“ON 8th February, 1895, died Joseph Stevenson, one of the great historical scholars of the century, whose labours amongst British records effectively began something like 70 years ago. Born on 27th November, 1806, his life had been a long devotion to research. The volume of his achievement as editor, translator, and author is not so notable from its being large – although by no means all comprised in the forty-six entries in the British Museum catalogue opposite his name – as from its qualities of accuracy and thoroughness.
A native of Berwick, his heart ever belonged emphatically to the north side of Tweed. Educated in Glasgow and Durham, he at first proposed to enter the Presbyterian Church, even preaching a trial sermon in Scotland. Later, he went into the Anglican ministry, and in 1849 was instituted to the living of Leighton Buzzard. In 1863, influenced by the Tractarian movement, he joined the Church of Rome; was ordained priest in 1872; in his 71st year – a remarkable age for such a step – became a Jesuit novice; and was in 1881 admitted to take the vows as a Professed Father.
So early as 1831 he had found employment in the British Museum in connection with the MSS. From 1834 to 1838 he was engaged in the service of the Record Commission. About 1840 he was calendaring the Chapter Records of Durham. It is not difficult to believe that his familiarity with early ecclesiastical and other muniments and chronicles, and his high intellectual sympathy with the thought of the middle ages, reacted upon his religious conceptions, and helped to bring about his change of faith. The depth and intensity of his emotional inner nature were strikingly evinced by the observation he made shortly before his death that he wished his life had been devoted entirely to the sanctification of his own soul, and to work for the souls of the children of the poor – an aspiration of tender piety, breathing the purest spirit of mediaeval devotion.
His biographers in the Times (12th Feb.) and the Tablet (16th Feb.) unfortunately lack of information concerning what may be called his antiquarian life prior to 1831. Palaeographic skill is a product of experience and patience, not the acquisition of a day. It is evident that the man who garnered the Illustrations of Scottish History for the Maitland Club, in 1834, and who was in that year asked to edit the Scalacronica – which he enriched with so much illustrative annotation from manuscripts – must have been, long before 1831, a zealous worker at original sources. One small yet vital fact of this period may be mentioned. When at school in Durham the young Stevenson was a pupil of a certain schoolmaster, who was also one of the greatest of Northern antiquaries. That schoolmaster was James Raine, whose noble History of North Durham is one of the most valuable, as it is, unfortunately, one of the most costly and inaccessible of the contributions to English history which are indispensable for Scottish study. Father Stevenson, with a smile of kindliest reminiscence, told the present writer, in homely phrase, that he had got many a whipping from Raine of Durham! If, in the unsearchable dispose of fate, this laying on of the birch rod was the medium for transmitting the antiquarian succession, the birch was assuredly laid on to good purpose.
It is known that Mr. Stevenson’s intimacy with Sir T. Duffus Hardy enabled him to exert, at a critical juncture, a momentous influence in the inception and direction of the great work of publication of the chronicles and memorials of the middle ages. The lines of the old Record Commission were found unworkable; a new scheme had to be devised; and in the English Rolls Series and our own Record Series in Scotland we have a noble outcome of the joint counsel of the friends and their recommendations to the Master of the Rolls in 1856. Several of the volumes in these series were edited by Mr. Stevenson himself. There may be students of Scots antiquity who can trace back their first insight into primary evidence for national events in his Documents illustrative of the History of Scotland (1870),2 and who can scarcely yet turn without a thrill to the page which so faithfully indicates the deletions, the additions, and the manifold alterations in that rare and singular document, the draft letter of Edward I., disclosing with such uncompromising clearness his inexorable attitude towards the “rebel” Wallace.
Father Stevenson was a thoroughgoing and conscientious workman. When he edited a text or a translation his notes were the register of far-reaching studies. Manuscript material appeared to be as much at his finger-ends as print. He had great capacity for getting through work. His rapid pace was a token of his energy alike of body and mind – a personal activity which, even in the octogenarian, found odd expression in his dislike to travel by cab. His lithe, spare, alert, and slightly stooping figure, his thin and sharp but genial face, and his keen, bright eye were as well known in the Edinburgh Register House as in Fetter Lane. In the Vatican his winning but modest and unaffected manner procured for him from Pius IX. privileges amongst the archives such as had never been granted before – such as Cardinal Antonelli assured him never could be granted. Through all he was a true Scot. In the mind of the present writer there lives in his recollection of his one interview a memory of the almost youthful patriotic enthusiasm of the veteran of eighty-five.
We have spoken of him only as an editor, not as an author, excellent though he was in the latter capacity too. But the body of his achievement is editorial, and it is the editor – rather than the defender of Queen Mary or the assailant of John Wyclif – that will chiefly live. The historical author who is not himself a witness, an observer at first hand, has small chance of even the immortality of a half-century.
We pass: the path that each man trod
Is dim or will be dim with weeds.
But the editor who serves as Joseph Stevenson did – who by his industry so greatly swells the sum of our knowledge of the distant past – has earned the highest reward a scholar can obtain; he has made himself indispensable to the generations that follow.”