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Sir John Elliott obituary | Story


In 1986, historian John Elliott published a massive biography of a 17th-century Spanish statesman, Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares. John, who died aged 91, had already published many acclaimed books, although his first, Nibble the Squirrel, written for children in 1946, was a lesser-known part of the canon.

Although already a hugely influential historian in Britain, Spain and the United States, with his 1963 work Imperial Spain, 1469-1716 still considered the essential introduction to the Habsburg period, it is the bomb of the 1986 biography that put Olivares in the limelight. map and probably contributed to John’s elevation in 1990 to the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford.

The volume was hailed by Raymond Carr in the New York Review of Books as “what must be considered the finest biography ever written of a Spanish statesman”. After that, no historian could ignore the all-powerful, though ultimately unsuccessful, factotum of the ineffectual Philip IV of Spain, a king so preoccupied with the arts and his countless mistresses that he left the administration of the empire sprawling and ramshackle country in Olivares. . By shedding light on Cardinal Richelieu’s great adversary, Jean made understandable the central power struggle of seventeenth-century Europe, a struggle in which the Spaniard was the loser.

John’s pursuit of Olivares lasted throughout his life, a clue of which was the brilliant portrayal of his first major work, The Revolt of the Catalans: A Study in the Decline of Spain, 1598-1640 (1963). The fascination had begun when, as a student at Cambridge, he first saw the portrait of Olivares by Diego Velázquez in the Prado Museum in Madrid. It must have been an incredibly difficult task. Most of Olivares’ papers that survived his own cavalier approach to record keeping were lost in fires in the 18th century. In order to collect the remains, John spent a quarter of a century searching through 16 private and public archives in Spain alone, as well as eight other countries. The triumphant result was the amazingly researched and vividly written biography.

Sir John Elliott in 2018, the year he published his last book, Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion.

Imperial Spain was the first in a series of groundbreaking books on the imperial struggles between France and Spain which, in turn, opened up a new field of world history. Another eminent historian of Spain, Victor Kiernan, said of it: “General readers who come more or less in advance to the subject will be grateful for this masterful introduction and… [specialists] who have already struggled with it will receive much new light.

John himself commented in the preface that one of his purposes in writing the history of Habsburg Spain was to indicate “all that remains to be done before we can confidently say that we have found the answers” .

The book was, in his own words, a work of “interpretative synthesis” rather than conventional storytelling, a skill at which he excelled. Along the way, the book shone with insightful ideas. Take for example this brilliant summary of Spain’s agricultural limits: “A dry, barren, impoverished land: 10% of its soil bare rock; 35% poor and unproductive; 45% moderately fertile; 10 percent rich.

His explanation of the popular appeal of anti-Semitism that underpinned the work of the Inquisition was equally memorable, illustrating how the poor could console themselves in their “purity” of blood unlike the aristocrats who had often married wealthy families of converted Jews. In this and other books one could discern John’s preoccupation with the parallels between loss of empire and national decline in 1620s Spain and 1950s Britain, which Kiernan called “a condition of national imbecility such as few nations have ever sunk”. .

In 2012 he published his memoir History in the Making, a commentary on the changing nature of historical writing during his lifetime, together with reflections on his own career, what he modestly calls “the testimony of a historian who try to understand “.

It was a vocation worthy of a historian who eschewed theory, wrote accessiblely, and believed in the importance of human agency in shaping major historical events. He defined the key to writing a good story as “the ability to enter imaginatively into the life of a society distant in time or place, and produce a plausible explanation of why which its inhabitants thought and behaved as they did”.

Born in Reading, to Janet (née Payne) and Thomas Elliott, a headmaster, John went to Eton College but totally lacked the arrogance and swagger of the school’s best-known products.

After graduating in history from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1952, he had a distinguished career there as a lecturer (1957-1967) and for five years as a professor at King’s College London before moving in 1973 in what he called “scholars’ paradise” at Princeton, where he remained for almost 20 years.

I met John shortly after he returned to Britain to take up the regius professorship at Oxford. Previously, I knew him thanks to his books, including The Revolt of the Catalans, which had earned him hero status in Catalonia. There, over the years, as in Spain, he was showered with prestigious awards.

To learn Catalan, he had stayed with a family in Barcelona. “Before the end of my stay, I even dreamed in Catalan,” he wrote later. He had also acquired a sense of the repression of Catalans under the Franco dictatorship. A striking experience occurred one day when, speaking innocently in Catalan, he asked a member of the Policía Nacional for directions. The furious policeman shouted, “Speak the language of the empire!”

A more nuanced awareness of the history of Catalonia’s relations with Spain came from studying with the Catalan historian Jaume Vicens i Vives, whose influence meant that John avoided falling prey to the theme of the “syndrome of the chosen nation or of the innocent victim syndrome”. Thus, his most recent book, Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion (2018), which wisely criticized the last Catalan independence movement, did not necessarily appeal to the most radical Catalanists.

At Oxford, John set up a small task force to work on a not-quite-successful project to reform the teaching of history at the university. As a member of his team, I got to know the tall and rather gaunt character, who was always calm and courteous.

He was a reserved and sober man, so much so that it was assumed he would live well beyond his 91st birthday. In his work and his life, the watchwords were grace and humility.

He was knighted in 1994.

He is survived by his wife, Oonah (née Butler), whom he married in 1958.

John Huxtable Elliott, historian, born June 23, 1930; passed away on March 10, 2022