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Open Peer Review for the Humanities

Peter Lake and Steven Pincus, “The Strange Death of Political History”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The Strange and Frequent Death of Political History

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Peter Lake and Steve Pincus

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Traditional political history is dead and still dying.  Almost half a century ago Keith Thomas proclaimed in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement that historians had “lost their bearings.”  The problem was, he said, that “politics and the constitution … remained the central concern of academic historians.”  “Real history as past politics” was “a dying concept.”[1] More recently Keith Wrightson has written of “an established curriculum” prior to the 1960s, presumably a curriculum that focused heavily on politics and the constitution, that “in many respects restrictive and in some desiccated.”[2] The problem was that political history was necessarily the history of elites and elitist institutions that was necessarily partial.  Because it was partial, it failed to generate excitement among most readers of history.   That history, writes Olwen Hufton as a member of the generation coming of age in the 1950s was capable of generating polite interest but not historical passions.[3]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The pronouncements of the new historians of the 1960s and 1970s have achieved some of their ends.  Over two decades ago, Lynn Hunt observed, “Social history has over taken political history as the most important area of research in history.”[4] The proponents of the new social history called for a broader, bottom-up, and more sociological account of the past. These scholars turned to historical sociology, social theory, as well as new empirical, social-science methodologies in creating a fresh intellectual approach to history.   More recently, of course, cultural history has overtaken social history as the historical sub-discipline in which most doctoral research is conducted.  While literary theory has played an important role in shaping the ways in which cultural historians think about language, the most influential discipline directly or indirectly for the innovations of these scholars has been cultural anthropology.[5]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Practitioners of both the new social history and the new cultural history have been at one in denouncing (and moving speedily past) the traditional techniques, narratives, and perspectives of the old political history.  Tony Judt, certainly not an uncritical advocate of either the new social or the new cultural history, captured the widespread contempt for political history after the social-cultural turn.  “Traditional political history continues on its untroubled way,” he observed, “describing in detail the behaviour of ruling classes and the transformations which took place within them.  Divorced from social history, this remains, as ever, a form of historical writing adapted to the preservation of the status quo; it concerns itself with activities peculiar to the ruling group, activities of an apparently rational and self-justifying nature.”[6] Pierre Nora, whose political outlook is rather different, agrees that “the old political and intellectual framework that once shaped historical research is in disarray.”  While some practitioners of the old forms of historical inquiry persist in writing within those established genres their work is now “too flimsy to be of much use.”[7] Whatever their internecine differences, practitioners of both new historical sub-disciplines have come to view traditional political history as an essentially conservative and crabbed way of approaching an increasingly rich and diverse range of historical material.

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Permalink for this paragraph 0 To juxtapose generalisations like these with the recent historiography of seventeenth century England is to experience a sort of cognitive dissonance. For one might well argue that in the period since the 1970s to something like the present we have experienced something of a golden age for the writing of seventeenth century English political history; a golden age which perhaps equals in its quality and significance and even exceed in its archival, methodological and conceptual range the age of S. R. Gardiner and C. H. Firth.  To explain how and why this happened and why this extraordinary outbreak of intellectual energy has past unnoticed amongst historians working outside the field requires a little historiographical background.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 We can see recent historiography as a product of a series of dialectical exchanges between on the one hand social and then cultural history and on the other political history.  The efflorescence of political history writing in the last three decades is a product of two moments in those exchanges. The first move that dominated the historiography down to the 1960s consisted of a series of attempts to establish the real social and economic roots of a political narrative the outlines of which were taken to have been established by Gardiner. There were Marxist, (Hill) Christian socialist and Weberian, (Tawney, Stone) and high Tory (Trevor-Roper) versions of this project.  The narrative shape of these studies was framed by politics, and in particular by the English revolution, but their subject was not often directly political – but rather social/cultural/economic – some version of modernity, capitalism, of affective or acquisitive individualism. Insofar as these concerns generated political or administrative history it took the form of attempts to test various hypothesises about the nature or causes of the revolution. Two prime examples of this are Gerald Aylmer’s books on the King’s and the State’s servants and David Underdown’s Pride’s Purge (1971). This last was a great work of political history but it was prompted by an attempt to empirically test various claims about the social origins and class interests of the real revolutionaries and a great deal of the resulting book was dedicated to answering that question. But to answer it, to identify the real revolutionaries so that he could investigate their social profile Underdown found that he had to write a detailed political narrative, set both in Westminster with the army and in localities and that’s what one tends to  remember and value in the book. But at the time that was not the big point.