Thursday, 27 October 2011

Further comment on Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground

I am grateful for this comment although, alas, I do not think it is right. After his discussion of the dissolution of the Short Parliament, John Adamson did not proceed directly to a discussion of the Petition of the 12 peers but analysed the attitudes of the 2nd Earl of Warwick and his allies towards the Caroline regime in the 1630s and the evidence for collusion in the summer of 1640 between the members of the aristocratic Junto and the Scottish Covenanters.

He identified Maurice Thompson, John Venn and Richard Shute (Noble revolt, page 79) as the bearers of the petition from London supporting the peers' petition: Thompson and Venn had had links with Warwick through their interests in colonization since the late-1620s and in the 1630s, so his point is valid.

There is, in fact, a mass of material in The Noble Revolt on the importance of popular pressures on the proceedings of the two Houses in 1640-1642: if you do not believe me, please read Pages 285-288 on the end of Strafford's life or Pages 468-477 on tumults in the capital. He was and is interested in the impact of demonstrations and the threat of violence in London in this and succeeding periods.

Fortunately, a lot is known about how these demonstrations, etc., were organised from the works of Valerie Pearl, Robert Ashton, Keith Lindley and others. (See Clarendon Ms.20, fol.129 for Venn's role in coordinating such demonstrations.)It is, in any event, for John Adamson to develop his arguments as he wishes rather than meeting old-fashioned Marxist prescriptions.
(This post was forwarded to me by Chris Thompson. It was left anonymously on his blog. I am publishing because while not agreeing with every point it does have something to add to the debate. Chris Thompson’s remarks are also included)


It seems to me that most of the valid intellectual work Adamson's narrative accomplishes was better done by your own work on the "middle group. “Then there are the problems. The valid nugget in Livesey's discontent, I think, is that Adamson has little patience for or interest in what might be called popular mobilization, even though this was what gave aristocratic politics its bite. And his treatment of the events of 1640--the only moment concerning which I have sufficient expertise to comment--is riddled with significant omissions and errors (example omission: he skips directly from the dissolution of the Short Parliament to the Lords' Petition, without offering to explain the summer's agitation; example error: he claims the London Petition was carried by clients of Warwick). While errors are an unavoidable part of the scholarly process, these seem more like errors of opportunity to me, opportunities to affirm the centrality of the figures in his study to the politics of that year.

For me, the main value of Adamson's work is to reopen the problem of the politics of the early 1640s. Which is a legitimate accomplishment. But I understand Livesey's uneasiness.

CT Reply

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Christopher Thompson commented Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground

I am afraid, Keith, that this is not a convincing argument. It is factually incorrect to claim that all historiography before the 1970s offered some kind of explanation founded on a relationship between the 'base' of English society and its 'superstructure' as a reading of Hume, Mackintosh, Hallam, Macaulay and Trevelyan will show.

It is a matter of debate when the heyday of British capitalism occurred but no one has yet shown how this shaped Whig historiography or made it more convincing. In any case, the origins of 'revisionism' lie not in the 1970s, whether early or late, but in the late-1960s when it was increasingly obvious that the kind of deterministic explanations offered by Tawney, Hill, Stone and others were unsustainable because they were at variance with the surviving evidence.

By 1973, the work of 'revision' as Ted Rabb would describe it and the reaction against the kind of history being written by Stone and Hill wa s well under way. This was long before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher reached the front rank of politics on either side of the Atlantic and long before John Adamson began his work on the 1640s.

 No so -called revisionist poured scorn on Marxist theory nor has Adamson downplayed the role of Oliver Cromwell. You should read the latter's essay on 'Oliver Cromwell and the Long Parliament' in John Morrill, ed., Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (Longman. 1990) as penance. However one defines the political preferences of those you regard as 'revisionists', they were not predominantly or even obliquely right-wing.

Tristram Hunt and Simon Schama are, moreover, hardly specialists in seventeenth-century English history. I ought to add that Kishlansky's attacks on Adamson in and after 1990 had a great deal more to do with academic politics than your account allows. 

There was no requirement on Adamson to preface his study of the political role of the peerage in the 1640s with an analysis of the class composition of the gentry or of its relationship with the Stuart Crown: that would have meant giving up his priorities in research and writing to address a long obsolete Marxist agenda. It was for him to write as he chose and to investigate the issues he wanted to examine. That is the right and duty of every historian. But do not suppose that he is or has been unaware of the connections between the members of the Junto in 1640-1642 and of the grandees later in the decade with the worlds of London mercantile and artisan politics.

The novelty of his work lies in the revelations he has already made about such links and that he will make in subsequent publications. He has reshaped the historiography of the period already and will continue to do so because his work rests on secure evidential foundations, not on a political approach to the past.      

Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground”

The purpose of this article is to answer Nick Poyntz assertion that despite significant attacks in the past from historians such as Mark Kishlansky he believes that Adamson’s work does “break new ground”. To recap John Adamson’s main argument in his previous essays and in his huge book the Noble Revolt is that a small group or in his words a Junto made up of nobles led a revolt which caused the overthrow of Charles 1st. Having finally read the book I find it difficult to agree with Nick’s point. The book is well written and extremely well researched. While I agree with Nick that Adamson has uncovered new material and sources I do not believe that he has developed it into a new historiography and therefore break new ground.

A new historiography would in my estimation have to at least take on board previous historiography and would have to be a synthesis of the most important parts of both Whig and Marxist historiography in order to develop a new and improved historiography. Without this Nick’s claim becomes devoid of substance.

Furthermore I am a firm believer that most previous historiography (certainly 20th century) had some kind of material base or at least paid lip service to the relationship between base and superstructure. In other words previous historiography whether it was Whig, Marxist or  Post-Modernist were in some form refractions of what was taking place in society either politically or economically. For example the rise of the revisionists in the early 1970s coincided with a right wing political movement spearheaded by Thatcher and Reagan. This movement gained ground with the final collapse of the USSR which led to numerous theories that the collapse of Communism meant that the socialist project had failed. The most pessimistic expression of these theories came with the End of History by Francis Fukuyama. The English Civil war was not the only subject that had a noticeable revisionist trend during this time. From the 1970s Studies into the Russian Revolution provoked a similar revisionist backlash.

A point of clarification I am not in favour of a crude economic determinism. One of the main attacks on Marxism is that it argues that ideology is just a cover for real economic motivations of social actors. It is said that Marxism does not account for the subjective actions of individuals based on political motivations. I do not deny that people can be motivated by ideological motives and I do not claim some kind of umbilical between the two but I believe that there is a connection which is dialectical in nature between political and economic actions. Adamson while correctly portrays his figures were motivated by ideological concerns he fails to uncover the social interests that were served by those ideologies.

It is true that historians and their historiography do go out of fashion but historiographies that were fashionable two hundred years ago still can contribute to our understanding of the war. Despite Christopher Thompson’s protestation Whig and Marxist historians while thin on the ground still exist today. Tristram Hunt and Simon Sharma are for all intense and purposes Whig historians. In fact large swathes of television historians offer a certain Whig outlook. In fact the BBC is full of them.

To answer another point from Chris Thompson historians such as Christopher Hill when developing his historiography did not reject entirely the work of Whig historians. He took the attitude that they had something to contribute to an understanding of the complex nature of the English Civil War.

Hill did not just offer a critique of Whig history he understood that their historiography belonged to a time in English history that coincided with the heyday of British capitalism. Whig history reflected the position of significant section of the English bourgeoisie. He also recognised that Whig history had some similarities with Marxist history.

In my opinion for a piece of work to break new ground has to be more than a well-reasoned argument or a rather large amount of text or have expensive colour pictures, Adamson refers to the English Gentry but does not really go into any extensive detail as to the class composition of the gentry. What was its economic position towards the king? Adamson maybe a skilled historian but a more detailed description of the class struggle involving his Cabal would have made the book far more precise and concrete.

Adamson’s books on the English Civil war are part of what has become the ‘post revisionist ‘school of history writing. The main characteristic of this school of thought is a rejection of both the Marxist and Whig views English Civil War historiography. From the beginning of his career Adamson sought to distance himself from any form of socio-economic explanations which have largely been championed by ‘Marxist’ historians such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning.

Before the Post Revisionist era there consisted a group of historians who were for want of a better term simply “revisionists.” From the late seventies onwards a group of mainly but not all right wing historians sought to pour scorn on Marxist theory based largely on socio-economic explanation of historical events. The result of this has been a chaotic mix of differing theories with Adamson’s being one of them. Adamson elaborated his thesis.

As I said at the beginning Adamson’s work has previously come under ferocious attack from the historian Mark Kishlansky. Kishlansky’s first essay Saye What which challenged Adamson’s theory extends to nothing more than a catalogue of Adamson’s errors. Some of his criticisms I agree with. I am not sure Adamson’s cabal of politicians was that influential and I do not agree with his downplaying of Cromwell’s role. Also in some respects does seem to turn events upside down, but having said that I think Kishlansky’s critique of Adamson does border on academic bullying.

Take for instance this quote from Conrad Russell “What makes a historian master of his craft is the discipline of checking findings, to see whether he has said more than his source warrants. A historian with a turn of phrase, when released from this discipline, risks acquiring a dangerously Icarian freedom to make statements which are unscholarly because unverifiable”.

Kishlansky accuses Adamson of “tendentious interpretation”. Well you could accuse every single historian that has written on the English Civil War of this. Historians have the right to interpret the facts or sources the way they feel fit without fear of some form of academic bullying.

