One may well ask why we should care about what happened in England 350 years ago. For Americans it matters a great deal, since if the events were indeed no more than an accidental civil war caused by factional disputes among disaffected noblemen, then the ideology behind the American Revolution and the language of the Declaration of Independence become virtually incomprehensible. If the founding fathers did not have more than a century of individualist and democratic political ideas from England upon which to draw, where else did they get the ideological principles which enabled them first to achieve independence from George III and then to form a union based on the theory of popular sovereignty, the rule of law, the division of powers, and the separation of church and state?

Today, we are all aware that every cultural enterprise, even science, is at least in part a social construction, and that history is particularly susceptible to this form of skeptical interpretation. Indeed, looked at objectively, the historiography of any major issue over the last century lends itself to the cynical view that it is the product of a series of political strategies, adopted by each new generation of young scholars in order to displace the received wisdom of their elders, and thereby to win fame. Each new intellectual edifice usually lasts barely long enough to allow the leading builders to become safely ensconced in tenured chairs at prestigious universities, to acquire a near monopoly over both research money and publication, and to write the new textbooks, which drive out the old. After a while, however, an even newer generation arrives on the scene, whose members, in their turn, reject the current interpretation constructed by their elders, in order to clear the decks for yet another vision of the past. This is one aspect of the process of paradigm change so brilliantly described by Thomas Kuhn for the history of science.

It is tempting to argue that in the humanities, if not in the hard sciences, the intellectual results are often circular. After all these efforts and these two great battles between three generations, the outcome may well be a return to something quite like the received wisdom of the first generation. But I like to think that each new model is usually—but by no means always—rather better than the one before, in the sense that it accommodates more evidence and gets us a little closer to that unattainable Holy Grail, the truth.

Over the last twenty years just such a shift has taken place over the causes, nature, and consequences of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century (and also of the French Revolution in the eighteenth). In the 1950s and 1960s two warring groups of historians dominated the field. About all they had in common was that they both believed that something of unique importance happened in seventeenth-century England—and also late-eighteenth-century France. They believed that these were both “Great Revolutions,” which in significant ways changed the course of history.1

The first group were the Whigs, who followed the tradition of Macaulay and Trevelyan and whose views were exemplified in Margaret Judson’s classic Crisis of the Constitution, published in 1949. This group saw the great political revolutions of seventeenth-century England as a struggle of the propertied classes for liberty of speech, the abolition of extra-parliamentary taxation, and a defense of the Calvinist-leaning Protestantism of the Elizabethan Church against inroads made by what they regarded as tyrannical monarchs under suspicion of popery, like Charles I and James II. They saw the entrenchment of the constitution in the 1690s as a final triumph of English liberties for an oligarchy of property owners, liberties which in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were extended to the middle classes, the working class, and even to women. Sir John Neale and the American professors Wallace Notestein and J.H. Hexter were the dominant figures of this group.

The second were the social historians, notably R.H. Tawney and Christopher Hill, who argued that the root cause of the political upheavals of the seventeenth century was neither constitutional principle nor religion. It was demands made by an economically and socially rising group of gentry for a larger role in participation in national affairs, and especially in the protection of their own property rights. The Marxists among the group, like Christopher Hill, saw the revolution as evidence of the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the overthrow of an old, backward-looking, feudal aristocracy. They held that although the Revolution of 1640–1660 failed, and the monarchy and aristocracy were restored, the political system and the law were thereafter geared more and more to serve the interests of bourgeois capitalists, both merchants and entrepreneurial gentry. One historian who straddled the two groups was H. R. Trevor-Roper, who poured ridicule on Tawney, Hill, and others, but himself went on to produce yet another social interpretation, based on a theory of relative deprivation. He argued that it was frustrated, economically declining gentry, not prosperous, rising ones, who formed the core of the parliamentary opposition to the King. If true, this interpretation effectively destroyed the “bourgeois” model of the Marxists.


