Revolution Then

The Court and the Country

by Perez Zagorin
Atheneum, 336 pp., $10.00

What happened in England in the middle of the seventeenth century? Was it a “great rebellion” as Clarendon believed, the last and most violent of the many rebellions against particularly unprepossessing or unpopular kings that had been staged by dissident members of the landed classes century after century throughout the Middle Ages? Was it merely an internal war caused by a temporary political breakdown due to particular political circumstances? Was it the Puritan Revolution of S. R. Gardiner, to whom the driving force behind the whole episode was a conflict of religious institutions and ideologies? Was it the first great clash of liberty against royal tyranny, as seen by Macaulay, the first blow for the Enlightenment and Whiggery, a blow which put England on the slow road to parliamentary monarchy and civil liberties?

Was it the first Bourgeois Revolution, in which the economically progressive and dynamic elements in society struggled to emerge from their feudal swaddling clothes? This is how Engels saw it, and how many historians of the 1930s, including R. H. Tawney and C. Hill, tended to regard it. Was it the first Revolution of Modernization, which is the Marxist interpretation in a new guise, now perceived as a struggle of entrepreneurial forces to remold the institutions of government to meet the needs of a more efficient, more rationalistic, and more economically advanced society?

Or was it a Revolution of Despair, engineered by the decaying and backward-looking elements in rural society, the mere gentry of H. R. Trevor-Roper, men who hoped to re-create the decentralized, inward-looking, socially stable, and economically stagnant society of their hopeless, anachronistic dreams.

In the last half-century the historiography of the English Revolution has gone through three fairly well-defined stages. First we had the political narrative, worked out with meticulous care and scholarship by a great Victorian historian, S. R. Gardiner. This religio-constitutional interpretation came under heavy attack from the Marxists just before the Second World War, and the comfortable old Whiggish model collapsed, to be replaced by a clear-cut conflict between rising bourgeoisie and decaying feudal classes. Next came a short postwar period of dazzling and wildly contradictory theorizing on the basis of the most slender documentary evidence, until the areas of agreement on every aspect of the problem were reduced almost to zero, and the historiography of the English Revolution lapsed into the sort of fragmented chaos in which that of the French Revolution wallows today.

With both revolutions, once historians have realized that the Marxist interpretation does not work very much better than the Whig, there has followed a period in which there is nothing very secure to put in its place. The last twenty years, however, have seen the most remarkable efflorescence of specialized historical monographs, the work of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic who have been prepared to take the infinite pains required for any historical research of enduring value, and who have also had the insight, imagination, and intellectual capacity to marshal their findings and…

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