Thursday, 27 October 2011

Further comment on Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground

I am grateful for this comment although, alas, I do not think it is right. After his discussion of the dissolution of the Short Parliament, John Adamson did not proceed directly to a discussion of the Petition of the 12 peers but analysed the attitudes of the 2nd Earl of Warwick and his allies towards the Caroline regime in the 1630s and the evidence for collusion in the summer of 1640 between the members of the aristocratic Junto and the Scottish Covenanters.

He identified Maurice Thompson, John Venn and Richard Shute (Noble revolt, page 79) as the bearers of the petition from London supporting the peers' petition: Thompson and Venn had had links with Warwick through their interests in colonization since the late-1620s and in the 1630s, so his point is valid.

There is, in fact, a mass of material in The Noble Revolt on the importance of popular pressures on the proceedings of the two Houses in 1640-1642: if you do not believe me, please read Pages 285-288 on the end of Strafford's life or Pages 468-477 on tumults in the capital. He was and is interested in the impact of demonstrations and the threat of violence in London in this and succeeding periods.

Fortunately, a lot is known about how these demonstrations, etc., were organised from the works of Valerie Pearl, Robert Ashton, Keith Lindley and others. (See Clarendon Ms.20, fol.129 for Venn's role in coordinating such demonstrations.)It is, in any event, for John Adamson to develop his arguments as he wishes rather than meeting old-fashioned Marxist prescriptions.
(This post was forwarded to me by Chris Thompson. It was left anonymously on his blog. I am publishing because while not agreeing with every point it does have something to add to the debate. Chris Thompson’s remarks are also included)


It seems to me that most of the valid intellectual work Adamson's narrative accomplishes was better done by your own work on the "middle group. “Then there are the problems. The valid nugget in Livesey's discontent, I think, is that Adamson has little patience for or interest in what might be called popular mobilization, even though this was what gave aristocratic politics its bite. And his treatment of the events of 1640--the only moment concerning which I have sufficient expertise to comment--is riddled with significant omissions and errors (example omission: he skips directly from the dissolution of the Short Parliament to the Lords' Petition, without offering to explain the summer's agitation; example error: he claims the London Petition was carried by clients of Warwick). While errors are an unavoidable part of the scholarly process, these seem more like errors of opportunity to me, opportunities to affirm the centrality of the figures in his study to the politics of that year.

For me, the main value of Adamson's work is to reopen the problem of the politics of the early 1640s. Which is a legitimate accomplishment. But I understand Livesey's uneasiness.

CT Reply

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Christopher Thompson commented Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground

I am afraid, Keith, that this is not a convincing argument. It is factually incorrect to claim that all historiography before the 1970s offered some kind of explanation founded on a relationship between the 'base' of English society and its 'superstructure' as a reading of Hume, Mackintosh, Hallam, Macaulay and Trevelyan will show.

It is a matter of debate when the heyday of British capitalism occurred but no one has yet shown how this shaped Whig historiography or made it more convincing. In any case, the origins of 'revisionism' lie not in the 1970s, whether early or late, but in the late-1960s when it was increasingly obvious that the kind of deterministic explanations offered by Tawney, Hill, Stone and others were unsustainable because they were at variance with the surviving evidence.

By 1973, the work of 'revision' as Ted Rabb would describe it and the reaction against the kind of history being written by Stone and Hill wa s well under way. This was long before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher reached the front rank of politics on either side of the Atlantic and long before John Adamson began his work on the 1640s.

 No so -called revisionist poured scorn on Marxist theory nor has Adamson downplayed the role of Oliver Cromwell. You should read the latter's essay on 'Oliver Cromwell and the Long Parliament' in John Morrill, ed., Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (Longman. 1990) as penance. However one defines the political preferences of those you regard as 'revisionists', they were not predominantly or even obliquely right-wing.

Tristram Hunt and Simon Schama are, moreover, hardly specialists in seventeenth-century English history. I ought to add that Kishlansky's attacks on Adamson in and after 1990 had a great deal more to do with academic politics than your account allows. 

There was no requirement on Adamson to preface his study of the political role of the peerage in the 1640s with an analysis of the class composition of the gentry or of its relationship with the Stuart Crown: that would have meant giving up his priorities in research and writing to address a long obsolete Marxist agenda. It was for him to write as he chose and to investigate the issues he wanted to examine. That is the right and duty of every historian. But do not suppose that he is or has been unaware of the connections between the members of the Junto in 1640-1642 and of the grandees later in the decade with the worlds of London mercantile and artisan politics.

