The purpose of this article is to examine the new Social History School from a Marxist viewpoint critically. This article is a re-edited version of a previous blog called The English Civil War and its Impact on the British Economy and Society
The New Social History of Historiography appeared in the early 1970s. According to some historians, it was perhaps the last major historiography of the 20th century to try and explain the complex historical phenomenon known as the English Civil War. Before the 1970s, Social History had mostly been limited to a study of everyday life. During the last thirty odd years, the subject has come to prominence because some aspects of it have become the bête noir of some revisionist historians. The most positive side of the new history is that it brought into the public domain the lives of working people or the poor who had largely been ignored by historians. On the downside this, new history became divorced from any form of economic or materialist explanation of the civil war
The new social history is not that different from its predecessor “old social history”. Described as a “hodgepodge” of disciplines and unlike any other historiography. The English historian G. M. Trevelyan saw it as the link between economic and political history, he stated, "Without social history, economic history is barren and political history unintelligible."
In fact, it was G.M. Trevelyan who gave us the most famous or infamous definition depending on your viewpoint of social history at the beginning of his English Social History when he said that social history was 'the history of the people with the politics left out.' Historians have interpreted this statement in many different ways.
I tend to prefer what E H Carr said on the matter, 'The historian undertakes a twofold operation: to analyse the past in the light of the present and the future which is growing out of it, and to cast the beam of the past over the issues which dominate current and future.' It is, he said, the function of the historian not only to analyse what he or she finds significant in the past, but also 'to isolate and illuminate the fundamental changes at work in the society in which we live', which will entail a view 'of the processes by which the problems set to the present generation by these changes can be resolved'. People are a product of history, their judgements and actions conditioned by the past, and the historian should work to make them aware of this, but also to make them aware of the issues and problems of their own time; to break the chain that binds them to the past and present, and so enable them to influence the future. E H Carr, The New Society, op cit, chapter 1.
While English historians were in the forefront of the new social history it would be wrong to classify this movement as solely English, it had international adherents. Paul E. Johnson described how the movement took place in America in the late 1960s: “The New Social History reached UCLA at about that time, and I was trained as a quantitative social science historian. I learned that "literary" evidence and the kinds of history that could be written from it were inherently elitist and untrustworthy. Our cousins, the Annalistes, talked of ignoring heroes and events and reconstructing the more constitutive and enduring "background" of history. Such history could be made only with quantifiable sources. The result would be a "History from the Bottom Up" that ultimately engulfed traditional history and, somehow, helped to make a Better World. Much of this was acted out with mad-scientist bravado. One well-known quantifier said that anyone who did not know statistics at least through multiple regression should not hold a job in a history department. My own advisor told us that he wanted history to become "a predictive social science." I never went that far. I was drawn to the new social history by its democratic inclusiveness as much as by its system and precision. I wanted to write the history of ordinary people—to historicize them, put them into the social structures and long-term trends that shaped their lives, and at the same time resurrect what they said and did. In the late 1960s, quantitative social history looked like the best way to do that”.
The Social History School in Britain was hugely influenced by the French Annales School of historical study. Keith Wrightson who himself was influenced by the French school outlines in his book English Society that the social changes that took place were not revolutionary but were rather evolutionary. Wrightson does pose some interesting questions. At the beginning of his book, he asks to what extent was English society polarised enough to cause a civil war, revolution and finally to cut a Kings head off. He also asks to what extent was the growing social inequality a factor in how social, economic and political events shaped up.
It is clear that if you took a straw poll of people's view at the beginning of the 17th that within 40 years there would be a massive civil war, revolution and regicide then they would have said you were mad. In many ways, there was no precedent for what took place in 1640. The leaders of the English revolution had no previous revolution to study to guide them. The 1640s Revolution was unlike any other. Subsequent leaders of the revolutions such as the French and Russian had the luxury of learning from previous revolutions.
This stems from their disdain to tie social change to that of political and economic factors. A view championed by the Marxist historian Christopher Hill. The purpose of this essay is not to deny that change both social and political took place or to over exaggerate the scale but to find the extent of the social and economic impact from a historical materialist viewpoint.
Lately, the whole historiography of the new social history group has been challenged.Over the last quarter of a century, it has been highly fashionable to question the social context of the civil war. Ann Hughes highlights this changing historical fashion can be illustrated from the titles of two collections of sources covering early modern social history. In 1965 Lawrence Stone published Social Change and Revolution in England 1540-1640, whereas the late Barry Coward produced Social Change and Continuity in Early Modern England1550-1750. The coupling of continuity rather than revolution with social changes in the latter work reveals a more qualified assessment of the extent of transformation in early modern England.
This latter more adequate approach has been taken by G E Aylmer who posed the question Rebellion or Revolution. He wondered how much difference did the events of 1640-60 make to people’s lives? The casualties, damage and other losses arising directly from the fighting, together with the generally disruptive of war on agriculture, industry, trade, transport all seem obvious on the debit side, he, on the other hand, he says the war gave people more social and political mobility, and they were able to achieve more than in any other time.
