The seventeenth century in England has been called “The Century of Revolution.” It is the last period when there occurred on English soil physical violence on a large scale, involving up to 10 percent of the adult males, and a large if ephemeral eruption of radical ideologies. The patterns that emerged from that turbulent century set the stage for England’s subsequent, astonishing rise to preeminence in wealth, power, empire, intellect, high culture, constitutional stability, and social cohesion. It is thus not surprising that the causes, nature, and consequences of the upheavals of that century have ever since been the subject of vigorous debate and disagreement, each generation reinterpreting the past in its own image. A look at two new textbooks, two major analytical monographs, an intellectual biography, and two volumes of essays on single themes, makes it possible to see not only where the history of seventeenth-century England stands in the mid 1980s, but also to compare the relative merits of the textbook, the monograph, and the essay.
Narrative history textbooks for college students are a genre held in such low esteem by intellectuals that when their authors come up for tenure at large universities these books are usually ignored. This is largely because new ideas and new data nowadays appear in articles in journals or in specialized monographs, while large advances in understanding history can occur only through the analytical rather than the narrative method normally employed in textbooks. Another problem is that the most important recent advances have all taken place in social history, whereas textbooks are inevitably mostly concerned with high politics.
This snobbish attitude is not justified. A truly first-rate history textbook, like that of Robert R. Palmer and Joel Colton on modern European history,1 can shape the vision of a whole generation, and it is therefore very important that the textbooks used in schools and colleges be accurate, up-to-date, fair-minded, intelligent, and written in such a manner as to stimulate curiosity. It is of special importance that the educated public have a clear idea of just what happened in the past, since versions of that past are so regularly used—or more commonly misused—by politicians to justify actions in the present, as Richard Neustadt and Ernest May have recently pointed out with devastating clarity.2
In evaluating Gerald Aylmer’s short narrative history Rebellion or Revolution? one is inescapably drawn to apply the adjective “judicious.” Aylmer is calm, knowledgeable, fair-minded, and open to diverse interpretations. He has written a brief, sensible, and unpolemical survey, whose readers will not be deafened by the grinding of axes and will come away with a fair idea of how historians today tend to see what happened. It is certainly the best short account that we have of a traumatic twenty years of English history.
There are, however, two drawbacks to these virtues of common-sensical judgment, detachment, and impartiality. The first is that when Aylmer sees a fence, he has a strong tendency to sit on it. For example, when faced with the hotly debated issue of whether or not the country enjoyed unprecedented peace, prosperity, and contentment under the royal autocracy of Charles I in the 1630s, Aylmer takes refuge in scholarly doubt. “It is hard to be sure” how unpopular were the policies of Archbishop Laud in the church; it is “a little far-fetched” to think that there was real fear of popery; “it is less clear how much resentment” was generated by royal abuse of the courts; it is “hard to estimate” resentment over non-Parliamentary taxation; the problem of popular reactions to royal policies raises “questions unanswerable.” There are “no means of telling” whether Charles intended an indefinite suspension of Parliament. Finally “things could all too easily have been much worse.” Each statement is true and wise and prudent, but the sum leaves the inquisitive reader feeling somewhat empty.
There is also the question of whether it is entirely a virtue to adopt so calm and reasonable a tone when dealing with such traumatic and irrational events as a bitter civil war, the trial and execution of an anointed king, and a radical cultural revolution that at one stage threatened to challenge the very fabric of society. What gets lost is the intense passion, the excitement, the dreams, the fanaticism, the madness, the horror of it all. Even Hobbes, though appalled at the breakdown of social and political order, found the entire experience immensely exhilarating and illuminating. When it was all over, he had to admit that “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 1640 and 1660…. wherein men used to see best into good and evil.”3 For a short while men and women were saying and doing things that had never been said or done before, and were to ring down the ages to our own time with persistent resonance. It was a time of giddy exploration of the unknown, involving millenarian hopes of a golden age, radical ideas about liberty, equality, and fraternity, as well as acts of folly, bloodshed, cruelty, pillage, enslavement, and death. Thus, in his new book, Paul Seaver sums up the intellectual experience of the Presbyterian London artisan Nehemiah Wallington in the following terms:
For a long generation this rather unsuccessful member of a minor London craft guild knew that he was witnessing events of cosmic significance and, despite his self-doubts and manifest imperfections, was called to participate in their fulfilment. It was perhaps the first time in history that ordinary Englishmen were to have such an experience.
For all its admirable qualities of balance and good judgment, Aylmer’s textbook also illustrates the difficulty of writing history in the narrative mode, a problem of which he is well aware. By doing so, Aylmer deprives himself and his readers of full understanding of the deeper currents underlying the surface of events. The English monarchy was unique in Europe in its lack of three central features of autocracy—a standing army, a large local bureaucracy, and independent powers of taxation and imprisonment: unless the remote causes of these defects are explained, the reasons for the weakness of the regime and for the ease of its collapse in 1640 tend to remain a mystery. Without more discussion of England’s legal and constitutional past, one cannot understand the intense legalism that permeated and structured political discourse, and the intense devotion to freedom, liberty, the “ancient constitution” and Magna Carta.