The novelty of his work lies in the revelations he has already made about such links and that he will make in subsequent publications. He has reshaped the historiography of the period already and will continue to do so because his work rests on secure evidential foundations, not on a political approach to the past.      

Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground”

The primary purpose of this article is to answer Nick Poyntz claim that john Adamson's work "breaks new ground". It will do so within the context of Adamson's revisionist historiography.

For the uninitiated Adamson's primary work has been the book the Noble Revolt.  Its basic premise is that a small Junto made up of nobles led a revolt which caused the overthrow of Charles 1st.

Adamson's book is well written and researched as you would expect from a Cambridge University-based historian while the book contains new material that is not enough to say that the book breaks new ground.

In order to break new ground or create new historiography, he would have to at least absorb the two most crucial historiography that of Whig and Marxist in order to create a new synthesis. Not doing this means he has not created new historiography but continues with post revisionist historiography. 

As Mary Fulbrook perceptively writes"The empirical inductivism of revisionists, and their somewhat strident anti- orthodoxy, have failed to provide adequate positive theses to fill the vacuum left by their negative critiques. The over-emphasis on the politics of patronage, apart from being inadequately established historically, suffers from theoretical and metatheoretical shortcomings.40 Theoretically, it can really only tell us something about the medium of politics; it is an empirically open question whether or not there is any ideological content to the formation and struggles of different political factions. Metatheoretically, such exaggerated stress on patron-client relationships is at least as philosophically degrading as any other form of downplaying the autonomy of human action - such as seeing men merely as agents of historical forces - and should, therefore, be rejected by revisionists on their arguments.”

In my opinion, for a piece of work to break new ground has to be more than a well-reasoned argument or a rather large amount of text or have high colour pictures. It must be able to define itself. Revisionism and post revisionism is nothing more than a mishmash of theories that lead the study of the English revolution into a dead end.

Noble Revolt

Whether or not as John Morrill said that the revisionism that developed in the early part of the 1970s was a movement, it had one defining characteristic; it was hostile to Marxism.

This hostility to Marxism was not so much from a historical standpoint but more to do with politics. It is no accident that the growth of a revisionist movement coincided with the rise of a right-wing political movement spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. This movement gained ground with the final collapse of the USSR, which led to numerous theories that the fall of Communism meant that the socialist project had failed. The most pessimistic expression of these principles came with the End of History by Francis Fukuyama. The English Civil War was not the only subject that had a noticeable revisionist trend during this time. From the 1970s Studies of the into the Russian Revolution and French revolution provoked a similar revisionist backlash.

Historians and their historiography do indeed go out of fashion. However, historiographies that were fashionable two hundred years ago still can contribute to our understanding of the war, despite the protestations of Christopher Thompson.

Adamson refers to the English gentry but does not go into any extensive detail as to the class composition of the gentry. What was its economic position towards the king? Adamson is a skilled historian, but a more detailed description of the class struggle involving his Cabal would have made the Noble Revolt far more precise and concrete.
Adamson's work has previously come under ferocious attack from the historian Mark Kishlansky.

I am not saying that Adamson is a left-wing historian by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been modus operandi of right-wing historians to attack other historians in order to push them and their study of history to the right. You only have to look at the"Storm Over The Gentry" Debate to see this.

Kishlansky is first essay Saye What challenged Adamson’s historiography. In reality, this essay was nothing more than a catalogue of Adamson’s errors. Kishlansky’s critique of Adamson does seem to border on academic bullying. In all probability, Adamson made some errors but who has not.

What lies behind Kishlansky's attack is his opposition to Adamson, concluding the facts. In this quote from Conrad Russell, he appears to back Kishlansky's attack on Adamson saying“What makes a historian master of his craft is the discipline of checking findings, to see whether he has said more than his source warrants. A historian with a turn of phrase, when released from this discipline, risks acquiring dangerously Icarian freedom to make statements which are unscholarly because unverifiable".

Kishlansky accuses Adamson of “tendentious interpretation”. Well, you could blame every single historian that has written on the English Civil War of this. Historians have the right to interpret the facts or sources the way they feel fit without fear.

