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A PATHETIC interest attaches to this book owing to the circumstances in which it was written; to his friends there is a melancholy satisfaction in feeling that the author's heroic struggle to carry on his work, through months of increasing illness, has been rewarded. He did not succeed in completing the task he had set himself; but he has left behind him a summary of English experience that ought to command the attention of all who are anxious for guidance in regard to the political issues of the present day. More than this, he has set many of the episodes of English history in a fresh light, so that no serious student of our political life in the past can afford to neglect this masterly sketch.
The essay has double importance because it is a valuable contribution to the economic interpretation of English political history. Other writers have been contented to treat the development of English resources and the changes in industrial and commercial organisation, as if they were a separate growth and as if political affairs could be left in the background; but Mr. Welsford had a more statesmanlike view. He has recognised that political and economic changes are constantly reacting upon each other, and has set himself to show how deeply our political life has been influenced by economic forces and commercial conditions. The late Professor Thorold Rogers had called attention to the importance of this enquiry, but he had much to do in laying the foundations for the historical study of economics in this country by his monumental work on 'Agriculture and Prices,' and he could only make an occasional excursion into this field. Since his time historical students have been ready to recognise that economic forces were combined with other influences in bringing about such events as the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 or the Reform Bill of 1832. There must always be a danger, however, that attention will only be drawn to economic causes in a haphazard and occasional fashion, unless they are studied systematically, and their bearing is noted, not merely in violent upheavals, but in the ordinary course of life as well. This is the step Mr. Welsford has taken; he has examined the commercial relations of England—the dominant feature in the economic life of an island realm-and has endeavoured to show how changing commercial relationships affected the owners of English resources and the industrial population respectively. We are thus helped to understand how the economic interests of different classes in the community tended to bring about the formation of parties, and to influence their attitude in political questions. The curious line of cleavage between the Scotsmen who opposed the claims of Edward I. and those who did not, and the persistence of the struggle for independence, become much more intelligible when the manner in which trading interests were affected is carefully taken into account.
Success in prosecuting this line of enquiry demands the highest qualities of the historian ; it depends not merely on skill in testing and arranging the materials, but also on insight to interpret them. The study of history, as habitually prosecuted in this country, does not tend to the cultivation of this particular form of insight. The romantic and dramatic interest which attaches to the story of the past is always strong ; but apart from this, the main motive for the serious study of English history has been that of discovering constitutional and legal precedents. The criticism of historical documents and the weighing of historical evidence have been carried on in a lawyer-like spirit, with the hope of obtaining the sort of proof that would satisfy a special jury. When we go behind the documents and ask why some commercial treaty was made at all, and why it embodies the provisions it contains, we enter on a field of enquiry where a complete proof can hardly be obtained. Consciously or unconsciously we argue from what we know of human motives in the present to probable conduct in the past. The actual motives at work have not been constantly recorded; we are forced to try to penetrate through the silence of chroniclers, by framing an
hypothesis and looking for any scraps of confirmatory evidence which help to verify it. Owing to the fact that there is not a mere uniformity, but progress, in the affairs of men, the conclusions of the historical investigator can never have such a high degree of certainty as those of the student of chemical science, who finds that his hypothesis is proved or disproved by actual experiment. Besides this, there is a serious danger that the hypothesis of the historian, though plausible, may be wholly inapplicable; the spirit of a bygone age was often so different from that of our own day that we cannot habituate ourselves to it intelligently or look at life from the point of view of contemporaries. There has, indeed, been a great change in religious and political sentiment since the Middle Ages, but the difficulty is not so great in regard to commercial life. We cannot doubt that the force of economic interest, as we know it, has been a vera causa in the political changes of bygone times; material needs can never have been wholly overlooked. In so far as buying and selling and opportunities for exchange had come into vogue among any people, the interests at work were doubtless similar to those which operate at the present day, though the conditions may have been wholly different. It can never be easy to take such account of the conditions as to recognise in retrospect what were the precise interests, immediate or ultimate, of any class of the people in any particular part of the country; it may be still more difficult to see how far they were conscious of these interests and had a definite policy. But as our knowledge of the past accumulates, the possibility of giving a well-founded answer to such questions will be increased. The present essay does not pretend to say the last word on any of the questions which the author has raised ; the main importance of his achievement lies in the skill with which he has pointed out a fruitful line of investigation for other students to follow, so that our knowledge of the economic factor in the political life of bygone ages may become more and more complete.
Owing to the point of view which he has taken, the author has avoided two dangers which beset the writer of English history; his treatment of the subject is neither merely insular, nor unduly antiquarian. The constitutional lawyer has but little need to look beyond the shores of England; he may find an extraneous interest in noting analogies with changes in other lands, but they do not come directly within his purview. On the other hand, the student of commercial relationships is closely concerned with the intercourse between England and other lands; he is compelled to look at this realm as a part of the great world, and as affected by the conditions of life in other countries. So far as the internal economic history is concerned, the discussion of the organisation of the manor and the powers of craft gilds appears to be mere antiquarianism-an unearthing of curious relics from the past. But so far as commerce is concerned, there are close parallels between the story of England in the Middle Ages and the accounts we get of the conditions