The deep-seated and irrational fear of popery is equally baffling without some investigation of the Elizabethan identification of the Pope with antichrist, which the abortive Gunpowder Plot fanned into paranoia. Without some understanding of the economic, educational, administrative, and political rise of the gentry, and of the temporary weakness of the aristocracy, it is impossible to explain why the House of Commons took the lead in the political debates of the age, to say nothing of how the parliamentary forces eventually triumphed in battle over the king and a large majority of the greater landowners in the country.
To conclude this bill of particulars against the narrative mode of historical writing, the growth of Puritanism—defined as a particularly extreme and zealous form of Church of England Calvinist Protestantism—is not comprehensible without careful examination of the failures of the Reformation, and the experience of religious indifference and social disorder in the Elizabethan period, which generated the sense of moral panic which fueled the Puritan vision of the world. Despite these almost inescapable drawbacks, Aylmer’s book is still the best and most reliable guide to the English Revolution for the general reader.
The textbook by Derek Hirst is a different kind of undertaking. It is about a third longer than Aylmer’s book and is directed toward a narrower group of readers, who have a fairly well-developed curiosity about the period. But it would be a great pity if so successful a synthesis of modern and traditional scholarship, one written with such verve and elegance, did not also find a wider audience of educated readers. Hirst gets around the problem of analysis vs. narrative by prefacing his primarily political narrative with three long analytical chapters: “Economy and Society,” “The Body Politic,” and “Hearts and Minds,” the three effectively covering changes in social structure, the political system, and religious, social, political, and scientific ideas. What is missing is any mention of literature, art, or architecture, including the way they can be used to illuminate the clashes of culture that spilled over into politics.
Following these analytical chapters are eight chapters of chronological political narrative, within which are deftly inserted lengthy disquisitions on problems of law, finance, and political tactics and strategy. Without question Authority and Conflict is the most up-to-date, well-balanced, and interesting survey of the politics of this tumultuous period that we are likely to have for a long time.
In Hirst’s conclusion he defends his choice of the year 1658 to end the volume. Most historians today see the period between 1621 and about 1720 as an epoch of continuous political turmoil, as England lurched unsteadily between tendencies toward royal absolutism on the French model and gentry-controlled anarchy of the Polish type, before settling down to the eighteenth-century constitutional compromise of aristocratic Whig control of royal patronage and perquisites, and corruption and manipulation of a sharply reduced electorate. It is also now generally agreed that the great revolutionary explosion of 1640–1660 did not finish the job, and that Stuart absolutism had to be fought and defeated all over again in 1688–1689, this time resulting in a decisive victory for the landed elite in Parliament. Under both versions of events, the story does not end until 1689, or perhaps 1720.
Hirst defends his choice of ending his study in 1658, two years before the Restoration of Charles II, on the ground that the year marks the turn of the tide in England after the long period of religious fanaticism, which was first generated by the Reformation and was at last burning itself out in revolution and civil war and a failed attempt at a godly reformation. We do indeed enter with the Restoration into a new cultural atmosphere, marked by strong hostility to any form of “enthusiasm,” the development of a low-key “rational” religion sympathetic to science and economic development, and a slowly growing tolerance toward different interpretations of Christianity. Moreover the Puritan conflation of sin and crime—exemplified by the 1649 act making adultery an offense punishable by death—was at last recognized as unworkable in the real world, which for the next 120 years was mostly content to settle for social order rather than a moral utopia.
In his narrative sections Hirst steers his way through the mine fields, exercising admirable judgment as he goes. He tells the story of the growing constitutional crisis of the early seventeenth century, skillfully striking a balance between the new interpretations put forward by the self-styled “revisionist” historians and those associated with the older “Whig” model. The revisionists reject the notion of an increasingly embittered struggle between Crown and Parliament, which lasted for half a century and was concerned with such fundamental issues as liberty of person and property, consent to taxation, the Protestant religion, and foreign and military policy. They claim that there were no more than a number of isolated episodes of conflict within a general climate of deference and loyalty; that Parliament was in any case powerless to affect policy; and that such quarrels as did occur were the result of factional infighting between great nobles, often members of the Privy Council. This vision of the early seventeenth century is, of course, borrowed from the picture drawn by Sir Lewis’ Namier of politics in the 1760s, and in each case the implict aim is a conservative rewriting of English history. Insofar as this has helped to redress a longstanding liberal bias, it can only be welcomed as a contribution to historical truth.
At the outset, the leading revisionists made very large claims, accusing previous historians of teleological bias by seeing parliamentary history of the early seventeenth century through the false perspective of the civil war and the later emergence of Parliament as a sovereign legislative body, subject only to royal influence through patronage and the power to veto bills. In a challenging introduction to Faction and Parliament, an important group of “revisionist” essays first published in 1978 and now issued in paper-back, the editor Kevin Sharpe called for “a return to the drawing board,” tearing away the deceptive drapery of Whiggery to let new light into the darkness. In 1978, he boldly claimed that “as the narrative unfolds, so many of the old assumptions must fall away.” All that would be left, he believed, would be “a world of flux and doubt, not one of resolution and certainty, a clash of personalities, not principles, a quarrel about forms and methods, not about fundamentals.”
