Tudor and Stuart historians have got back into the habit of writing very big books. Thus in the past two years, Kevin Sharpe’s The Personal Rule of Charles I took a thousand pages to present an apologia for Charles I’s Personal Rule, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars took over six hundred pages to lament the overthrow of mediaeval English piety, and Conrad Russell almost six hundred pages to chronicle The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637–1642. Now Robert Brenner has joined in with his 734 pages on Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders 1550–1653. It is, for the most part, an enjoyable and challenging read. It is a book which explicitly seeks to challenge the ‘revisionist’ historiography of the past twenty years. I am identified throughout the book as a leading revisionist and it was generous of the editor of this journal to invite me to offer my response to a book which politely and fairly seeks to undermine much of what I have published. Readers should be aware that I am parti pris.
Nonetheless, let me say emphatically at the outset that I think this is a very welcome and a very rewarding book. There is a great deal to be learnt from it—about the transformation of England’s overseas trade, about the role of the elite of London in the making and outcome of the English civil wars and the making and shaping of the English Revolution. I have had to think very long and hard about what I can and cannot agree with and my own thinking on a host of issues has been refined as a result. I disagree with Brenner’s claims to have refurbished and relaunched a Marxist social interpretation of the ‘Revolution’, and I am convinced that there are demonstrable flaws in the way the whole book is conceptualized. These flaws are sufficiently serious as to leave us with a book consisting of a host of splintered insights rather than a convincing new social interpretation of the English Revolution.
The book falls into two unequal parts. The first 637 pages offer a tripartite narrative and analysis of the socio-political transformation of English commerce in the century before the civil wars, the role of selected groups of London merchants in the growing political turmoil of 1620–42, and then of their role in the decade of war and revolution which culminated in the overthrow of monarchy, House of Lords, and the confessional state. It ends—for puzzling and contestable reasons—with the fall of the Rump
It must be frankly faced that the book falls into two parts for both good and bad reasons. The first 637 pages read like a book written twenty years ago—and the footnotes (with references to PhD theses long since published and a paucity of references to standard works published since the mid 1970s) indicate that this is so. The manuscript has been overhauled where recent work directly impinges upon it—as by repeated references to Robert Ashton’s The City and the Court 1603–43 (Cambridge 1979)—but the mindset and conceptualization remain very close to that evident in Brenner’s article on ‘The Civil War Politics of London’s Merchant Community’ published in Past and Present no. 58 (1973). This was three years before the publication of works by Conrad Russell, Kevin Sharpe, Anthony Fletcher, Mark Kishlansky and myself, which have been generally recognized as the kernel of revisionism. In the meantime, major work on London in this period has been published by Ian Archer, Keith Lindley, Stephen Rappaport and others, of which Brenner’s work remains innocent. If his Postscript is—in addition to being an attempt to create a new model for a social interpretation of the English Revolution—a historiographical review of much of the best work of the past twenty years, it must be confessed that it creates a good deal of structural difficulty for the book as a whole. A pre-revisionist base has to take the weight of a post-revisionist superstructure as we move from the detailed account of the political culture of London’s overseas merchant community to the model-building exercise at the end.
Brenner has written an unfashionable book in that the great majority of historians have turned their backs on social-determinist interpretations (what Brenner less accurately calls social interpretation) of the crisis in mid seventeenth-century England. Brenner accepts the ‘failure of traditional social interpretation to explain the political conflicts of the seventeenth century’, but his robust rejoinder and starting point is that the failure of particular previous social interpretations does not mean ‘that these conflicts are without social foundations, let alone that they have no basis in systematic political and ideological differences.’
The book begins with an account of ‘the transformation of English commerce and of the London Merchant community, 1550–1650’. This can be warmly welcomed. It presents an account that is broadly persuasive and builds effectively on the work of others. The ‘traditional’ interpretation viewed the hectic search for new markets in this period as a response to the shrinking market for English broadcloth, upon which English trade in the first half of the sixteenth century was dangerously dependent (cloth exports accounted for 90 per cent of all exports, most of them to northern Europe and most exported via London). Brenner argues that the real engine of commercial reorientation was a boom that was import- and re-export-led as raw materials, silks and spices were brought in from Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, and he suggests that it was led by different men with rather different values from those of the staid and conservative Merchant Adventurers. It was, Brenner argues, an overlapping group of men in the East India and Levant Companies who
Having established the tripartite division of the overseas merchant community and the tensions between them, Brenner moves on to a detailed study of the relations of each of his groups with the Crown in the decades before the civil war. Here his historical task is to demonstrate the different role played by each group in the political crisis leading up to the outbreak of the English civil war. Unfortunately, since his conceptualization was formed and first published, Robert Ashton has published a major alternative interpretation from the same evidence, and despite some effective sniping at Ashton in the footnotes, Brenner’s overall account cannot just be taken as proven. I have not read much of the evidence that both draw upon, and therefore cannot offer a firm judgement between them; but there are many grounds for suspecting that Ashton has the