Herbert Butterfield

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Herbert Butterfield

Born(1900-10-07)7 October 1900
Died20 July 1979(1979-07-20) (aged 78)
Alma mater Peterhouse, Cambridge
Notable work
The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)
Origins of Modern Science (1949)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School British historiography
Institutions Peterhouse, Cambridge
Main interests
History of science
Notable ideas
Whig history

Sir Herbert Butterfield FBA (7 October 1900 – 20 July 1979) was Regius Professor of History and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. [3] As a British historian and philosopher of history, he is remembered chiefly for a short volume early in his career entitled The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) and for his Origins of Modern Science (1949). Butterfield turned increasingly to historiography and man's developing view of the past. Butterfield was a devout Christian and reflected at length on Christian influences in historical perspectives.

Fellow of the British Academy award granted by the British Academy to leading academics for their distinction in the humanities and social sciences

Fellowship of the British Academy (FBA) is an award granted by the British Academy to leading academics for their distinction in the humanities and social sciences. There are three kinds of fellowship:

  1. Fellows, for scholars resident in the United Kingdom
  2. Corresponding Fellows, for scholars not resident in the UK
  3. Honorary Fellows, an honorary academic title
Professor academic title at universities and other post-secondary education and research institutions in most countries

Professor is an academic rank at universities and other post-secondary education and research institutions in most countries. Literally, professor derives from Latin as a "person who professes" being usually an expert in arts or sciences, a teacher of the highest rank.

History The study of the past as it is described in written documents.

History is the past as it is described in written documents, and the study thereof. Events occurring before written records are considered prehistory. "History" is an umbrella term that relates to past events as well as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of information about these events. Scholars who write about history are called historians.


Butterfield thought that individual personalities were more important than great systems of government or economics in historical study. His Christian beliefs in personal sin, salvation and providence were a great influence in his writings, a fact he freely admitted. At the same time, Butterfield's early works emphasized the limits of a historian's moral conclusions, "If history can do anything it is to remind us that all our judgments are merely relative to time and circumstance".


Butterfield was born in Oxenhope in Yorkshire and was raised a devout Methodist, which he remained for life. Despite his humble origins, receiving his education at the Trade and Grammar School in Keighley, in 1919 he won a scholarship to study at Peterhouse, Cambridge, graduating with a BA in 1922, followed by an MA four years later. Butterfield was a fellow at Cambridge from 1928–79 and in the 1950s, he was a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He was Master of Peterhouse (1955–1968), Vice-Chancellor of the University (1959–1961) and Regius Professor of Modern History (1963–1968). Butterfield served as editor of the Cambridge Historical Journal from 1938 to 1955 and was knighted in 1968. [4] He married Edith Joyce Crawshaw in 1929 and had three children.

Oxenhope village in the United Kingdom

Oxenhope is a village and civil parish near Keighley in the metropolitan borough of Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. The population was 2,476 at the time of the 2001 census which had increased to 2,626 at the 2011 Census. Historically part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Oxenhope railway station is the terminus for the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway.

Yorkshire Historic county of Northern England

Yorkshire, formally known as the County of York, is a historic county of Northern England and the largest in the United Kingdom. Due to its great size in comparison to other English counties, functions have been undertaken over time by its subdivisions, which have also been subject to periodic reform. Throughout these changes, Yorkshire has continued to be recognised as a geographical territory and cultural region. The name is familiar and well understood across the United Kingdom and is in common use in the media and the military, and also features in the titles of current areas of civil administration such as North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and East Riding of Yorkshire.

Oakbank School, Keighley

Oakbank School is a mixed secondary school and sixth form located in Keighley, West Yorkshire, England. It is situated near Ingrow Lane on Oakworth Road (B6143) in the west of Keighley. It became a Sports College in 1997, and gained Technology College accreditation in 2004.


