In Memoriam John Elliott (1930 – 2022)#

A most distinguished member of Academia Europaea’s History and Archaeology Section, Sir John Elliott has started out on the road towards academic eternity. There are many reasons to remember his invaluable contribution to historiography.

Sir John H. Elliott
Prof. Sir John H. Elliott


First and foremost, his fight against exceptionalism in the interpretation of Spain’s momentous history. The « Black Legend » lacked, according to him, any historical sense. This is why he studied its fabrication and printed broacasting. At a time – the 1960s – during which what was « enlightened » was to write that a « Spaniard » was whomever could not be anything else, or similar such nonsense, he founded a school of thought that represented, for the Modern period, the same kind of innovative interpretation as that offered by Oxford’s Raymond Carr for Contemporary times: Spain was a European nation, just like any other. No more, no less. What befell upon historians, no matter where they came from, was to stop repeating « tired truths » and to study the country’s exciting historical global path without hang-ups or pre-conceived starting points. It was necessary to call upon the comparative history method, he used to tell his students, in order to get to see what is similar, what is different and recognize causes in order to be able to present new interpretations.

According to such a line of thought, probably one of his best books is the simultaneous biography of Richelieu and Olivares, powerful in France and Spain in the era of ministerial favourites, both condemned not to come to terms – that was impossible – but to observe one another and to live while being constantly obsessed with one another. He always repeated, with a softness that admitted no reply: « The narrative must be well taken care of ». Even though he showed for his work the obsession of a « professional writer » (and what is, after all, an historian?), he reiterated the « importance of caring about the writing process itself ». It possessed, he explained in the classroom, the magic of bringing us close to the great publics of history. This was the historian’s indispensable tool, which enabled him to come close to human complexity. The better a writer he was, the greater was his capability to undertand and decipher the conflicts of the past.

Such fertile inclinations naturally brought him towards Atlantic history, which develops the coming together of American, African and European worlds in the way of an inter-connected structure and, later on, of a comparative history of Empires. After his classical study on the Empires of the Atlantic World, in which ventured to consider, with all its lights and shadows, the overseas expansion of both monarchies, he was working as of late on a comparative history of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. He was once asked how he would like to be remembered: « As a person who has tried to understand », was his reply.

Manuel Lucena Giraldo MAE/Nikita Harwich MAE, Chair of the History and Archaeology section

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