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 This was political history in the service of various social interpretations of political events and various linked attempts to use the resulting social explanations of these events to produce accounts of long range, epochal  socio-economic. Here was political history used to address wider social-economic subjects/problematics; problematics which, while they might leave certain political events at the centre of the account, were not interested in those events  as events, that is to say as occasions for or subjects of various sorts of political narrative. Rather the events were to serve as markers for other deeper and more significant changes.  Politics had become a mere epiphenomenon. The political narrative could now be taken as read; the other phenomena needed to be analyzed or described.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 What revisionism represented was a self conscious break away from the emerging agenda that saw politics as the visible consequence of deep socio-structural phenomena; a radical declaration of the relative, indeed in many ways of the absolute autonomy of the political from the social and the economic. We remain committed to notion that revisionism was a necessary and in many ways a good thing. Many of its negative claims might be thought to be right, and even if you don’t  agree with a great deal of its positive claims and remain deeply irritated by what we have come to think of as its polemically generated blind spots,  we still think that it did a great service in making the political narrative interesting and open again. Certainly, the shock to the system applied by revisionism helped to produce the efflorescence of political history writing since the 1970s.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Just as revisionist historians constructed a political history in which politics had nothing to do with social or economic change, so the new social historians constructed a history of society that was indifferent to the state.  By the 1990s it was clear to one of the New Social History’s most creative practitioners that with all of its creative energy and sophisticated scholarship, the New Social History had given rise to “an excessive specialisation and compartmentalisation.”[8] When he came to review the achievements of the New Social History, Bernard Bailyn commented that “many of the most energetic historians have forsaken the general goals of history for technical problem-solving.”[9] Lawrence Stone, once an enthusiastic proponent of the new social history, bemoaned that it had become “isolated, inward-looking and narrow.”[10] One of the most important consequences of this compartmentalization among social historians has been the marginalization of politics.  Many social historians have described a society in which the state is either non-existent or merely acted upon by society.  Many have sought to re-imagine periodization by explicitly rejecting chronologies defined by political events such as regime changes or ministerial revolutions.  Peter Laslett, in many ways the father of the new social history, complained of historians’ “wearisome insistence on cataclysm, crisis, and revolution.”[11] The overall effect has been, as Geoff Eley and Keith Neild noted in their comparative analysis of English and German social historical output has been “the separation of social history as a coherent practice from those of labour and political history.  When they have discussed politics, implicitly or explicitly, Eley and Neild note that “they [social historians] have pre-supposed a radically institutionalized understanding of politics.”[12]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Much work in early modern economic history has also minimized the impact of politics, political institutions and the state.  Despite the significant impact that the new institutional economics and the seminal writings of the Nobel Prize winning Douglass North has had in other fields of economic inquiry, early modern economic historians by and large persist in denying the state any creative role.[13] The innovative work of the Cambridge Population group focused on the longue-duree, paying little attention to the effects of political changes.  Its most celebrated member, E. A. Wrigley has insisted that his own paradigm-shifting reimagining of England’s economic divergence, its precocious shift from an organic economy to one based on minerals, had everything to do with the fact that in England there was “abundant coal close to the surface.”  Wrigley, in other words, has insisted “on the neutrality of the new sources of growth with respect to social and political context.”[14] It is not, however, only the Neo-Malthusians who have minimized the role of politics in Britain’s economic past.  Robert Allen’s exciting new British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective advancing a new high-wage theory of British divergence, sees virtually no role for the state.[15]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 As these sorts of claims were being made in the late 1960s and early 1970s Geoffrey Elton produced his defence of Political history as what he regarded as the quintessence of the discipline, by which he meant of course his own practice. If like us you find some of the programmatic claims made on behalf of both the new social and cultural histories somewhat grandiloquent and even excessive, you need only to return to some of Elton’s more expansive comments to realise what they were reacting to and against. At the very least we are dealing here with competing, and equally ideogically and egotistically charged, megalomanias

Permalink for this paragraph 0 There is of course a certain irony that since the  1970s and 1980s, social history’s tenure as queen of the historical sciences which was supposed to last for decades, indeed in some circles was supposed to mark a definitive epistemic and moral shift that would fundamentally reorient the discipline and the world, has been cut tragically short by the rise of The New Cultural History.  Such is the rapidity with which the wheel of historiographical fortune now revolves. And there is, of course, a sense in which we are all cultural historians now. In the narrow sub field of early modern British history I think that even the revisionists can be seen in retrospect to have been practicing a species of cultural history. Their renewed emphasis on unearthing what they presented as the shared assumptions about how the political system either worked or ought to work, about how politics ought to be conducted and power exercised, might well be construed as a move from ideology (or at least a certain view of ideology) to culture, based on a broadened and thickened sense of the sources, the institutional and social locales in and through which contemporaries might be found thinking about politics. Insofar as revisionists did make that move they did so without adverting to the fact, and often as not chose to present what they were doing in far more starkly empirical, even positivist terms. And this meant that the turn to something called political culture was more often than not presented as an anti or post revisionist move. (One of the major weaknesses in revisionism, and one of the great inhibitors to really fruitful debate about its achievements and failings, was its complete refusal to talk at any length about its methodological assumptions or procedures or to admit to or discuss its over arching interpretative sweep or trajectory.  