The social historians such as Christopher Hill and R. H. Tawney thus saw the key historical forces as economic, demographic, and social, and paid relatively little attention either to the state as an autonomous force, or to high politics. They concentrated on long-term structural processes, and emphasized the role of popular culture, minority beliefs, and radical pressures from below.

The Whigs, such as Hexter and Sir John Neale, on the other hand, were primarily concerned with the high politics of court faction and Parliament, and with legal, constitutional, and religious issues. They emphasized the central importance of a prolonged constitutional struggle between some powerful landed gentry represented in Parliament, and the King and his courtiers. The dispute ranged over war or peace, foreign policy, religion, and what these members of Parliament described as “liberty”—meaning what Isaiah Berlin has characterized as “negative liberty.” In the 1620s this meant putting limits upon a series of actions recently taken by the King: freedom from taxes not voted by Parliament; freedom from censorship of speech in Parliament, especially about religion; freedom from imprisonment without trial; and freedom from billeting of soldiers. These were the demands laid out by the parliamentary opponents of the King in the Petition of Right in 1628.

The result of disputes between gentry in Parliament and the King was a long-drawn-out and increasingly bitter constitutional crisis, lasting on and off from 1606 to 1640, especially over who controlled the main lever of power, the ability to raise taxes. In 1629, the House of Commons was so enraged by royal fiscal policy that a majority, led by a radical faction, denounced all who paid taxes not voted on by Parliament as “capital enemies of the Kingdom and the liberties of the subject.”2 And they meant every word of it.

The Whig historians held that this struggle over negative liberty and religion, involving criticism of the powers of both the state and the established church, was fought twice in seventeenth-century England, once during the Civil War between 1642 and 1660, when it failed with the restoration of Charles II, and again in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689 and its aftermath, when it succeeded. They—and also many social historians, including myself and H. R. Trevor-Roper, but especially Christopher Hill—regarded as of critical importance the growing religious split among Protestants, between the majority, who were satisfied with the semi-Calvinist establishment church of Elizabeth, and two growing minorities: first a small group of leading clergy, called Arminians, who were patronized by the King and were pushing the church in a much more “popish” direction, enhancing the authority of clergy and bishops and reintroducing into the service elaborate ceremonial; and secondly, the so-called “Puritans,” who were alarmed at the rise to power of the Arminians, whom they suspected of crypto-popery, and demanded a further purge of all ceremonial, and of any hint of worship of “popish” relics.

This was the position adopted in the early years of this century by the great archival historian S. R. Gardiner, who described what happened between 1640 and 1660 as “The Puritan Revolution.” The Whigs argued that as a result of the two revolutions, there was a permanent partial shift of power from the Crown and the central bureaucracy to the aristocracy, landed gentry, and great merchants and bankers, upon whom the Crown and the administration were henceforth dependent for finance; and granting to all Protestant sects limited religious liberty. The outcome was a state and a church structure very unlike the absolutist monarchal regimes and monopolist state churches of the continent of Europe, especially those of France.

It is evidence of the speed of change in historiography in the late twentieth century that both the social and the Whig models were quite suddenly overthrown in the 1970s by a new generation of historians, who called themselves “Revisionists.” Encouraged by Sir Geoffrey Elton of Cambridge, they were led by Conrad Russell and Kevin Sharpe. Not only did they regard both social and Whig explanation as totally discredited. Economic history almost vanished, and in many quarters social history was also largely abandoned. The Marxists beat a retreat, realizing that the notion of a bourgeois revolution simply did not fit the facts about how the bourgeoisie aligned themselves in the Civil War. More serious was the broad claim of the Revisionists that in any case the English Civil War or Revolution was not more than “a fortuitous accident, unrelated to fundamental political and social processes.”3

