Sunday, 15 December 2013

The English Revolution c.1590–1720: Politics, Religion and Communities, ed. Nicholas Tyacke. ( Manchester U.P., 2007; pp. 212. £55).

This collection of essays edited by Nicholas Tyacke are a bold attempt at placing the English revolution as an important part of long term political and social changes in England that started in the late 1590s and went on well into 1720s hence the title of the book.

It a little strange but entirely understandable that the guest essayists concentrate on the most interesting period or as the jacket notes say ‘focusing on the crisis of transition by the English Revolution (1640–60).

It is a big ask to cover 120 years of very complex changes in England which saw the country transform from a relatively back wood feudal economy into the early beginnings of a capitalist country, saw the execution of a king and the establishment of a republic. Whether this book succeeds is open to debate.

The date span c.1590–1720 places the book in the context of a long seventeenth century’. From a historiographical standpoint this theoretically at least places this collection of essays  not so firmly in the school of thought belonging a number of left wing historians most famously Eric Hobsbawm, whose seminal essay "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" published in Past and Present, The term was coined by English Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his pair of 1954 articles and complimented by his contemporary, Hugh Trevor-Roper, in a 1959 article entitled "The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" published in the same journal. According to Wikipedia "Hobsbawm discussed an economic crisis in Europe;  "Trevor-Roper saw a wider crisis, "a crisis in the relations between society and the State".

It would be wrong to think that this collection of historians would like to return to a more left wing historiography. While paying lip service to some conceptions normally associated with the left historians, for example the continued use of the phrase “English revolution”. The book contains ten essays from a mostly post revisionist historiography. Some of these essay came from a 2004 colloquium on ‘The English Revolution and its legacies’.

One aspect of this lip service to a left wing historiography is the books adoption of a premise that the origins of and to some extent the causes of the English revolution can be found in a long-term viewpoint.

In his introduction Tyacke tries to reevaluate the revolutionary nature of the revolutionary events of 1640 to 1660. In doing so he seeks to place this collection firmly in the camp of what has been labelled the ‘post revisionist school of historiography. It should be made clear that this collection of essays are not the final word on this type of historiography.

It hard to understand what audience this collection of historians is appealing to. Having said that Tyacke does provide a very good introduction to the subject. In his ‘locating the ‘English Revolution’ his analysis of Whig and Marxist historiography does give the reader a good insight into two major interpretations of the English revolution. His analysis of the revisionist interpretation of this period is a little weak. Perhaps the reason being that Tyacke and the most of the other historians in this collection are too close to revisionist positions.

As one reviewer put it “Few revisionists will be won over at this stage, but some may find themselves mobilizing in anticipation of a wider onslaught”.[i]

The book is not a point scoring exercise against previous revisionist positions, there is however an attempt to provide an alternative viewpoint of a very complex subject.

The book as I said earlier is broad in its scope. Some of the strongest chapters are ones that deal with aftermath of the 1640 to 1660 time period. While purporting to be about moving on from revisionist historiography the subjects chosen in this collection are all ones that most revisionist historians are comfortable with the exception being John Walters’s essay.

Sean Kelsey’s very well argued and well researched chapter called The King’s Book. Eikon Basilike and the English Revolution of 1649 covers some ground that John Adamson has tread and will tread in his forthcoming book. Kelsey without intention highlights that despite what revisionists say there actually was class differences amongst even the Royalists. I hope Kelsey continues this work because a lot of this kind of research has been abandoned by revisionist historians.

This collection of essays sits very easily with the reader and they do provide a wide ranging analysis but whether they form a groundbreaking development of a post-revisionist agenda I am not entirely sure.

Perhaps the two historians that are readily identifiable as ‘post-revisionist’ are Richard Cust and Ann Hughes, their previous work[ii] has built up a body of historiography that has emphasized the ideological struggle that went on before, during and after the revolution.

Michael Braddick's essay, The English Revolution and its legacies is in keeping with Hughes and Cust in that they all use the term The English Revolution. Braddick believes that ‘the energies unleashed in the 1640s provided the dynamic for a long revolution, encompassing the exclusion crisis and the “Glorious Revolution”. It is important that Braddick couples the English Revolution with the 1688 revolution. This is an area that does need further research.

My own favourite essay is John Walter's Politicizing the popular? The ‘tradition of riot’ and popular political culture in the English Revolution. While holding some similar positions to a number of Marxist historians, his research into popular riots and disturbances upholds a tradition of “history from below” school of historiography. Walter does subscribe to the revolutionary nature of the period, and that that there was a clash of ideologies he does not subscribe the belief that the lower sections of society were major players in the drama.In conclusion this collection of essays sets itself very difficult tasks. I am not sure it completes those tasks.

To be in favour the conception of a long 17th century is a difficult enough ,it is nearly impossible when most of the essay writers reject any Marxist conceptions that would have given the book a much better analysis. The fact that none of the essays tackle deep seated changes in the English economy is a glaring absence. The growing distaste amongst revisionist and post revisionist historians for economic historiography is damaging and short sighted.

All in all I would recommend the book for students of the subject and for the general public. The book is well written and researched. Although a read around the subject is a must

[i] English Historical Review (2010) Ian Warren  doi: 10.1093/ehr/ceq085 First published online: April 19, 2010
[ii] , Conflict in Early Stuart England (1989; rev. ante, cv [1990], 966–8)

Further reviews

The English Revolution, c.1590–1720: Politics, Religion and Communities – Edited by Nicholas Tyacke Lloyd Bowen Parliamentary History Oct 17, 2011