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 …

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