What is Intellectual History?
What is Intellectual History?
On the eastern side of Lake Windermere in Cumbria, in the north west of England, there was once a quarry at Ecclerigg Crag producing slate and stone for the remarkable buildings of the region. Active between the eighteenth and the early twentieth century, the quarry was sufficiently large to have its own dock. Having passed into history, what remains in the grounds of the hotel now standing on the site are five large slabs with detailed carvings made into the bedrock, in addition to ad hoc rocks both submerged in and out of the water. Some of the carvings are dated between 1835 and 1837. One of the master craftsmen employed at the quarry evidently took it upon himself to carve messages into the bare slate. The carvings include names of national and local significance, including 'Nelson', 'Newton', 'Walter Scott', 'Wordsworth', 'Jenner', 'Humphry Davy', 'Richard Watson', as well as the owner of the site, 'John Wilson', the friend of the Lake Poets and a well known local personage through his writing for Blackwood's Magazine and his being Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh (1820-51), and 'John Laudon McAdam', of road-repairing fame, in addition to the names of several individuals who had endowed local schools. One of the largest slabs, almost five metres high, gives an indication of the opinions of the mason, declaring in gigantic letters 'National Debt L800,000,000 / O, Save My Country, Heaven! / George 3, William Pitt / Money is the Sinews of War / Field Marshal Wellington / Heroic Admiral Nelson.' 1
What can historians make of these carvings? The social historian might seek to find out information about the social status of quarry workers, their working conditions, their lives beyond the workplace, and the nature of the society in which they lived by reference to class, gender, ritual and identity. The economic historian might seek information about the comparative wages of the workers, the economic conditions of the time, and the relative position of quarry employment by comparison with other local trades, and against national trends more generally. Related carving might be sought and evaluated. The cultural historian might speculate about the local and regional and national discourses through which individuals and social groups expressed themselves, and go further and analyse the power relations between them, painting a picture of the relationships between specific historic individuals and broader social groups. The intellectual historian has to start with the words. What was the author doing the carving seeking to convey? Why did he do so in precisely this manner? How were the arguments he was making stated elsewhere? What was their lineage and what was their reception?
Such labour can be difficult, especially in a case where the meaning is hard to discern or, as in this instance, the words are carved singly or in an epigrammatic fashion. Tracking down the names of the individuals mentioned in the carvings is relatively easy. They reveal a person with knowledge of leading figures in the locality, seemingly respectful of their position, and valuing charitable activity and more especially the endowment of schools for the poor. They also underscore a respect for technological invention and for science, for poetry and literature, and for military prowess and for acts of heroism. Further than this it is more difficult to go, except for the arguments that are contained in the statements on the slabs. This identifies the condition of the country as lamentable due to the national debt, and in need of saving ('O, Save My Country, Heaven!'). Antagonism towards the relationship between money and war is evident in stating that 'Money is the Sinews of War'. William Pitt is mentioned twice alongside this claim, raising the possibility, impossible to confirm or reject, that the author considered Pitt the warmonger of an earlier generation, and possibly of