Today he has changed his tune a good deal. In his new preface, he still rejects any concept of “opposition,” except one emerging from within the court itself, likening it to the fractious opposition of the Tory “wets” to the policies of Mrs. Thatcher. But he has now discovered what Whigs have been saying for a long time, namely that after about 1620 there was a progressive and ultimately catastrophic breakdown of communications between the provinces and counties and the court. The blame, as Whig historians have argued for generations, lies squarely with Buckingham and Charles. Yet Sharpe has no time for any concept of a “progression” or even drift toward civil war. He states the obvious, that “issues and grievances are normal to political life,” but omits to mention that occasionally, as in seventeenth-century England, grievances boil over and the whole system explodes. Finally, Sharpe now calls for less stress on Parliament and more on the institutions of government and the way the court functioned. Concentration on Parliament, he argues, has “induced in English historians, an unfortunate myopia.” Most of these are observations with which even the most ardent Whigs would find it hard to quarrel. The revisionists have lowered their sights and moderated their language over the last decade, which is what makes it possible for Hirst to write a textbook that draws upon both historiographical schools.
Thus Hirst accepts many of the revisionists’ new interpretations, but rejects their overall picture. He still believes that men meant what they said when they risked loss of office and imprisonment by orating about liberty, the Protestant religion, and no taxation without consent; and he sees a more or less continuous story of mounting tension within a longstanding consensus, but tension which was certainly greatly exacerbated by the accession of Charles I in 1625. He thus reduces the revisionist rewriting of English history to its true, modest proportions as a valuable corrective to excessive Whiggery. But he does not waffle, and is forthright in rejecting the more extreme claims of some of the revisionists, who have attempted to rehabilitate such figures as the Duke of Buckingham and Charles I.4 The first he dismisses as a corrupt fool, and the second he treats as a king whose obstinacy, duplicity, and lack of tact were largely responsible for his own misfortunes. He deals sympathetically but coolly with Oliver Cromwell, seeing him as a man genuinely anxious for participatory government, but trapped by his zeal to protect the minority of “the godly” and by his dependence upon military force, and so wavering ineffectually between conciliation and repression.
It is difficult to see how this political, narrative account of a critical epoch in English history could be improved upon. It is very well written, it is forthright in its opinions, and it takes fair account of recent literature on the subject. Hirst’s story is certainly based on a vastly more sophisticated appreciation of historical change, but in its outlines it is not so very different from that of the liberal historians of the late Victorian period. But this is merely a reflection of the fact that the “revisionists” have certainly modified but not overthrown our older perceptions of political history, and that most of the spectacular new work over the last half century has been done in the ancillary fields of economic, social, demographic, cultural, social, and family history.
As its somewhat misleading title indicates, David Underdown’s book is of a very different sort. “Revel” and “Riot” play little part in Aylmer’s tranquil narrative, and only a minor one in Hirst’s. It is significant that the word “Maypole” does not figure in Aylmer’s index, whereas it occupies four lines in Underdown’s.
Thanks to the work of Christopher Hill, it has been apparent for some time that there was a good deal more to Puritanism than merely a set of religious beliefs and practices. Puritanism carried with it a distinctive set of moral and cultural values expressed in many ways: dress (black and white); food (fasting); worship (in private); writing (introspective diary keeping); and ethics (thrift, hard work, punctuality, severity, austerity, self-discipline, censoriousness). Puritans set themselves against a very different pattern of traditional village and urban life. Underdown provides a somewhat idealized account of this culture: it was convivial, centering around the alehouse; it was ritualized and punctuated by annual village or town feasts, processions, and festivals, some pagan, some relics of Catholicism. It was based on a virtually unchanging economic and social order, one that was organized vertically and molded by the related values of paternalism and deference, which were sanctified by ancient custom and use. Social life was controlled by an ideal of neighborliness and social harmony, enforced by surveillance, gossip, and public-shame punishments.
The reality, of course, was another matter, but this was how the hierarchical Gemeinschaft society based on “honor and shame” was supposed to work and, up to a point, how it did work. It was a culture fairly tolerant of venial sins of the flesh such as drinking, dancing, swearing, and fornication, and indifferent to the Puritanical taboos on work and leisure on the Sabbath.
Such was England’s “traditional” society and culture as David Underdown sympathetically describes it. He believes that such a system was still deeply entrenched in certain clearly defined geographical regions, where the cultivation of open fields, the nuclear village, and the manorial court persisted. But it was being dissolved in the pastoral regions where hamlets and scattered farms predominated, in the unregulated woodland settlements, and in areas—urban or rural—where there was an extensive clothing industry. Here the old social bonds were breaking down under the pressure of rapid population growth, enclosure of the open fields, and the spread of a market economy.
