The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, Science and God by Michael Bentley - review by Blair Worden

Blair Worden

Epiphany on Trumpington Street

The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, Science and God


Cambridge University Press 381pp £50 order from our bookshop

Herbert Butterfield (1900–79) was once a name to conjure with, inside and outside the academic world. Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, and Master of Peterhouse, the college where he spent his working life, he wrote famous books which reached wide audiences: The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), The Englishman and His History (1944), Christianity and History (1949), and The Origins of Modern Science (also 1949). He took on an extraordinary range of subjects, from English history to world history, from the Renaissance to modern times, from international diplomacy to religion, and from political thought to the history of historical writing. He made his mark on all of them, though his books have more spread than depth. He disliked archival work, being more interested in interpreting the past than in discovering it. He contrived both to write too much too quickly and to leave major projects to which he had pledged himself unfulfilled.

In old age he lost his readership and his esteem. Attempts to revive his reputation since his death have hitherto drawn only specialist attention. Now Michael Bentley’s fine study, sympathetic but no whit idolatrous, seeks to place him on a wider map. Scrupulous and enterprising in the excavation

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