The Century of Revolution 1603—1714, by Christopher Hill: Nelson, 1961. 25s.
the volume is the fifth in a series by different experts on English history, and wears the modest guise of a book for sixth forms and first-year college classes. As such it needs scarcely anything to make it perfect, except intelligence and curiosity among readers in these walks of life. The type is large and clear. There is a set of excellent illustrations, and a helpful classified reading-list. A good deal of humour, and a strong sense of the dramatic in history, blow away any dry-as-dust flavour that may hang about the notion of a text-book. But a survey of the whole 17th century (of his 17th century, it is a temptation to say) by Christopher Hill is bound to be a good deal more than even an ideal book for the classroom. It will come still more as a blessing to the general reader interested in knowing how modern England, with all its oddities good and bad, has evolved. No scholar could have written a more lucid or penetrating study of this crowded and chaotic epoch.
How to prune and arrange the vast bulk of what is known, so as to combine fact with comment and interpretation, is the first problem in any general work of history. The plan followed here has many advantages. It breaks the period up into its four natural divisions: 1603–40 (growth of opposition to the monarchy), 1640–60 (civil war and republic), 1660–88 (restoration of the monarchy in a cut-down form), 1688–1713 (full establishment of parliamentary control over it). Each section opens with a brief, bare narrative, to refresh the reader’s memory; then follow discussions of the three main spheres of national life in turn—economic, political and constitutional, religious and cultural. Supplementary tables of dates, and also of wages and price-movements, help to make up for the brevity of the narrative. In little more than three hundred pages Hill’s talent for making the important things stand out, with the greatest economy of detail, enables him to cover an astonishing range of topics. So much is brought in that it would be ungrateful to complain of anything being left out; of the military side of the civil wars, for instance, not getting much of a look-in. Music and herrings, Dryden and Dissent, all find room, and not as mere odds and ends thrown into a rag-bag. Their relative positions and interactions are pointed out, or at least stimulatingly suggested. For a good specimen of this fitting together of complicated jigsaw puzzles the reader may turn to the account in Part 3 of the effects of the Restoration in 1660 on life and literature, industry and science, politics and political philosophy. Few will read the book without gaining from it a stronger feeling of the wholeness of life, of the fact that politics, painting, and potatoes all belong to one world. In our age when specialisation is shutting us up into smaller and smaller compartments, this is a very tangible service for a historian to perform. Marxists will hail the book as a vindication of their method. All historians ought to welcome it as a vindication of their subject, struggling nowadays to hang on to its small place in the educational timetable in competition with book-keeping or electronics.
In 17th century England there was, above all, an emergence of freedom. Hill’s great concern from first to last is to show realistically what this much-used and misused word means in that age. English freedom then was spacious for those who shared in it, but it was shared by very few. It gave the majority nothing, except the incentive to try and broaden it by democratic movements, whose work even now is only half finished. In constitutional terms it meant the rise of Parliament, a Parliament elected by only a handful of voters, to supremacy over the Crown. This happened when in most other countries representative institutions were decaying or being suppressed by allpowerful
On the religious issues that intertwine with all others in the 17th century Hill is particularly an authority. He has long been a keen and subtle advocate of the view that Calvinist theology helped to inspire the capitalist spirit, and the progress away from mediaeval stagnation which this made possible. There is occasionally a risk here of losing sight of the broad, basic fact that what started the liberation of the human mind and human society was Protestantism as a whole: the break-away of half Europe, by whatever precise theological pathways, from the stupefying inertia of Catholic incense and saint-worship and priestly domination. To the founders of Marxism the starting-point of the grand revolution that separates modern from mediaeval was the Reformation. Hill’s treatment of constitutional matters too carries conviction nearly all the time. A simple point that might have been included among the causes of the opposition to the first Stuarts is that they were foreigners. The Tudors, who were their own public-relations officers, had always rubbed it into the public that they were English born and bred. People always grumble more at their government when it is in the hands of outsiders. The only attempt at revolution in three centuries of Spanish history was touched off by the advent in 1518 of a foreign king surrounded by foreign favourites. One reason why Parliament came out on top in modern England was that this country (unlike France) was blessed at various times with foreign monarchs, whose outlandishness made them unpopular or ineffective.
In the economic sphere Hill may seem now and then by comparison to move a little less sure-footedly. This is partly due to the many gaps in the evidence that has survived, all the more regrettable because for a Marxist historian like him economic facts are the fundamental ones. How far if at all it is due to uncertainties of interpretation will be a question of special interest for the eagerest of all his readers, those who share his belief in the Marxist theory of history and have followed the many contributions that he has made to it in his previous studies.
His framework or scaffolding was first put together a good many years ago in his long essay on The English Revolution. That essay was an epoch-making one in its field, and it fitted so many of the facts so convincingly that its ideas can fairly be taken as in a good measure true. It was a pioneer work however, and under close scrutiny, by the test of its own theories and rules, it reveals in a good many places some degree of inconsistency, or blurring of lines, or unconscious substitution of one piece on the chessboard for another. In a work of the character of the present book there is naturally no room for technical discussion of Marxist problems, and some of the difficulties are unavoidably left on one side. To take an example, Marxists including Hill have drawn a sharp—probably a good deal too sharp—distinction between “merchant capital” and “industrial (or productive) capital”, and insisted that only the second of these, which comes later in history, is a dynamic force capable of revolutionising society and taking over political power. In practice the essay failed to keep the two things as distinct as they were supposed to be in theory; and the book is open to the same objection, for it ends with the great merchants of London in control of both the national economy and the State.