Such stuff was for wimps who refused to get their hands dirty in the archives, real historians just read sources and told the truth about what they said. Again we might detect here the dead hand of Eltonian empiricism.)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 At its most extreme, of course, the turn to cultural history represents a turn away from both the political and the social and a remove into the realm of discourse. But insofar as the cultural turn represents a concern with meaning, and indeed with both media and messages, with what contemporaries made of the world based on the broadest array of sources through which their sense of reality might be reconstructed it might be taken to be an entirely good thing; it has led or ought to lead political historians of even the most traditional sort to attempt to historicise their sense of the values, assumptions and expectations in which past political actors made their choices. Again, this was a basic revisionist impulse; Mark Kishlansky’s increasingly ‘royalist’ recuperation of the world as Charles I saw it had entirely honourable origins in his alarm at Conrad Russell’s transhistorical tendency to mark Charles out of ten for his performance as a ‘politician’, Kishlansky’s point being that Charles was not a politician but a king and that if we were going properly to make sense of  his political choices we had to make a concerted effort to reconstruct just what that meant to him (and to others) at the time. That impulse seems to us to be right and might be thought to underlie the massive researches compressed in Kevin Sharpe’s about to be completed trilogy on images of power.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Again, confronted by the revisionist repudiation of nearly all printed sources as somehow tainted, historians of the English revolution like Jason Peacey and Ann Hughes  have adopted many of the techniques and approaches of certain sorts of cultural historian ad historians of the book to reposition print, in its multifarious forms, somewhere near the centre of the political and communicative practises, the attempts to mobilise various publics,  that rendered the events of the 1640s so unlike anything that had gone before. But in doing that they brought to the task a fine grained knowledge of and engagement with the political narrative, of who was doing what to whom and why. How you describe the result — political history certainly, but also religious, cultural and even social as well – might be a moot point but that is precisely the sort of mixing and matching between historical modes that is required to write political history now, and in particular to recuperate the English revolution as an event of real interest and significance.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The result of all this is or ought to be a renewed, or at least newly sharpened, sense  that there can be no political history outside culture, that is to say that the methodological individualism, the assumptions about the nature of past political actors, their identities, aims and actions, as if not, in some unexamined way, just like us, then certainly subject to the sorts of transhistorical rules of thumb, the basic assumptions about political behaviour, which underpinned so much,  for instance, of Conrad Russell’s work, just won’t do anymore. But we would also like to argue that there can or at least should be no culture without politics; that is to say events and their outcomes, both intended but particularly unintended had and have consequences and studies of political culture, indeed of ‘culture’ more generally conceived,  that are not deeply and self consciously embedded in political narratives of one sort or another seem to us to be deeply problematic at best.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In many ways, therefore, cultural history can be conceived as merely an extension of traditional historical good practice and as long as it is accompanied with an equally traditional exercise in source criticism its effects can only be beneficial. (If there is a sense in which we are all cultural historians now, there is also a sense in which we all are or at least ought to be a certain sort of Eltonian as well.)  Too often, however, the cultural history enterprise has been neither marketed in such relatively modest terms nor limited by such traditional methodological constraints. There is a debate to be had as to whether the very nature of the term culture privileges consensus, the recuperation and explication of shared values and assumptions. Our sense is that that does not have to be the case and that if the study of political culture is properly embedded in the study of events we can emerge with a sense of the way an existing repertoire of tropes, narratives, symbols and sources of meaning and power could be invoked, appropriated, deployed and manipulated, reinvented and contested, by different groups and individuals to serve a variety of different sometimes mutually exclusive or even self consciously opposed purposes. On this account, as a number of leading social historians have noted there is a politics of the parish and the household as well as of the court and the parliament, and given the variegated nature of state structures, the interpenetration of institutional, social and religious power to be found in early modern England and the consequent difficulty of deciding quite where the state ended and something we might want to call society began, telling even the most local sort of  political  story almost always means having to have recourse to the big political picture, and, of course, vice verse. This is to place the emphasis on the political elements of political culture and to insist that even the most highly structural and structured analytical accounts must in some sense proceed from and speak to a variety of different narratives about who was doing what to whom; about how various sorts of political, social, institutional, emotional power were both claimed and used. This is to embrace the expansion of the political to encompass a range of social, ideological and emotional  realms usually excluded from the purview of the political historian; it is to see as inherently political the exercise of  a variety of different sorts of power located within the household, the church and the marketplace; to attempt to subject the exercise of those forms of power to the narrative techniques and concerns of the political historian and, at every turn, to relate the resulting  narratives to one another.

