Common Thoughts

Eamon Duffy

  • The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England by Keith Thomas
    Oxford, 393 pp, £20.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 924723 3

Keith Thomas prefaces this book with a quotation from the greatest of English medievalists, F.W. Maitland: ‘A century hence . . . by slow degrees the thoughts of our forefathers, their common thoughts about common things, will become thinkable once more.’ That aspiration, to recover ‘common thoughts about common things’, was a novelty in Victorian historiography. In the century since Maitland’s death, however, it has become for many historians the holy grail. The archives have always had a great deal to tell us about the doings of kings and kaisers. The common thoughts of common people about common things have proved far more elusive.

Thomas has never been much of a one for kings or kaisers, or, for that matter, much of a one for the archives. Religion and the Decline of Magic, the book which established him almost forty years ago as a leading historian, did make effective use of manuscript records, particularly from the church courts. But it owed far more to an awe-inspiring range of printed sources: 16th and 17th-century pamphlets, plays, ballads, sermons, almanacs and broadsheets, scientific, medical, astrological, demonological and theological treatises, published memoirs and letters. Printed pages by the ream, by the barrow and the lorry load, read, absorbed, distilled into authoritative generalisation, underpinned by tellingly quoted phrases.

This vast and voracious acquaintance with the printed trace of the early modern past is on display once again in The Ends of Life. It is a much shorter book, yet it attempts nothing less than an exploration of what the people of early modern England made of life, death, the universe and everything. Or almost everything. Thomas’s aim, he tells us, ‘is to identify some of the central values of the English people between the early 16th and late 18th centuries’ – the ends they pursued in life, their aspirations, hopes and objectives – in a ‘retrospective ethnography’ which approaches the early modern past ‘in the way an anthropologist might approach some exotic society’. But no anthropologist approaching an exotic society would announce in advance, as Thomas does here, that they proposed to leave religion out of the picture. Religion, he concedes, was indeed ‘central to the lives of many contemporaries’, but ‘is too large a subject to be adequately treated here’.

This is an extraordinary decision. In early modern England, most books and all wars were about religion. The period included the profound institutional, ideological and social revolution we call the Reformation, the end of institutionally gendered religious lifestyles in the abolition of monasticism, the destruction of almost the entire corpus of medieval art and music, and the reconstruction of day to day Christianity on a drastically reconfigured base. Quite apart from the positive role of religion in shaping, interpreting and enhancing daily life, the nation was rocked by rebellions and plunged into civil war for the sake of religion; a king was beheaded and a royal dynasty replaced. Even when the ideological and political monopoly of the state church weakened towards the end of the period, religion remained powerful enough to trigger waves of life-transforming ‘revival’. It created new styles of piety, even new churches, to give meaning to lives caught in the bewildering upheavals of the Industrial Revolution.

To leave religion out of a ‘retrospective ethnography’ of the period, therefore, is rather like attempting a history of Europe in the 1930s without any discussion of Communism or Fascism. But, in fact, religion is not entirely absent from Thomas’s book. It is discussed in a final chapter, though only in order to establish that early modern people paid rather less attention to it than generally thought. In that chapter, on fame and the afterlife, Thomas considers attitudes to and beliefs about heaven and hell. This discussion mutates, revealingly, into a consideration of the desire for posthumous fame, and the quest for immortality via commemoration and memorialising. This, he suggests, weighed far more heavily with growing numbers of people than fading beliefs about an afterlife of bliss or torment. In this respect at least, he seems to suggest, this ‘exotic society’ was not really so very different from ours, in which religion matters hardly at all.

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