The result was first an economic, and then a social, and finally a cultural polarization of the old vertically organized, yet relatively egalitarian peasant community: on the one hand there emerged an elite of rich yeomen, and on the other a mass of smallholders and landless laborers. Similarly in the towns there emerged a “middling sort” of masters and small shopkeepers, increasingly set apart from the journeymen, laborers, and apprentices. The social map of these new villages and towns was redrawn and made visible in the rearrangement of seating in the parish church, “the better sort” up front in their own stately family pews, and the rest seated on benches at the rear.
The result of such a polarization of the village and urban community was a prolonged struggle over social order between the emerging elite and the emerging propertyless underclass. The elite were determined to impose a moral reformation, to repress “disorder,” and at the same time to provide relief for the rapidly growing numbers of deserving indigent. The culture of the new elite as it developed in late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England was based on respect for property, respectability, piety, thrift, hard work, household discipline, sobriety, and individual responsibility. Thus long before Puritans became religiously radical in the 1620s and 1630s in reaction to the “popish” innovations of Archbishop Laud’s Arminian “Beauty of Holiness,” they had developed a fully formed ethical culture, which they were determined to force upon the reveling, feasting, idle, reprobate, profane, fornicating, drinking, swearing, morris- and Maypole-dancing, and Sabbath-breaking poor. In short, there was a “moral panic” among “the better sort.”
How does Underdown set about proving such bold claims for a popular cultural division, for its political expression in divided loyalties during the civil war, and for the geographical distinctiveness of each of the two cultures? In the first place, his vision of a cultural split finds powerful reinforcement in two local village studies by Keith Wrightson and David Levine and by William Hunt, which have confirmed the evolution of a Puritan moral culture among the middling sort in Essex.5 Both strongly support his case for a prewar cultural conflict emerging from changing economic and social conditions.
On the issue of political divisions, unlike Aylmer he sees strong evidence of sullen hostility to the financial, political, and religious administration of the King in the 1630s, and especially the provocative Book of Sports of 1633, which recommended relaxation on the Sabbath. He also sees almost universal rejoicing at the summoning of the Long Parliament in 1640, a fleeting moment of popular and elite euphoria when “we dream of nothing more than a golden age.” But, he argues, this surface agreement on the need for political and religious reform concealed deep latent divisions about precise terms for the reordering of society.
Underdown accepts that during the civil wars most of the population remained neutral, only wishing that the wars would stop or go somewhere else, and that localism was an important factor in influencing behavior. But he sees the 1650s as a period when his moralizing Puritans of the middling sort tried to impose their values and culture upon a resistant majority which clung to their traditional festive culture of the alehouse and the Maypole. At the same time both groups ferociously persecuted the extreme libertarian radicals of the “inner light” on the left, like the Quakers and Ranters. The 1650s were therefore marked by acute cultural conflict between a zealous, moralistic self-appointed Puritan minority, now in full political control of local government, and an increasingly hostile population. In 1650 the Presbyterian Richard Baxter was lamenting that the “prophane presumptuous multitude” were openly saying that “if all the Puritans were in Heaven and all the good fellows in Hell, they had rather go to Hell than Heaven.”6
In the end, the Puritans failed, for theirs was only a minority culture. In 1660 the king was welcomed back with almost universal rejoicing since his restoration marked not only a return to peace and constitutional order, but also an end to persecution of traditional habits and rituals. When in June 1660, barely a month after the return of Charles II, the zealously moralistic Presbyterian Henry Newcome rode through Staffordshire, he remarked bitterly,
We found Maypoles in abundance…. and I saw a morris dance, which I had not seen of twenty years before. It is a sad sign the hearts of the people are poorly employed when they can make a business of playing the fool.7
The “festive” culture was back. There is plenty of other evidence that some of the very first acts taken by many villages in 1660 were to build Maypoles and restore Christmas observance, and by towns to revive horse races. Village feast days, and traditional, often very brutal, rural sports and pastimes lived on for a century, before finally succumbing in the late eighteenth century to the quite new pressures of evangelical religion, Methodism, and Enlightenment humanitarianism.8
How convincing is Underdown’s claim that a cultural gulf existed between “Cavalier rogue” and “Roundhead dog”? Both in New England and England the Puritans when in power showed acute anxiety about the moral order, especially with regard to deviant sexuality, drunkenness, breaking the Sabbath by work or play, and blaspheming by using the name of God in swearing. Underdown’s central argument that a split existed between the Puritans and the unregenerate mass of Englishmen is thus very persuasive, and it greatly helps our understanding of the divisions in society from 1640 to 1660. It allows us to get away from unconvincing Marxist social explanations of particular class allegiances in the Revolution, and to shift our attention to cultural aspects.
A cultural split among the landed elite between “Court” and “Country” has long been obvious, but thanks to Wrightson, Hunt, and Underdown we can now detect a second and much more bitter cultural split further down the social scale. By combining political, religious, economic, social, and cultural history this new interpretation may in time enable us to make more sense at the popular level of the subsequent eighty years of Whig–Tory conflict, of the rise and fall of the Society for the Reformation of Manners at the turn of the century, and perhaps even of the emergence of Methodism in the mid-eighteenth century.
It should be remembered that the immediate reaction against the repression of popular festive culture by Puritan zealots during the long and bloodstained twenty years of revolutionary upheaval was not the only long-term negative cultural consequence of the Puritan Revolution. The era of fanatic zeal led directly to a revulsion among the elite, similar to that of the lower classes but more intellectual in content. Post-Restoration elite thought was dominated by a growing abhorrence of enthusiasm, a denial of superstition, and a sympathy for natural religion based on rational principles, as propounded by Archbishop Tillotson. This line of thought inevitably fed doubts about supernatural explanations of events, and opened the way to greater acceptance of natural philosophy and Baconian experimental science. The Puritan enthusiasm for the repression of magic and witchcraft, and the subsequent reactive swing among the elite to a more secular view of causation, together helped to bring about a waning of belief in both fairies and witches—what Weber called “the demystification of the world.”9
The weak point of Underdown’s argument is not its truth but its geographical explanation. The question he poses, to which he offers an answer, is: Why were the people in some regions more sympathetic to Parliament and in others to the king? He argues that Parliamentarianism was connected to moral Puritanism of the middling sort as he has defined it, and it was to be found in places where there was enclosed arable land, or pasture, or woodland, and in the areas where there was intensive cloth-working. Royalism, on the other hand, was widespread and popular in areas of open field and nucleated village where the traditional, vertically organized, festive village culture still survived. Underdown admits that his evidence is muddied by widespread military conscription, and by enlistment because of poverty or landlord pressure. Many joined up or were drafted without ideological convictions. Furthermore, his sample is limited to Dorset and Somerset and may not be applicable elsewhere; and the evidence itself is thin. It is limited to lists of ex-parliamentary soldiers seeking pensions, bonds taken from suspect Royalists in 1656, and lists of postwar Royalist pensioners. The first is a very small sample, but the other two are larger and their distributions are certainly suggestive.
The most obvious objection, however, is that it was precisely the upland pasture and woodland areas of the north, Wales, and the west which were most strongly Royalist, while the presumably Puritan Parliamentarian strength was concentrated in the lowland and largely arable south and east. The only exceptions were the cloth-manufacturing regions like the West Riding of Yorkshire, which certainly conform to Underdown’s model. Apart from this, the national distribution of Puritans and Royalists seems to be exactly the opposite of what the Underdown model would predict, and it is not at all clear how this objection is to be resolved. I am inclined to reject Underdown’s ecological explanation—except for cloth-working areas—but to accept his far more important argument about a popular cultural gulf between Puritan moral culture and traditional festive culture.
A second problem arises if one sets Underdown’s hypothesis not merely in a national, but in an international setting. From that perspective one may well ask whether Puritan zeal was not merely a special English case of a generalized reaction of frightened elites throughout Europe in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They all perceived a threat to the moral order in society, as the old system of village control by neighborly surveillance, gossip, and shaming punishments began to break down. Thus not only Puritan ministers and magistrates, but also post-Tridentine Catholic priests on the Continent and Laudian clergy in England, were busy hunting down and punishing moral deviance. After the Restoration in the 1660s English church courts continued for a while to receive churchwardens’ denunciations of moral transgressors and even to punish them. It could be argued that the Puritans were merely the ideological vanguard in England of a host of men in authority in many European countries—both Protestant and Catholic—who were thrown into a “moral panic” between about 1570 and 1670 by a perceived threat to order.
This sociological explanation for religious affinities has been attacked by Margaret Spufford in a powerful article in a recent collection of essays, Order and Disorder in Early Modern England. Spufford, herself a believing Christian, challenges the assumption that a specific religion (Puritanism) can be interpreted as merely a product of a particular socio-economic position (the middling sort in the village or town) and of a set of moral attitudes (repression of sexual and other forms of deviance). Her first claim is that religion is primarily a matter of the individual’s relation to God, and only secondarily concerns ethics. The objection to this statement is not that it is wrong but that it is a question mal posée.
The central concern of historians of religion today is no longer esoteric theological doctrines about the Real Presence or Predestination, interest in which was always largely confined to an intellectual elite. Their concerns have shifted to the attitudes, behavior, and moral comportment of believers, and their relations to communal structures of power. This shift is part of two wider historiographical trends, from studies of elites to studies of the people, and from the history of ideas to the history of mentalités, that is, of popular thought processes and values. Rightly or wrongly, we are today more interested in religious sociology as expressed in moral behavior than in the niceties of religious doctrine.
Spufford takes her argument a step further, claiming that there was nothing particularly new, or English, or Protestant, about an outbreak of moral repression by elites. It is, she claims, something that always happens in periods of rapid demographic growth, deepening poverty, and rising vagrancy, such as 1250–1350, 1540–1640, and 1780–1900. Her evidence for a wave of moral repression in the period 1250–1350 in England is impressive, although it looks in this case as if the motive of the elite in punishing fornication and bastardy was less moral than economic—the fines to be squeezed out of the offenders.
Spufford also argues that the evidence that Puritans in the seventeenth century mainly came from the middling sort is weak, for it is based only on data from a few villages. She cites many examples of lower-class religious zeal in the period 1520–1560, and again in the 1650s—especially among the Quakers. But this assertion seems doubtful since her evidence is partial, coming either from the early sixteenth century or the chaotic period of the 1650s, and hardly at all from the key years 1580–1640 before the civil war. Furthermore there is no reason to suppose that her handful of pious poor represented more than a small and untypical minority. In any case no one, neither Wrightson nor Hunt nor Underdown, has ever denied that some people who were poor took to Puritanism as a religious and moral ideology. All they have claimed is that members of “the godly” felt themselves to be different from their “prophane” neighbors, and that many—perhaps most—of them were drawn from the middling sort, neither very rich nor very poor.
An admirable case in point is Nehemiah Wallington, an early-seventeenth-century London Presbyterian artisan, whose intellectual world has just been vividly recreated by Paul Seaver. Wallington spent his life laboring at his calling, running from sermon to sermon, praying for long hours each day, and filling fifty (unpublished) notebooks with his introspective musings. He is a textbook Puritan, in the intensity of his religious beliefs and in his passionate relationship to God and the Bible, in his strong sense of being one of “the godly,” and in his moral attitudes both toward his sinful self and his even more sinful neighbors.
With Wallington we can penetrate deeply into the heart and mind of an artisan, nonclerical seventeenth-century London Puritan. It turns out that Wallington’s sensibilities were similar to those of other Puritans in higher walks of life. But it was men like Wallington out in the London streets who generated the Puritan Revolution, shaped it, and drove it to its precarious and ultimately self-defeating victory in the 1640s.
For Wallington, as for his godly superiors, the Revolution was the greatest manifestation of God’s will toward himself and “the children of God,” his fellow Puritans. Since “prayer hath a casting voice in all the great affairs of the kingdom,” Wallington did a great deal of praying, but he had to confess in 1650 that he still feared the vengeance of God upon the moral wickedness still prevalent in England, “the prophaning of the Lord’s day, drunkenness, whoredom, the swearing and blasphemies, the errors and schisms” that he saw all around him. In 1654 he even launched a one-man crusade against “this sin of long hair in youth and apprentices.” Thus Wallington felt deeply about moral reformation, and could not understand why God did not allow it to take place in London in the 1640s, whereas it had already occurred, so he was informed, in Boston, Massachusetts. The fact that some of Wallington’s ideas about a moral reformation were closely paralleled by those of the Counter-Reformation church does not mean that Puritanism is in consequence “a gigantic red herring,” as Spufford claims.
Wallington was in every respect the exemplar of the religious and moral values of Underdown’s Puritan culture. Seaver sums up his central beliefs as “respect for the spiritual leadership of ‘the ministers of Jesus Christ,’ and the imposition of a rigorous moral discipline.” What he wanted was “the blessed Reformation both of Church and Commonwealth,” and for him they were inseparable. He would have found Spufford’s attempt to separate the two entirely beyond his comprehension, and she would surely admit that religious faith in the world to come commonly finds expression in moral action in this world.
Mark Kishlansky’s new book is the most intelligent and wide-ranging work yet produced by a revisionist historian. His subject is the nature and timing of a remarkable change that took place in the processes of politics in the seventeenth century. To make his point, he has arrived at a new and useful concept, “selective politics,” which should henceforth become part of every historian’s vocabulary. He argues that in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the electoral process in England was dominated not by “election” but by “selection,” according to which groups of the elite, whether gentry in the counties or aldermen in the boroughs, chose two candidates to stand for two seats, basing their choice on the pressures of patrons and the family and personal status of the candidates. He finds their correspondence littered with words like “honour,” “credit,” “reputation,” “standing,” or “dishonour,” “shame,” “contempt,” “disgrace.”
Since men feared the humiliation of defeat more than they loved the glory of victory, they were very unwilling to embark upon any public contest for a seat. Such a contest could tear apart the fabric of elite governance, destroy old friendships, and endanger family standing in the community. Normally, therefore, only as many candidates stood for election as MPs as there were seats to fill, and the electorate was not asked for individual “votes,” but merely for collective “voices,” that is, ritual acceptance of the selection by loud verbal acclamation. This model of highly personalized and publicly uncontested politics, in which rivalries were settled beforehand in private conclave, broke down only very rarely. But when it did, it resulted in the most ferocious and unscrupulous fighting, since nothing less than personal and family honor was publicly at stake.
After 1640, however, according to Kishlansky, everything changed. Political and religious ideologies tended to replace personal and family honor as the driving forces, organized parties sprang up to give expression to new policy platforms, and more candidates were willing to put themselves forward since less was now at stake. Consequently, contested elections became common, and the electors were now frequently canvassed and polled for their individual votes. Thus a wholly new (and recognizably modern) parliamentary political system emerged out of the civil war and revolution of the 1640–1660 period.