He makes the point that he believes that a few tens of thousands lost their lives and certainly no more than the worst epidemic of the time. In conclusion to his chapter on the Quality of Life, he states there was no shift in the economy or a radical alteration of the social structure. While he concedes that England after the 1640s and 1650s was more conducive for business development, he says that this would have been the case if Charles 1”s Personal rule had continued indefinitely, or if the royalists had won the civil war.
Whether you could describe Aylmer as a revisionist is open to debate, but he was certainly loosely linked to a heterogeneous group, which included Conrad Russell, Kevin Sharpe, Mark Kishlansky, Anthony Fisher which called into question both Whig and Marxist interpretations of the Civil War. They have rejected that the war was the product of deep-rooted social changes but have emphasised short-term factors and political infighting.
Mark Kishlansky's presents a one-sided view that the Civil War was over ideology when he says much has been written about the doctrine of the army, but most of it misconceived. According to him the “principle reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the New Model’s officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Sponger and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. Yet careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objection to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism”.
D. Penington poses an alternative scenario to Kishalnsky while really not analysing the significant issues of social revolution or of land and capital he has made important studies of how the Civil War impacted on the social fabric of society, he states by 1646 “most of the country seemed on the verge of collapse” its economy and government was exhausted tired out and ready to give up the ghost.” He then began to examine to what extent this was an accurate picture of events, one aspect he started to look at was the army and its impact on society and the economy. He outlined the great plunder that took place, and in many respects, you can see why soldiers sought exemption from prosecution.
Pennington agrees with point that in proportion to the size of the population more Englishmen died as a result of the Civil War in the seventeenth century than either of the world wars in the 20th century’ “it was bloodiest conflict in relative terms in English history” crops and land were seized; cattle and horses were taken . Pennington makes the point that the Royalists were more brutal than the Parliamentarians.
Another useful source on the impact of the civil war can be found in Steven Porter’s book while careful not to exaggerate the destruction he has some relevant statistical data on the scale of the impact of the civil war. 150 towns and 50 villages suffered destruction of property. According to the House of Lords Record Office, Main Papers, 23 Sept. 1648 “…miserable it is to see the multitudes of inhabitants and their children flocking in the streets of the bordering towns and villages and have not a house to putt their heads therein, whereby to exercise their calling”. Cities became garrisons to feed and clothed the armies, he uses the example of Newcastle that by 1645 economic life was severely shattered yet complete disaster had been averted. Each side saw to it not to alienate the population. While there were general suffering historians, have found it difficult to be precise in one such example the town of Taunton was according to Clarendon a third of the city was destroyed by fire, but according to Sprigge a flourishing town was all but destroyed.
Some books have come out recently, which contain important sources of eyewitness accounts of the civil war. One such is J Adair by the Sword Divided highlighted one particular aspect which was the development of social advancement inside the Army and service in the armies of Parliament certainly provided opportunities for social advancement. At first, the rival armies were officered by men of much the same social status, but gradually new people from the middle, lower middle and artisan classed moved into positions of responsibility, both on committees that ran the war and in the wider army. John Hampden’s Shepherd, Thomas Shelbourne, rose to be colonel of Cromwell regiment of Ironsides and there were similar stories. The more conservative Puritan Gentry objected to their newcomers as much as on social grounds as on account of their often unorthodox or radical religious views.
Forced requisitioning took place but a lot of goods were paid for at market prices. Adair says while there was “decay of life” there was also an opposite of this huge growth of profits for many people. Also, things such as the legal system remained relatively normal and survived unscathed. In the London, the impact of the civil war is hard to assess in many respects everyday life carried on as normal. London also avoided sack or siege. However, emergency wartime powers were resented by large sections of the population. Its economy was vital for the New Model Army and this state of affairs led one Royalist to lament “if posterity shall ask who pulled the crown from the king's head said it was proud unthankful schismatically, rebellious, blood City of London”.
The new social history group of historians make the assertion that social and economic changes did bring about changes in people's thinking. They have been mistakenly labelled Marxist’s but in reality never ascribed to Marx’s viewpoint on history. Marx insisted the men and women made history but not separate from objective developments one of the most perceptive statements on the subject came from his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859): he states “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, who are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness.
"The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters.
Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production”.
While it is generally accepted that there was not a massive amount of unrest and protest during the civil war. John Morrill has made the point that changes in social and economic policy were mostly controlled by the middling sort and large-scale outbreaks were prevented by this class. However, there was a real fear amongst sections of the middle class who feared the little people.
As Lucy Hutchinson writes with disdain, “almost all the Parliament garrisons were infested and disturbed with like factious little people, in so much that many worthy gentlemen were wearied out of their command, some oppressed by a certain sort of people in the House whom, to distinguish from the most honourable gentlemen, they called worsted stocking men”. Hutchinson is probably referring to the people that were increasingly being influenced by the Levellers who expressed an awareness, particularly amongst the lower sections that to have a say in these changes they must organise through some kind of political organisation.
