Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Gender and the English Revolution- Ann Hughes - 192 pages : Routledge 2011 ISBN-13: 978-0415214902

Studies of the role women during the English revolution both in the past and present have been few and far between.  Ann Hughes’s book Gender and the English Revolution is an attempt to rectify this anomaly.

History and for that matter, historians have not been kind to women who took part in political activity on both sides of the English Civil War. There is a dearth of material on women’s struggle at this time. As far as I can ascertain no major biography exists of two of the most famous Leveller women Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne.

Gender or women’s studies is a new type of historiography and have been taught by universities really only in the last two decades.  The recent proliferation of books, articles, etc. has many reasons. One major factor being the growth of women historians who have started to explore this previously under-researched subjects. Another no less important reason is that women, in general, have a much-increased degree of political freedom and economic independence than previous generations of women.

According to studies, women make up nearly fifty percent of the English working population. They also have a degree of freedom not heard of in previous generations. In other words, the origins of women history studies appeared as a direct result of the struggle for social equality amongst women.
Whether one agrees with gender studies or not it stands on its own merit and does play a major role particularly as regards research into the role of women in 17th-century English revolution.

I must confess that while doing some research for this review, it has not been easy in finding relevant material to add to this article. In fact, research into the role of women in the 17th-century revolution is very scarce.  It is after all over eighty years since Alice Clark wrote a major work analyzing the working life of women in the 17th century. A excellent article on her work and life can be found at Early Modern Notes by Sharon Howard entitled Alice Clark, working women’s historian.

Howard wrote, "I have a soft spot for Alice Clark (not least for her maxim that “those who don’t make mistakes don’t make anything”). This was her only book. She wasn’t a well-known academic historian; rather, a feminist and businesswoman whose life encompassed many other activities and who only began historical research at the age of 38. In fact, she was a member of the Clark family, who were Quakers, of shoe making fame (you know, those horrible sensible shoes you wore as a kid because your mum made you, except they recently got all trendy and cute).Born in 1874, she was firmly influenced by the ‘first wave’ of feminism, particularly by debates about female economic dependence and ‘parasitism’ on men and its adverse effects on women and society as a whole. She also needs to be understood in the context of early 20th-century concerns about the social consequences of industrialization and pioneering sociological investigations into contemporary conditions of the poor, and increasing interest in what was then called ‘economic history’ (it would now be termed social history). The contribution made to that historiography by women was subsequently ignored by many historians; feminist historians have in more recent decades worked to reconsider their significance “.

As I said, early Gender historiography is a relatively new concept in which to study women’s role in history. The study of sex is largely a by-product of the genre  “History from below” instigated by the Communist Party History Group. While producing some treasured research and publications, the replacing of gender over class in the study of historical events was a move away from the classical Marxist approach. 

Gender studies became unusually high in within the History Workshop movement. The growth of sex studies was facilitated by such books such as E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class in the early 1960s provided a platform for gender studies to grow.  This coincided with the rise of independent women historians and writers who “insisted that women's experience no longer is 'hidden from history.' Sally Alexander and Anna Davin, 'Feminist History,' History Workshop Journal, no 1 Spring 1976; Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the 19th Century, 1983.To name just two.

It would be correct to say that these books examining women’s role in history have not had a significant readership. The historian Keith Thomas who taught history at Oxford in the 1950s decided to set up a series of lectures on Women and the 17th century. Thomas’s attempt was met with at best indifference and worse outright hostility.

The period that Hughes writes about was truly a world turned upside down, where traditional family roles were coming under high pressure.  As Alison Jones points out “The Civil War of 1642-1646 and its aftermath constituted a time of great turmoil, turning people’s everyday lives upside down. It not only affected the men in the armies, but it also touched the lives of countless ordinary individuals. It is well known that women played a significant role in the Civil War, for example defending their communities from attack and nursing wounded soldiers. What is often forgotten, however, is that some women took advantage of the havoc wrought by the conflict to dissent from conventional positions in society.The slightest deviation by women from their traditional roles as wives and mothers was condemned by this patriarchal society; and therefore dissent could take many forms that today do not appear particularly extreme – for example, choosing to participate in emerging radical religious sects, having greater sexual freedom, fighting as soldiers and practicing witchcraft”.

It took a lot of courage to take part in the struggles of the day. The punishment for doing was swift and brutal, the heavy punishment was meted out to those women who rebelled against the prevailing orthodoxy. One such ‘rebel’ was Margaret Cavendish who wrote in a tract  Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655),”We become like worms that only live in the dull earth of ignorance, winding ourselves sometimes out by the help of some refreshing rain of good educations, which seldom is given us; for we are kept like birds in cages to hop up and down in our houses, not suffered from flying abroad to see the several changes of fortune, and the various humour, ordained and created by nature; thus wanting the experiences of nature, we must need want the understanding and knowledge so consequently prudence, and invention of men: thus by an opinion, which I hope is but an erroneous one in men, we are shut out of all power and authority, despised, and laughed at, the best of our actions are trodden down with scorn, by the overweening conceit men have of themselves and through despisement of us”.

