Rolling Stone

Peter Burke

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

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.

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