chapter  5
16 Pages


THE holder of a newly-established chair is unable to follow our pious custom and to begin his public instruction by commemorating his predecessors in office; but a professor of economic history does not need to apologise for his subject as something novel and unfamiliar. For close on a quarter of a century the university has made special provision for its teaching and has given it a place in the examinations for honours; but Oxford has been a home of this study for a much longer period. How long the period has been I should not like to say, for like other university studies this was a component element in thought long before it was treated specifically as a 'subject.' No one who ever read those introductory chapters which are amongst the most wonderful passages of Thucydides can have failed to see that one of the keys to general history is economic. Again, no one can have been unaware of it who thought about history in the light of the scientific movement of the seventeenth century, a movement to which we may with reason attribute the translation of Thucydides by Thomas Hobbes, the greatest Oxford thinker of his time. In the, historical books of that century we do indeed find not merely anticipations but mature specimens of economic history, and it would be inexcusable, at any rate on this occasion, to make light of these early precedents. Even they were not the first. We must overcome the temptation to maintain that the first Oxford book on economic history was the translation of Orosius, with additions on the newest maritime trade-routes, made by the reputed founder of the university, King Alfred. We shall indeed do best to pass over all the stages of preparation with the mere reminder that they must not be forgotten, and to take as our starting-point a writer in whom economic history had certainly reached its full stature, Adam Smith.