The Past and the Present 
by Lawrence Stone.
Routledge, 274 pp., £8.75, June 1981, 0 7100 0628 4
Show More
Show More

In the late 1950s, when I went up to Oxford, one of the liveliest and most provocative lecturers in history was Lawrence Stone of Wadham. He was already a controversial figure who had, as we all knew, crossed swords with Hugh Trevor-Roper over the state of the Elizabethan aristocracy and with Geoffrey Elton over the question of Tudor despotism. Stone’s favourite theme at that time was ‘The Coming of the English Revolution’. Looking back from the later 17th century, Lord Clarendon once remarked that he was ‘not so sharp-sighted as those who have discerned this rebellion contriving from (if not before) the death of Queen Elizabeth’. One wonders what he would have made of Stone’s lectures, in which we were taken back to the reign of Henry VIII, and learned as much about population movements and the educational system as about religion and politics. It was the total history of the English old regime which was the true subject of these spell-binding lectures, delivered in the hall of Wadham beneath a large portrait of Lord Birkenhead, towards whom the lecturer would sometimes gesture to provide a latter day example of that typical 17th-century phenomenon, the ambitious political lawyer.

The book which Stone was writing at the time, and which finally emerged from Oxford University Press in 1965, was a study of the English peerage between 1568 and 1641, The Crisis of the Aristocracy. This study was, in its author’s words, ‘concerned to describe the total environment of an élite, material and economic, ideological and cultural, educational and moral’. Like Edward Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, which it resembles (despite major differences in assumptions and methods) in its combination of analytical and imaginative power and in its vigorous prose, not to mention its length, it is a major contribution to social history and one of the seminal works of the decade.

In the late 1960s, I found myself in Princeton for a semester and went to visit (and ‘audit’) Professor Stone’s graduate seminar on history and the social sciences. Despite Princeton’s attempts to imitate Oxford, including, if I remember rightly, a replica of the front quad at Corpus and a small fragment of the Bodleian, preserved in a glass case in the Firestone Library, the atmosphere was very different. It wasn’t just the cups of coffee consumed in the seminar, or the conspicuous absence of gowns, but a change in the intellectual climate. Stone retained all his old power to generate intellectual excitement, but his style had changed. The Oxford lectures were firework-displays of rhetoric, dramatic monologues in which a picture of the past was built up by an accumulation of vivid details. The Princeton seminars were disputations, displays of logic in which Stone demolished one research student’s paper after another by showing that they were based on inconsistent premises, or failed to draw essential distinctions, or neglected what he called the historian’s duty to count, wherever and whenever possible. No wonder American graduate students have been heard to call their seminars ‘crucifixions’. The book Stone was writing at this point was his essay on The Causes of the English Revolution, published in 1972, an essay which went over much of the ground covered in his Oxford lectures but treated the subject in a rather different manner. The essay was a conscious piece of model-building, under the influence of American political and sociological theory of the kind practised at the Woodrow Wilson School a few hundred yards down the road. It discussed the Tudors and Stuarts in terms of ‘disequilibrium’, ‘relative deprivation’, élites and revolution.

Stone was also writing reviews – some of which might also have been described as ‘crucifixions’ – for the New York Review of Books, and a number of these have just been reprinted, together with three longer pieces, in The Past and the Present. Some of his most important essays are missing from this collection: the one on the ‘educational revolution’ in England, for example, another dealing with the changing size and composition of the Oxford student population over four centuries, and a quantitative study of the building of English country houses. Perhaps they are reserved for another volume. The Past and the Present is dominated by three essays on historical method. They might well have been subtitled ‘Reconsiderations’, a point which emerges more clearly if they are read, not in the order in which they are printed here, but in the order in which they were published. The earliest, which came out in 1971, is called simply ‘Prosopography’, and deals with the intellectual roots, the value and the dangers of ‘career-line analysis’ or collective biography of groups such as Roman senators and English MPs, and of more general studies based on this kind of evidence, notably Sir Lewis Namier’s Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929), and Sir Ronald Syme’s Roman Revolution, published ten years later. To these examples one can obviously add Stone’s own Crisis, based as it is on the biographies of all the members of the peerage between 1568 and 1641, and it is interesting to see the author’s remarks on the danger of ‘lumping together individuals who differ significantly from one another’ illustrated in a footnote by the criticisms levelled at his own book. The conclusion, however, remains optimistic: that prosopography could help create ‘a unified field out of the loose federation of jealously independent topics and techniques which at present constitutes the historian’s empire’.