Hughes in her book adopts the notion that society’s problem was not the making of a clash of ruling elites or a class struggle but was because England was a patriarchal society.  While Hughes acknowledges the fact that political and economic differences did occur among men and women these are mostly ignored, and she contends that the primary motivating factor for pursuing civil war was the struggle of women versus men.

Hughes is a noted historian of women’s history of the 17th century. On page 29 of the introduction Hughes makes the point that “neither women nor men form a homogeneous category, and in this book their experiences during the English revolution are structured by age, social and marital status, religion, and political allegiance, and sometimes by national or ethnic identity, as well as by gender. One category missing from this list is class.

I must admit I have problem historians who advocate the theory of patriarchy. Under the guise of investigating all women’s history which I have nothing against there has developed a tendency to reduce all of the women’s struggle to a fight against repression regardless of what class they belonged to and regardless how right wing and reactionary.

It must be said that a class understanding of the English revolution has come under sustained attack from revisionists for well over thirty years and has taken differing forms. I am not saying that Ann Hughes work is part of this revisionist assault, but her uncritical promotion of gender studies and especially the theory that the Civil War can be best understood from a struggle against patriarchy does damage to a class based approach.

What then are the strengths of the book I agree with Gaby Mahlberg when she says “The power of Hughes’s book, and what makes it so valuable to both specialist scholars in the field and their students, is the great wealth of primary source material on which it is based and the ease with which the author moves between the micro-stories of early modern men and women, their wider context, and ongoing historiographical debates. Gender and the English Revolution are likely to join The Causes of the English Civil War (London, 1991) as staple reading for students of the mid-seventeenth century”.

Further Reading:

Alice Clark, Working life of women in the seventeenth century 1919])

Drama and Politics in the English Civil War by Anna Beer Published in History Today 1998 

Dissent and Debauchery: Women and the English Civil War By Alison Jones Published in History Review 2003 Gender Military English Civil War Early Modern (16th-18thC) England 

Gaby Mahlberg’s review Gender and the English Revolution can be found at Women’s History Review 12th July 2012

Saturday, 21 July 2012

A Short Q&A with Historian Catherine Fletcher

Catherine Fletcher latest book is called Our Man in Rome is set in the six-year period of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It's the story of Gregorio Casali, Henry VIII’s ambassador in Rome from 1525 to 1533, but also the first book-length account of the diplomatic intrigues behind the divorce for several decades.

Q. What made you tackle an already crowded field of historical study of the Tudor's especially Henry viii? My interest was originally focused on Renaissance Italy and the way today’s diplomatic system grew up there. I started looking at Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon as a case-study of how monarchs negotiated in Rome, and realised that the Italian side of the story really hadn’t been told before in any detail. I found so much fascinating material that I thought it would be worth writing up.

Q How would you described your historiographical style. Who were your mainly influenced as a younger historian/writer.?

Writing The Divorce of Henry VIII I was influenced by microhistories that take one small example – in my case the ambassador in Rome – and use it to tell a bigger story. Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre are a couple of the classics. Microhistories tend to focus on people lower down the social scale, but I don’t see why they can’t be used to look at the experience of elite figures like ambassadors too. I also had Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana at the back of my mind (my book was first published as Our Man in Rome). That’s a great book about diplomatic duplicity – and makes an important point for historians that you can never be quite sure that envoys’ letters are telling the truth.

Q What advice would you give to an upcoming historian.

First, I’d say go and explore the archives. There’s a huge quantity of documentation out there – in local record offices, family holdings, and the like – that’s never been properly sorted through. Find a story that interests you and follow it through. And second, I’d say that it’s well worth taking the time to learn languages other than your own. Being able to read material in other languages can give you a very different perspective on historical issues.

Q How do you view the development of history blogs and other internet based historical resources.

History blogs are a great way for historians to discuss work in an informal way – and to find out what’s going on in the world of history. I wish I had more time to read them! They can make for much wider interaction between members of the public and academic historians than would otherwise be possible. The internet has also allowed the creation of some great digital databases of original source material. The Medici Archive Project in Florence has put thousands of letters online, and the Old Bailey Online site is a brilliant resource for anyone researching English legal and social history. My only concern is that we may now see a bias towards research on those themes that have good online resources at the expense of areas which don’t.

Q What are you working on now.