As a result of this huge demolition job, all that seemed left, notwithstanding the work of two generations of scholars, including R. H. Tawney, Christopher Hill, and H. R. Trevor-Roper, as well as Wallace Notestein and Sir John Neale, was the hitherto despised histoire événementielle—a mode of historical narrative which rejects all long-term structural causes and concentrates exclusively on personal and factional accidents in high politics. The Revisionists therefore adopted this mode of historical interpretation. Recently a critic remarked that “one of the hallmarks of Revisionism has been its emphasis on the immediate context of events, and a corresponding lack of interest in longterm developments.”4


When twenty years ago the Revisionists began to undermine both the social and the Whig models, the strategy was a clever one. Realizing the difficulty of attacking on two fronts, they did an end run around the social historians by ostentatiously ignoring them altogether. They never cited them, challenged them directly, or paid the slightest attention to them. Since the Revisionists believed that there were no long-term structural causes or revolutions, the advocates of such causes could be quietly consigned without ceremony to the dustbin of history. Instead, these young men in a hurry concentrated their fire upon the destruction of the Whig model, the lead in the attack being taken by Professor Conrad Russell.

Concentrating on high politics in the 1620s, Russell and the Revisionists at first overwhelmed the Whigs by an apparently formidable display of erudition. Constantly citing manuscript documents no one else had even heard of, much less read, they informed their readers that they could find no sign of any ideological conflict over the constitution. They alleged that there was no “winning of the initiative by the House of Commons,” as claimed by Wallace Notestein over half a century before, and no conflict between King and Parliament in the 1620s about constitutional liberties, and control of taxation and foreign policy, as claimed by Margaret Judson, J. H. Hexter, and others. Instead, the Revisionists claimed to have found clear evidence of parliamentary consensus with the Crown, legislative impotence, and administrative failure. In 1985, Professor Conrad Russell summed it all up:

There is no sign during the 1620s of any change in the idea that Parliaments were occasional and short-term assemblies…called by the King for consultation on policy matters.5

He regarded Charles I as a reasonable man, and could see little evidence of any challenge over issues of principle by the gentry represented in the House of Commons against the King and his leading ministers.

No doubt the works of the Revisionists gave a much needed stimulus to rethinking the entire field of British history. They certainly forced historians to look more closely at their evidence for political conflict in the 1620s. Some old models were called into question, and many historians were driven back to the archives. In the late 1970s and the 1980s the Revisionists continued to carry all before them, and in a euphoric moment in 1987, Russell announced that the battle was over, and that they had won.6 A new orthodoxy of consensus and accidentalism had been established, meaning that there were no major trends leading to civil war and revolution.

In fact, however, at just that moment the ground was about to crumble beneath the Revisionists’ feet. In the late 1980s a new generation of young counter-revisionists suddenly burst into print. They used the same methods of detailed archive research as their elders, but from what they read they came to wholly different conclusions about the causes of the English revolution. Thus Richard Cust has recently written:

Ultimately, it is only through a profound and detailed understanding of what actually happened, a knowledge of the shifting patterns of high politics from week to week and month to month, that one can hope to elucidate the aims and intentions of particular agents in a particular context; and this is the most satisfactory basis for answering some of the big questions relating to the period.7

These eager young researchers began tracking through the political history of the 1620s, following the trail left by the Revisionists in their footnotes. They found not only verbal consensus but also very clear evidence of profound and growing ideological conflict over law, liberty, foreign policy, and religion. Even the data the Revisionists had used came under criticism. Anne Hughes complained, “There is often a preoccupation with manuscript sources as if printed material was ipso facto tainted.” Moreover the counter-revisionists pointed out that the Revisionists have tended to forget that when the punishment for talking about liberty might be a loss of ears or a life in prison, it is highly misleading to deduce consensus from silence. Furthermore they were able to prove conclusively that copies of key documents, like the Petition of Right, and of debates in the House of Commons, as well as scurrilous—even pornographic—manuscript poems about the goings-on at Court, circulated widely among the gentry, yeomen, and leading citizens of England. There was a large and very interested political nation out there, which the Revisionists had failed to notice. Fortified by these new findings, by 1989 these young Turks and their older supporters were launching a full-scale counterrevolution against the Revisionist model.8