Butterfield's main interests were historiography, the history of science, 18th century constitutional history, Christianity and history as well as the theory of international politics. [5] He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow in 1965. As a deeply religious Protestant, Butterfield was highly concerned with religious issues, but he did not believe that historians could uncover the hand of God in history. At the height of the Cold War, he warned that conflicts between self-righteous value systems could be catastrophic:

Historiography is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is any body of historical work on a particular subject. The historiography of a specific topic covers how historians have studied that topic using particular sources, techniques, and theoretical approaches. Scholars discuss historiography by topic—such as the historiography of the United Kingdom, that of WWII, the British Empire, early Islam, and China—and different approaches and genres, such as political history and social history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with the development of academic history, there developed a body of historiographic literature. The extent to which historians are influenced by their own groups and loyalties—such as to their nation state—remains a debated question.

History of science study of the historical development of science and scientific knowledge

The history of science is the study of the development of science and scientific knowledge, including both the natural and social sciences. Science is a body of empirical, theoretical, and practical knowledge about the natural world, produced by scientists who emphasize the observation, explanation, and prediction of real-world phenomena. Historiography of science, in contrast, studies the methods employed by historians of science.

Christianity is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the savior of all people, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament in Christianity, and chronicled in the New Testament. It is the world's largest religion with about 2.4 billion followers.

The greatest menace to our civilization is the conflict between giant organized systems of self-righteousness - each only too delighted to find that the other is wicked - each only too glad that the sins of the other give it pretext for still deeper hatred. [6]

The Whig Interpretation of History

Butterfield's book, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), became a classic for history students and is still widely read. [7] Butterfield had in mind especially the historians of his own country but his criticism of the retrospective creation of a line of progress toward the glorious present can be and has subsequently been applied generally. The "Whig interpretation of history" is now a general label applied to various historical interpretations.

Whig history is an approach to historiography that presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy.

Butterfield found the Whig interpretation of history objectionable, because it warps the past to see it in terms of the issues of the present and attempts to squeeze the contending forces of the past into a form that reminds us of ourselves. Butterfield argued that the historian must seek the ability to see events as they were perceived by those who lived through them. Butterfield wrote that "Whiggishness" is too handy a "rule of thumb... by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis". [8]

He also wrote about how simple pick-and-choose history misses the point, "Very strange bridges are used to make the passage from one state of things to another; we may lose sight of them in our surveys of general history, but their discovery is the glory of historical research. History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which the past was turned into our present". [9] In 1944, Butterfield wrote in The Englishman and His History that,

We are all of us exultant and unrepentant whigs. Those who, perhaps in the misguided austerity of youth, wish to drive out that whig interpretation, (that particular thesis which controls our abridgment of English history,) are sweeping a room which humanly speaking cannot long remain empty. They are opening the door for seven devils which, precisely because they are newcomers, are bound to be worse than the first. We, on the other hand, will not dream of wishing it away, but will rejoice in an interpretation of the past which has grown up with us, has grown up with the history itself, and has helped to make the history... we must congratulate ourselves that our 17th-century forefathers... did not resurrect and fasten upon us the authentic middle ages... in England we made peace with our middle ages by misconstruing them; and, therefore, we may say that “wrong” history was one of our assets. The whig interpretation came at exactly the crucial moment and, whatever it may have done to our history, it had a wonderful effect on English politics... in every Englishman there is hidden something of a whig that seems to tug at the heart-strings. [10]

Christianity and History

Butterfield's 1949 book Christianity and History, asks if history provides answers to the meaning of life, answering in the negative: [11]

The Origins of Modern Science

According to Brian Vickers FBA , in the 1949 book The Origins of Modern Science Butterfield makes simplistic generalisations which "seem unworthy of a serious historian". Vickers considers the book a late example of the earliest stage of modern analysis of the history of Renaissance magic in relation to the development of science, when magic was largely dismissed as being "entertaining but irrelevant". [12]

Prizes and accolades

In 1922, Butterfield was awarded the University Member's Prize for English Essay, writing on the subject of English novelist Charles Dickens and the way in which the author straddled the fields of history and literature.