I’m trying to finish an academic book about the development of diplomacy in Renaissance Rome. After that, my plan is to write another book based in Renaissance Italy, and I’m working through the options for that now. There are so many good stories to tell about the great dynasties: the Borgias and the Medici, for example. I’m trying to make up my mind which one to write first!


Monday, 2 July 2012

Leveller Women and the English Revolution

 This  article first appeared as a guest blog @ Hoydens and Firebrands).

Wife and servant are the same

But only differ in the name

When she the word ‘obey’ has said

And man by law supreme has made

Fierce as an eastern prince he grows

And all his innate rigor shows

Then shun, oh shun that wretched state

And all the fawning flatterers hate

Value yourselves and men despise

You must be proud if you’ll be wise

Lady Chudleigh

“Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood”?
Women's Petition (1649)

History and for that matter historians have not been kind to women who took part in political activity on both sides of the English Civil War. There is a dearth of material on women’s struggle at this time. As far as I can ascertain no major biography exists of two of the most important Leveller women Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne. The purpose of the article is to examine Leveller women’s contribution to the English revolution which as Christopher Hill observed "helped many women both to establish their own independence and to visualise a total escape for the poorer classes”.

In many ways it is hard to separate Leveller women from their male counterparts both socially and politically. It is true the Leveller men suffered great degradation on a regular basis through jail, torture, war and disease but it would not be an overstatement to say that women suffered these same deprivations and some.

The Levellers took on many of the characteristics of a political party in the years 1645-46. This is a contentious issue and has been disputed. Some say they were the radical wing of an Independent coalition. I prefer the description of the Levellers being a specific party. They were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs.  William Clarke who provided us with the report of the Putney Debates was an avid collector of books, pamphlets and leaflets. Over eighty Leveller pamphlets were found in his collection. The Levellers strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had significant support in the army.

The main plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have a wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layers which made up the composition of the Levellers themselves.

The Levellers were the pioneers of modern democracy, but radical as they were in the 17th century they were in favour of an extension of the voting franchise only for men and to the exclusion of women. They also refuted “childish fears” that their object was to “make all men’s estates equal and to decide laws by telling noses”.

It goes without saying that large numbers of  women did not take accept this anomaly without a fight. For many women the fight for social and political equality would be their first involvement in any kind of political work. It can be said without contradiction that women like Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne laid the basis for future franchise struggles including the suffragettes.

Women Levellers mounted large scale demonstrations and organised petitions in favour of social equality. They were met with differing levels of brutality depending on which class they belonged to. On the whole middle class women were treated with derision but largely no violence was committed against them. This is not the case with the poorer sections of the women’s movement who were often treated severely by MP’s and soldiers alike.” Many were thrown into prison, mental institutions or workhouses. Middle class women were simply escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work”.

A. S. P. reports on a typical response to the women’s demonstrations on 26 May 1647 Thomas Case warned the House of Commons that if they allowed "liberty of conscience," then "see ... how long your civil peace will secure you when religion is destroyed. . . . Liberty of conscience may in time improve itself into liberty of estates and . . . houses and ... wives, and in a word liberty of perdition of souls and bodies”

Sir Simonds D'Ewes, who was in attendee at parliament when the first women’s protest took place on Tuesday, 8 August 1643, said in his diary “a multitude of women described elsewhere" as two to three hundred oyster-wives, 'taking example by the unlawful and tumultuary proceedings of the former faction. . - came to the very doore of the House and there cryed . . . Peace, Peace, and interrupted divers of the members both as they went in and as they came out of the House,' and threatened violence to those members who were enemies to peace”.

Women in the 17th century had little or no rights at all and according to The Lawes Resolutions of Woman’s Rights, 1632 women’s legal position depended solely on their husband’s goodwill. The husband had complete control “over an unmarried daughter and a husband similar authority over his wife. Married women were not considered legal persons. An independent woman was viewed suspiciously”. What really moved women to go into struggle. According to Christopher Durston not a lot up until the outbreak of the Civil War. It is true to some extent that radical activity amongst men and women was low at the beginning of the 17th century. But as this essay shows the war had a huge radicalising effect of all aspects of family life.

The struggle for equal rights inside and outside the family was a powerful motivating force. Much of women’s protest at least from an ideological standpoint was cloaked in a religious phraseology. Significantly recent historiography has downplayed the role of economic factors in motivating people. Soma Marik asked the question “What kind of economic pressure was brought to bear on the labouring poor in this age of transition”. She goes on “The impact of these economic crises, as well as of political crises, could be contradictory. Women were paid less than men, who in turn were ill paid. So they were certainly greatly burdened. But women were often hired as domestic servants, which reduced family/husband's control. During the civil war, the absence of husbands due to exile or military service also proved to be a two-edged sword. Women faced greater hardship”.

