A political crisis in need of drama

Reading Revolutions - Remapping Early Modern England
March 30, 2001

In all kinds of ways, appearances notwithstanding, maps are the subjective creations of cartographers and their times. Kevin Sharpe's map of early modern England takes the form of a volume of essays - his second - no less polemical and hard-hitting than its predecessor but different in its nature. It blends the author's dissatisfaction with the way things are in 17th-century studies with exhortations about the way he thinks they should be, pointing to gaps in the field. Sharpe emphasises the importance of the royal court. He turns to neglected sources - James I's poetry and biblical exegeses and Charles I's prayers, for example - to remap a landscape that was once so familiar. And theory and methodology are foregrounded here with unmistakable prominence.

Above all, Sharpe makes a plea for historians to break out of the conventional mould and to recast political history as the study of the culture of politics. Seventeenth-century revisionism is now judged by one of its chief exponents as austere and sterile. "To read some revisionist history is like watching a film without its noisy, dramatic soundtrack, to see politics reduced to a series of silent moves" he says. Conrad Russell comes in for much criticism here for what is taken to be a blinkered approach to 17th-century England. Others, too (Nicholas Tyacke and J. G. A. Pococke), are found wanting. The ideologies and rhetoric drained out of the subject matter of political history, Sharpe insists, ought to be reinstated and history needs to join forces with other disciplines to exploit art and literature as rewarding ways of entering the cultural past. This book fairly reverberates with new historicism and reader-response theory and Sharpe often takes his cue from writers outside the discipline such as Roy Strong and Lisa Jardine. Convinced of the necessity of interdisciplinarity for a fuller understanding of his field, Sharpe relishes his own placing within a school of research rather than within a single-subject university department.

The fruits of such interdisciplinarity are to be found here in discussions of paintings and engravings (a proliferating commercial art form in the early 17th century), and of written texts of all kinds (including those long familiar to source-mining historians). How not to practise interdisciplinarity is underlined in some of Sharpe's acerbic verdicts. Elizabeth Skerpan is roundly rebuked for retailing outworn and discredited historical cliches. A volume of essays on The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London , 1576-1649 is written off as a project whose promise far exceeds its performance.

Christopher Hill and J. H. Hexter are despatched as has-beens. Even Patrick Collinson, the usually unassailable doyen of historians of Puritanism, comes in for mild criticism. The cutting edge is always there in this book, but since its contents were assembled from material produced at different times, there is some duplication. Particularly concerning the English Republic of the 1650s -what is reissued here has already been overtaken by the work of Sean Kelsey, David Norbrook and others.

Sharpe's new kind of early modern, political history still centres on the elite - though by no means exclusively on monarchy and Parliament. He revisits Sir Robert Cotton, public figure and scholar, the subject of his first book (1979), and his lofty contemporary reputation. One of his circle was the Buckinghamshire gentleman Sir William Drake. Reading Revolutions gives Drake the full treatment though, as its subtitle makes clear, this book is in no way a conventional biography. Sharpe provides some coverage of the man's life and various spheres of action (and inaction) as estate builder, improving landlord, lawyer, office holder and MP who, by and large, rode out the troubled civil war and Republican years from the safe vantage point of the European mainland.

It is Drake's reading habits that provide the main subject matter and Sharpe's account of the research trail that has made their reconstruction possible - piecing together materials in the Huntington, Folger, University College London, and Bodleian libraries, and the Buckinghamshire Record Office - is dazzling. Drake provides a substantial case study of the ways in which the active practice of reading and the development of political consciousness and political action interconnect. Drake read incredibly widely and in a number of languages, untypically for one of his rank. He read the classics, continental and English humanist texts, histories, and the Bible and theology. The study of his commonplace books, working notes and marginal annotations makes clear the active, thinking, interrogatory way in which he proceeded and the utilitarian attitudes that underpinned his reading. Constantly distilling, rereading, rendering accessible, cross-referencing and juxtaposing scriptural and secular texts, collecting proverbs, Sharpe shows Drake to be preoccupied with the applications, not simply the accumulation, of knowledge to present needs. It is a mental world that Sharpe illuminates, but one that was linked with the social and political worlds of the time.

Reading Revolutions is an enthralling book that satisfies on several levels. Linked to wider issues connected with the interface between reading and politics -by making comparisons and drawing parallels with other readers of the time, by discussions of the book trade and libraries, and by engaging with the implications for historians of reader-response theory - this study positions itself within a much broader agenda.

R. C. Richardson is head of research, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England

Author - Kevin Sharpe
ISBN - 0 300 08152 9
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 358

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