Keith Thomas is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He is the author of The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England. (May 2016)

Was There Always an England?

Alfred Morgan: An Omnibus Ride to Piccadilly Circus, Mr. Gladstone Travelling with Ordinary Passengers, 1885
At a time when the breakup of the United Kingdom seems ever more likely, any attempt at a history of England, separate from that of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, is bound to seem a political statement. To dwell on English achievements and English distinctiveness is to supply fodder for …

The Greening Genius of Thomas Browne

Lady Dorothy Browne and Sir Thomas Browne; portrait by Joan Carlisle, circa 1641–1650
Thomas Browne (1605–1682) is by common consent the author of some of the finest prose in the English language. Nowhere is it finer than in Hydriotaphia, Urne Buriall, his meditation on funeral customs, death, and immortality. The magical opening of its dedication, “When the funerall pyre was out, and the …

The Great Fight Over the Enlightenment

‘Voltaire in his night shirt, putting on his trousers while dictating to his secretary, at his house in Ferney, France’; painting by Jean Hubert, eighteenth century
What are we to make of the eighteenth- century Enlightenment? For over two hundred years the legacy of its most prominent thinkers, from Locke and Newton to Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, and Kant, has been the subject of bitter debate. Its supporters hail it as the source of everything that is …

The Empires of Elliott

Historians of ‘Past and Present,’ in the National Portrait Gallery, London; painting by Stephen Farthing, 1999. Standing, from left, are Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Lawrence Stone, and Keith Thomas; seated, from left, are Christopher Hill, J.H. Elliott, and Joan Thirsk.
Moved though they are by intellectual curiosity, historians often feel a personal affinity with the subjects they write about. In Britain, Roman Catholic scholars from David Knowles to Eamon Duffy have been drawn to the history of the medieval church and the monastic orders. Wartime experience with the Coldstream Guards …

The Truth About Oliver Cromwell

Benjamin West: Cromwell Dissolving the Long Parliament, 1782
“In converting the lecture into print I have excised its local references and subdued its oral character.” The fastidious if somewhat mannered elegance of this prefatory remark to Blair Worden’s collection of his essays on the religious and political history of mid-seventeenth-century England reminds one instantly of the late Hugh …

Fighting over History

The sixteenth-century historian Jean Bodin
Anthony Grafton is one of the world’s most gifted historical scholars. His field is the history of learning, particularly the learning embodied in the philological, historical, and scientific literature of Europe between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. This is abstruse and difficult territory, partly because so much of it is …

A Highly Paradoxical Historian

Hugh Trevor-Roper, who died in 2003, was almost certainly the most gifted of the remarkable generation of British historians who did their best work in the decades after World War II. Yet whereas A.J.P. Taylor, J.H. Plumb, Christopher Hill, R.W. Southern, Alan Bullock, Eric Hobsbawm, Lawrence Stone, Asa Briggs, G.R.

Speak of the Devil

At a time when many people in Europe and North America believe themselves to be under threat from a hidden enemy bent on their annihilation, it is worth reflecting on the existence of similar fears four hundred years ago. Like the United States today, seventeenth-century England was an intellectually stratified …

Politics: Looking for Liberty

In the mid-twentieth century most Anglo-American historians regarded the study of political thought as a peripheral subject. At one extreme, Marxists often dismissed ideas of any kind as mere epiphenomena of history, the mental reflections of deeper material forces. At the other, the followers of Sir Lewis Namier cynically wrote …

When the Lid Came off England

“If in time, as in place, there were degrees of high and low, I verily believe that the highest of time would be that which passed between the years of 1640 and 1660.” With these words the philosopher Thomas Hobbes opened his dialogue Behemoth (1679), which surveyed the tumultuous happenings …

Heroes of History

As most autobiographies suggest, people usually write about themselves when they have run out of other things to say. When physicians retire, they take up the history of medicine; and when historians approach the end of their career, they find themselves composing the annals of their universities or the obituaries …