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Permalink for this paragraph 0 The late 1960s also saw another self consciously historicist attempt to frame the study of the way contemporaries thought about politics and the state, this one based not on an essentially anthropological notion of culture but rather on a philosophically grounded notion of political thought.  While Quentin Skinner’s early methodological pronouncements promised the possibility of a political history with ‘political thought’ reconceived as political and polemical argument somewhere near its centre, his later practice has moved in quite another direction and in fact the actual history of the state as an institution and locus of political contention and action has been strangely absent from recent work in the History of Political Thought. While Quentin Skinner’s early methodological pronouncements Skinner’s Liberty Before Liberalism posited a neo-Roman culture that was juxtaposed to a Hobbesian theory of the state.  The Neo-Romans prized the active citizen and public virtue as against state or bureaucratic activity.  John Pocock has argued in The Machiavellian Moment that the intellectual energy of Augustan thought was targeted against the financial revolution and the state it generated. Mark Goldie and Linda Colley maintained in an important and widely influential review essay that, throughout the eighteenth century, political argument focused narrowly on issues of religion and the ancient constitution – there was next to no argument about the state or political economy, of if there was this did not count as Political Thought. To that extent the Cambridge school might be thought to have generated a history of political thought with a good deal of the politics left out.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The same might be said about recent attempts to write the cultural history of the long – it must be said very long –  post reformation period, which on some conceptions now stretches from some point in the early sixteenth century  into an indeterminate point in the early to middle eighteenth century.  There can be no doubt that a reconceptualisation of the period brings with it certain advantages. Indeed one of us (Lake) has a certain interpretative stake in and liking for the notion of ‘the post reformation’, and indeed rather prefers it to the early modern as an appellation for the period down to the mid seventeenth century, although he would insist that it is as much a political as a religious or cultural category; a notion of the period defined as much by the effects of the reformation on the ways in which politics was conceived and conducted as by the various cultural, intellectual, affective impacts of religious change, all of which were anyway inextricably linked together and best studied within a densely multifaceted (in the broadest sense of the term) political narrative .  There are also very decided advantages in sometimes taking the (very) long view; by doing so we can perceive and study  certain institutional, cultural and indeed political structures and tensions running through that period, all of them in some way consequent  upon ‘the reformation’ and its uneven and episodic impact, across the period and the British Isles; structures and tensions that investigations conducted over shorter time frames or within less generously conceived geographical contexts might either miss altogether or not see so clearly. But  the adoption of  the (very) long post reformation as a basic unit of study has also prompted a quite remarkable tendency to disappear the events of the 1640s and 1650s, events formerly known as the English revolution (and still our preferred term) ; either to write as though it did not happen or happened only in the epiphenomenal sphere of  the political, and thus did not matter much,  or to collapse it into something called the second age of the English reformation. What we have here is a coalescence of certain trends and tendencies within a certain sort of cultural history and some of the worst effects of revisionist political history and the result  seems to us to be at the very least unfortunate. Moreover, the fact that such developments and claims can and have passed almost unnoticed is a sign of the divorce between political and other types of history and of the deleterious effects of that divorce on the practise of a variety of different sorts of history.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In many ways much imperial historiography has rendered English/British politics marginal.  This is in part because imperial historiography has by and large assumed a mercantilist consensus, thus rendering debates about the proper role of the empire irrelevant.  But it is also, in part, because historians of empire have had great difficulty narrating political change.  Much of the recent historiography about the Empire has sought to explain when and why the empire became authoritarian.  In their eagerness to answer this question, historians have offered a bewildering variety of mutually exclusive answers.  Alison Games, in her important Web of Empire has pointed to the 1650s as the moment in which the English lost their cosmopolitan impulse and began to promote a dirigiste empire.  Stephen Saunders Webb, in a number of creative and iconoclastic studies has highlighted the 1670s and early 1680s as a decisive turning towards a centralized militaristic empire run by Governors General.  For Edmund Morgan, T.H. Breen and J. H. Elliott the fundamental break occurred in the 1760s.  Sir Christopher Bayly has highlighted the post-1783 period as the imperial meridian in which the British Empire ceased to be commercial, maritime and free and adopted an authoritarian mantle.  The point is not only that historians who seek to write political narratives should read and engage with literatures beyond their own narrowly define periods – although that is a point worth making and repeating.  But the point is that these scholars can only imagine political change happening through epistemic shifts.  They can describe a change but not explain it.  And this is because they have not developed the conceptual or methodological tools to narrate political conflict.  And so one of the things that we are saying is that it would be a good idea to put the politics back into each of these fields of study. The result would not be a return to the old political history, but a history with a sense of the political, and of political narrative, the centrality of events and outcomes, the political and polemical logics and institutional structures they help create back somewhere near the centre of the account.