Another not insignificant factor was the seeking of equality inside the family. Chidley demanded "I pray you tell me”, what authority (the) unbelieving husband hath over the conscience of his believing wife; it is true he hath authority over her in bodily arld civil respects, but not to be a lord over her conscience"

While poverty amongst Leveller families was not unsubstantial according to Ian Gentles “Chidley’s’ uncompromising radicalism did not prevent them from prospering under the Commonwealth and Protectorate. An examination of their financial and administrative careers shows that they may be counted among the tangible beneficiaries of the English revolution. Katherine won at least two substantial contracts to supply stockings to the army in Ireland, while Samuel obtained a job in the State's service. He was appointed in 1649 to Worcester House where he took up lodgings as registrar of the debentures used to purchase crown fee farm rents. How he landed this appointment is unknown, though his fellow saint, David Brown, asserted that it was thanks to his influence in high places”.

It must be said that Gentles is one the few historians that establishes a link between the Chidley’s economic position and their political activity. What kind of political activity did women take part in? As with their male counterparts it is difficult to match Leveller women’s petitions to their authors and far more research is needed but the women Levellers did release a substantial number of petitions to parliament on a number of issues. They demanded the release of the Leveller leaders, redress from high taxes, and lack of work, dictatorial government and opposition to meddling in Irish affairs.

While some historians have disputed the figures it is believed that in 1649 ten thousand Leveller women signed a second women's petition to parliament. The significance of this document is that regardless of class background the petitioners called for equal rights for all women and equality with men.

“Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honorable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighborhood? And can you imagine us to be so sottish or stupid as not to perceive, or not to be sensible when daily those strong defenses of our peace and welfare are broken down and trod underfoot by force and arbitrary power?

“Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends, in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children , and families? Are not our husbands, o[u]r selves, our children and families, by the same rule as liable to the like unjust cruelties as they? And are we Christians, and shall we sit still and keep at home, while such men as have borne continual testimony against the injustice of all times and unrighteousness of men, be picked out and be delivered up to the slaughter? And yet must we show no sense of their sufferings, no tenderness of affections, no bowels of compassion, nor bear any testimony against so abominable cruelty and injustice?”

The petition was written by Katherine Chidley though this has been disputed but for the sake of this article we will accept that she did write it. It is beautifully written and shows the writer was well educated with a substantial political acumen.Little is known of Chidley’s origins or social background. Given the level of education needed to write highly political tracts it must be assumed she came from a reasonably well off family. Katherine married Daniel Chidley who by profession was a tailor from Shrewsbury, Shropshire,

It would appear that before the revolution Chidley had a stable family environment. She gave birth to seven children. Given her family commitments it is nothing short of staggering that she was able to combine a busy family life with no help from modern equipment with an extremely active and brave political life. While it is clear that outbreak of the civil war fired Chidley’s radicalism she was political active in the early 1620s. Along with her husband she was according to Ian Gentles   “active in a Shrewsbury conventicle which carried on a running quarrel with the rector of St Chad's, Peter Studley. In 1626 she and Daniel were among twenty people presented to the consistory court for non-attendance at church”.

The amount of irreligion in the English revolution has been contested by numerous historians. Christopher Hill in his pamphlet Irreligion in the Puritan Revolution quoted Richard Baxter who believed that those who rejected mainstream religion were ‘a rable’ “ if any would raise an army to extirpate knowledge and religion, the tinkers and sow-gelders and crate-carriers and beggars and bargemen and all the rable that cannot read…. Will be the forwardest to come in to such a militia” It goes without saying Baxter argued for their suppression with violence if necessary.

Gentles says that Chidley was also reported for refusing ‘to come to be churched after childbirth’.  It would appear that this brush with authority was an early marker for her later radicalism. If she had remained in Shrewsbury it is open to debate whether she would have had the opportunity to express her radical beliefs further. But as fate would have it her hounding by the religious authorities forced her to go to London were she had the luck to join up with other Levellers such as john Lilburne and John Duppa.

Chidley’s first pamphlet was published in 1641 by the printer William Larner. Called The Justification of the Independant Churches of Christ (1641). It was a reply to the right wing fanatic Thomas Edwards, a London preacher. Chidley readily admitted that it was ‘not laid down in a schollerlik way’, she defended her actions saying they were ‘the plaine truth of holy Scripture’. She believed that according to Gentles that “churches ought to be exclusive in their membership, because as Chidley puts it, ‘when God brought his people into the promised land, he commanded them to be separated from the idolater”

Edwards countered with an attack in Gangraenah by saying “There is, one Katherine Chidley an old Brownist, and her sonne a young Brownist. who not content with spreading  their poyson in and about London, goe down into the Country to gather people to them”.