Adamson’s new work seems to have taken too much notice of Kishlansky’s remarks. It does contain a large amount of footnotes in fact it is slightly an overkill to publish so many and one reason that has been suggested is that it was a defensive reaction to Kishlansky’s critique. Kishlansky alleged that Adamson was “deliberately abusing and misreading sources”.

What began as a disagreement between two historians soon became a major historical debate. Both sides of the debate took their gripes to the pages of academic journals. Big named historians such as Conrad Russell, Lawrence Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper took one side or the other without really resolving the issue.

Outside of the academic community these debates which occur frequently might seem like storms in tea cups but in reality particularly when concerning the discussion over the civil war they are expressions of very deep seated divisions over cause and effect. As Lawrence Stone described the history of the 17th century as 'a battleground which has been heavily fought over...beset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way.”

You are correct when you stipulate that Adamson concentrates more on superstructure than on base. Having said this I do not believe Adamson’s aversion to base his analysis of the Junto on economic motives does not constitute a new historiography. You also point out that if Adamson had carried out “a sustained analysis of the vertical links between politicians and "people" would be a very different work of history”. In this matter you are correct he choose to concentrate on this class of people because in a distorted way it reflects his politics. In my experience very few historians have been able to abstract themselves away from their political slant. Whether this is a good or bad thing is still open to debate.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Royal Stuarts by Allan Massie: Jonathan Cape :A Review

The Royal Stuarts by Allan Massie is a very good portrait of one of the most important families in British history but whether they were a family that “shaped Britain” is very much open to challenge. Quite logically Massie starts at the beginning of the Stewarts reign. The spelling of the family name was changed to 'Stuart’ by Mary, Queen of Scots, to “stop the French mispronouncing it”.

The Stuarts began life as very rich landowners from Brittany, France before moving to Scotland were they acquired the hereditary office of 'steward ’to the Scottish kings. Massie is correct when he gives such a wide sweep to a family that did span a considerable range of British history, to be exact from the Middle Ages to the Napoleonic period.
The book is far from an academic account of the Stuarts although having said that this is no Mills & Boon approach to historical writing according to one reviewer “he has the novelist’s ability to conjure up context and background in a brief sketch, the journalist’s knack of summarizing arguments and issues, and the storyteller’s gift for picking out those key actions or remarks that bring a person’s character to life”.

It is true the book has the feel of a novel but Massie is a good enough writer to document his text with a generous use of footnotes. His use of sources comes from older historians and writers rather than modern day ones. He cites, John Buchan, Lord Macaulay and Sir Walter Scott.Massie is not a professional historian and this has led to some historians bemoaning the fact that it seems to have no original use of primary sources or that any manuscripts were consulted.

But there is nothing wrong citing other creative writer’s opinion on his chosen subject. In saying that students studying this book should also do some independent research.The book does have its share of mistakes it has been pointed out that Charles I ‘find refuge’ in Carisbrooke Castle, this is not strictly true as he was in reality held under armed parliamentary guard. Massie asserts Charles 'almost certainly’ did not read Hobbes’s Leviathan. But this is contradicted by the fact that was given a manuscript copy by Hobbes himself.

Perhaps more importantly the book does have several weaknesses. Massie seems to follow in the footsteps of recent historiography in the fact very little mention of the vast economic changes that covered the reign of the Stuart family. Nothing is learnt of the close connection of the Stuarts to section of the growing mercantile class that grew up in the 15th and 16th centuries and played no small role in the English revolution.

From my standpoint the most important chapter in the book is Charles 1 The Martyr King. In this part of the book Massie clearly indicates sympathy for his subject. For Massie Charles is not a “man of blood”. The chapter also lacks certain objectivity and Massie’s conservative proclivities shine through.  He takes on board a number of revisionist arguments. Charles was not responsible for the civil war it was nasty parliaments fault. Massie uncritically presents the counterfactual argument If Charles had not been so stubborn then things might have not developed into a civil war. There is a downplaying of social and economic factors.

I am not critical of Massie’s choice of the Stuarts as a study but readers should bear in mind Massie’s “is well known for advocating a Tory viewpoint” as one writer pointed out correctly that the “Stuarts are meat and drink to conservative revisionist historians because their complex personalities and the shifting, premodern nature of their kingdoms (plural after 1603) made them unusually susceptible to interpretative spin. Stuart reputations go up and down like the stock market”.

Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the Marxist historians was so little work was done counter the revisionists view of the Stuarts with a historical materialist viewpoint.

To conclude Massie is a very good writer and his approach throughout the book is intelligent and does not talk down to the reader. The pace of the book is fast and deals with a large amount of material. Massie who is a writer with a wealth of experience which makes this a book well worth reading and good introduction to the subject.