Conrad Russell’s most recent book, The Causes of the English Civil War, is of the greatest interest since it shows him modifying and rethinking some of his older positions in the light of this new criticism from young historians. He still refuses to use the word “revolution”; he still conspicuously omits any mention of either the Whigs or the social historians; and he still claims to reject the significance of long-term structural forces, in theory taking an almost nihilistic view of causation in history. At one point he argues that “we are not easily able to collect things which are, in an absolute and immediate sense, causes of the Civil War.” Instead, he identifies seven specific high political events which occurred between 1640 and 1642, the absence of any one of which, he believes, “could have prevented the Civil War as we know it. We are therefore driven to investigate a more contingent sort of causation.”

Because he concentrates exclusively upon the outbreak of civil war in 1642 instead of on the collapse of the monarchical state in 1640, Russell can still refuse to admit that the ancient constitutional ideology of liberty and law was at least as powerful a factor in ‘generating a demand for major changes in state and church as was the religious sentiment against the alleged growth of “popish” liturgy and ritual in the Church of England. But the constant citing of older documents provides clear evidence of continuity of sentiment on these issues, which in 1640–1641 united almost all the propertied classes in deliberately paralyzing the royal government.

Final proof of this continuity of memories and grievances is provided by the Grand Remonstrance, that great ragbag indictment of infringed liberties, broken promises, violated laws, popish tendencies, and conspiratorial plots, which narrowly passed the House of Commons in 1641. It was admittedly biased, but it was a catalog of thirty years of parliamentary grievances, and as such an important declaration of dissidence, made all the more significant since it was immediately rushed into print. It is a document largely ignored by the Revisionists.

There was thus more continuity in parliamentary opposition than Russell is willing to admit, even if many—perhaps most—of the constitutionalists did end up siding with the King in 1642, in reaction to what they rightly perceived to be the equally unconstitutional actions of Parliament to seize many of the vital powers of the Crown. They still did not trust King Charles, but by 1642 he appeared to be a lesser threat to the Ancient Constitution than did the radicals in Parliament.

Class conflict is also dismissed by Russell with one airy sentence: “The similarity of background does not show up in any similarity of behaviour.” He is entirely right to reject any model of the revolution based on class war, seen either as the revolt of a rising gentry against court and aristocracy, as claimed by R. H. Tawney, or of a declining gentry, as claimed by H. R. Trevor-Roper, or as that of a rising bourgeoisie, as proposed by Marx and Christopher Hill. But Russell ignores the fact that the gentry had clearly “risen” over the previous century. They were richer, more selfconfident, better-educated, more traveled, with greater skill in rhetoric and greater experience of administration, and more concerned about theology and the Church. It was this multifaceted rise of the gentry which made it possible for them to challenge the Crown when they believed it was behaving badly.

There were also social correlations with political positions. If one takes the peers and baronets as a group, it was some of the older and more elevated families which tended to side with Parliament, and the newer and lesser families to side with Royalism. Even stronger, of course, is the association of Catholicism with Royalism, since Catholics were rightly afraid that the victory of a Puritan Parliament would lead to harsh persecution; and of “Puritanism”—meaning a desire for further Protestant reformation in the Church—with Parliamentarianism. Squires and gentry were indeed almost evenly split by the Civil War. But it was their attitude toward religion, rather than economic position or social status, which seems to have been the most decisive factor shaping their political attitudes. But in a period when almost every sermon was a political statement, the distinction between religion and politics is hopelessly blurred.