The next essay, ‘History and the Social Sciences’, published five years later, is a more general survey concerned with the value and the dangers of historians’ fraternisation with sociology, psychology, demography and anthropology. This time, the criticism of the social scientists and of the historians who imitate them is considerably more outspoken. As Stone puts it, in his inimitably vivid manner, it may now be ‘time for the historical rats to leave rather than to scramble aboard the social scientific ship which seems to be leaking and undergoing major repair’. He goes on to specify ‘three ways in which the social science-oriented historians seem at the moment to be in particular danger of allowing their enthusiasm to outrun their judgment’: mechanistic causation, simplistic psychology, and ‘an intemperate and injudicious use of quantification as a solution to all problems’. In his most recent essay, ‘The Revival of Narrative’, Stone reacts even more strongly. Although he stresses that he is concerned to analyse and not to support the trend exemplified by such books as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Carnival, he does record his belief that ‘quantification has not fulfilled the high hopes of twenty years ago,’ and that economic and sociological models have ‘collapsed in the face of the evidence’, leaving nothing to take their place.

Stone likes to observe the evolution, or the ‘trajectory’, as he calls it, of other historians, such as Le Roy Ladurie and Jean Delumeau. His own trajectory now seems clear enough. There is the palaeolithic period, datable to the 1940s and 1950s, in which Stone was remarkable more for the breadth of his interests, which ran from the political programme of Thomas Cromwell to medieval English sculpture, than for the novelty of his methods. In the mesolithic period, associated with Princeton and the 1960s, he was enthusiastic about the social sciences and adopted some of their methods and much of their language. He has now entered a neolithic phase of disillusionment with the social sciences, tempered by an increasing interest in social anthropology, notably the symbolic anthropology practised by his Princeton neighbour Clifford Geertz.

There is little doubt that some historians are feeling rather complacent as they view this development. Whether they can afford to be so is another matter. Many of us have moved along the same route over the last twenty years or so, and the main difference between Stone and the rest (apart from the vigour of his reactions in each phase) is that he has been out in front. In any case, the shifts should not be exaggerated. Stone was already employing quantitative methods in articles of the 1950s, and he still believes in them sufficiently to scold Philippe Ariès because, in his recent book on the history of attitudes to death, ‘there is not a statistic in the whole 642 pages.’ Stone has always believed in combining his statistics with impressions derived from literary – and visual – sources, and also with concrete, individual case-studies. An Elizabethan: Sir Horatio Palavicino (1956) was such a study, a portrait of a minor monopolist, war financier, landed gentleman and secret agent, presented as both a product and a symptom of his age, in much the same way as the case-histories of the sex lives of Forman, Pepys, Hooke and Boswell, published over twenty years later in The Family, Sex and Marriage, were intended to illustrate general trends.

Stone has always been an eclectic. His recent assertion that ‘there is nothing wrong with poking about in a social science’ to find something useful for one’s own work, because ‘for all their faults, social scientists can supply a corrective to the antiquarian fact-grubbing to which historians are so prone,’ recalls as well as qualifies his manifesto of 1965 to the effect that ‘the problems of causation are beginning to be attacked with the powerful tools provided by Freud and Malinowski, Weber and Veblen, in addition to the useful but clumsy old Marxist bulldozer.’ What he found, and finds, ‘clumsy’ in Marxism is the treatment of culture as mere ‘superstructure’. His study of the English Revolution took care to emphasise the independent role of ideology, while his book on the family deals at length with the rise of ‘individualism’. Max Weber’s approach appeals to him as ‘an alternative to vulgar Marxist determinism’ which allows for mutual interaction between ideas and society. The history of ‘collective mentalities’, as practised by French historians from Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre before the Second World War, to Philippe Ariès and Michel Vovelle today, appeals to him for much the same reason. The long section on ‘minds and manners.’ in his Crisis of the Aristocracy was one of the first serious attempts by an English historian to write this kind of history of the changing attitudes of a social group.

The history of mentalities has always been concerned with changes in feelings as well as changes in thoughts, with unconscious attitudes as well as conscious ones. Yet French historians, with the exception of the Russian specialist Alain Besançon, have been rather unwilling to come to terms with Freud. Stone, on the other hand, like some of his American colleagues, is willing to grasp the nettle of ‘psychohistory’. ‘It must be admitted,’ he confesses, ‘that Freudian psychology has not been much use to the historian, who is usually unable to penetrate the bedroom, the bathroom or the nursery.’ On the other hand, the developmental psychology of Erik Erikson, with its greater stress on adolescence and problems of identity, ‘opens up a new range of possibilities for the historian’, and so does Hartmann’s Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation. Stone is even prepared to take seriously (or at least half-seriously) the model of the history of child-rearing, from the ‘Infanticide Mode’ of classical antiquity to the ‘Helping Mode’ of the present day, put forward by the American psychohistorian Lloyd de Mause, though he is not exactly unaware of ‘the problem of how to regard so bold, so challenging, so dogmatic, so enthusiastic, so perverse, and yet so heavily documented a model’.