So bold a thesis stands or falls on the reliability of the evidence to support it. The first point to note is that the thesis, although never before so clearly and coherently expressed, is not altogether new, except in emphasis and chronology. Kishlansky claims to be setting up an alternative model to “the Whig canon—particularly the work of J.E. Neale and D.M. Hirst.” Admittedly Sir John Neale spent most of his book on the Elizabethan House of Commons discussing contested elections, but he explicitly stated that “the majority, perhaps the great majority of Elizabethan county elections went uncontested…. We should picture the average Elizabethan county election as a tame affair, a small friendly gathering of the gentry, a somewhat formal meeting.”10 His stress on the role of patronage in boroughs leaves little doubt that he thought that there too selections were usually made by a handful of patrons and town officials. D.M. Hirst also argued that up to 1614 only about one in twenty of all seats were contested.11 As for the importance of personal honor and fear of dishonor in Tudor and Early Stuart politics, this theme had already been developed at length and with great brilliance by M.R. James.12
The validity and chronology of Kishlansky’s model depend on two statistical tests, both of which he fails to mention, thus unnecessarily shooting himself in the foot. One is changes in the proportion of contested elections in the early years of the seventeenth century as compared with that in its later years, and the other is changes in the size and political awareness of the electorate. However approximate, and even in some cases involving error, Hirst’s statistics nevertheless persuasively support Kishlansky’s claim that contested elections were a great rarity in the very early seventeenth century, probably below 5 percent. Even in the critical year 1640, when the ancien régime collapsed, only about a third of all seats were contested. But Hirst’s evidence shows conclusively that the proportion had been rising rapidly in the 1620s up to 20 percent, thus disproving Kishlansky’s chronological assertion, so central to the revisionist thesis, that nothing had changed before 1640. As for the size and activism of the electorate, these too were clearly rising after 1620, thanks partly to a growing political involvement on the part of the electorate, and partly to the desire by Parliament to expand numbers in order to reduce the influence of great patrons, especially that of the king.
Kishlansky’s model would have gained had he peered over the rim of the seventeenth century into the eighteenth, and realized that both of the developments he traced up to 1660 in fact reached their climax in the 1710s and then faded away, as the “rage of party” ebbed after 1720 and the elite once again began to solidify. The size of the electorate continued to rise after 1660, so that it amounted by 1710 to 15 percent or more of all adult males, a proportion unmatched anywhere else in Europe and not reached again in England until the late nineteenth century.
The same huge rise and subsequent fall occurred in the proportion of contested elections. In 1715 there were contested elections in nearly 50 percent of all counties and boroughs, but in 1761 the proportion was down to 10 percent and 20 percent respectively, which is back to what they were in the early 1620s.13 But when contests did take place, the costs were now exorbitant, and no one, neither candidates nor electorate, demonstrated the slightest concern for honor, fidelity, or loyalty anymore. The new electoral morality is vividly illuminated by Kishlansky’s own hilarious narrative of the election in the town of Buckingham in 1684, when three elite contenders for two seats fought desperately for months for the support of the thirteen voters, who maneuvered to obtain a cast-iron guarantee that the victors would build them a Town Hall, free of charge.
Most of the neglected work of older scholars thus actually supports the Kishlansky model of change. Modified chronologically so as to eliminate the stress on sudden change in 1640, and put in the context of a later reversal between 1720 and 1830, Kishlansky’s model stands up very well indeed, and forms a major contribution to our understanding of the evolution of electoral politics in England.
Taken together, these seven books throw a strong light on general trends in modern historical scholarship. Both textbooks are of high quality, and the search into popular culture revealed in the studies by Underdown and Seaver has opened up new lines of thought. Kishlansky’s model of a shift from “selective politics” to “elective politics” is an illuminating contribution to historical understanding, if put in a wider setting and stripped of its faulty chronology. The collection of essays edited by Sharpe provides an excellent sample of the ideas of the political revisionists, just as they were poised to seize power from the Whigs (or so they thought) some eight years ago. One can also appreciate the merits of an anthropological approach to culture found both in Underdown’s book and in Susan Amussen’s thoughtful and original essay, “Gender, the Family and the Social Order 1560–1725,” in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England.
Amussen shrewdly points out how the patriarchal vision of family relationships, supported by Puritan moral discipline, held fast up to 1640 as a bonding system to keep the social order together in a time of crisis. After 1660, however, the threats died away, and the moral panic ebbed. Consequently, the justices of the peace at Quarter Sessions ceased ordering fornicators to be whipped, and church-wardens eventually stopped reporting fornicators to the church courts for the imposition of public penance. By the end of the century, John Locke was free to redefine the family as a private contractual social space, and no longer as the keystone to the great arch of the social order.
On the other hand some words of caution must be said about the fashionable rush to popular as opposed to elite culture, and to symbolic anthropological modes of historical interpretation. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that the doers and movers of history have been elites. Moreover, historians of popular culture sometimes tend to lose sight of the great issues of politics, religion, and social structure. We are liable to end up with a vision of the English Revolution as a twenty-year war fought about feasts, fairies, and fornication; alehouses, Maypoles, and ducking stools for scolds; Midsummer Day, May Day, and Christmas Day; Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day. Different attitudes taken toward these matters and occasions are indeed illuminating, and symbolically suggestive of widely differing cultural perspectives. But these new insights still need to be set off against the great political issues of sovereignty, authority, law, liberty, and religious ideology.
