How England Became Modern: A Revolutionary View

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British Library, London/HIP/Art Resource
William III and Mary II, from the Guild Book of Barber Surgeons of York. The portrait may have celebrated their coronation in 1689 after England’s Glorious Revolution.

Some years ago two gifted young historians of Britain made a deal. Both were working on major studies of the English Revolution of 1688, commonly if inconsistently known as the Glorious Revolution. Both believed that what happened in 1688–1689 was a radical, major, transformative event too often written off as moderate, conservative, and peaceful—hardly a “revolution” at all. Both believed that it had deep derivations and long-term consequences that could not be understood with reference simply to England alone; that the subject in its proper dimensions was far broader and more complex than had previously been seen.

So they joined forces, “had numerous discussions to make sure that we would not duplicate our efforts,” and came to an agreement. Steve Pincus (aka Steven C.A. Pincus: he prefers the informality), then at the University of Chicago, now at Yale, would concentrate on the revolution from a European perspective, and Tim Harris at Brown University would develop the broader “British” dimension (England–Scotland–Ireland)—“and if I have learned anything from my work on James II,” Harris wrote, “it is about the importance of not betraying one’s friends and of honouring one’s own side of the contract.” There was no betrayal. The two books have appeared—Harris’s Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685–1720 (2006) and Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution (2009)—and they are very different.

But despite the differences they are both expressions of one of the deepest tendencies of late-twentieth-century historiography: the impulse to expand the range of inquiry, to rescale major events and trends into larger settings, and to seek heightened understanding at a more elevated and generalized plane. In every sphere of historical study—intellectual, cultural, political—the scope of inquiry has broadened. Large-scale comparisons and parallels are explored, national stories become regional, and regional studies become global. One traces the winding filiations of ideas and religious commitments through diverse nations and cultures and across great spaces; one thinks in terms of oceanic “worlds”: Mediterranean, Atlantic, Pacific, Indian. “There is a shock of recognition,” one historian has written, “as populations we assumed to be insular, and whose events we therefore explained in terms of local dynamics, are revealed to be above-water fragments of…submarine unities.” Both Pincus and Harris have relocated the “submerged” fragments of the Glorious Revolution into large, transnational, and multicultural unities that allow for explanations that are fuller, more complex, and more coherent than any we have had before.

They arrived at their expanded visions by different routes. Harris followed the lead of J.G.A. Pocock, who in 1975 set out a new frame for Anglophone history. In “British History: A Plea for a New Subject” and other writings, Pocock envisioned as a coherent object of historical inquiry …

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