A Vanished World

As one of the great determining events of English history, the Protestant Reformation has never ceased to be the subject of passionate controversy. In his Acts and Monuments (better known as the Book of Martyrs), the sixteenth-century Protestant John Foxe portrayed the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries …

‘A Modern Socrates’

In his day, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637) was one of the most celebrated men in Europe. With the exception of Francis Bacon, whom he admired but never met, he was on close terms with virtually all the leading intellectuals of the time. He intervened with the Pope on behalf …

Wrapping It Up

The idea that human beings are held together by the exchange of gifts is forever associated with the name of Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), nephew of Émile Durkheim and author of Essai sur le don, forme archaïque de l’échange (1925).[^1] In that brief but pregnant sketch, Mauss showed how the people …

God in the Computer

One of the most tedious features of the coming of the millennium will be the efforts of journalists and commentators to sum up the twentieth century and to identify its place in history. We know that centuries have no intrinsic identity, but they seem to have an irresistible hold on …

The Big Cake

In the first paragraph of this extraordinary book, Simon Schama reveals that his favorite childhood reading was Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Fellow-enthusiasts of this enchanting idyll will not be surprised to learn that it fired his historical imagination. Kipling’s story tells how, through the magic of Oak, Ash, and …

As You Like It

In 1986 the US Supreme Court in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick ruled that the Constitution of the United States recognizes no fundamental right of privacy for consensual acts of homosexual sodomy. Delivering the majority opinion, Justice Byron White declared that “sodomy was a criminal offense at common law …

The View from the Keyhole

The dedicated social historian is second cousin to the tabloid journalist. —Sir Geoffrey Elton Lawrence Stone’s choice of epigraph could hardly be more appropriate. His two volumes on marriage and divorce are as determined an intrusion into the privacy of the past as modern historiography can offer. Stone has …

How Britain Made It

The ancient Greeks used to debate whether the polis was natural or artificial. Nowadays, as states fall apart and boundaries are redrawn almost daily, it is not only the devotees of postmodernist jargon who accept that political societies are “invented” or “constructed.” States are not the spontaneous and inevitable product …

Divorce à la Mode

A third of all marriages in England and half of all those in the United States, according to recent estimates, will end in the divorce court. We are still saddened, sometimes even shocked, when a friend’s marriage breaks up, but divorce is no longer a matter for scandalized concern. We …

The Brilliant Misfit

When I studied history at Oxford in the early 1950s, there was no historian of whose intellectual presence my fellow undergraduates and I were more conscious than Sir Lewis Namier. Of course, we had never met him, for he was a professor at Manchester, not Oxford. Indeed, we knew that …

Behind Closed Doors

In the late 1920s, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, the founders of what would soon become known at the Annales school of historians, fired the opening shots of their campaign against traditional historiography. They deliberately rejected what had, since classical times, been regarded as the primary subject matter of history, …

Just Say Yes

Why is it that most people obey the government under which they find themselves? Why do the many submit willingly to be governed by the few? Edmund S. Morgan, the distinguished American colonial historian, begins his provocative new study by citing the famous answer given to this conundrum in the …

A Neo-Victorian Romance

Over the past forty years Gertrude Himmelfarb has devoted herself to the study of Victorian thought. She has written books on Lord Acton, Charles Darwin, and John Stuart Mill. She has composed a substantial monograph on nineteenth-century English attitudes to poverty; and she has written numerous essays on individual authors …

Politics as Language

Of all the scholars who currently study the history of Western political thought, no one is more fertile, eloquent, and ingenious than J.G.A. Pocock, currently professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. Over the past thirty years he has published a remarkable sequence of books and articles which, though disparate …

The Long March

The Perspective of the World is the concluding volume of Fernand Braudel’s huge essay on the economic and social history of the world between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution. Completed five years ago, it has now been faultlessly translated by Siân Reynolds, whose English rendering of Braudel’s often …