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 It is perhaps worth observing that there is one thing that unites many of the historiographical developments under discussion here and that is a basic anti-Marxism. The origins of a great deal of the Laslett inspired new social history, of the (also Laslett inspired) Cambridge school of political thought and indeed of central features of John Pocock’s work. Quentin Skinner recently recalled that “the most novel thing I was trying to say” in his seminal methodological essay “Meaning and Understanding,” was “that it was meant to be a critique of the then very prevalent Marxist theories of ideology.”  Skinner was emphatically making “an anti-Marxist point.”[16] Skinner’s account is  hardly surprising given the pronounced anti-Marxism of Peter Laslett, in his activities both as an intellectual and as one of the founding fathers of the new social history.  [17]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 It is too well known to bear repeating that close to the centre of  the revisionist school of political history, lay in a visceral and deep seated, but also highly self conscious and sophisticated, reaction against central aspects of Marxist historical writing and in particular the works of Christopher Hill. Indeed an anti-pathy to Hill and all his works was one of the few things that the often very different historiographical concerns and styles of a range of revisionist scholars, from Blair Worden to Kevin Sharpe and from John Morrill to Conrad Russell held in common.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 That basic anti-Marxist reaction which had its roots in the fifties and early sixties was compounded by the failure of various attempts to connect the social, the economic and the political through state action and economic planning in the late post war period; failures which, coming together in late 60s early 70s prompted a general disillusionment with the state’s capacity to guide the economy and ensure social improvement and prosperity.  Certainly scepticism (on both the left and the right) about the constructive efficacy of the state had a decisive effect on the academy.  On the political left, disillusionment with the state’s capacity to deliver the goods, scepticism about the state’s ability to create a Great Society, led to a move into various sorts of identity politics. Historians in a wide range of sub-disciplines felt free to construct stories about the past in which the state and narratives around or concerning the state of various sorts played little or no active or constructive role.[18]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 This is not to argue that a common political agenda can be attributed to all of the these historiographical movements, still less that all or  perhaps even any of the major players within them can be meaningfully described as ‘conservative’. Nor is it to argue that we all should suddenly become Marxists again. Our common commitment to the importance and (relative) autonomy of the political would not allow either of us to do that. There were and are very good reasons to reject central elements in the Marxist and sub Marxist reading of the period.  But it may also be the case that a number of potentially valuable or interesting interpretative babies got thrown out with the determinist, economistic Marxist bath water.  Certain approaches and areas of interest and analysis got put off limits; in rejecting the Marxist attempt to integrate all aspects of history into one uni-directional master narrative various integrative impulses got lost, the subject fragmented into various sub fields and political history got put into a separate box, all too often labelled boring, old fashioned and epiphenomenal.

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Permalink for this paragraph 0 And so that is what we are on about. But if there has been a marginalisation of the political within early modern studies, there has also been a marginalisation of the early modern within the larger historiographical universe. In part this is a consequence of the always shifting target of ‘modernity’ and the increasing dominance of history departments by the history of the twentieth century. There have been over the past few years a number of discussions and panels at the conference addressing ‘the crisis in early modern British studies’. These have been occasioned for the most part by the conversion of a good number of early modern history jobs into something else. This has been perceived as a largely Armerican phenomenon but of late it seems that it is becoming a feature of the historical profession in Britain too, where the imperative to provide anything like comprehensive coverage of  the early modern period, and particularly of early modern British history is becoming increasingly weak. Certainly what used to be an unchallenged assumption now has to be fought for. We think that it is worth observing that even in Britain, but  even more so in America, this problem about British studies is a subset of an even wider issue about early modern studies in general . And we think that the marginalisation of the political (broadly conceived) has something to do with that.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Historical scholarship in the past several generations has sought to demolish a variety of grand narratives – narratives about the transition from feudalism to capitalism, about the disenchantment of the world, about the emergence of the bureaucratic state, about the decline of courtly culture and of honor societies.  The problem is that all of these narratives focused attention on the early modern period.  The consequence is that many history faculties and departments in both the UK and North America now see little or no point in retaining the early modern as a focus of instruction and scholarship.  Why have early modernists in a history department if all the really important changes happened, say, after the outbreak of the first world war?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The problem, as Bernard Bailyn explained two decades ago in reference to both early modern British and early American historiography, is that “narratives that once gave meaning to the details have been undermined and discredited with the advance of technical scholarship, and no new narrative structures have been constructed to replace the old.”[19] The consequence, we now know, is that scholars and undergraduate lecturers either fall back on old narratives, or they ignore political history altogether. Bailyn’s conclusion  that the challenge now is “how to out the story together again, now with a complexity and analytic dimension never envisioned before”[20] is one that we might share.