‘Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory,” says the baron to his son in Disraeli’s Contarini Fleming. I wonder whether he would have approved of biographies of historians. There are not nearly enough of these amusing books, many of which have given me more pleasure than shelves of novels. I would, for example, trade the account of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Mastership of Peterhouse, Cambridge, in Adam Sisman’s Life for very nearly the whole of George Eliot’s output.

Recently I acquired a copy of Marie Halle and Edwin Bonney’s Life and Letters of John Lingard, 1771–1851. Though little read these days, poor Fr Lingard was a wonderful historian, far more responsible in his use of sources than Macaulay or Hallam, if not nearly so good a writer. To this day the easiest way to debunk any number of idiotic Protestant clichés concerning our religion – the old wheeze about clerical celibacy being a Norman import to the British isles, for instance – is to reach for his History of England. Fr Lingard was also, one learns, a very pious and kind man and a devoted caretaker of souls.

The usual objection to lives of historians, namely, that they are lacking in outward incident, is rubbish. The same charge might be levelled at the lives of the saints. Few books have given me more pleasure this year than Minoo Dinshaw’s very fond and very long biography of Sir Steven Runciman, Outlandish Knight, which has just been issued in paperback. It is emphatically not a saint’s life.

That is not to suggest that it is an especially sordid book, though there are certain passages which I would shrink from quoting in a family paper like this one. Rather it is a biography of a man who rejected the Christian religion, and the Roman Church in particular. Which makes it all the more curious that he seems to have understood certain aspects of the faith better than many of its modern-day adherents. Here he is, for example, at the beginning of The Medieval Manichee:

Tolerance is a social rather than a religious virtue. A broad-minded view of the private belief of others undoubtedly makes for the happiness of society; but it is an attitude impossible for those whose personal religion is strong. For if we know that we have found the key and guiding principle of Life, we cannot allow our friends to flounder blindly in the darkness.

From there, he goes on to explain, in language that would do well as a paraphrase of St Thomas, that heresy poses an even graver threat than unbelief. How refreshing it is to see this spelled out! There is nothing more tedious than the sort of Catholic who apologises for persecutions of heresy, as if we know better now than Athanasius and Ignatius of Loyola and those other tedious barbarians. Even those who do not, like Runciman, accept the articles of the Creed should be able to imagine what it would be like to do so and what might be the obvious logical concomitants of such a belief. Historians need a large imaginative sympathy for all sorts of persons, however different they might be from themselves.

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