Among merchants, however, there is clear evidence that rich members of the old monopoly companies, such as the Merchant Adventures and Levant Companies, were supporters of Royalism, since it was the Crown which protected both their trade monopolies abroad and their political powers at home in control of the City; and that outsiders such as the interlopers in India and merchants trading freely in the Americas mostly supported Parliament. A majority of those from the urban middling sort of shopkeepers and artisans who took sides also seem to have favored Parliament. But it must never be forgotten that most, but by no means all, of the peasants were neutral, sometimes aggressively so, and that among all social groups passive neutrality was the most commonly favored option.

Another cause of revolution upon which a lot of ink has been spent is the cultural split between the Court, that is, a revolving assembly of functionaries, bureaucrats, and aristocrats clustered around the King and dependent on his patronage, and the Country, that is, those who by choice or necessity were excluded from this magic circle of power and privilege. Russell dismisses the possible relevance of this split by citing a few examples of excourtiers who sided in the end with Parliament, and the calculation that in 1642 only twelve of the King’s Privy Council of 1640 sided with the King or were Royalist-inclined, while six stayed with Parliament, and six remained neutral. This certainly shows a remarkable weakness of personal loyalty to the King among his closest advisers. But it becomes more understandable if “court” and “country” are better understood as polar states of mind rather than strict occupational or geographical divisions. There were men with a “court” attitude of mind but without Court connections; and men with a “country” attitude of mind who had served long years at Court.

In these respects, Russell’s book may usefully be contrasted with one I published in 1972, entitled The Causes of the English Revolution 1529–1642. What chiefly distinguishes our two books is that I talked about “Revolution,” and Russell about “Civil War”—two very different ways of looking at the same events. I accepted the proposition by the contemporary political philosopher James Harrington that “the dissolution of this government caused the war, not the war the dissolution of this government.” I therefore concentrated on the long-term and short-term causes of the breakdown of royal government in 1640, and Russell on the very different question of the causes of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. I talked much about four structural weaknesses of the English state, which could be traced back to the early and middle years of the sixteenth century. These were its failure to acquire and hold on to independent and buoyant sources of state income, which resulted in a fiscal crisis; its failure to raise and maintain a standing army; its failure to set up a local bureaucracy dependent on the central state; and its failure to create ideological unity within the still immature Church of England.

Despite his claims to deal only in particular events, Russell in his new book goes far back into the past in order to provide an intelligible account of three basic structural flaws he now detects in the English political system. The three chapters on these subjects, and that on Charles I as a politician, are by far the best part of the book; all four contain many brilliant and convincing passages. It seems, therefore, that when it comes to causation in history, his and my practice, if not our theory, have become noticeably closer.

The first of Russell’s structural causes is the fiscal crunch. He acknowledges as one of the three key causes of the civil war “the strains caused for monarchies by the combination of inflation with the massive increases in the cost of war.” He fails to add the rising costs of running a lavish, wasteful, and often scandal-ridden, seventeenth-century Court. This omission allows him to be very critical of the persistent refusal of Parliament to support the Crown financially in its military adventures. He claims that “financial irresponsibility [was] characteristic of the Commons since 1593 and longer.” But Parliament in the 1620s was deeply suspicious of the foreign policy of the Crown, which was suspected of being pro-Spanish. As a result, it was strenuously opposed to getting drawn into a military expedition to the Continent to join in the Thirty Years War, and it was exasperated by the bungling military incompetence displayed by the Crown and its officials. In the 1630s many leading Englishmen feared that Charles and his advisers were threatening both their liberties and their religion. Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that Parliament was very reluctant to grant adequate funds for war in the 1620s and that in the late 1630s many prominent nobles and clergy were prepared to give secret encouragement to the enemy, the Scots, in order to bring down the regime. As time would show after 1690, once Parliament approved the foreign and military policy of the Crown and its conduct of the war, it would freely vote huge taxes to support it.

