Over the last nine years Mr. Hill has published no fewer than five major works dealing with the social and ideological origins of the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century.* This torrential scholarly output is the fruit of years of dedicated research into the printed literature, and also, one may surmise, a consequence of the emotional and intellectual sense of release produced by his clean break with the Communist Party. As a result, the age of the Puritan Revolution must now be regarded as “Hill’s half-century,” and for years to come students will be testing, confirming, modifying, or rejecting his hypotheses. It is given to few historians to achieve such intellectual dominance over their chosen field, for it requires sustained capacity for taking pains in the drudgery of research, a fertile and facile pen, and tremendous imaginative powers. Together, these are the marks of the great historian.
The problem to which Mr. Hill has devoted himself is why it was seventeenth-century England which saw the first great upheaval in Western Europe, the first successful, if temporary, overthrow of the old social and political order, the first emergence of ideas about the political equality of free men (and even women), liberty of thought and conscience, economic liberalism, strict legal and moral restraints on the executive power, mass education, equality of opportunity, and scientific research for material progress—ideas which have rumbled around the world ever since, and for which men are still fighting today. The truth or falsehood of his explanation consequently affects not only our understanding of modern British history, but also of the whole subsequent development of the western world.
It was Engels who first seriously attempted to cramp the English revolution into the Marxist straightjacket as the earliest Bourgeois Revolution. He saw the Parliamentary gentry as a rural bourgeoisie, a capitalist group who allied themselves with the urban merchants and petty bourgeoisie to overthrow the aristocratic-clerical Establishment. Once victory was won, the alliance turned on the peasantry and artisans and crushed them and their radical ideas in the interests of property.
Mr. Hill is too sophisticated a thinker, and too honest an historian to accept this giddy stuff at its face value, and much of his work of the last nine years, culminating with the book under review, has consisted of an attempt to improve upon this crude model, to elucidate the complex inter-relationship of ideas and socio-economic forces which combined to produce the Revolution.
In an earlier book (Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England) Mr. Hill took up the Weber/Tawney thesis of the link between Calvinist theology and “the industrious sort of people,” the urban industrial artisans and small capitalists, and provided much additional documentation to support the hypothesis that Puritanism was ideally suited to the economic needs of this class. The argument depends, however, on some very special definitions of both Puritanism and Puritans. Puritans are taken to be predominantly, if not exclusively, this urban “middle-class” group, whereas in fact this group was only one element among several. The others, which were in some ways more important up to the revolution, were firstly the Puritan nobility and greater squires who provided the political patronage and protection, and who were, for example, influential leaders and organizers of the mass emigration to New England; secondly, the lesser Puritan gentry, with their extensive control of church livings; and thirdly the Puritan academics and clergy who provided the ideological content and the propaganda for the cause. The fact that these three elements were largely destroyed as a result of the disillusionment and subsequent reaction of the Interregnum and Restoration, leaving the urban bourgeoisie as the main nonconformist group after 1660, should not lead us to underestimate their earlier role. Secondly, it would be a great mistake to suppose that England in the seventeenth century became in any sense an urban or bourgeois society. Ideas about a sixteenth/seventeenth century “industrial revolution” have been largely discredited. There is no evidence that urbanization was increasing proportionately to the population, and it is self-evident that the ruling class of late seventeenth-century England remained the old landed nobility and squires, assisted by their ideological henchmen, the Anglican bishops and parsons. This ruling class preserved its elitist, aristocratic, anti-bourgeois value-system but it had the sense to realize that the road to national power and wealth lay through encouragement of commercial enterprise, especially by the use of naval power to destroy commercial rivals.
Since Calvinist ideology had to be adapted to these disparate social elements, there were, not surprisingly, various brands of Puritanism. To Mr. Hill, as to Max Weber, the Puritan emphasis on thrift and the calling were perfectly attuned to the needs of a rising bourgeoisie trying to save for profitable reinvestment. But these same values were equally attractive to a declining rural gentry who could thus make a virtue of the stark necessity to economize. As for the Puritan nobles and greater squires, this aspect of the Puritan ethic seems to have passed them by altogether. All the evidence suggests that they were as eager to conform to a pattern of Veblenesque conspicuous consumption as any of their Anglican and royalist equals. An alternative, non-Marxist, non-Weberian interpretation of the sociology of Puritanism would see it as a revolutionary ideology whose primary psychological function was to provide solace and stimulus to the alienated elements in the society, both prospering urban artisans and small merchants resentful of their lowly status in the prevailing aristocratic value-system, and, in addition, the decaying rural gentry unable to keep up with the living standards of the courtiers fattening on the public purse. According to this theory, Puritanism, for all its revolutionary impact, was in many ways both authoritarian and conservative—as it clearly was in Scotland and parts of New England.
