholars to whom I owe everything. Have I said enough to convince you that the award , which you are kind enough to offer me , is really against your rules in being truly divisible among a great multitude , of whom the greater part are dead? I must leave it to your judgement. But if , knowing the worst, you persist in your kind intention, I shall do my best to keep alive the flame which my greater predecessors lit. A great darkness would engulf Europe and the world if it died.
Let me end by again thanking the Balzan Foundation for its encouragement.