Moreover, in accusing Parliament of irresponsibility, Russell ignores the fact that it was the extremely cautious management of royal finances by Lord Burghley in the reign of Queen Elizabeth which was a prime cause of the failure to make taxes keep pace with inflation. Burghley preferred to let sleeping dogs lie, rather than risk the enmity of significant elements of the propertied classes. Although inflation was eroding the government’s real income, he judged that the Elizabethan regime was still too fragile to survive a serious fight over raising taxes, and in the light of the Early Stuart debacle he may have been right. Today is not the first era in which the way to obtain popularity is to go around promising “no new taxes.”

The second long-term element in Russell’s analysis of causes is the fact that Britain consisted of three semi-independent kingdoms, English, Scottish, and Irish, a situation made all the more dangerous since each was composed of members of a different church organization and doctrinal persuasion. He makes a great deal of this “multiple kingdoms” argument, citing the occasions in 1639 and 1640 when Charles and Archbishop Laud invaded Scotland in order to force the English Prayer Book upon the Presbyterian Scots. The result was catastrophic defeat, and a counter-invasion and occupation of northern England by the Scots. He is original to lay so much stress on this multinational crisis of the state in the seventeenth century, similar to the problems of Catalonia and Portugal for the contemporary Spanish monarchy.

But how decisive was this factor? It is true that the invasion of England by the Scots in 1639 caused the financial collapse of the monarchy and the summoning of Parliament. But what needs explaining is why two such trivial and short wars as those against Scotland in 1639 and 1640 could bring about the collapse of what in 1637 had seemed like a stable, prosperous, and increasingly powerful state system: the results were out of all proportion to the cause. What defeated Charles was not so much the military prowess of the Scots as his own lack of money—caused by the refusal of his subjects either to pay illegal taxes or to lend to the crown—his lack of a standing army, and the marked lack of enthusiasm for the war shown by his propertied English subjects. These three were structural defects in the English state.

It is also true that the Irish Rebellion in 1641 and the accompanying alleged atrocities made civil war in England more likely. It necessitated the raising of an army to put it down, but neither Charles nor the parliamentary leader Pym could trust the other with such an army. And it is also true that renewed Scottish intervention in the English Civil War on the side of Parliament in 1644 broke the military stalemate and tipped the scales against the Royalists.

The third structural weakness highlighted by Russell is religion, which in accordance with the conventional wisdom of the last ten years he now sees as a critical force driving the country into civil war. To explain this problem, he is obliged to track it all the way back to the Elizabethan settlement of the Church in 1559. The historiographical wheel has thus turned full circle, and Russell himself admits that he appears to have gone “back to the notion of ‘Puritan’ Revolution.”9

The old Elizabethan and Jacobean semi-Calvinist consensus broke up in 1626 when Charles I threw all his influence behind the Arminians—anti-Calvinist, clerical, high church elements in the Church. As a result, after 1626 one Church—the Church of England—held in unstable union three increasingly incompatible groups: first the Arminians, moving steadily back toward what looked to many suspiciously like Catholic rituals of the sacrament, Catholic ceremonial forms of worship, and Catholic episcopal clerical discipline; second, the main body of members of the Church of England, who clung to the old Elizabethan semi-Calvinist doctrine and worship and the established liturgy; and third, the now thoroughly alarmed “Puritans,” seeking to stop the Arminians in their tracks and, before it was too late, to purge the Church once and for all of its remaining relics of popery. This was an explosive mixture, which blew up in 1640, creating an irreparable fissure between the Church of England and Dissent which has lasted from that day to this. What Russell fails to explore is the inextricably complicated connections, stressed years ago by R.H. Tawney, Christopher Hill, and others, between religion and political, social, and moral policies and practices. As a result, this identification of religion as an independent cause has a distinctly old-fashioned look.

Russell devotes an outstanding chapter to the political personality of Charles I, whom he is forced by his own logic to blame for much of what went wrong. He is almost certainly correct in regarding the King as basically a weak man, fearful of his own inadequacies, and therefore obstinate as a mule in order to conceal them. He now regards Charles I as “a necessary cause” of the Civil War, without whose presence on the throne it would never have happened, a point with which almost all would agree.

