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.

In the early years of his career, Hill’s work was characterised by what has been described as a ‘crude, vulgar Marxism’, that is, a belief that historical change is the product of economic relationships between classes and that the materialist base determines the superstructure of social, intellectual and political developments. In this mode, Hill interpreted the events in England between 1640 and 1660 as a bourgeois revolution and identified Puritanism as a bourgeois ideology. He viewed the entire Early Modern period, as did Marx and Engels, as a transition from feudalism to capitalism, and though his first scholarly book, Economic Problems of the Church (1956), dealt with the vestiges of a declining agrarian economy, his main interests were the avatars of the rising mercantile world. Hill recognised the evolutionary nature of this transition, but he believed that the English Revolution marked the turning-point, a belief he repeats several times in his new book.

As he grew older, his explanatory emphasis changed from economics to society and culture, though it is difficult to document assertions to the effect that he abandoned his Marxian framework or the habits of mind that accompanied it. In a subsequent series of books and essays, Hill explored the matrix of ideas that underpinned Puritanism as a social movement. Departing from the stereotype that summarised it as ‘the haunting fear that somewhere, someone might be happy,’ he linked Puritanism to the most important factors for modernisation: mercantilism, literacy, the new science, urbanisation and the work ethic. His ‘English Revolution’ was implicitly a criticism of S.R. Gardiner’s standard ‘Puritan Revolution’, which had powered a drive toward religious toleration and Parliamentary supremacy. Hill’s revolutionaries were also Puritans, but of a different sort, radicals striking out against an economically backward, socially regressive and intellectually moribund crown and nobility. As with ‘bourgeois’, he used an elastic definition of ‘Puritan’ which considerably enlarged the groups who initiated these fundamental changes in English society and government, and whose activities and beliefs he detailed copiously and lovingly. This work culminated with the publication of God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970) which, if neither hagiography nor biography, was nevertheless a celebration of the individual who led England through its revolutionary testing time. It also marked the end of Hill’s identification of the Parliamentarians and their opposition to Royal absolutism as the Revolution.

Hill was now 58 and about to enter the most productive years of his career. They were characterised by two not altogether unconnected impulses. The first was to champion groups and individuals who placed personal freedom above political necessity; this resulted in his masterpiece, The World Turned Upside Down (1972). The second was the flowering of his interest in the great literary figures of the age, which yielded Milton and the English Revolution (1977) and A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People (1988), his book on Bunyan. Hill now turned violently against the mainstream of the Revolution he had spent decades illuminating and towards the radical fringe groups and iconoclastic individuals who posed extreme challenges to the social order and religious discipline that successive revolutionary governments attempted to maintain. Cromwell and lreton at Putney became as oppressive a power structure as Laud and Strafford had been at Whitehall. Hill called this history variously, ‘history from below’, ‘total history’, or the ‘history of the dispossessed’, though few of his subjects derived their social origins from within even the bottom half of 17th-ccntury society and most were so self-consciously unconventional as to defy generalisations based on their behaviour.

This work became part of a larger project in which Hill sought to represent the dispossessed throughout history. He identified himself with such ‘radicals’, once instructing a group of US scholars to turn their attention to the study of Native Americans, and in a spirit of cleansing self-criticism proclaimed: ‘One of the things I am most ashamed of is that for decades I proudly illustrated the spread of democratic ideas in 17th-century England by quoting the ringing Leveller declaration, “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he” ... Every he? Every man? What about the other 50 percent of the population?’ Here he may be anticipating the movement for children’s rights, as even the levellers were advocating only an adult franchise and adults comprised only about 55 per cent of the Early Modern population.

As a result of his astounding productivity there has been much speculation about Hill’s research methods. He is thought to work from a well-oiled wheel of index cards, a Rolodex that can be spun over and over, each time with new words, categories or people serving for the tabs. Because he is essentially an essay writer – many of his full-length books are actually collections of discrete essays – he can simply take the materials he has previously gathered, add the nuggets of his continued reading, and string the quotations together into a twenty-page exposition. This workmanlike procedure is aided by an unadorned style that allows for rapid composition. Admirers have praised his writing as non-professorial and accessible to ordinary people, even comparing it to Puritan ‘plain’ style, which developed in contrast to the conceits of the court preachers. This may be so, though the literary skills of Tawney and Thompson failed to make them unpopular. On both counts he is credited with an economy of effort, along with a work ethic that would have shamed even Weber’s Protestants.

