Sir John Elliott is our greatest historian of 16th- and 17th-century Spain and the author of the magisterial biography “The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline.” In “History in the Making” this distinguished scholar — now in his early 80s — looks back on his career as a Hispanist and reflects on the developments in historiography over the past 60 years.

Straight off, Elliott lays out his cards: “I believe that theory is of less importance for the writing of good history than the ability to enter imaginatively into the life of a society remote in time or place, and produce a plausible explanation of why its inhabitants thought and behaved as they did.” While Elliott has done intense archival research and learned much from the social-science approaches of the French “Annales” school, he nonetheless comes across as very much a classic British historian: thoughtful, non-doctrinaire and quietly brilliant. He sensibly notes, for instance, that “over-interpretation” has joined “the post-modern insistence on the impossibility of interpretation as one of the sins of our age.”

As an undergraduate at Cambridge in the early 1950s, the young Elliott was initially drawn to the study of the English and European past, where his knowledge of French and German would stand him in good stead. But a holiday in Spain, coupled with the practical recognition that “there was standing-room only” for jobs in the more obvious areas of history, led him to commit his energies to Iberian civilization. He learned Castilian Spanish, then Catalan.

Not even historians are immune from history. When Elliott was starting out, Britain was no longer the empire upon which the sun never set, and its economy was in trouble. As he writes, “It was difficult not to see similarities between the situation of Spain in the 1620s and that of Britain in the 1950s: an exhausted imperial power and a reforming government, followed by disappointed expectations and at least the partial failure of reform.” In later pages of “History in the Making,” he adds that the United States currently finds itself in a similar situation as it struggles against the faltering of its global hegemony.

But why had Spain, once the dominant world power under Philip II, suffered a decline in the 17th century? One explanation for its failure to keep pace with France and England lies in the so-called “Black Legend — the leyenda negra — of Spanish cruelty and fanaticism,” usually associated with religiosity and an exaggerated sense of honor. However, Elliott’s first major book, “Imperial Spain,” argued against the view that the empire’s misfortunes resulted from its collective psyche. Couldn’t, for instance, the supposed “idleness” identified as part of the Spanish character be simply the result of “the lack of opportunities for regular employment?”

“History in the Making” by J.H. Elliott. (Yale University)

Nevertheless, imperial Spain did often view itself as a chosen nation, entrusted by God to defend traditional (and religious) values, but then “nineteenth-century Britain had no doubt of its privileged position in the eyes of the Lord, while the United States has notoriously shaped its self-image as the exemplification of ‘manifest destiny.’ ” Elliott points out that a bestselling study of postwar Britain took its gloomy epigraph from his book’s description of the 17th-century Spanish elite: “Heirs to a society which had over-invested in empire, and surrounded by the increasingly shabby remnants of a dwindling inheritance, they could not bring themselves at the moment of crisis to surrender their memories and alter the antique pattern of their lives.”

Elliott underscores that one key to understanding Spain lies in the “never-ending conflict between the country’s inherent diversity and an insistent pressure from the centre for unity. On the one hand there were the different kingdoms and provinces of the peninsula — the territories of the Crown of Aragon, the Basque provinces, Navarre, and, between 1580 and 1640, Portugal — and on the other a central administration which, over many centuries, was committed to the upholding of dynastic or state interests and of a set of transcendental values which it saw itself as divinely appointed to defend.” Similar tensions are not unknown in today’s United States.

Throughout his career, Elliott has been leery of wholesale economic and geographical determinism, being convinced that great men and women can sometimes alter the course of history. “Indeed, for me much of the fascination of the past lies in observing the continuous interplay between the individual and his or her environment.” Hence his major work — one product of a 17-year tenure at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. — is the biography of the Count-Duke of Olivares, the bitter rival of France’s Cardinal Richelieu.

These oddly similar ministers, and their sovereigns, found themselves addressing a sadly familiar problem: “The need to mobilize the human and material resources of the states they governed in order to wage and sustain their wars in an age of almost continuous warfare drove rulers to engage in all manner of financial expedients and extortions, which inevitably bore down most heavily on those least able to bear them.”

Not just a Hispanist, Elliott also helped establish the academic discipline of “early-modern history,” that period between the 16th century and the French Revolution when the medieval worldview still influenced Western culture. Its practitioners, he quips here, are best known for their intense focus on witchcraft, such that it sometimes seems “as if the study of early modern Europe has been reduced to a study of its witches.” Nonetheless, such marginalized groups, as well as entire nations outside the industrial mainstream (such as Spain), have grown increasingly central to our understanding of history. As Elliott affirms: “If the study of the past has any value, that value lies in its ability to reveal the complexities of human experience, and to counsel against ruling out as of no significance any of the paths that were only partially followed, or not followed at all.”

Today, it is apparent that “the nation state, while remaining the standard form of political organization, has been under growing pressure both from above and from below. . . . From above, it has been compelled to yield ground to international and supranational bodies, of which the European Community is a prime example. From below, it has come under pressure from the suppressed nationalities, and from religious and ethnicities demanding their own place in the sun. As a result, what once seemed certain has become less certain, and structures that once had about them an air of permanence are showing signs of frailty.”

Certainly, contemporary history has shown us, with a vengeance, that “the stronger the emphasis on secularization, the greater are the chances of religious revival. The advance of science finds its antithesis in the advance of fundamentalism, and the supranationalism of a world of multinational corporations and organizations finds itself challenged by the upsurge of the irrational forces of old-style nationalism.”

The study of history is a study in irony. Once the analysis of imperial Spain in extremis might have seemed an almost purely academic subject. Not any more.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.


By J.H. Elliott

Yale Univ.

249 pp. $26