Rolodex Man

Mark Kishlansky

  • Liberty against the Law: Some 17th-Century Controversies by Christopher Hill
    Allen Lane, 354 pp, £25.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 7139 9119 4
  • The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary England: An Essay on the Fabrication of 17th-Century History by Alastair MacLaclan
    Macmillan, 431 pp, £13.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 333 62009 7

It is becoming difficult to remember how influential Christopher Hill once was. When E.P. Thompson dedicated Whigs and Hunters to ‘Christopher Hill – Master of more than an old Oxford college’ he was recognising Hill’s stature as a historian, academic and public figure. From his perch as Master of Balliol, he presided over the education of future mandarins and exerted an influence on the intellectual life of Britain. His work, which roamed over more than two centuries of England’s past, transcended his specialisation. He trained a stable of accomplished historians, but his impact on students of literature and general readers was just as great. His textbooks, Century of Revolution (1961) and Reformation to Industrial Revolution (1967), dominated in the schools.

Today, however, postgraduates are more likely to read his books as period pieces rather than contributions to scholarship. Hill has become a subject of research as much as an inspiration for it: Alastair MacLachlan’s The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary England is mostly devoted to his career. Hill’s over-schematised account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, his modernising Puritans and democratic revolutionaries, have all been swept away by changing fashions or subsequent investigation. But his work once stimulated a generation of historians who began their professional training in the late Sixties and early Seventies and who wished to believe that Puritans were hippies and revolutions were happenings. As one of them, I say this nostalgically. His passion for the past was infectious and his celebration of those who deflated authority with a rapier of wit, a cream pie of irony and the theatrics of the absurd exactly caught the mood of the moment.

Retrospectives on the work of Christopher Hill are perpetually premature. At 84 he has produced his 25th book, Liberty against the Law, essays which loosely revolve around the theme of justice, interpreted variously as rights, liberties or customs, and uniformly as being denied to ‘the people’ by a ruling-class conspiracy. In Early Modern England, justice was at war with property, and property emerged victorious. There are pieces that celebrate images of Robin Hood, empathise with vagabonds and extol gypsies. Hill’s spotlight shines on radical sectaries who defied both the laws of England and the laws of Moses. Villainous lords, greedy merchants and corrupt lawyers lurk in the shadows. The perspective is one of unreconstructed Critical Legal Studies and is justified by such remarkable assertions as that ‘a very significant proportion of the population’ felt ‘at least sympathy with law breakers. And why not? The law was made by a small minority of the population.’ The cumulative message is that the gap between law and justice should be bridged by the individual conscience, an opinion heard also in Belfast, Brixton and Broadmoor.

Liberty against the Law is vintage Hill, robust, murky and slightly acidic – aged in the bottle, so to speak. Like all of his work, it is based on an incomparable knowledge of printed sources, which is presented in a ‘thick description’ of quotations bunched together and pressed inexorably to a preordained conclusion. You can tell as much from the label on Hill’s books as you can from the cork, for though the subjects change, if you read one of them, you will feel you have read them all.

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