This explanation undervalues his genius which, because unconventional, is often overlooked. It is in his raw materials rather than the finished products that Hill’s work is so extraordinary. It may seem a simple thing to rearrange piles of notecards to illuminate a second subject that is an off-shoot of a first, but Hill has done this hundreds of times. It is not simply that the cards he collected to detail scientific education in London, for example, could also be used as evidence of contemporary ideas of reason and rationality, or that the cards collected to reveal attitudes towards Archbishop Laud also revealed fears of the Antichrist. All these topics will have originated in the process of note-taking, and Hill’s imagination must have conjured up the subjects of dozens of articles and projects each time he read a 17th-century pamphlet. Moreover, it needed a prodigious memory to master his ever increasing stock; simply put, Hill is the human equivalent of a relational data-base program. Finally, his epigraphic technique displays deep insight into the subjects he illustrates. His eye was not for the merely apt quotation, but for the most apt, and this is a characteristic of immersion rather than of the superficiality of which he has been accused.

It is not altogether clear what the legacy of so much industry will be. Hill himself has jettisoned his early work, and though the historical sociologists have detected occasional movement in the corpse of the argument over the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it is mostly the settling of decayed bones. His activist Puritans have been better preserved, but in the last decade ecclesiastical historians have been stressing the continuities between Protestants and Catholics and the similarities between Anglicans and Puritans. Arminians are now proposed as the real theological revolutionaries, the crypto-Catholics as the modernisers. But the radical fringe of the revolutionary movement remains very much alive, even if some believe the Ranters never existed. Disarmingly, Hill frequently understates his objectives as being ‘to raise some questions which call for further investigation’, ‘to support a case’ or ‘to redress the balance’. These goals account for his onesidedness and have come to represent soft targets for radicals on the right, who wish to downplay the significance of the English Revolution and the social and intellectual transformations that dominated the 17th century. Inadvertently, he has provided them with much ammunition

Hill’s work has been subject to searching criticism. Throughout his career he has favoured monocausal explanations and false dichotomies, and 25 books give a lot of hostages to fortune. Thirty years ago Hugh Trevor-Roper exposed his methods of argumentation and documentation, complaining that his ‘scholarship is transformed into advocacy’ and that he approached his evidence with his ‘conclusions already determined’. Twenty years ago Hill’s scholarship was assaulted with unmatched ferocity by J.H. Hexter, who accused him of source mining and ‘lumping’ together decontextualised quotations, many of which were irrelevant or contradictory to the points they were supposed to be proving. Ten years ago, J.C. Davis offered a sustained rebuttal of his work on the Ranters, claiming that Hill’s standards for evaluating evidence were slipshod, that he accepted what he wished to believe and rejected what he didn’t

Hill has been immune to criticism – a habit of mind that has caused much misery in our century. Because of his own ideological motivations he regards the work of others as deriving from the same impulse. MacLachlan recounts an incident from the days of the Historian’s Group when Victor Kieman challenged the proposition, set forth in a paper by Hill, that Early Modern England was a feudal society. At the next meeting, after a carefully orchestrated counter-attack, Kiernan recanted his views and apologised for his deviationism. Again, Hill answered Hexter only ‘lest silence suggest I have nothing to say’ and then simply accused him of committing the same crimes. The sourcemining and lumping have continued unabated; indeed, Libert against the Law represents a regression. His contempt for revisionists who demolished so much of his simplistic dualism between a government and an opposition in 17th-century politics was epitomised in his statement that all he had learned from their work ‘was not to put “the” in front of “opposition” ’. In the days when debate was still a respected part of historical discourse, Hill was a powerful polemicist and those who view him as a kindly éminence have never felt his barbs.

It is no criticism to observe that all of his work was precisely anachronistic and profoundly unhistorical. Hill believed that history and historical education were powerful weapons in the ideological warfare that was a necessary part of the modern class struggle, which alone justified devoting a life to it. His work for the Open University and the WEA were proof that this was not lip service. Hill confidently asserted that the purpose of his research was to further the goals of his modern political agenda, which over his career traced an are from dogmatic Stalinism to radical individualism. Though the themes that dominate Liberty against the Law would once have been derided for their bourgeois sentimentality, they remain consistent with is intention to use history to liberate the present, and to regard it instrumentally rather than abstractly. These beliefs provide the passion that is on the surface of all his work, even if they also lead to a view of the 17th century that fulfils his wishes for the 20th. Milton may have been a republican, but he was no democrat. It might have occurred to someone as concerned as Hill has been with ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ that judging past lives by present standards is one example of it.