Monday, 19 March 2012

On the historiography of the English Civil War


I have just received this email from Chris Thompson. Chris is something of a rarity in this Internet age a man who while forcibly puts his point across but does so in almost gentlemanly way. A good exchange of views is healthy for the pursuit of clarification and knowledge especially on such a complex subject as the English revolution. 

I will return to his comments shortly as I have some other projects which are taking my limited time. As for the original target of my piece called should the English Civil War Be at the Heart of the National Curriculum? Paul Lay I will not hold my breath for a reply. I am not sure that blog writers appear on his intellectual radar too much to warrant a reply. I hope to be surprised. Chris Thompson’s blog can be found at here http://earlymodernhistory1.blogspot.co.uk/. Any one studying the subject of early modern Britain will find a valuable research tool.

Over the last three years, I have become more sympathetic to Keith Livesey’s blog, A Trumpet of Sedition. I have grown to like him too. This is partly because he is an unrepentant Marxist of a kind much more common when I was an undergraduate and postgraduate in the 1960s. He believes that the events of the period between 1640 and 1660 were a genuine revolution, that they had as their principal causes antecedent economic and social changes and that they paved the way for the emergence and triumph of capitalism in England with all the momentous consequences that had for the world as a whole in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Christopher Hill, it is no surprise to find, is one of his heroes in the ranks of professional historians and he is no less interested in the Communist Party’s group of historians that flourished in the late-1940s and until the mid-1950s. This is a perfectly respectable and defensible position although not one that I accepted either in the 1960s or subsequently.(One of my favourite conversational gambits when confronted by a Marxist four or five decades ago was to deny that there had been a ‘Revolution’ in a recognisably Marxist sense at all.)

Keith Livesey recently (13th March) commented on the views of the Editor of History Today, Paul Lay, on the contents of a revised National Curriculum for history. He agreed with Paul Lay that it should cover the English Civil War and offered his agreement if the former meant “that the English Revolution paved the way for capitalism to flourish in England”. But he was apprehensive that Paul Lay seemed to belong to a group of historians who “have sought to revise previous Marxist historiography of the English Civil War.” He went further when he expressed the view that Paul Lay and other revisionist historians had downplayed the role of economics in people’s actions at that time. “Lay’s real beef is with Marxist historiography .... Lay blames Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill for using base and superstructure to best understand the civil war. Lay believes that the demise of Marxism has once again brought the role of religion as the main driving force behind civil war. Lay has the right to his ideology but the constant attack by revisionists and their apologists is doing untold disservice to those students who wish to have a multi rather than one dimensional understanding of the civil war.”

I am sure that Paul Lay, if he so wishes, is perfectly capable of responding to these criticisms. Nonetheless, there are some important points that need clarifying for the record. There was never a time when Marxist interpretations of the English Civil War or the English Revolution constituted an established historiographical orthodoxy in this country (the United Kingdom).Nor did they do so in the United States. Hugh Trevor-Roper, John Cooper and Jack Hexter’s criticisms decisively punctured the sub-Marxist explanations of Tawney, Stone, Hill, and others: this was why there was such an explosion of advanced research into the gentry’s fortunes and the experience of counties from the late-1950s onwards. Christopher Hill himself came to the view by the 1970s that the events of the 1640s were not the result of the rise of the bourgeoisie but the precondition for such a rise later in the seventeenth century. He was severely criticised by figures like Norah Carlin for such apostasy.

The second major point that I should make is that ‘Revisionism’ as it came to be termed had a very short life-span. It was born in the mid-1970s with Conrad Russell’s work on the Parliaments of the 1620s and was defunct after 1990-1991 when his works on The Causes of the English Civil War and The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-1642 appeared in print. There has been no campaign of continuing criticism of Marxist historiography in this area or of Christopher Hill’s body of work because both have, in general terms, ceased to be regarded as relevant by academic historians. The debates amongst historians of the Civil War period have moved on a very long way over the last twenty years or more.

No historian that I know maintains that economic and social changes before 1640 were unimportant or unrelated to the events of the years thereafter. But very few would maintain that economic and social changes in themselves were decisive in determining the outcomes of the military struggles between Royalists and Parliamentarians in England or the conflicts in Ireland and Scotland. Much more sophisticated connections between intellectual and popular culture, between literacy levels and political and religious changes, between the rise of aristocratic constitutionalism and the demands of landed and mercantile elites have been developed since Christopher Hill’s prime. 

The terms of the debates will no doubt continue to change. That is right and proper in academic history. Whigs, Marxists and Revisionists have had their day and now belong to the students of intellectual historiography.