John Morrill was clearly influenced by the New Social History historiography in an interview he describes his attitude towards those historians who were in the for front of the group “So there came along the new social history which opened up a whole range of types of evidence, and so one of the most important things to happen for my period was the work which is most obviously associated with Keith Wrightson (who trained in Cambridge, spent many years in St Andrews, returned to Cambridge and then moved to Yale). And the Wrightson revolution indeed, in the way in which social history is made, had an enormous impact on those of us who were more interested in high politics. I mean popular politics, constructed high politics. Wrightson’s importance for my work is again something that people might be a bit surprised to hear about, but I personally, in my mid-career, saw it as absolutely fundamental.
While the debate over the impact is important, it is an expression of a much more fundamental debate over the whether the war was linked to social and economic changes in England and Europe at the time. G M. Trevelyan states that the Cromwellian revolution was not caused by social and economic forces but its causes and motives were a result of the development of political and religious thought and aspiration among men who had no desire to recast society or distribute wealth.
Having said that he does make some points that the Marxist historians would agree with “to speak in general terms, Royalism was strongest where the economic and social changes of the previous hundred years had been least felt. The King and the Church were best loved in rural regions and market towns furthest from the capital, and least connected with overseas commerce. Parliamentary and Puritan sympathy was strongest where recent economic change had gone furthest, as in London under the influence of the great Elizabethan trading companies’ in the seaports (including the King’s own ships and dockyards)’ and in the newer type of manufacturing town or district like Taunton, Birmingham and the clothing Dales on both sides of the Pennines. The squires, who had the most business connection with London, or with trade and industry anywhere, tended most to the Roundhead side in politics and religion. The London area, including Kent, Surrey and Essex, was at once seized for Parliament, and the Royalist minority there was never able to raise its head”.
The examination of localised politics as opposed to national politics by the new social history historians fitted in nicely with other historians such as John Morrill’s work The Revolt of the Provinces. As Mario Caricchio points out “the "new social history" has demonstrated the parish in England was a political forum. A continuing negotiation of authority and subordination featured within it: gossip, rough music, libel, legal disputes, rioting, petitioning, voting and rebellion represented the diverse forms of conducting and solving the conflict. They constituted elements of a “popular political culture”. These were also the means by which the “ordinary people” shaped modern Europe on the continent.”
Other historians such as Joan Thirsk's played a major contribution, her work with Alan Everitt, came to known as the Leicester School of Local History. Beginning first with a county study, then through a series of regional and national studies, Thirsk concentrated on producing a regional framework for understanding the early modern agrarian economy and economic change in that period. How much this approach deepened, our understanding of the compound nature of the English Revolution is open to debate. Perhaps the narrowness of their remits has led to accusations that this type of historiography has not had the significant impact its historians had hoped for.
The Marxist historian had a lot of time for the new social history group of historians. Hill asserted that profound economic and social changes took place and state that “historians are coming more and more to recognise the decisive significance of these decades in the economic history of England. To back this assertion up he quotes writes Dr Corfield “After the civil wars,”, “successive governments from the Rump onwards, whatever their political complexion, gave much more attention to the interests of trade and colonial development in their foreign policies”. Restrictions which had hampered the growth of capitalist economic activity were removed, never to the restored. “The first condition of healthy industrial growth,” wrote Professor Hughes apropos the salt industry, “was the exclusion of the parasitic entourage of the court”.
Right up until his death Christopher Hill had been the leading proponent of the opinion that the social, economic, and political changes that took place in the civil war were the product of a bourgeois revolution. Hill argued that the seventieth century saw a turning point in English and world history. This view of trying to understand the social processes at work in the English revolution has been fiercely attacked by numerous historians yet none so that by P Lassett who said The English Revolution ought to be entombed. It is a term made out of our own social and political discourse…. It gets in the way of enquiry and understanding, if only because it requires that change of all these different types go forward at the same pace, the political pace… There never was such a set of events as the English Revolution”.
Hill never put forward that the events that characterised the English Civil War proceeded at the same pace. His point is that it helps to understand very complex developments if they are firstly set to the social and economic framework. What conclusions can be drawn? Through the sheer weight of empirical evidence, it is clear that the war had a significant impact on the social and political fabric of England.
Notes & References
1. Ann Hughes, The Causes of the English Civil War p117
2. G E Aylmer Rebellion or Revolution
3. Mark Kishlanksy Ideology and politics in the parliamentary Armies1645
4. Carlton p199 Ch9
5. S Porter The Destruction in the Civil War
6. G M Trevelyan Social History of Britain
7. C Hill In the Century of Revolution
8. Keith Wrightson English Society 1580-1680
9. Interview Professor John Morrill
10. Radicalism and the English Revolution Mario Caricchio Università di Firenze
11. Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760 007,416pp.;
12. What is Social History?By Raphael Samuel | Published in History Today Vol 35
13. Raphael Samuel is a tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford,
14. David Cannadine is Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, editor of Politicians, Power and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Towns 1982).
15. The Two Faces of E.H. Carr by Professor Richard J. Evans,