Though Puritanism is not specifically treated in the book under review (whose title, significantly, is “Intellectual Origins…”, not “The Intellectual Origins”) it bulks so large in Mr. Hill’s general scheme of things that it has had to be discussed at some length in order to clear the decks for an examination of the other ideological factors. Poorly organized, rambling, and overstuffed with evidence though it is, this latest book by Mr. Hill is in some ways the most interesting and most original of the series. It wrenches the debate about the origins of the revolution away from the one-sided preoccupation with social and economic factors of the last thirty years, and shifts the center of interest on to the interaction of ideas and social forces. What ideas? As Mr. Hill ruefully admits in the conclusion, he has failed to discover any equivalent to the French philosophes or to Karl Marx. His book is structured around three main themes, science, history, and the common law, with attention focussed, in an oddly unsatisfactory way, upon three individuals, Bacon, Ralegh, and Coke. Nearly half is devoted to scientific thought, where Mr. Hill argues first that England before 1640 made a major contribution to the scientific revolution; secondly, that this contribution owed nothing to the Oxbridge intellectual Establishment, whose inspissated obscurantism went so far as to regard geometry as “an art diabolical” (much as a similar Oxbridge Establishment regards the social sciences today); thirdly, that it sprang mainly from the patronage of London merchants and the accomplishments of artisan instrument-makers; fourthly, that it was geared to the practical needs of a maritime, trading community; fifthly, that it had close links with Puritanism; sixthly, that most of its protagonists and supporters were on the Parliamentary side in the Civil War and lastly, that it was the victory of this party which at last gave these scientific progressives their chance to remodel the educational system of the country.
Some of these propositions are acceptable, others are seriously open to question. Mr. Hill has altogether failed to distinguish pure science from mere technology. The principal scientific advances of the age were astronomical and mathematical and had virtually no practical utility whatever (even Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood was ignored by the medical profession and in no way improved the art of healing). The clear association of reformed religion with scientific endeavor is a consequence of the Catholic reaction in the seventeenth century, not of any natural affinity discernible before the trial of Galileo. Most of the discoveries came out of Catholic Europe, from men like Galileo, Descartes, and Copernicus, rather than from that rather old-fashioned synthesizer and popularizer, Francis Bacon, or from the artisans, mariners, and instrument-makers of whom Mr. Hill makes so much. Neither Bacon nor the Baconians were very religious-minded, and the fact that the leading Interregnum scientists were happy to accept Restoration bishoprics casts considerable doubt on the intensity of their Puritan zeal. On the whole it looks as if the development of scientific studies was the result of a combination of forces, part Ramist, part Baconian, part Puritan, and part skeptical in outlook; part academic intellectual, part gentry dilettante, part artisan in social composition; part pure research, part applied technology in orientation—a combination whose full fruition only came after the Restoration. Mr. Hill’s great contribution is to reveal the ramifications of early seventeenth-century English technical innovation, which, along with Bacon’s Benthamite doctrine of utility, goes far to explain the obsession of the Royal Society in its early years with applied technology rather than scientific research.
The second intellectual element identified by Mr. Hill is the concepts of progress and national causation in history, both of which he detects in the writings of Ralegh. Here again, however, the argument is dubious. Ralegh’s History of the World is hardly the modern and forward-looking book that Mr. Hill would have it be. So far from taking an optimistic view of human evolution, Ralegh was more inclined to see his contemporary world as a late stage in cyclical degeneration from a golden age. Like Homer or Thucydides, he accepts God as the first cause, though naturally laying a good deal of stress on secondary causes attributable to more mundane factors. For him the purpose of history is still ethical: it shows how the good triumph and the evil are punished. Finally he offers little evidence of any serious criticism of sources. In history, the moderns were the Heralds and antiquaries—royalist and conservative almost to a man—who began the study of archive material and documentary sources, and developed established standards of textual criticism. Compared with them Ralegh was merely a talented late flowering of the medieval and Renaissance historiographical tradition. The first great English historian in the modern style, using massive primary documentation and interpreting events in terms of class interests, ideological preoccupations, and the psychological characteristics of the main protagonists, was the royalist Clarendon.
The third main intellectual influence studied by Mr. Hill is that of the Common Law, as expounded by Sir Edward Coke. He sees this crabbed pedant as a pioneer fighter in the bourgeois cause of economic laissez-faire as well as the inventor of the myth of the ancient English constitution—Magna Carta and all—which could serve as a justification for political revolution. One may readily accept the second proposition, which has long been demonstrated and is now an historical truism, without necessarily committing oneself to the first, which needs more careful study.