In 1923, Butterfield won the Le Bas Prize for his first publication, The Historical Novel ; the work was published in 1924. [13]

Also in 1924, Butterfield won the Prince Consort Prize for a work on the problem of peace in Europe between 1806 and 1808. At the same time, he was given the Seeley Medal. [14]



  1. John D. Fair, Harold Temperley: A Scholar and Romantic in the Public Realm, University of Delaware Press, 1992, p. 11.
  2. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1970 (2nd ed.), p. 85.
  3. Haslam, Jonathan (15 July 2011). "The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield by Michael Bentley – review". Guardian. Retrieved 29 July 2014.
  4. "No. 44600". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 May 1968. p. 6299.
  5. Gifford Lectures – Biography of Butterfield Archived 22 March 2007 at the Wayback Machine by Dr Brannon Hancock
  6. Christianity, Diplomacy and War (1952)
  7. William Cronon, "Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History" (American Historical Association, September 2012) online at https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2012/two-cheers-for-the-whig-interpretation-of-history.
  8. Butterfield 1931, p. 10.
  9. "Whig History at Eighty | Wilfred M. McClay".
  10. Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and His History (Cambridge University Press, 1944), pp. 1–4, 73.
  11. Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (London: Bell, 1949) 88-89, 130. There have been reprints and revisions in 1950, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1964, 1967 and 3009.
  12. Vickers, Brian; Vickers, Brian (1984). "Introduction". Occult and scientific mentalities in the Renaissance. pp. 1–56. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511572999.002. ISBN   9780511572999.
  13. Butterfield, Sir Herbert (1924). The historical novel: an essay . Retrieved 26 July 2014.
  14. McIntire, C.T. (2008). Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter. Yale University Press. pp. 29–36. ISBN   978-0300130089 . Retrieved 26 July 2014.
  15. Butterfield, Herbert (1 January 1929). The Peace Tactics of Napoleon, 1806-1808. The University Press.
  16. Butterfield, Herbert (1 January 1965). The Whig Interpretation of History. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN   9780393003185.
  17. Butterfield, Herbert (1 January 1939). Napoleon. Duckworth.
  18. books.google.com
  19. Butterfield, Herbert (1 January 1970). The Englishman and His History. Archon Books.
  20. Butterfield, Herbert (1 January 1948). Lord Acton. Historical Assn.
  21. http://rootx.com/i/the-origins-of-modern-science-1300-1800/ Archived 20 May 2015 at Archive.today
  22. Butterfield, Sir Herbert (1 January 1951). History and human relations. Macmillan.
  23. McIntire, C. T. (1 October 2008). Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter. Yale University Press. ISBN   978-0300130089.
  24. Butterfield, Herbert (1 January 1951). The Reconstruction of an Historical Episode: The History of the Enquiry Into the Origins of the Seven Years' War : Being the Eighteenth Lecture on the David Murray Foundation in the University of Glasgow Delivered on 20th April, 1951. Jackson.
  25. Butterfield, Herbert (1 January 1952). Liberty in the modern world. Ryerson Press.
  26. Butterfield, Herbert (1 January 1952). Christianity in European History. Collins.
  27. Butterfield, Sir Herbert (1 January 1953). Christianity, diplomacy and war. Abingdon-Cokesbury Press.
  28. Butterfield, Herbert (1 January 1955). Man on His Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship. CUP Archive.
  29. Butterfield, Herbert (1 January 1957). George III and the historians. Collins.
  30. Butterfield, Herbert (1 August 1981). The Origins of History . New York: Basic Books. ISBN   9780465053445.

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Further reading

Academic offices
Preceded by
Paul Cairn Vellacott
Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge
Succeeded by
John Charles Burkill
Preceded by
Edgar Adrian, 1st Baron Adrian
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge
Succeeded by
Ivor Jennings