The Century of Revolution

Authority and Conflict: England, 1603–1658

by Derek Hirst
Harvard University Press, 390 pp., $35.00

Faction and Parliament: Essays on Early Stuart History

edited by Kevin Sharpe
Methuen, 292 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Wallington's World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London

by Paul S. Seaver
Stanford University Press, 258 pp., $29.50

Order and Disorder in Early Modern England

edited by A. Fletcher, edited by J. Stevenson
Cambridge University Press, 248 pp., $44.50

Parliamentary Selection: Social and Political Choice in Early Modern England

by Mark Kishlansky
Cambridge University Press, 258 pp., $10.95 (paper)

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…

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