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 But for the his use of the singular noun ‘story’, as though there was or can only one be one unitary story to be told. In making a case for a return to something like grand narratives, or, as one of us would prefer to put it, longer term problematics, we do not want to endorse such an assumption. Our claim, then, at its broadest, is that we need a return to grand narratives (plural), or longer term problematics but to any one version or variety thereof . We are precisely not advocating a return to any particular grand narrative – Marxist, Weberian, or Foucauldian for example – but for a return to think about larger stories about why the early modern, or events in the early modern period, might be thought to matter.   Different  narratives or problematics about different subjects would no doubt end up having different chronologies and different causal structures.  But the time has surely come to move beyond destroying older stories.  The time has come to construct new ones.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 There are a number of ways to address this situation.  We want to suggest two possible approaches (as it were, one each). One involves starting where revisionism stopped and replacing the revisionist obsession with causes with a concern with consequences. If we assume for a moment that both the reformation and the the events often referred to as the British civil wars or English revolution  lacked long term causes and represented the realisation of no one’s intentions or plans, and that the consequences of those  events were for the most unanticipated and unintended, that still leaves the question of the nature and extent of those consequences unaddressed. Indeed the extent to which they were the response to no long term crisis, the answer to or product of deep contradications of systemic forces, and to which no one wanted them (as least as they turned out) surely means that their consequences must have been considerable and traumatic. And so it seems to us that the revisionist denial of longer term causes, their emphasis on contingency, happenstance and cock up brings with it or ought to bring with a concern with the long term consequences of the necessarily traumatic events with whose causes they have been obsessed. The field can already be seen to be moving in that direction; Kevin Sharpe’s massive three volume study of images of power is in many ways a coordinated account of the consequences of the reformation and the revolution; a good deal of Alex Walsham’s work is an account of the consequences of the reformation albeit not of the revolution and Tim Harris’s recent two volume study of the restoration and the revolution might be cast in this light too. So too might Mark Knight’s work  on the political culture of the late seventeenth century.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 The possibilities, outlined in part by scholars who have focused on political culture, for a synthetic and integrative history attuned to a broadly reconceived concept of “the political” offer one such avenue. Such a history would need to move well beyond a focus on politics as conventionally understood – beyond the traditional emphasis on constitutions, elections, political elites, administration, and the endless, routine competition for political power (whether viewed from the bottom-up or from the top-down).   Rather, at the latter end of the early modern period, the history we envision would engage the political precisely through some of its most synthetic themes and biggest problems – the foundations of which are already established in a burgeoning historical and social science literature:  e.g., the development of the modern state, the nature of contemporary democracy, the role of the rule of law, internationalism and the problem of sovereignty, and the relationship of nationalism and modern conceptions of citizenship.  One particularly good place to see the possibility and necessity of this kind of integrative approach to the political is the revival of interest in the history of the state and its all-important interconnections with society.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Recent trends in both the social and cultural history have gone a long to meeting such an agenda more than half way. Steve Hindle’s State and Social Change in Early Modern England has in many ways been crucial in this regard. On this view, the state becomes a negotiated space, in which power is constantly being re-described and re-negotiated.[21] Or put somewhat differently the state ceases to be something outside or other, which is always trying to impose its will and exercise control over something else – ‘society’ or the localities or some similar locution. Rather various organs and judicial and administrative arms and functions of the state provide the means in and through local interests and individuals sought to do things to and for one another.  The implications of this interpretative strategy are twofold.  First, some cultural and social historians now acknowledge the difficulty of writing any historical account without the state.  They have risen to the challenge by developing a sophisticated non-Weberian and non-Marxist account of state formation.  Second, because state power is always negotiated, they have succeeded in shifting attention from state actors, to other, previously less noticed, parties to the negotiation.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 But there others way to conceive of the state.  State power is most certainly negotiated.  When we pay our taxes, we do not do so because there is a soldier at our door threatening us if we do not pay.  But such negotiations and bargainings always take place in the shadow of the ultimate coercive powers and capabilities of law and statecraft.  Negotiation and bargaining takes place ineluctably in an institutional context.  Some states in some places and in some times needed to negotiate more, while others in other places and times have had more coercive authority.  In early seventeenth century England, collection for state subsidies depended heavily on self-assessments of the worth of the land and on locals collecting revenue from their neighbours.   There was a very small state bureaucracy and no standing army that could coerce compliance.  By the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by contrast, the British state had developed more effective techniques to coerce compliance.  The work of Michael Braddick and John Brewer has highlighted in different ways the emergence of a fiscal-military state that had coercive capacity even if it rarely deployed that capacity.[22] There is, in other words a history to be written of the growth of the relative coercive as opposed to the negotiated power of the state.  That history need not be unidirectional – the coercive power of the state changed substantively over time.  Nor is the history of the coercive power of the state identical with the history of the nation-state.  Local governments, infrastructures, semi-private but state-sanctioned groups all coerced.  And, of course the British Imperial state took on extensive coercive capacities from its re-establishment in 1696.