J. B. Bury

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J. B. Bury
John Bagnell Bury
Born 16 October 1861
County Monaghan, Ireland
Died 1 June 1927(1927-06-01) (aged 65)
Rome, Italy

John Bagnell Bury (16 October 1861 – 1 June 1927), known as J. B. Bury, was an Irish historian, classical scholar, Medieval Roman Historian and philologist. He objected to the label "Byzantinist" explicitly in the preface to the 1889 edition of his Later Roman Empire.


Bury was born and raised in Clontibret, County Monaghan, where his father was Rector of the Anglican Church of Ireland. He was educated first by his parents and then at Foyle College in Derry and Trinity College in Dublin, where he graduated in 1882 and was made a fellow in 1885, at the age of 24. In 1893 he gained a chair in Modern History at Trinity College, which he held for nine years. In 1898 he was appointed Regius Professor of Greek, also at Trinity, a post he held simultaneously with his history professorship.[1] In 1902 he became Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University.

At Cambridge, Bury became mentor to the medievalist Sir Steven Runciman, who later commented that he had been Bury's "first, and only, student." At first the reclusive Bury tried to brush him off; then, when Runciman mentioned that he could read Russian, Bury gave him a stack of Bulgarian articles to edit, and so their relationship began. Bury was the author of the first truly authoritative biography of Saint Patrick (1905).

Bury remained at Cambridge until his death at the age of 65 in Rome. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

He received the honorary Doctor of Laws (DLL) from the University of Glasgow in June 1901.[2]


Bury's writings, on subjects ranging from ancient Greece to the 19th-century papacy, are at once scholarly and accessible to the layman. His two works on the philosophy of history elucidated the Victorian ideals of progress and rationality which undergirded his more specific histories. He also led a revival of Byzantine history (which he considered and explicitly called Roman history), which English-speaking historians, following Edward Gibbon, had largely neglected. He contributed to, and was himself the subject of an article in, the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. With Frank Adcock and S. A. Cook he edited the Cambridge Ancient History, launched in 1919.

"History as a Science"[edit]

John Bagnell Bury's career shows his evolving thought process and his consideration of the discipline of History as a "science." From his inaugural speech as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1902 comes his public proclamation of History as being a "Science" and not a branch of "literature." He states, in poetic prose, "I may remind you that history is not a branch of literature. The facts of history, like the facts of geology or astronomy, can supply material for literary art; for manifest reasons they lend themselves to artistic representation far more readily than those of the natural sciences; but clothe the story of human society in a literary dress is no more the part of a historian as a historian, than it is the part of an astronomer as an astronomer to present in an artistic shape the story of the stars."[3] Bury goes on during his speech to defend the claim that history is not literature, which in turns questions the need for a historians narrative in the discussion of historical facts and essentially evokes the question, is a narrative necessary? But Bury describes his "science" by comparing it to Leopold von Ranke's idea of science and the German phrase that brought Ranke's ideas fame exclaiming "tell history as it happened" or "Ich will nur sagen wie es eigentlich gewesen ist." Bury's final thoughts during his speech reiterate his previous statement with a cementing sentence that claims "...she (history) is herself simply a science, no less and no more."[4]


As editor[edit]


  1. ^ Irish Times, 21 May 2008
  2. ^ "Glasgow University jubilee" The Times (London). Friday, 14 June 1901. (36481), p. 10.
  3. ^ Stern, Fritz (1972). The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present. Random House. p. 214. ISBN 0-394-71962-X. 
  4. ^ Goldstein, Doris (October 1977). "J.B. Bury's Philosophy of history: A Reappraisal". The American Historical REview 82 (4): 897 (896–919). Retrieved 2013-05-24. 

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