In a final fascinating chapter, Mr. Hill throws in a host of other bit players to support his main cast of intellectual actors. For example, the Renaissance theory of virtue as the justification of aristocracy fused with the Calvinist doctrine of the Elect to produce the idea of meritocracy and careers open to talents. Calvinist contract theology fused with bourgeois stress on commercial contracts to produce the idea of a contractual relationship of ruler and ruled, and finally the Hobbesian notion of justice as mere contract-keeping. “Liberal” constitutional theory is traced from Fortescue in the fifteenth century down to the Elizabethan Sir Thomas Smith; ribald anti-clericalism is followed right through Tudor history to culminate in the ferocious attacks on the Laudian clergy. Continental influences range from translation of the republican Roman classics to the political and economic examples set by Venice and the United Provinces. A reassessment of the role of women in society is helped along both by the Puritan doctrine of holy matrimony and by the economic independence of the middle-class housewife. (Mr. Hill equates the court and aristocracy with contempt for women, the lower classes with the new ideas. But it was the poor who regularly beat their wives; the court nobles merely slept with other people’s. It is a nice question which practice shows greater respect for the second sex.)
What is one’s final conclusion about this extraordinary book, so fertile in ideas, so confused in presentation? It has undoubtedly opened up a new field of study not merely of the English revolution but of great revolutions in general. If we are ever to get these decisive historical events in the right perspective, we must somehow contrive to integrate economic and social analysis with the history of ideas. Seminal though it is, in my opinion the book is only partly successful in carrying out this synthesis, for three main reasons. The first objection relates to human psychology. Mr. Hill treats all his heroes, his scientists, puritans, lawyers, and historians as unified personalities wholly dedicated to the pursuit of a rational universe. But people are just not like that. They can, without noticeable intellectual discomfort, harbor the most contradictory ideas. Today millions read with equal avidity the weekly horoscope and stories about the photographic exploration of Mars. Nor is this duality of approach confined to the multitude. The eminent Greek scientist Empedocles believed that in a previous incarnation he had inhabited a bush (which did not prevent him from being a vegetarian) and Socrates took oracles very seriously; Newton pored over the Number of the Beast, Ralegh detected the hand of God in history, intelligent Puritans saw witches flying about on broomsticks. Within the individual human breast, reason and unreason live happily side by side, to say nothing of the darker impulses dredged up by Freud.
The second objection relates to social psychology. In the crisis of the seventeenth century, Mr. Hill lines up all the good guys on one side—the progressive, the tolerent, the rational, the scientific, the humane, the hard-working, and the thrifty—and all the bad guys on the other. But, alas, such simple situations hardly ever occur in practice. The liberal/radical syndrome rarely effects all areas of human behavior. This has been proven in the pattern of voting in the House of Commons in the 1840s, and is to be seen today in the contrast between domestic liberalism and foreign policy conservatism. One may readily agree that in revolutions the innovators tend to be on one side and the reactionary on another. And in the English revolution there can be no serious doubt which side was the wave of the future. But for sheer intolerance and cruelty, the mid-seventeenth-century Presbyterians can stand comparison with any other group, including the Laudians. Again a basic feature of the revolution was its marked antagonism towards the pretensions of the emergent professional classes—dons, common lawyers, clergy, and members of the College of Physicians. There was a strong anti-intellectual streak in the revolution which contrasts sharply with its dedication to educational reform and scientific progress. Examples of this ambivalence could be multiplied and the attitude of the various social and religious groups towards the problems of the day were far from being as clear-cut as Mr. Hill would make them out to be.
The third and last objection relates to political theory and practice. Mr. Hill treats his various intellectual factors, Puritanism, science, history, law, etc., as congruent forces all pointing in the same direction and serving the interest of a single class, the bourgeoisie and artisans of the towns. One can readily agree that it was the three main forces of reformed religion, scientific inquiry, and capitalism which transformed western society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and set it on the path to the modern world, without also agreeing that there was any necessary prior link among the three. It seems more consonant with the evidence to suppose that each had different and independent origins but that each influenced and modified the other so that by the middle of the seventeenth century they were ready to converge and coalesce. I believe that at a particular moment in history, in a particular country, the many intellectual influences described by Mr. Hill happened for different and partly accidental reasons to be working to destroy a single enemy, and therefore came together to make a revolution: this is how revolutions happen. But the common lawyers did not have the same aspirations as the landed gentry; the Erastian gentry did not have the same aspirations as the puritan clergy; the urban artisans and small traders did not have the same aspirations as the squirearchy; the scientists did not have the same aspirations as the puritans. The ideas and interests of the revolutionary allies were ultimately conflicting rather than harmonious, while the social structure was still more landed and aristocratic than urban and bourgeois. This is why the revolution ultimately failed, and why it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the ideas that it threw up first began to be worked out in practice, in other countries, and under other social and economic circumstances.
August 26, 1965
Economic Problems of the Church from Archbishop Whitgift to the Long Parliament, Oxford, 1956; Puritanism and Revolution, Secker and Warburg, 1958; Century of Revolution, 1603-1714, Thomas Nelson, 1961; Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England, Secker and Warburg, 1964; Intellectual Origins of the Puritan Revolution, Oxford, 1965. ↩