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The coercive state, as we are describing it, was not a neutral adjudicatory state.  Nor was it autonomous from social contest or social action (where decisions affecting everyday life are devolved upon state bureaucrats).  We are describing a state people actively fought to control precisely because they knew that the state is not neutral with respect to the good life.  The political stakes were high precisely because people disagreed about important things: whether the state should impose a single religious communion on its subjects, whether the state should involve itself in expensive wars abroad, whether the state should develop a coercive centralized and hierarchical empire or should plump for an integrated commercial one.  Nor are we describing a state in which most decisions affecting the everyday life of subjects or citizens are devolved upon apolitical state bureaucrats.   Subjects and citizens turned to the state because its coercive power can aid in implementing a particular social and ideological vision.  People took sides in the political contests that shook England from the 1620s through the 1780s and beyond because they understood that whoever controlled the state could have a profound impact on the everyday lives of the majority of their subjects.  What both these suggestions would produce would be political narratives of widely different sorts, but in some important senses of the term political nonetheless.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Finally, these new ‘political’ narratives would lend themselves to a  comparative approach.  The older political narratives, the narratives that the new historians of the 1960s and 1970s found so stultifying, were island stories.  They assumed the uniqueness of English/British historical development.  We now know that England/Britain was much more closely associated with European politics, society and culture in a variety of ways.  One of the first questions that any methodologically self-conscious historian should ask is whether the phenomenon that she is investigating is unusual. How does it compare with developments in other places at the same time?[23] J. H. Elliott has deployed this approach to great benefit in a series of remarkable studies.[24] In a different vein, the question of why England developed a precociously capitalist society as against its European competitors motivates the dense political narrative of Bob Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution.  Not all comparisons need, of course, highlight British precociousness.  In his Case for the Enlightenment, for example, John Robertson deploys the comparative method to demonstrate that “the Enlightenment did not have a significant presence in England.”[25] By forcing oneself to make comparisons, one is forced to become more self-conscious about the units being compared.  Comparative history leads to a healthy methodological self-consciousness not dissimilar from that experienced in learning a foreign language or formal logic.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Comparative approaches also allow early modern British political historians to highlight in stark relief the importance of their subject.  Whether by pure accident, because of some deep social or economic structures, Britain did develop an early and sophisticated party system, it did develop an Empire that was different from any that had come before, it was precocious in developing a state with statutory religious toleration, and although it may not have developed the first modern economy, the British state was (uniquely?) capable of developing and sustaining a military machine that sustained it through almost two centuries of constant warfare from 1642-1840s.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 V

Permalink for this paragraph 0 One of the consequences of the approaches suggested here might well be a more elastic definition of the early modern period. As the holy grail of the modern recedes into the twentieth and twenty first centuries, it is perhaps inevitable that the realm of the early modern should expand, and certainly early modern historians should feel free to pursue, into periods once definitively on the other side of the divide between the early modern and the modern and thus entirely off limits for this sort of analysis central themes from their own primary or original periods and concerns.   This was a period in which there was a changing but vital relationship between religion and politics; a problematic centred on the unstable  relationship between dynastic politics, reformation and confessional identity, currently centred in studies of the sixteenth century might be thought to retain its salience and analytic bite well into the eighteenth century; a concern with the advent and continuing impact of de facto and then de iure religious pluralism, centred not merely on the divisions within English Protestantism but also on Catholicism might similarly be thought to untie the concerns of the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with those of the nineteenth;  Boyd Hilton’s studies linking commerce, religion and polity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, or Colin Matthew’s important biography of Gladstone that highlights the central place of religious and moral concerns in his Liberal politics similarly invite connections with the earlier period.  In social and economic terms this was the period in which Britain moved successfully from a Malthusian to a Smithian economy.  This was also the period that saw the emergence, reconfiguration and ultimately the beginning of the dismantling of the British Empire.   In many ways this long early modern period also saw a series of maneuvers and countermaneuvers to construct, redefine, and sometimes restrict the realm of public debate.  And, of course, the period from the Reformation through the end of World War I was a period defined by the presence of popular politics but not yet universal suffrage.  This was then an epoch in which much of politics was about defining and constructing publics.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 We are precisely not suggesting that the period from the reformation to the second or third reform acts be seen as a unitary whole. Nor are we suggesting some mad land grab by early modernists for the whole of the nineteenth century. What we are suggesting is that various long term problematics, or if you like grand narratives, can be legitimately constructed between our period, i.e. the conventional early modern period, and what came later. The result would not necessarily be a return to a  discourse about the origins of modernity but it might be a way to persuade people outside the period that what happened within it mattered and needs to be studied and taught, even in the twenty first century.