Edwards attack on Chidley in his book Gangraena for separatist “errors “could be dismissed as nothing more than an aberration if it were not for the fact that it expressed in general terms a widespread fear in ruling circles of a growing radicalism amongst the more educated sections of the population. The other fear was that these educated radicals would spread their ideas of equality and democracy to the poorer sections of society. Chidley believed that even the poorest sections of society ‘whether they be Taylors, Felt-makers, Button-makers, Tent-makers, shepherds or ploughmen, or what honest trade soever’, were better qualified to create churches than ‘ill-meaning priests’.

Elizabeth Lilburne, Leveller, was the daughter of Henry Dewell a London merchant. Like Chidley next to nothing is known of her origins and social background. She shared a similar background with that of Chidley in so much as she was involved in irreligious circles. She shared her husband politics. Her life with Lilburne was in many ways dominated by his persecution at the hands of parliament and later on by Cromwell.

John Lilburne was frequently jailed and exiled. Far from cowering Elizabeth she tirelessly lobbed for his release. According to Ann Hughes when “John, a captain in Lord Brooke's regiment, was captured by royalists at Brentford and sentenced to death it was Elizabeth's determined petitioning that persuaded parliament to threaten retaliation on royalist prisoners if Lilburne was hanged. It was a pregnant Elizabeth who carried to Oxford the life-saving letter from the speaker of the Commons”.

Leveller women did not fight just as individuals. According to historian Gaby Malhberg the wives of leading figures of the English revolution “formed their own networks, discussing political issues in the absence of their husbands. Edmund Ludlow recorded, for instance, that he had little hope of a pardon from the King because the wife of his fellow republican Sir Henry Vane had informed Elizabeth ‘that she was assured [General George] Monke’s wife had sayd she would seeke to the King, upon her knees, that Sir Henry Vane, Major Generall [John] Lambert and myself should be hanged.”

The civil war put tremendous strain on the Lilburne’s marriage so much so that John Lilburne’s writings in exile are full of attacks on his wife’s “mournfull arguments”. John was critical of his wife’s persistence in asking him to “make peace with Cromwell” But Ann Hughes presents another picture of Elizabeth “Almost everything known about Elizabeth Lilburne comes from the writings of her self-regarding husband—and his presentations of his suffering wife may well owe as much to the demands of particular polemical situations as they do to the reality of her personality or their life together. The impression is left of a brave and realistic radical woman, determined to preserve herself and her children in the most difficult public circumstances”. On the political side it must also be said that while the Leveller women were the left wing of the English revolution they were not the only women in society that led struggles against the King. In some sense these women were lucky in that they had access to printing materials and presses.

Many invoked their aristocratic credentials in order to be heard in print. One such woman was the formidable and extremely intelligent Lady Eleanor Davies (left). As I said earlier most middle class women were treated with leniency however a significant minority were not. For criticising Charles 1 she was imprisoned four times. Her most important trial was in 1633 when she was found guilty of publishing unlicensed books and “of circulating false prophecies”. The fact that increasing number of women had access to  licensed and unlicensed printing presses is significant in telling us that the radicalisation of society went much deeper than had originally been thought. Secret printing allowed popular ideas and protests to develop. In Davies’s case she was fined £3,000 which a significant sum in those days and sent to prison. If that was not all her books were burnt by Archbishop Laud. Laud was not the only person to burn her books. Both husbands took delight in burning her books.  
Davies was an aggressive anti-papist. Her aggressiveness sometimes spilled into vandalism. In one instance in 1636 along with people went to Lichfield Cathedral, damaged its altar and sat on the bishop's throne. For her trouble she was sentenced to sixteen months in prison.One problem for modern day researchers is that in Seventeenth-century England, according to one writer “very few women, compared with men, wrote for publication their works form less than one per cent of the total number of texts published in the period.”

It is common knowledge that extremely small numbers of women outside the ruling circle had access to any kind of education that would enable them to express their grievances in written form. This is one reason why some women turned to witchcraft to express their dissatisfaction at their life.

Coupled with the fact that resources were not available was the position of society that women should largely be seen but not heard. Heavy punishment was meted out to those women who rebelled against the prevailing orthodoxy. One such ‘rebel’ was Margaret Cavendish who wrote in a tract  Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655),”We are become like worms that only live in the dull earth of ignorance, winding ourselves sometimes out by the help of some refreshing rain of good educations, which seldom is given us; for we are kept like birds in cages to hop up and down in our houses, not suffered to fly abroad to see the several changes of fortune, and the various humours, ordained and created by nature; thus wanting the experiences of nature, we must needs want the understanding and knowledge so consequently prudence, and invention of men: thus by an opinion, which I hope is but an erroneous one in men, we are shut out of all power and authority, despised, and laughed at, the best of our actions are trodden down with scorn, by the overweening conceit men have of themselves and through despisement of us”.