This dispute with Kishlansky clearly bothered Adamson so much so that his book does contain a large number of footnotes 191 to be precise maybe this was a defensive reaction to Kishlansky's critique. Kishlansky alleged that Adamson was “deliberately abusing and misreading sources

As  Nick points out "the unfortunate thing about the debate was that it tended to damn the rest of Adamson's much wider thesis; unfairly, in my view”.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Royal Stuarts by Allan Massie: Jonathan Cape :A Review

The Royal Stuarts is a portrait of one of the most famous families in British history. It is open to debate whether they were the family that "shaped Britain" and can be challenged quite easily.

Logically Massie starts at the beginning of the Stewart's reign. The spelling of the family name was changed to 'Stuart' by Mary, Queen of Scots, to "stop the French mispronouncing it".

The Stuarts began life as wealthy landowners from Brittany, France before moving to Scotland where they acquired the hereditary office of 'steward' to the Scottish kings. Massie book highlights the fact that the family span a considerable range of British history, from the Middle Ages to the Napoleonic period.

Massie's book is not an academic account of the Stuarts and if truth be told it reads more like a novel as Noel Malcolm poetically writes "he has the novelist's ability to conjure up context and background in a brief sketch, the journalist's knack of summarising arguments and issues, and the storyteller's gift for picking out those key actions or remarks that bring a person's character to life".[1]

Massie's generous and in some cases, sloppy use of footnotes is annoying but not a game-changer. However, his use of historians is mainly from an older generation is annoying. His book would be much better with the use of more modern historians.

One of the biggest gripes against Massie according to several leading historians is the fact that he is not a professional historian, and this has led to these historians to bemoan the fact that he has used no original primary sources or consulted any manuscripts.

Tim Harris is equally scathing in his review of the book "The footnoting is sloppy. Many quotes are not footnoted at all, and when they are, often, no page numbers are given. Moreover, Massie appears to be completely ignorant of much of the relevant historiography. The work of distinguished scholars at the world's leading universities is ignored: John Morrill (Cambridge), Clive Holmes (Oxford), Mark Kishlansky (Harvard), Daniel Szechi (Manchester), Ronald Hutton (Bristol), and John Miller (London), to name but a few. Massie seems to think the last word on Charles II is the work of Arthur Bryant and Hester Chapman. Normally when those outside the profession turn their hand to writing history, it is because they have a deep love of the field. Massie seems to hold the world of professional historical scholarship in contempt."[2]

Other mistakes include Massie citing that Charles Ist did 'find refuge' in Carisbrooke Castle, this is not strictly true as he was in reality held under armed parliamentary guard. Massie asserts Charles 'almost certainly' did not read Hobbes's Leviathan. However, this is contradicted by the fact Hobbes himself gave that a manuscript copy.


From a historiography standpoint, Massie's book is part of a cottage industry of Royalist studies. The book is one dimensional in that it pays minimal attention if all to the profound economic changes that covered the reign of the Stuart family. Nothing is learnt of the close connection of the Stuarts to a section of the growing mercantile class that grew up in the 15th and 16th centuries and came of age in the 17th century and played no small role in the English revolution.

Also, a kiss of death of any book is when the historian appears to have sympathy for his or her subject. Massie indicates sympathy for Charles.  Massie is a very conservative writer, and the book would not look out of place in the growing revisionist historiography. The main characteristic of this historiography being hostility to both Whig and Marxist historiography.

Massie also believes that Charles was not responsible for the civil war it was nasty parliaments fault. Massie uncritically presents the counterfactual argument If Charles had not been so stubborn, then things might not have developed into a civil war.

Massie, as one writer states "is well known for advocating a Tory viewpoint. Stuarts are meat and drink to conservative revisionist historians because their complex personalities and the shifting, pre-modern nature of their kingdoms (plural after 1603) made them unusually susceptible to interpretative spin. Stuart reputations go up and down like the stock market".

To conclude, Massie is an excellent writer and his approach throughout the book is intelligent and does not talk down to the reader. However, do we need another book on the Stuarts that mostly rehashes previous work and offers nothing new?


[2] Review The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family that Shaped Britain by Allan Massie Review by Tim Harris -The Historian, Vol. 75, No. 2 (SUMMER 2013), pp. 392-393