But what is not clear is how the reasonable and moderate Charles I of Russell’s early work on the 1620s could turn into the absolutist and politically inept idealogue of the late 1630s. In fact, there is now plenty of evidence that the moderate Charles I never existed. From the very beginning of his reign, he was imbued with a visceral hatred of parliaments and was reckless in what he said about them to his intimates. In 1626, the year after he ascended the throne, when someone mentioned Parliament he remarked that “he did abominate that name,” and would not call one unless “reduced to extremity and pulled by the hairs of the head.” When men of substance refused to give the Crown a wholly illegal forced loan, Charles personally insisted on imprisoning them. Hard-liners in the royal entourage suggested that they should be tried “by martial law and hanged up in the next tree to their dwellings, as an example and terror to others.” Charles I’s table talk in as early as the late 1620s makes frightening reading.10

Against overwhelming evidence, Russell refuses to admit that Charles’s major political vice was that he could not be trusted. Writing about the situation in 1641, he does concede, however, that “Charles, in his capacity as champion of the rule of law, did not immediately carry conviction, since he had a very great deal to live down.” True enough. It was this duplicity which in 1649 led Cromwell reluctantly to conclude that Charles had to die. Twenty-five years of experience had proved that he was not a man with whom one could strike a deal with any reasonable expectation that it would stick.

So far, there are no signs of any attempt at a linguistic interpretation of the English Revolution, dependent on the identification of “basic strands of discourse,” such as has recently been applied to the French Revolution.11 But there has appeared on the scene a new and flourishing breed of historical sociologists, almost entirely American, who are exclusively concerned with identifying vast structural forces at work across the world from London to Peking. One of these is Professor Jack Goldstone. To turn from Russell to Goldstone is like emerging from a shuttered room, crowded with elegant furniture and rare bric-a-brac, to find oneself on a vast plain full of thunder and lightning in the midst of a storm. Whereas Russell is the patient delver into archives, the archpriest of the primacy of mini-events at the personal level in high politics, Goldstone thinks only in international and structural terms. His model of rebellion and revolution in England is a world away from that of Russell’s. For him the one causal factor for all rebellions and revolutions in Early Modern Europe was what he calls the “ecological crisis,” by which he thinks he can explain the English Civil War, the revolts of Catalonia and Portugal against Spain, and the Fronde in France, to say nothing of disturbances in Ottoman Turkey and Ming China. He regards growth in population as the prime destabilizing factor, although one that is modified by social, political, and ideological pressures.

Goldstone places great faith in what he calls a “Political Stress Indicator,” which he boldly graphs, revealing a sweeping upward curve, soaring—surprise, surprise—into a great peak in 1640 for England (and in 1789 for France): The formula for constructing the Political Stress Indicator (PSI for short) runs as follows:

PSI = Fiscal Stress x Elite Competition x Mass Mobilization Potential (MMP)

Goldstone believes that the financial crisis of the state was caused in large part by Malthusian demographic pressures. As a result, demand for food outstripped supply, prices rocketed, and Crown revenues all over Europe always lagged behind. While real income fell, expenditures on war increased as armies grew larger and technologically more sophisticated. This is all true, for the English state in 1640 and the French state in 1789 were both financially unable to carry on. But at least one major state, Spain, repeatedly went bankrupt without this causing a revolution. Moreover it is unfortunate for his argument that population growth in late-eighteenth-century France was relatively slow compared with that elsewhere, although French state finances were certainly crippled by the costs of the American War of Independence. But exactly how Goldstone manages to turn a financial crisis into a statistical table remains a mystery, which he never explains.

