Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Comment on Goldman on Tawney, Stone and Trevor-Roper

Your remarks on Goldman’s study of Tawney’s career are important and deserve a considered response. It is true that Tawney was a Christian Socialist and that his historical works were informed by his profound moral convictions.

He preferred the more collective society of the late-medieval English peasantry to what he took to be the increasingly market-orientated economy of the post-Reformation period. Similarly, he was even more critical of the capitalist economy and society that existed after the Industrial Revolution and throughout his lifetime.

It was for these reasons that he thought the comments of critics of the societies of these post-1540 periods compelling and valuable. It is, however, also true that his economic analysis of these societies owed a large debt to Marx’s class analysis and could not have been expressed without using Marxist terminology

Valerie Pearl, who knew Tawney, once remarked to me that he had an “aura of sanctity”. By 1940, he was widely regarded in left-wing circles as an oracle of wisdom and, as Christopher Hill’s obituary tributes showed, a person not to be criticised. I very much doubt whether this was a desirable position for an historian, however distinguished, to be in.

I am also doubtful whether much of Tawney’s corpus of works really qualifies as “history” since its subscription to Marxist tenets and the moral condemnation of social changes in the past lies outside the proper remit of the discipline. What the “storm over the gentry” from c.1948 to c.1958 did was to expose Tawney’s contentions about the rise of the gentry as a cause of the English Revolution to long overdue examination and critical evaluation.

The controversy stimulated an immense raft of research in the succeeding period, little of which supported the contentions of the participants. That is something for which Trevor-Roper and J.P.Cooper.

Lawrence Stone’s case was rather different. He had indeed been Trevor-Roper’s pupil. In fact, it was Trevor-Roper who had lent Stone the transcripts from the Recognisances for Debt in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane which Stone used, without Trevor-Roper’s advance knowledge or permission, in his 1948 article in The Economic History Review.

 It was this action – this “act of thievery” as Menna Prestwich described it – that prompted Trevor-Roper’s ferocious language in his immediate response and later comments.

Reading the works of Tawney and Stone is an enjoyable experience. Both were consummate writers and had exciting propositions to put to their readers. But Tawney’s moral approach to the past was underpinned by a crude economic determinism and entailed an overtly political analysis of the past. Stone, by contrast, was an adventurer at large in the past, always seeking to be the focus of attention and at the forefront of historiographical fashion.

 He was not, in the strict sense, a scholar at all and was perfectly prepared to lie about his critics. It is no surprise that both have ceased to be relevant to the historiography of the early modern period.