To conclude even the small amount of research needed for this article has uncovered that for historians who like a challenge a detailed study writings of the radical women of the 17th century will in the future provide us with much deeper understanding of the radicalism in the English revolution.


(1)     To the Supreme Authority of England, the Commons Assembled in Parliament. The Humble Petition of Divers Well-Affected Women of the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southwark, Hamlets and Parts Adjacent. Affecters and Approvers of the Petition of Sept. 11 1648. (May 5, 1649)


(3)    Oxford Dictionary of National Biography- Katherine Chidley by Ian Gentles


(5)    Ian Gentles, ‘London Levellers in the English revolution: the Chidley's and their circle’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 29 (1978), 281–309

(6)    Hughes, Ann. "Gender and Politics in Leveller Literature." In Political Culture and Cultural Politics in England: Essays Presented to David Underdown, edited by Susan Amussen and Mark Kishlansky, 162-188. Manchester: Manchester University Press; New York: St Martins, 1995.

(7)    Marcus Nevitt. Women and the Pamphlet Culture of Revolutionary England, 1640-1660.

(8)    Baxter the Holy Commonwealth 1659

(9)    For further research on Lady Eleanor Davies The Folger Shakespeare Library's holdings have a volume of forty-five bound tracts by Lady Eleanor which was probably owned by her daughter, Lucy, Countess of Huntingdon. The Folger volume includes the tract titled Samsons Fall (1642), in which Lady Eleanor warns Parliament that Charles I have become too popish; indeed the King has become like Samson in that he has fallen under the seductive spell of the French Catholic Delilah, Henrietta Maria, at the cost of British unity.

(10)   Christopher Hill -Women turning the World Upside Down-Soma Marik Social Scientist vol32 ¾ 2004 pp. 50-70

(11)   Women and the Civil War Sects Keith V Thomas Past and Present no 13 1958

(12)  Gaby Malhberg’s blog

(13)  Women Petitioners and the Long Parliament Ellen A M’Arthur The English Historical Review vol24 no 96

(14)  A Hammer in Her Hand: The Separation of Church from State and the Early Feminist Writings of Katherine Chidley: Katharine Gillespie : Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 17, No. 2,

(15)  London Levellers in the English revolution; The Chidley’s and their Circle Ian Gentles Journal of Ecclesiastical History vol 29 July 1978.

(16)   Lucy Hutchinson wrote an important biography of her husband. It was entitled Memoirs of the Life Colonel Hutchinson First published in 1806. University of Oxford Centre for Early Modern Studies have a Lucy Hutchinson Website which is carrying out important research into this leading female figure. A four volume book on her works is included.

(17)  The Family in the English Revolution Christopher Durston-Basil Blackwell 1989.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Birth of Capitalism- A 21st Century Perspective- Henry Heller -Pluto Press 2012-Part One

In the preface to this book, Henry Heller describes the aim of the book is to lay the foundations for a better understanding of the world we live in so that we can "shape the future." I am not very sure he succeeds.

The book is a 21st-century discussion and polemic on a timeworn debate in and outside the Marxist movement. The controversy over the transition from feudalism to capitalism debate has been waged since the early part of the 20th century. Heller insists that an understanding of the change debate is fundamental to understanding the nature of the capitalist crisis today. It should be warned that the subject of the book is complicated and requires a lot of background reading. For someone new to the subject this is advisable.

The conception of a transition from feudalism to capitalism had been under attack from the early 1970s. As Dominic Alexander states “ The origins of the capitalist system in a series of revolutionary transformations, political, industrial and even scientific was once broadly accepted, sometimes celebrated, by mainstream history. For over thirty years now, however, the relevance of the very concept of revolution to social change has been under systematic attack. One choice means of neutralising the idea of revolution is to posit the problem of ‘continuity and change’ in history. Approached with suitably myopic terms of reference, it is always possible to eliminate the discontinuities across time and to find that revolutionary phases in fact changed little. It is now possible to reject the very notion of a capitalist mode of production and any transition from ‘feudalism to capitalism’, by claiming, for example, the long existence of a single ‘world system’ of trade”.

Heller’s book is somewhat misleadingly titled as it mainly consists of an open polemic against the positions of the “Trotskyist” historian Robert Brenner. In fact, the only person mentioned more times in the book than Brenner is Marx. 

Heller places Brenner at the heart of this very contemporary debate over the emergence of capitalism. Brenner, a historian at the University of California, is, without doubt, an important voice, but I am not sure that he warrants a whole book which is devoted to destroying his theories.

Heller has a tendency to throw the words Trotskyist and Marxist around with gay abandon. Heller has been described as a Marxist himself which does not tell us a lot about his perspective. From his book, it would appear that he favors the approach of “separating out the decline of feudalism from the emergence of capitalism” as one member of the radical group the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) described his method.

This is clearly not the approach of Brenner who opposed a "conceptual and chronological divide" between feudalism and capitalism. Heller makes a serious case against Brenner in that he believes Brenner has an Anglo-centrist viewpoint. In that Brenner ignores the fact that capitalism did not occur solely in Britain in the early modern period.

Another charge hurled at Brenner is that he is “guilty of economic determinism in his disregard of the importance of the state as "the ultimate linchpin of capitalism." To Heller’s credit, he does attempt to place the origins of capitalism as an economic system in its correct historical setting. His book is an attempt to give a more all rounded and rational approach to understanding this complex historical puzzle. He is also correct to criticize an over dependence of many studies that concentrate solely on the appearance of capitalism in England.

Heller also rails against historians who concentrate too heavily on what he calls ‘euro-centrism’ in discussing the origins of capitalism. He accuses Brenner of this as well. To be honest, this is not the place to answer this charge and would require a doctoral thesis to refute or agree with this premise. What I would say that while Heller makes some right points regarding the previous historiography on the subject of the transition, he fails to clearly put his own position and more importantly to apply an orthodox Marxist position using the previous writings of the great Marxist thinkers of both the 19th and 20th century.

While I am not saying that a mechanical application of say Leon Trotsky’s analysis of the Law of combined and uneven development is required even a cursory look at it (which Heller does not do in his book) would add lots of clarification.

For instance take a look at this statement by Trotsky “...the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development. Capitalism finds various sections of humanity at different stages of development, each with its profound internal contradictions. The extreme diversity in the levels attained, and the extraordinary unevenness in the rate of development of the different sections of mankind during the various epochs, serves as the starting point of capitalism. Capitalism gains mastery only gradually over the inherited unevenness, breaking and altering it, employing therein its own means and methods. In contrast to the economic systems which preceded it, capitalism inherently and consistently aims at economic expansion, at the penetration of new territories, the surmounting of economic differences, the conversion of self-sufficient provincial and national economies into a system of financial interrelationships. Thereby it brings about their rapprochement and equalizes the economic and cultural levels of the most progressive and the most backward countries. Without this primary process, it would be impossible to conceive of the relative levelling out, first, of Europe with Great Britain, and then, of America with Europe; the industrialization of the colonies, the diminishing gap between India and Great Britain, and all the consequences arising from the enumerated processes upon which is based not only the program of the Communist International but also its very existence. By drawing the countries economically closer to one another and levelling out their stages of development, capitalism, however, operates by methods of its own, that is to say, by anarchistic methods which constantly undermine its own work, set one country against another, and one branch of industry against another, developing some parts of world economy while hampering and throwing back the development of others. Only the correlation of these two fundamental tendencies – both of which arise from the nature of capitalism – explains to us the living texture of the historical process. Imperialism, thanks to the universality, penetrability, and mobility and the break-neck speed of the formation of finance capital as the driving force of imperialism, lends vigour to both these tendencies. Imperialism links up incomparably more rapidly and more deeply the individual national and continental units into a single entity, bringing them into the closest and most vital dependence upon each other and rendering their economic methods, social forms, and levels of development more identical. At the same time, it attains this “goal” by such antagonistic methods, such tiger-leaps, and such raids upon backward countries and areas that the unification and levelling of world economy which it has affected, is upset by it even more violently and convulsively than in the preceding epochs." - Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, part 1, section 4

Brenner does not apply Trotsky’s method either. Heller, as I said earlier, describes Brenner as a Trotskyist. (Brenner writes for the Solidarity website) This is an irresponsible and inaccurate statement. From even a cursory look at the website Solidarity for which Against the Current is a part, you can see that far from being an orthodox Trotskyist he is what I would term a left radical. Heller throughout the book describes Brenner and his supporters as “political Marxists.”  Perhaps a more accurate term to describe Brenner is a political historian in the mode of E H Carr.

It is clear that there is a dialectical relationship between Brenner’s politics and his historicism. Does this make him a bad historian not at all? While ones politics does guide a person’s historical method and interest it does not necessarily affect their history writing in a negative way. E H Carr’s dictum regarding the bees buzzing in a historian’s head applies here.

Robert Brenner's article on 'Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe' in Past and Present (1976) was his first real entry into the recent transition debate and has been described as” a framework within which to interpret the English Revolution of 1640 to 1660”.

