Friday, 30 September 2011

Adamson review: a response

John Adamson, The Noble Revolt. The Overthrow of Charles I. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. 2007. Xxii + 742 pages.)

I have just received two responses to my blog review of John Adamson’s book the Noble Revolt and have now published both. Suffice to say I will in time reply to some their points. While putting Adamson's work in a wider context of new research on the Civil War. One question I will attempt to answer is does it break new ground?

From Chris Thompson

I have now had the opportunity to read Keith Livesey’s comments on his blog (“A Trumpet of Sedition”, 26 September, 2011) regarding John Adamson’s book in detail. Keith Livesey has an intense interest in the events of the 1640s and favours a Marxist interpretation as readers of his blog will know. I enjoy reading what he has to say although I am often sceptical about his claims. On this occasion, however, I fear that he is seriously mistaken.

Let me begin with the historiographical issues he raises. Nineteenth and early-twentieth century Whig historians argued that the English Civil Wars of the 1640s were the result of constitutional and religious struggles that paved the way for the establishment of a limited monarchy alongside Parliamentary supremacy, the rule of law, freedom of the press and religious toleration after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689. These were the Whigs’ themes from the time of Hallam and Macaulay to that of G.M.Trevelyan. This argument was rejected by Marxist historians and those historians influenced by Marx in the period before the Second World War and after it.

One thinks of figures like R.H.Tawney, Christopher Hill and others who believed that antecedent economic and social changes explained the origins and course of the ‘English Revolution’. Of course, there were historians like Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was definitely not a Marxist, but who had his own socio-economic explanation to advance in the late-1940s and early-1950s.
The ‘storm over the gentry’ and contrasting claims about the fortunes of the peerage led to the great outpouring of theses and published works on the landed elites and on counties in the 1950s and 1960s. It is fair to say that this body of research left earlier arguments about the economic and social causes of the English Civil Wars or Revolution still undetermined. The controversy had run into the sand.

It was in this context that Conrad Russell observed in 1973 that social change explanations of this kind had failed. He left open the possibility that new explanations of this sort might be advanced. Russell himself and those historians advocating a new approach to the religious and political history of the early Stuart period were concerned with the causes of the breakdown in Stuart England before 1640: Theodore Rabb denominated them – misleadingly in my view – as ‘revisionists’. It was against the claims of Russell that historians like Richard Cust, Ann Hughes, Peter Lake and Tom Cosgwell, i.e. the post-revisionists, reacted in the 1980s. But there was a second group of historians, including John Morrill and Mark Kishlansky, engaged more or less simultaneously in re-evaluating the conflicts of the 1640s. These historians, whether or not they constituted one or two groups of ‘revisionists’, were certainly not mainly right-wing in their political persuasions. Russell himself, Ann Hughes, Richard Cust and John Morrill would have rejected such a description out of hand. In any case, by 1991 when Russell’s two books on the origins of the English Civil War and the fall of the British monarchies were published, revisionism and the reaction against it were over. New concerns over images, propaganda and the public sphere were coming to preoccupy seventeenth-century historians.

There was no attempt in the 1970s by the so-called revisionists to put forward explanations entailing “a rejection of both the Marxist and Whig views of English Civil War historiography” or “to pour scorn on Marxist theory”. Whig views were regarded as methodologically flawed and Marxist ones as anachronistic and irrelevant. They had ceased to matter. It is certainly wrong to claim that John Adamson’s “politics and historical attitudes were formulated during the Thatcher era.” John Adamson was a graduate of the University of Melbourne and arrived in Cambridge long after Mrs Thatcher had become Prime Minister. There is nothing in his book to suggest that he viewed the main actors in the period before the end of January, 1642 as reacting blindly to events or that he fails to explain or does not want to explain what provoked this revolt of the nobles and their allies. Equally clearly, he has nothing in its text or in the introduction to the volume of essays he edited in 2009, The English Civil War, to suggest any denigration of Oliver Cromwell or that he particularly admired King Charles I.

When Keith Livesey says that the book “contains significant omissions which include the significant role played by the Earl of Essex as Parliamentary commander after the outbreak of the civil war, the creation of the Royalist party, the significance of the New Model Army, the military defeat and elimination of the King, and the abolition of the House of Lords”, the chronological and logical fallacies involved in such claims are all too clear. None of these things had happened by the end of January, 1642 and thus fell outside the scope of John Adamson’s book. They will, no doubt, be dealt with in his later volumes.

Take, for example, the proposition advanced in his review that “Adamson does not touch upon any of the controversies over the war” and the contention four paragraphs later that he “accused some historians of relying too much on large abstract forces and opposed a downplaying of the role of the individual. He said”, so Keith Livesey argues, “he did not agree that long term views got us anywhere or that it was a bourgeois revolution. He [Adamson] felt that this “economic determinist” viewpoint did not explain too much.” 

The two claims are contradictory. But, if one reads Adamson’s book carefully, it is possible to see that he did engage with earlier historians’ interpretations – e.g. throughout the footnotes and in his epilogue (Pages 513-516) and that the bulk of his introduction to the 2009 volume of essays considers historiographical issues as a prelude to the work of his contributors. Nowhere in the book is there any comment to link the decline of Marxist influence on Civil War historiography with the fall of the Berlin Wall or to explain the English Revolution as a result of Charles I’s inexperience and vanity. Furthermore, no one can massage the egos of dead aristocrats.

In fact, almost all of Keith Livesey’s claims are either unfounded or untenable. I understand why, as a Marxist, he regrets its passing as an influence on the study of the events of the 1640s and 1650s since the early-1970s and the great days of Christopher Hill. That was probably inevitable as one generation of historians reacts against the claims of the preceding one. I happen to think that this is a good, positive development which has led to some profoundly important new lines of enquiry. John Adamson’s work has contributed very largely to this process and will, I expect, continue to do so into the future. His views on politics, whatever they may be, are irrelevant to the importance of his research just as they are to the work of historians of the left. We are all engaged in a continuing debate about these issues, a debate to which, alas, this review has contributed very little.

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