The second component of Goldstone’s Political Stress Indicator is elite competition for jobs, also caused by demographic growth. The argument is that more members of the elite and more of their younger sons were competing desperately for a fairly static number of jobs suitable to persons of their status, that is at Court, within the bureaucracy, or the army. This elite competition grew swiftly, and eventually led to elite rebellion, since many were left dissatisfied and unable to find jobs. Elites thus tended to split into factions composed of the ins and the outs. Goldstone has no direct evidence of this job crisis among the elite, so uses as a surrogate university enrollments, which he takes as evidence of a rush to obtain the qualifications necessary for service to the state in one capacity or another. But Goldstone fails to realize that much of the rise in university enrollments before 1640 in England (or France or Spain) was caused by poor boys seeking degrees to qualify them to become low-grade clergymen or pettifogging lawyers, who barely scraped a living. Moreover, one major and expanding elite occupation, the officer corps in the army, did not demand a university education anyway, so the relevance of university enrollments to elite competition for jobs is dubious, to say the least. In any case, the evidence that the elite divided in the Civil War into the ins and the outs in terms of state jobs—that is into Court versus Country—is far from clear, as Russell and others have demonstrated.

The third component of PSI is MMP—that is Mass Mobilization Potential. It is a composite of three indicators, whose movements are all ultimately attributable to demography. The formula for MMP runs as follows:

MMP = average real wage x urban growth x age cohort structure.

The first is a plunge in real wages, since an excess of population makes labor cheap and food dear. This certainly happened before 1640 in England and before 1789 in France. The second is urban growth, caused by forced emigration from the countryside for lack of land to cultivate. Unfortunately for this thesis, urban growth in pre-1640 England is very hard to prove. There was certainly a huge explosion of the City of London, into which a significant part of the country’s excess population eventually drifted. But provincial towns show no signs of growth, and much rural migration seems to have been into forest and fen. Moreover the rural masses of England showed little signs of mobilization during the English Civil War. There was no peasant revolt in England.

The third and last component of MMP is the bulge in the age cohort between seventeen and twenty-five, when male youth is most prone to riot and rebellion, even perhaps to revolution. It is true that from 1641 to 1642 the apprentices in the City of London provided a formidable mob, which for a while had great influence on political events, as did the Paris mobs of the early 1790s.

Goldstone fails to explain how he has turned all this very soft data into a set of statistics capable of producing a graph of PSI. If you can believe in a composite statistical table constructed from all this, you can, I submit, believe anything. We can surely agree that the six items selected by Goldstone are plausible potential forces for social destabilization. He is absolutely right about this, and his argument is reasonably persuasive. But the conversion of such fuzzy and unreliable data into hard statistics and graphs is a misuse of the scientific method of quantification to dress up an intriguing exercise of the sociological imagination.

Each of these two books about the causes of rebellion and revolution in the early modern period has great virtues. But each is flawed in radically opposite ways: one is excessively, but no longer exclusively, concentrated on the detailed events in a two-year span; and the other is too general in its scope, too monocausal in its model, and far too bold and vague in constructing a thing called a Political Stress Indicator, which is about as real as a unicorn. Both reflect ominous but opposite trends in the current crisis of the humanities.

If Sir Peter Medawar was right—as he surely was—to claim that “innocent, unbiassed observation is a myth,” these two books stand at the opposite poles of historical methodology. To use Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s metaphor, Goldstone and Russell respectively adopt the positions, and therefore the findings, of the parachutist and the truffle hunter. The former looks down from a great height. He sees very clearly the contours of the landscape, the rivers, the forests, and the mountains, but he is too far away to detect any individual trees or rocks or small streams, much less the dense undergrowth on the ground. The latter has his nose deep in the dirt, snuffling out rare truffles (in this case manuscript data) lying underneath the soil. From the latter’s vantage point he can see nothing of the broad features of the landscape, but he can pick out many of the individual items that compose it.

Most historians like to make their observations from somewhere in between these two positions, moving along with their eyes open both for the contours of the landscape and for oddly attractive little bits and pieces on the ground before them. These two books reinforce the wisdom of that particular Aristotelian strategy of seeking moderation, and thus trying to have the best of both worlds.

This Issue

June 11, 1992