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The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760

by Norman F. Cantor
Simon & Schuster, 526 pp., $10.00

Here is a fat book about the English, in which, to quote the publisher’s blurb, “Norman F. Cantor has set out to re-examine the events, the men, the laws and institutions of England, without the prejudices of earlier historians and in the light of all that modern psychology, sociology and literature has taught us about man and society.” What would we reasonably expect to find in a book written by a scholar with such a modern, broad-gauged attitude to the problems and methods of historical inquiry? We would expect, first of all, a careful description of the geography of the area on the lines made familiar by the French school and so well exemplified in Braudel’s famous pages on the Mediterranean basin; Mr. Cantor tells us that England is an island. We would expect a careful study of the ethnographic composition of the population, and its geographical distribution, based on place names, dialects, and so on; Mr. Cantor tells us that the English are a mongrel breed.

We would expect a good deal of attention to be paid to historical demography, to an account of how the English were born, married, and died, the age of marriage, the number of celibates and spinsters, the expectation of life, the marital fertility, perhaps even a discussion of sexual behavior; we would also expect an account of how, as numbers increased, the English tamed the landscape, rolling back the frontiers of waste and forest, Mr. Cantor tells us almost nothing of all this; he dismisses the catastrophes of the fourteenth century, when the population of England was reduced by about 30 percent, in a single short paragraph. He dismisses the doubling of the population in the eighteenth in a similar short paragraph, explaining to the reader that “the demographers and economic historians are still debating its causes.”

WE WOULD EXPECT much attention to be paid to agriculture, both as a technique for the production of food and of England’s main export, and also as a way of life for the greater part of the English people. Mr. Cantor devotes one paragraph and two lines to the problem of enclosures in the early modern period; he also informs us succinctly that in the eighteenth century “the new agricultural methods produced an increased food supply.” As for the way the poor lived, whether they owned their land, how and how much they earned, how much they were taxed by lords and the state, how much personal, political, and economic freedom they enjoyed, how subject they were to the customs of the village or the whims of the lord, how much primitive democracy existed in the life of the village, Mr. Cantor tells us virtually nothing.

We would expect a great deal of attention to be paid to religion, to the slow imperfect conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, to the importance of pilgrimages and the worship of saints, to the role of friars and Lollards, to the rise of mysticism and of image worship in the late Middle Ages, to the meaning of the Reformation to the ordinary man and the way it affected his daily life and beliefs, to the shattering impact on the English character, English behavior, and English thought of the rise of Puritanism, to the decline of religious enthusiasm and the rise of Deism in the eighteenth century. Mr. Cantor is not much interested in these things, except in so far as they affect the institutional relationships of Church and State.

We would expect some attention to be paid to the development of education. Mr. Cantor does not even mention the universities between a statement about their flowering in the thirteenth century and a statement about their decadence in the eighteenth. He does not mention schools after the twelfth century, and readers are left unaware that grammar schools even existed. Nor does he so much as touch on the problem of literacy, the capacity of the English to read, after the twelfth century, so that the reader has no inkling that the seventeenth-century revolution, with its outburst of pamphleteering and of radical political theory, took place in what was perhaps the most literate society in the world. We would have expected some account of the cultural and aesthetic activities of the English. We would look for some appreciation of the time in the seventh century when Northumbria was the cultural leader of Europe. In architecture we would expect some mention of the great cathedrals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; of the peculiarly English phenomena of the Perpendicular, the early Tudor, and the Jacobethan architectural styles; of the innovations of Inigo Jones and Lord Burlington. Mr. Cantor makes no reference to these matters. Similarly the achievements and experience of the English in art, music, sculpture, theology, political theory, political economy, or even science, are all either wholly ignored or mentioned only casually. Bacon, for example, appears only in one line as an example of the corrupt official, and in one contemptuous paragraph as a second-rate philosopher of science.

We would also expect some account of how by 1760 the English had slowly developed into the greatest trading nation and the dominant naval power in the world, and how they began to move overseas and settle in America. The wool and cloth trade, the basis of English exports, is barely mentioned after the thirteenth century (and then only in passing), the East India Company is accorded one line, naval power is last mentioned under Cromwell (“he took a general, sat him down on a quarterdeck, told him he was an admiral”), and, mirabile dictu, the settlement of the American colonies does not appear at all, so far as I can discover. The reader from Mars would not be aware that Massachusetts or Virginia so much as existed, much less that a sizable number of Englishmen lived there.

THE BOOK, then, is clearly not about the English, not about how they lived and died, not about how they slowly mastered their natural environment and drew wealth from it, not about their thoughts, beliefs, and superstitions, not about their intellectual and cultural achievements, not about their social structure or social mobility. What is it about? It is concerned with two fairly distinct things, muddled up together, chapter by chapter. It is, first, a set of fairly reliable reflective discourses upon constitutional history, interpreted along the most traditional whiggish lines as a story of the slow evolution of political liberties. As such, it is not so very different in its basic premises from the works of Bishop Stubbs or Macaulay in the nineteenth century, although the grip on chronological evolution and the amount of factual information supplied by the Victorians are much greater.