Stone’s conceptual tool-kit includes not only Marx, Weber and Freud, but also Malinowski and Veblen. What he has taken from Malinowski is his tendency to explain institutions and ideas in terms of their contribution to preserving social ‘equilibrium’ – in other words, his functionalism. This approach, modified to take account of conflict and disequilibrium, can be seen at work in Stone’s discussion of the history of universities and of the causes of the English Revolution. He suggests that the functions of the university in early modern times were contradictory: ‘socially a block and a sieve, intellectually a buttress and a land-mine’. In the case of the English Revolution, the suggestion is that economic growth and social change led to ‘disequilibrium’ between the political and social systems, and that measures designed to restore equilibrium in fact upset it further.

Perhaps the most exotic item in Stone’s tool-box is Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, first published in 1899, that remarkable anatomy of the aristocracy in both ‘barbarian’ and ‘pecuniary’ cultures, with its emphasis on hierarchy and emulation and their symbolic expression in what he called ‘conspicuous waste’. The vivid descriptions of the hospitality and funerals, houses and tombs, of the English peerage in Crisis of the Aristocracy owe not a little to the example of this nonconforming sociologist, this individualist in a coonskin cap. Like Veblen, Stone is often at his best describing the social significance of material objects. Veblen’s famous passage on the sociology of the corset has its parallel in Stone’s remarks on the social functions of the hat. One of the most striking sections in The Family, Sex and Marriage is concerned with the rise of a sense of privacy and its symbols: the corridor, which diverted traffic away from the bedroom, and the dumb waiter, which allowed the family to talk out of earshot of the servants.

In other ways, however, Veblen may have been a dangerous model for a man who chose to study early modern England out of admiration for R.H. Tawney and drew a self-portrait in referring to historians of élites as ‘disappointed egalitarians whose misanthropy springs directly from outraged moral sentiment’. Like Veblen, Stone has what might be called a savage eye. Some of his most brilliant passages depend on it. There is the characterisation of the Elizabethan village as a community where hatred reached ‘levels of frequency, intensity and duration which are rarely seen today, except in similar close-knit groups like the Fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges’, ‘its only unifying bond being the occasional episode of mass hysteria, which temporarily bound together the majority in order to harry and persecute the local witch’. Again, there is the description of the English ruling class of the 17th century as exhibiting ‘the ferocity, childishness and lack of self-control of the Homeric age’, and as ‘emotional cripples, whose primary responses to others were at best a calculating indifference and at worst a mixture of suspicion and hostility, tyranny and submission, alienation and rage’. Bravura passages like this have had the great merit of shocking us out of any tendency to accept the rather cosy picture of the English past offered by, say, G.M. Trevelyan, and of producing a V-Effekt of a Brechtian kind, making the natives of Stuart England seem as alien as the Mundugumor of New Guinea. One is reminded of the delightful essay on the American bathroom by the anthropologist Horace Miner, entitled ‘Body Ritual among the Nacirema’. At the same time passages like the ones quoted do reveal a curious blindness to counter-examples, not to mention a reluctance to look at the culture from the inside, as traditional historians and modern anthropologists agree we must. At his best, however, Stone gives us magnificent passages of what Clifford Geertz likes to call ‘thick description’, drawing out the social significance of the shift from the ‘featureless stock effigy’ to the portrait on English funeral monuments, or from ‘Madam’ to ‘Dear creature’ in the letters of husbands to wives.

The essays collected in The Past and the Present not infrequently show him at his best, notably the three long pieces in Part One, sympathetic but critical appraisals of the historical revolution of our time. Part Two, ‘The Emergence of the Modern World’, consists of old book reviews abridged or rewritten to form 12 short essays on topics such as the Reformation, Puritanism, the decline of magic, the law, the university, childhood, old age and death. They are something of a mixed bag. It was probably a mistake to reprint old reviews of what was then recent work on the Reformation without any reference to what has happened since, notably the exciting new research on the struggle for the Reformation in the council-chambers and the streets of German cities. On the other hand, the review articles on the social history of crime and of the law, and of death, do deal with the state of these topics at the moment, while the older discussions of Philippe Ariès on childhood and of Barrington Moore’s ‘flawed masterpiece’, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, have lost none of their interest. Although it is something of a patchwork, it is difficult to think of a livelier critical introduction to that ‘new history’ which was coming of age in the early 1960s and is now emerging from its mid-life crisis.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences