Monday, 27 May 2013

Horses, People and Parliament in the English Civil War - Extracting Resources and Constructing Allegiance-ISBN: 978-1-4094-2093-4-Ashgate- Gavin Robinson

It is an undisputed fact that horses albeit unconsciously played a central role in the economic, political, social and cultural history of the English revolution. It is safe to say that they played a bigger role than any other animal. Books on the relationship between horses and people during Early Modern England are certainly rare and have almost become a new historical genre.

The book is based on Robinson extensive knowledge of the subject and is solidly researched. His methodology is document-based and he adopts the attitude of an “empirical historian”.

While claiming to be a book primarily about horses it does examine methodologies, ideologies but does not claim to show the causes of the English Civil war. In the introduction Robinson makes the point that the biggest names in British history have failed to explain why war broke out. This is a pretty big statement to make especially when he fails to back up his assertion. The book really could have done with less rhetorical flourishes and more substantial examination and proof to back up such a claim. This is not the only time the author does this.

Having said that Gavin Robinson’s book is a welcome addition to a very small number of specialized books on the subject. The book is also something of a breakthrough in respect that the writer developed his art through a series of blog articles[1]. It also counteracts the snobbish attitude amongst some not all historians that history blogs are not really of a high standard or worse are actually damaging to historical research.

The book is beautifully presented. It would seem that with the development of rival eBook devices such as Kindle publishers like Ashgate[2]  have raised their game regards the appearance of the books they publish.

Current Historiography

Perhaps the question where does the book fit in with current historiography? is not always the first asked but is nonetheless is the most important. While Robinson’s book is a synthesis of revisionist thought from the last decade it should be categorized more in the school of the post revisionist school of history.

The book rejects any form of determinist or economic schools of thought that have been broadly associated with previous Marxist historiography.  In fact in a small way it is a polemic against both Marxist and Whig historiography.

I would hardly call Robinson’s attack on Marxist historiography a major one simply because he fails to go into any lengthy detail aside a from a few remarks. Robinson does not examine the huge output of major figures such as Christopher Hill or Brian Manning. In fact Robinson sticks well within his comfort zone of horses.

Robinson rejection of the views of Jason Hribal[ is one of only a few comments on Marxist historiography. A cursory view would have the reader believe that Hribal is closer to Robinson’s viewpoint than he is to Marxism.

I am a little concerned that Robinson has not followed through on his research. Hribal’s article raises a number of questions. Firstly his is not as Robinson has lead us to believe an orthodox Marxist position. Unless I can be proved wrong it has never been a Marxist position that horses or animal in general are part of the workers movement. Not only is this viewpoint an attack on Marxism it goes against Darwinism as well.

Admittedly there has not been an outpouring of Marxist writings on the subject which is a shame because it is an important one. One of Hribal’s sources used for justification Joseph Proudhon was not a Marxist but an Anarchist and a leading one at that.

Hribal’s makes this point “when Joseph Proudhon formalized his conception of the working class, this 19th century anarchist did not hinder himself with categories of species. Under the Capitalist system, he witnessed that the exploitation of humans and other animals were interconnected”.

He then quotes from Proudhon’s from What Is Property  “the horse, who draws our coaches, and the ox who draws our carts produce with us, but are not associated with us; we take their product, but do not share it with them.” “The animals and laborers whom we employ hold the same relation to us. Whatever we do for them, we do, not from a sense of justice, but out of pure benevolence.”

What does Robinson share with these separate writers? He does not share their class analysis. Both writers believe from different standpoints that horses should be looked at from a class standpoint in that a horse that belongs to a rich person leads a different life from that belonging to a poor person. Where he does agree is that horses should be seen in the same historical sense as humans.

But again this is not a Marxist position. While it is difficult to pinpoint an orthodox Marxist position some unorthodox Marxists have ventured to write on the subject. Perhaps the most famous being the French Marxist Paul Lafargue  (January 15, 1842 – November 26, 1911) Karl Marx was heavily critical of the work of Lafargue once saying "ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste" ("what is certain to me is that , if they are Marxists, then I am not a Marxist" .

Larfargue  said “Horses are divided into distinct classes. The equine aristocracy enjoys so many and so oppressive privileges, that if the human-faced brutes which serve them as jockeys, trainers, stable valets and grooms were not morally degraded to the point of not feeling their shame, they would have rebelled against their lords and masters, whom they rub down, groom, brush and comb, also making their beds, cleaning up their excrements and receiving bites and kicks by way of thanks”.

Lafargue was close politically to Joseph Proudhon and his articles shares a similar position on horses to the old anarchist. Both writers were the forerunners of the modern animal right movement. Lafargue believed like Hribal that animals should be seen as part of the working class.

In his The Rights of the Horse and the Rights of Man (1900)  he makes this point  “I make you free,” so speak the Rights of Man to the laborer, “free to earn a wretched living and turn your employer into a millionaire; free to sell him your liberty for a mouthful of bread. He will imprison you ten hours or twelve hours in his workshops; he will not let you go till you are wearied to the marrow of your bones, till you have just enough strength left to gulp down your soup and sink into a heavy sleep. You have but one of your rights that you may not sell, and that is the right to pay taxes.”  If you take out the rhetoric and class content this is not a million miles away from Robinson’s position.

What Then Is Robinson’s Viewpoint

According to the jacket notes the “book uses the supply of horses to parliamentary armies during the English Civil War to make two related points. Firstly it shows how control of resources - although vital to success - is contingent upon a variety of logistical and political considerations. It then demonstrates how competition for resources and construction of individuals’ identities and allegiances fed into each other”.

“It argues that allegiance was not a fixed underlying condition, but was something external and changeable. Actions were more important than thoughts and to secure victory, both sides needed people to do things rather than feel vaguely sympathetic. Furthermore, identities were not always self-fashioned but could be imposed on people against their will, making them liable to disarmament, sequestration, fines or imprisonment”. 

The notes were sanctioned by the author and they do fit it in with Robinson’s view regarding the English Civil War. “Actions were more important than thoughts”, while not being the authors actual words do sum up the authors philosophy. The glorification of empiricism is extremely prevalent in current academic circles.

As regards allegiances if you reject the three most important reasons why people took sides namely class, economics and politics and Robinson does then I am afraid what is left is really anything goes. Allegiance according to Robinson has no objective relationship to events surrounding the participants.

Robinson rejects the Marxist concept that social consciousness is determined by social being and adopts a broadly Existentialist[4] outlook. The book is heavily imbued with this viewpoint. According to the publisher’s blurb “this study poses fundamental questions of identity construction, showing how culture and reality influence each other. Through an exploration of Parliament’s interaction with local communities and individuals, it reveals fascinating intersections between military necessity and issues of gender, patriarchy, religion, bureaucracy, nationalism and allegiance “.

Robinson does not like class based terms like Royalist and Parliamentarian. Nick Poyntz[5] explains this in his review. “Parliamentarian’ and ‘Royalist’ are two of those words that it’s easy to throw around unthinkingly. Partly it’s because they are such a convenient shorthand for a set of concepts that are too complicated to express succinctly, that we can forget the nuances that come with them. But as the introduction of Horses, People and Parliament points out, it’s also because they are bound up with the particular way civil war allegiance has been defined in the twentieth century “.

To reject these terms is very bold. However a major failing of the book is that he fails to say what he would replace them with given that his arguments against them are pretty flimsy. He also fails to explain why for the last three hundred years historians of very different political, social and class backgrounds have been extremely comfortable with these common classifications.

Robinson does have the right to question these terms after all they are not fixed concepts to be used for ever. My problem is that not that he questions them but like a lot of current revisionist historians he is heavy on negatives but very light on what terms he would replace them with and more importantly how he would back up his arguments.

He is not the first to challenge old terms. In his essay John White Revisited [6] David Underdown makes this point “there has been a continuing, intimidating, torrent of books and articles on the broader subject of puritanism in the years since Fire From Heaven came out. When I was writing that book some of the trendier members of the historical profession were trying to ditch the terms ‘Puritan’ and ‘Puritanism’ altogether. But a look at any list of recent publications suggest they didn’t have much success. The skeptic’s did make one useful contribution, though in requiring us to be more careful about defining those terms before we use them”.

Poyntz himself recognizes the enormity of challenging such fundamental conceptions “Essentialist assumptions about identity are so deeply embedded in the English language that they are difficult to challenge, or even recognize. It feels perfectly natural to say that a person was royalist, and awkwardly unnatural to say that a person did royalism “.

Robinson’s book has not changed my belief that Marxism still has a major part to play in understanding the events of the English Revolution. 

I still believe that Dialectical thinking still has an important part to play in understanding complex historical problems as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explains "The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretization, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say “a succulence” which to a certain extent brings them closer to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers’ state in general, but a given workers’ state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc. Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality. Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks. [7]

And “vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers’ state, etc. as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism. Morals are equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which ‘A’ ceases to be ‘A’, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state. Nothing is more dangerous in politics, especially in a critical period, than to repeat general formulas without examining their social content.[8]

It is not in the scope of this article to fully answer the most important charge against Marxist’ historiography that the 1640s did not witnessed a bourgeois revolution because there were bourgeois/gentry on both sides and that on numerous occasion people switched allegiances. It is a charge that Robinson agrees with.