The choice of this theme for the book is based on a very odd premise, namely that with the hindsight of 1967, viewing a Britain stripped of her empire and in semi-permanent economic crisis, we can see that its precocious economic growth and all the wealth and power and empire it brought, were merely a temporary and unimportant phenomenon. Not only that but, according to Mr. Cantor, it was the result of a mere “accident, a lucky combination of factors necessary for industrial take-off.” Let us consider the significance of this hypothesis. First, it implies that England somehow stumbled into modernity, that its unique experience of being the first was extraneous to its whole historical development. But everything we now know about modernization proves that it is an extremely complicated process, involving a whole series of factors, demographic, social, economic, technological, educational, ideological, religious, political, and administrative, all of which need to be in harmony if success is to be assured. Moreover, we know that the English experience can never be repeated, since follower nations are in a position to copy from, to borrow capital and technology from, and to learn from the mistakes of, the prototype nation, England. As Professor Gershenkron has shown, they have been able to vary the formula by substitution, notably of government direction for free enterprise. Consequently any attempt to detach the social, economic, intellectual, and religious development of early modern England, which laid the groundwork for the post-1760 industrial take-off, from the constitutional and institutional arrangements which molded and were molded by the social system, is doomed to failure. If the work of two generations of distinguished historians have taught us anything, it is that history is a seamless web, that society is a delicate and complex organism, with interconnections running in the most unlikely directions. Mr. Cantor’s new book is thus about as modern in its appearance, its function, and its means of locomotion, as a paddle-wheeler up the Mississippi.

It is not true to argue that England’s most important legacy to the twentieth century is a model of how to achieve personal freedom and political democracy, for the simple reason that, unlike industrialization, these are phenomena which cannot be copied wholesale by other people with different traditions. Democracy is a fragile growth which flourishes only in certain soils, exposed at certain periods to a certain amount of sun and water; it also takes a very long time to mature. Even if this were not the case, even if democracy, liberty, and political stability could be shipped all over the world in bottles, like Coca-Cola, it would still not be true that “the theme that gives value and meaning to the study of English history must in all eras [my italics] be the ways in which this peculiar Island people developed their governmental and legal institutions and ideas.” Not only is it bad history to isolate this theme from all the other social phenomena in which it is imbedded, it is also very misleading history to write a book about England from Julius Caesar to Harold Wilson (there is another volume to come, dealing with 1760 to the present) with this teleological purpose exclusively in view.

Indeed it is scarcely credible that a historian would even attempt such a thing in the mid-twentieth century. Such a view blinds both author and reader to any appreciation of historical events as seen by contemporaries in the contemporary setting. Worse still, it shuts off both author and reader from any interest in the blind alleys of history, any awareness of how uncertain, hesitant, and irregular the whole process was. No one could guess from Mr. Cantor’s pages that authoritarian monarchy might very well have triumphed on several occasions in English history. Moreover, this view of English history is liable to underrate the role played by the strong central institutions of the state in creating stability in the eighteenth century: the evolution of the Treasury, the development of a national system of taxation, the role of patronage in creating a manageable parliamentary system. Nor would anyone guess from Mr. Cantor’s bland and optimistic story that to foreigners the English in the seventeenth century displayed about as much political stability, institutional continuity, and psychological maturity as the Congolese in the twentieth century.

THE SECOND element in this book is a series of historiographical sketches of the personalities and writings of the leading historians of the last fifty years, modeled rather on the style of Time Magazine. Readers are told that “J. H. Plumb has a working class origin; as a graduate of the University of Leicester, he was one of C. P. Snow’s original ‘new men.’ Plumb studied at Cambridge under G. M. Trevelyan, whom he greatly admires….” They learn that this reviewer is an “Oxford scholar who now holds a distinguished chair at Princeton…,” and so on. (In case anyone suggests that I am writing from personal pique, let me say that I am very generously treated by Mr. Cantor.) This flow of biographical snippets is supported by equally terse historiographical judgments. “Tawney’s view of English history is based on economic determinism.” The Hammonds “ground out book after book, each one more breathless and grief-ridden than the previous one, about the miserable fate of the English workers.” “Namier sounds very much like the eighteenth-century founder of romantic conservatism, Edmund Burke, but it is Burke at his worst—sentimental, snobbish, and blinded by a dizzying adulation of Dukes.” These snappy and condescending critiques of colleagues are the jam sandwiched between the starchy layers of constitutional history. They prove that Mr. Cantor has kept up with the literature. What is odd, however, is that he is almost wholly unaffected by what he has read, in his old-fashioned adherence to the institutional and constitutional story of the growth of democratic government. So far as the core of the book is concerned, there is relatively little in it that could not have been written in 1930, or even in 1910.

Finally, I regret to add that the book is shot through with what, without meaning to be snobbish, I can only describe as vulgarity of thought and expression. Jokes which may perhaps set a lecture hall full of students in a roar, don’t look so well in cold print. “The Scandinavians at this time were a savage, heathen, and violent people with a notable propensity for drowning their kings in wells when they had no further use for them.” “Edward the Confessor, although married, was thoroughly celibate and not even a medieval saint could produce an heir in these circumstances” (this is all we learn about Edward). “At bottom the government of Anglo-Saxon England is government of the absurd.” Edward III “was the sort of man who should have been given some wooden soldiers and locked up in a castle. Edward was very dim.” And so on. Are these the “insights of modern psychology, sociology, and literature” to which the publishers refer? I can honestly find none other.

Perhaps the best clue to how this book came to be put together lies in a statement in the Preface, which needs to be quoted in full. “In writing this book I have drawn heavily upon a course of lectures on English Constitutional History that I gave at Columbia University in 1963-64. I wish to acknowledge the extensive assistance given by my former graduate student, Miss Barbara M. Delman, in the work of turning these lectures into expository prose.” From this, it appears that the book is the product of a very curious form of collaboration, apparently the conversion into “expository prose” (whatever that is), with the help of a student, of a set of lecture notes (whose notes?—lecturer’s or the student’s?).

One should not lightly indulge in severe criticism of the work of a colleague in a widely read journal. I do so in the hope of preventing a recurrence of such practices and of encouraging scholars to turn away from the profitable work of textbook manufacture and back to the thankless task of scholarship. So far as the historical profession is concerned, the commercial publisher, not the Federal government, is today the chief menace to the integrity and independence of academia.

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