[1] Keith Thomas, “The Tools and the Job,” Times Literary Supplement, 7 April 1966, pp. 275-276.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [2] Keioth Wrightson, “The Enclosure of English social history,” in Adrian Wilson (ed), Rethinking Social History.  (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 59.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [3] Olwen Hufton, “What is religious history now?,” in David Cannadine (editor), What is History Now? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 57.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [4] Lynn Hunt, “History, Culture and text,” in Hunt ed. The New Cultural History.  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 1.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [5] Tony Judt, “A Clown in Regal Purple,” History Workshop, No. 7 (Spring 1989), pp. 85, 87-88; Hunt, “History, Culture, Text,” pp. 10-11.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [6] Judt, “A Clown in Regal Purple,” p. 87.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [7] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History,” in Nora (editor), Realms of Memory.  Translated by Arthur Goldhammer.  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 6.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [8] Wrightson, “Enclosure,” pp. 61, 68.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [9] Bernard Bailyn, “The Challenge of Modern Historiography,” American Historical Review 87: 1 (February 1982), p. 6.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [10] Lawrence Stone, “The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History,” Past and Present.  No. 85 (November 1979), p. 8.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [11] Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost.  Second Edition.  (London: Methuen, 1971), p. 253.  Originally published in 1965.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [12] Geoff Eley and Keith Neild, “Why does social history ignore politics?” Social History.  5: 2 (1980) , pp. 264, 267.  In many ways the historical trajectory of Paul Slack’s work proves the exception here.  He has always been interested in the interaction between state and society.  This has been the consistent theme of his work on the poor law, plague, and improvement.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [13] Douglass North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Douglass North and Barry Weingast, “Credible Commitments:

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [14] E. A. Wrigley, Continuity and Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 118); E. A. Wrigley, Poverty, Progress and Population.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 66; E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871.  (London: Edward Arnold, 1981).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [15] Robert C. Allen, Britain’s Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [16] “Quentin Skinner on Meaning and Method,” in The Art of Theory: Conversations in Political Philosophy.  On-line journal, http://www.artoftheory.com/quentin-skinner-on-meaning-and-method/ accessed 12 October 2012.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [17] Cf his review of  C. B. Macpherson’s Political Theory of Possessive Individualism in which Laslett denounced Macpherson for having come to “thoroughly unrealistic and occasionally unhistorical conclusions” because of his Marxist convictions.  Macpherson was, Laslett concluded, “a dogmatic economic sociologist of a familiar but refined Marxian cast, rather than … a political theorist, a philosopher or an historian, social or intellectual.”Peter Laslett, “Market Society and Political Theory,” Historical Journal, VII No. 1 (1964), pp. 150-154.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [18] See similar point made by Lawrence Stone in “Revival of Narrative,” p. 14.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [19] Bailyn, “Challenge of Modern Historiography,” p. 7.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [20] Bailyn, “Challenge of Modern Historiography,” p. 24.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [21] Steve Hindle, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England 1550-1640.  (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).  Hindle has developed some ideas hinted at in Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680.  (London: Unwin Hyman, 1982)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [22] John Brewer, Sinews of Power; Michael J. Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England.  (CUP, 2000); Michael J. Braddick, The Nerves of State.  (Manchester University Press, 1996).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [23] Comparisons need not preclude entangled histories.  This point was made by Marc Bloch long ago: Marc Bloch, “Pour une histoire compares des societees europeenes,” in Melanges Historiques.  (Paris: SEVPEN, 1963), Vol. I, pp. 16-40, esp. 22-24.  We do not endorse the position that comparative history and entangled history are mutually exclusive approaches, see Eliga H. Gould, “Entangled Histories, Entangled Worlds,” AHR Vol. 112 No. 3, pp. 764-786.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [24] J.H. Elliott, “Comparative History,” from Historia a debate, Carlos Barra, ed. (La Coruña 1995); J. H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World.  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); J. H. Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [25] John Robertson, The Case for the Enlightenment.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 42.  It should be noted that Professor Robertson makes his case by suggesting that “there is a sense in which in England modernity preempted Enlightenment.”

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