The Marxist historian Christopher Hill[9] wrote that “Marx himself did not fall into the error of thinking that men’s idea were merely a pale reflection of their economic needs, with no history of their own: but some of his successors, including many who would not call themselves Marxist, have been far more economic-determinist than Marx. It seems to me that any body of thought which plays a major in history – Luther’s, Rousseau’s, Marx’s own-takes on because it meets the needs of significant group in the society in which it comes into prominence”.

From his knowledge of early Soviet historians and his study of the writings of Marx and Engels he never made the assumption that this was a chemically pure revolution. In fact in his major writings he makes the point that large numbers of people fought and took sides outside of purely economic reasons.

According to Ann Talbot[10] (Hill) “he was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing”.

Anthropocentric history.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Robinson book is his attack on anthropocentric historiography. According to Nick Poynzt “Horses had their own temperaments, and did not always respond to human attempts to control them. Given how essential horses were to civil war armies – not just for cavalry, but for supply as well – their willingness or unwillingness to comply could be just as important as human decisions about whether to provide king or Parliament with resources.  There are shades here of ‘for the want of a nail’, not just in terms of how battles were fought but also in terms of how resources were gathered”.

There are parts of the book which I have found hard to digest and they honestly give me some concern. Throughout the book Robinson makes a number references to the assertion that horses should be put on the same level as humans and should even be “seen as agents in the civil wars” or that the horses themselves held allegiances.

For Robinson the war has for too long has been written from an anthropocentric[11] standpoint. The book manages to stand on its head well over three hundred years of Civil war historiography. To say that his viewpoint is controversial would be a gross understatement.

 Gender Studies.

Another challenge to established historiography is his adoption of gender studies. Robinson is heavily influenced by the work of Rachel Weil[12]. According to her Wikipedia page Rachel Judith Weil 1959- is a teacher and scholar, specializing in gender and culture in 17th and 18th century England.

Gender studies forms an important aspect of Robinson book. One task of the book is to establish gender studies as a crucial way of explaining the Civil War. Following the lead set by Rachel Weil, Robinson says “I’m always happy to hear calls for more gender. I made it my third priority after allegiance and resources as Ann Hughes was already doing it, but there’s so much more that could be done. My only criticism of the Hughes book is that it’s very short for such a huge and under-researched aspect of the civil wars. I wasn’t sure if anyone would spot that feminist Easter egg in the index, but it’s what most history books should have if they’re honest.”

Gender or women’s studies is a new type of historiography and has 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.

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

Gender studies became especially strong in within the History Workshop movement. The growth 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 be '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. According to studies women make up nearly fifty per cent 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 quality amongst women. Whether one agrees with gender studies or not it stands on its own merit and does play an important role particularly as regards research into the role of women in 17th century English revolution.


As I said in the opening the book is not without merit. The study of horses is an important and under researched aspect of the English Civil war. The book is a bit messy in places and could have done with a firmer editorial hand. I must reject Robinson’s central argument that previous historiography has been too Anthropocentric. As one reviewer put it “as a social and economic historian rather than an anthropologist my approach remains determinedly anthropocentric.”


1.      Gavin Robinson’s blog can be found @
3.      Anthropocentric- regarding man as the most important and central factor in the universe.
4.      Taken from
7.      The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (December 1939) Extract from A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party.
8.      Whither France? (1934) Leon Trotsky Pathfinder Press
9.      Introduction to the Intellectual origins of the English Revolution Panther-C Hill
10.  "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-By Ann Talbot  25 March 2003
11.  Anthropocentric- regarding man as the most important and central factor in the universe
12.  Sexual Ideology and Political Propaganda in England 1680-1714". Also Sometimes a Scepter is Only a Scepter: Pornography and Politics in Restoration England" (1993).


Horse and Man in Early Modern England by Peter Edwards is published by Hambledon Continuum; Basingstoke 2007. ISBN number 978-1-85285-480-5
The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (December 1939) Extract from A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party.
Whither France? (1934) Leon Trotsky Pathfinder Press


Horse Supply and the Development of the New Model Army, 1642-1646  Gavin Robinson War In History April 2008 vol. 15 no. 2 121-140
Social-Political Animals: Humans and Non-Humans in Early-Modern Society Gavin Robinson Presented at FORWARD Symposium, Nottingham Trent University, 28th May 2008.
Animals are part of the working class”: a challenge to labor history- Labor History Volume 44, Issue 4, 2003- Jason Hribal
Thinking about Allegiance in the English Civil War Rachel Judith Weil From: History Workshop Journal Issue 61, Spring 2006 pp. 183-191 |
Beyond Post –Revisionism Andy Wood The Historical Journal 02/1997; 40(01):23 - 40. pp.23 - 40