Thus we find that Henry Newcome subscribed fully to the Puritan moral code, recording in 1648 that “the Lord stirred me up to press strictness” upon his congregation. He denied the sacrament to habitual drunkards, scrupulously observed the Sabbath, and reproached himself for “taking too great a latitude in mirth.”14 But he was appalled by the execution of Charles I, distrusted the Independents, thought Cromwell’s religious toleration a disaster, and warmly welcomed the Restoration of Charles II. We should not have to rely on textbooks to set in proper proportion the relative significance of morality and culture on the one hand and religion and politics on the other.
All but one of the books under review see England between 1580 and 1640 as a place pervaded by change. It was characterized by turmoil, anxiety, suspicion, and discord, provoked by demographic growth, price inflation, poor harvests, enclosure of open fields, changes in agriculture that augured further productivity increases, and a widening gap between rich and poor. It was a disorder that was just barely kept under control, not by the power of the central or local governments, but by the traditional selfpolicing methods of neighborly surveillance, gossip, and denunciation, and the driving force of Puritan ideology. This interpretation, which I believe is correct, stands in stark contrast to the image of a placid and stable world existing virtually unaltered throughout the whole early modern era, as Peter Laslett described it in The World We Have Lost.15
There is thus a contentious debate today between optimists and pessimists on the issue of progress, and between exponents of stability and exponents of change. The disagreement covers a wide range of social issues in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, including homicide and violence, agricultural productivity, family relations, defamation laws, social and geographical mobility, and urban growth. It does not merely take in the whole field of social history, but is spreading to embrace religion and high politics.
For those who like excitement, bliss has it been to be alive in the last thirty years as a Whig historian of early modern England. One vision of the past, the Marxist concept of a bourgeois revolution in the seventeenth century, has at last been laid to rest, and in retrospect it seems astonishing that it should have survived and flourished for so long. Another vision, the revisionist assault, based on philosophical and moral nihilism and an obstinate refusal to see the wood for the trees, tried to strip the story of all idealism or ideology or long-term causes, but this too has now been checked, at least in America.
Today the trumpets blow and the drums roll as yet another vision appears, this time based on high moral and ideological principles, the first full-blown Tory reinterpretation of English history since David Hume. This vision is being most vigorously advanced by J.C.D. Clark, who sees the political history of early modern England as an unchanging hegemony of the three old institutional pillars of the crown, the church, and the aristocracy.16 It is as if the two great English revolutions, and the astonishing outpouring of new ideas and institutions they engendered, had never happened. This frontal attack on post-Enlightenment Whig liberalism is rapidly polarizing all aspects of early modern English history, and has yet to reach its climax: the historiographical Battle of Naseby still lies ahead of us.
February 26, 1987
Robert R. Palmer and Joel Colton, A History of the Modern World, sixth edition (Knopf, 1983). ↩
Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (Free Press, 1986). ↩
T. Hobbes, Behemoth, ed. F. Tönnies (London, 1889), p. 1. ↩
R. Lockyer, Buckingham (Longman, 1981); K. Sharpe, “The Personal Rule of Charles I,” in H. Tomlinson, ed., Before the English Civil War (Macmillan, 1983). ↩
Keith Wrightson and David Levine, Poverty and Piety in an English Village: Terling 1525–1700 (Academic Press, 1979); William Hunt, The Puritan Moment: The Coming of Revolution in an English County (Harvard University Press, 1983). ↩
Popular Culture in Seventeenth Century England, ed. B. Reay (St. Martin’s Press, 1985), p. 13. ↩
The Autobiography of Henry Newcome, Vol. I, Chetham Society, Vol. 26 (1852), p. 121. ↩
Robert W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society 1700–1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1973). ↩
See, for example, Michael MacDonald, “The Secularization of Suicide,” Past and Present, III (1986). ↩
J.E. Neale, The Elizabethan House of Commons (London: Jonathan Cape, 1949), pp. 70–71. ↩
D.M. Hirst, The Representation of the People? Voters and Voting in England under the Early Stuarts (Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 216–222. ↩
M.R. James, English Politics and the Concept of Honour 1485–1642, Past and Present, Supplement 3 (1978). ↩
J.H. Plumb, “The Growth of the Electorate in England from 1600 to 1715,” Past and Present, 45; J.A. Cannon, Parliamentary Reform 1640–1832 (Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 49–50. ↩
The Autobiography of Henry Newcome, pp. 13, 16. ↩
Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost (Cambridge University Press, 1965). ↩
The clearest and most iconoclastic statement of the extreme neo-Tory model is to be found in J.C.D. Clark, English Society 1688–1832 (Cambridge University Press, 1985) and Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Cambridge University Press, 1986). ↩