Brenner's latest contribution to the debate is his book Merchants and Revolution. Its main subject is the role of the London merchants in the English revolution. Brenner is heavily criticised in Heller’s book for his heavy emphasis on this group of capitalists. Brenner was not the first historian to concentrate on this group. Although not a Marxist Valerie Pearl in her book provides us with the first and very substantial look into the allegiances of London merchants in the civil war.

Her research leads her to show that the majority of the biggest merchants who controlled the large chartered overseas trading companies and the government of the city were royalists, while the parliamentarians were 'merchants of the middle rank',. They were undoubtedly wealthy, but not the richest men in the city. They were “important traders but not directors of the chartered companies.”

In his review of Brenner’s latest book, Manning raises that “a serious problem in analyzing the parties is that even among well-documented groups like gentry and merchants there are substantial numbers of whom no information can be found of their allegiances in the civil war. Brenner has examined 274 of the London merchant elite, but for about half of them there is no evidence about which side they supported, and this must be borne in mind when drawing conclusions. Of 130 merchants who can be allocated to the parties, 78 were royalists, 43 were parliamentarians, and nine were side changers. Breaking these figures down, he finds that the leading merchants of the Levant and the East India companies, which controlled the city government before the revolution, were overwhelmingly royalists, while the Merchant Adventurers, who were now less dominant than they had been in the 16th century, were more evenly divided”.

It has been accepted by Marxist s and non-Marxists alike that merchant elite of London--the richest and most powerful citizens--were mostly royalists in the civil war. According to Manning “this substantiates the Marxist thesis, as advanced by Dobb that the great merchants were tied into the feudal society, their wealth and power were derived from royal and aristocratic grants and favors, and they were not agents of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Brenner notes that the ability of these merchants to make a profit depended on buying cheap and selling dear, and so on their power to prevent overtrading in their markets and to restrict the number of traders, which could be achieved only by political assistance from the feudal monarchy and aristocracy in granting them monopolies, such as those of the Levant and the East India companies”.

With certain reservations, I tend to agree with this analysis.  As Marx said, 'commerce imparts to production a character directed more and more towards exchange value,' nevertheless, 'its development [and that of merchant's capital] incapable by itself of promoting and explaining the transition from one mode of production to another”.

If these capitalist were not the main force behind the transition from feudalism to capitalism, then who were. This is not an easy question to answer and to be brutally honest the answer is not actually found in Heller’s book. Heller does not rule out completely however that these merchants were part of the bourgeoisie. According to Dobb's phrases, 'compromised with feudal society' and were 'mostly parasites on the old economic order.'

How does Brenner' explain the transition from feudalism to capitalism and of the English Revolution? He says  “the rise of a capitalist aristocracy which was presiding over an agricultural revolution'. While the peasants possessed the means of production--land--the feudal class could appropriate part of their production only by juridical and political power, backed by force. The weakening of that power, as a result of peasant resistance, caused a crisis from which the feudal class recovered by shifting from claims to power over people to claims to power over land. Smaller holdings were consolidated into larger farms, which were cultivated not for subsistence but for the market, by means of wage labour. Landlords entered into 'contractual relations with free, market-dependent commercial tenants (who increasingly hired wage workers)...' Thus they came to rely on economic means--the market forces that determined land values and rents--rather than political and jurisdictional means to appropriate part of production, and so they became capitalists:... Capitalism developed in England from the end of the medieval period by means of the self-transformation of the old structure, specifically the self-transformation of the landed classes. As a result, the rise of capitalism took place within the shell of landlord property and thus, in the long run, not in contradiction with and to the detriment of, but rather to the benefit of the landed aristocracy".

To conclude this part, I agree with Manning when he states “Brenner has made an invaluable contribution to understanding the English Revolution by establishing the central role of colonial merchants and colonization, based on extensive research. That will need to be matched by a similar study making the development of industry and the industrial classes equally central”.


1.         The Birth of Capitalism: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective- A review by Dominic Alexander
2.        V Pearl, London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution (Oxford, 1961), pp243-244, 276-277, 282-284.
3.        R Brenner, 'The Civil War Politics of London's Merchant Community', Past & Present, No 58 (1973).
4.       R Brenner, Merchants and Revolution, pp375-388.
5.        R Brenner, 'Bourgeois Revolution and Transition to Capitalism', in A L Beier, D Cannadine and J M Rosenheim (eds), The First Modern Society (Cambridge, 1989) pp291-292; Merchants and Revolution, pp668-670.
6.       Solidairity://
7.        The English Revolution and the transition from feudalism to capitalism A review of R Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict and London's Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (Cambridge University Press, 1993) £40 by Brian  Manning  Issue 63 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 1994