A Restless Lot

Vexed and Troubled Englishmen 1590-1642

by Carl Bridenbaugh
Oxford, 487 pp., $10.00

Historians have always recognized that something special was going on in England during the half-century or so preceding the outbreak of the Civil Wars there. One thinks at once of the writings of Tawney, Notestein, Haller, and Neale, and more recently of Hill, Hexter, Trevor-Roper, and Stone, to mention only a few. Historians are attracted to revolutions, and what has drawn some of the best historical minds of the present century to these years has been the prospect of uncovering the forces that led to revolution in the 1640s. Whether describing the committee system in the House of Commons or the education of the aristocracy, the rise of the gentry of its fall, the historians have usually had an eye cocked toward England’s revolution.

Now comes Carl Bridenbaugh with a sweeping reassessment. He has set out to describe nearly every aspect of English life during this half century, but for a purpose that English historians have hitherto scarcely glanced at. Professor Bridenbaugh’s vexed and troubled Englishmen are the same Englishmen who will shortly kill their king, but that is not what interests. Bridenbaugh about them. Instead of squinting at Oliver Cromwell as he writes, he has his eye on the fact that nearly 60,000 of these Englishmen abandoned England for America. Although the exodus, which lasted from 1607 to 1642, may be viewed as a prelude to revolution or even as a substitute for it, the things that a historian of the colonies wants to know about England are a little different from what previous investigators have told us. Professor Bridenbaugh is a social historian, a practitioner in the best tradition of the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, and he has embarked on a full-scale social history of the American colonies. In this preliminary volume he has asked himself what previous experiences, what habits and customs the first settlers of America carried with them. He is less concerned with why they came—although he offers some extensive explanations—than with what they were like as people.

The method is old-fashioned. Readers will find few statistics and none of the demographic analyses that have adorned the most recent studies of the period. Bridenbaugh has relied on visiting the places where his Englishmen lived, looking at their houses, and reading what they wrote. He has read everything he could lay his hands on, manuscript and printed, that was written during the period: plays, sermons, ballads, broadsides, letters, diaries, and, above all, court records. One can frequently encounter ordinary people speaking ordinary, unrehearsed language in the testimony taken down in lawsuits; and the book is larded with quotations from such testimony, for it is ordinary people that the author is concerned with. The aristocrats who played so large a role in the wars did not participate in the exodus to the colonies, so they receive small attention.

THE RESULT is an extremely wide-ranging description of what it was like to be an Englishman in the early seventeenth century: where you lived, what kind of house…

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