Cambridge Modern History

A hundred years later, Michael Bentley looks back upon the arrival and impact of the Cambridge Modern History.

Historians will be in anniversary mode over the next few years. It’s the nature of the beast, of course; but also a reflection of momentous times in the world of history in the first decade of the last century. The British Academy was founded in 1902, Lord Acton died in the same year, John Bury gave a celebrated inaugural lecture as Regius Professor at Cambridge (in which he presented history ‘a science, no less and no more’) in 1903, the Historical Association was born in 1906. Each will give rise to memorial conferences, public lectures and talks on Radio 3. At the centre of this list of deaths and new beginnings a century ago lies the Cambridge Modern History (CMH), twelve faded spines on the shelves of your local reference library, the recourse for nearly a hundred years of a million desperate A-Level candidates, ‘its twelve-volume unreadability’, as Hugh Tulloch charmingly reminds us, ‘the despair of generations of students.’ When its first volume appeared in September 1902, priced 15 shillings, few commentators could have guessed how remorselessly the project would progress toward completion over the next decade, far less who would complete it.

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