A radical rendered respectable

Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution
November 28, 1997

Freedom," wrote the Leveller Gerald Winstanley in 1649, "is the man that will turn the world upside down, therefore no wonder he hath enemies." At Cambridge in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Christopher Hill was one of our intellectual heroes. Like his Leveller predecessor, he had personally turned the historical picture of the English revolution upside down, and in so doing had made his own enemies within the academic establishment. We thought of him as a kind of leftwing knight errant, doing battle on behalf of a radical version of a period then often glossed over or apologised for in our lectures as not a revolution at all - explained away as merely a "great rebellion", or an "interregnum".

Hill's alternative version of events in England in the mid-17th century was decisively and unapologetically Marxist. He summarised it clearly in an early essay: "This interpretation is that the English Revolution of 1640-60 was a great social movement like the French Revolution of 1789. The state power protecting an old order that was essentially feudal was violently overthrown, power passed into the hands of a new class, and so the freer development of capitalism was made possible. The civil war was a class war." In those heady days around 1968, that was just what students wanted to hear. We wanted to believe that even in a country as bedrocked on tradition as our own, radical change was a possibility, the seeds of a more progressive outlook already planted in its pre-industrial past.

We were also inspired by the example of a historian who was direct and explicit about the particular agenda he brought to his interpretation of the 17th century. Writing in What is History? E. H. Carr had warned us that the first question a student ought to ask is, what are the political and religious beliefs and the social background of the historian he or she is reading?

But Lawrence Stone was a rarity when he told us candidly in the introduction to his Causes of the English Revolution that he had "learned much about the nature and process of revolutions" from "les evenements de Mai in Paris in 1968, and as a participant in the crisis triggered off (in the United States) by the invasion of Cambodia in May 1970". It was harder to see where other historians of the period were coming from. Though Stone also told us that Hexter was "an American liberal" and Hugh Trevor-Roper "a conservative anti-clerical", these historians gave no clear ideological instructions in their work for reading and interpreting their arguments.

Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution, first published in 1965, was an integral part of Hill's historical reconstruction of the mid-17th century in England as a truly revolutionary period. In it he explores the intellectual movements which made the "violent overthrow" of the existing regime thinkable. It was "ideas" which impelled individuals into action, even if it had taken the right combination of circumstances to give those ideas their chance: "Revolutions are not made without ideas, but they are not made by intellectuals. Steam is essential to driving a railway engine; but neither a locomotive nor a permanent way can be built out of steam. In this book", adds Hill engagingly, "I shall be dealing with the steam".

Around the key figures of Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh and Edward Coke, Hill constructs a detailed account of advances in the fields of science, technology and the law in the early 17th century. These advances, he argues, needed the strenuously applied, practical context of London merchant business to flourish. Such a context stood in direct opposition to the arid, unproductive one provided by Oxford and Cambridge and their elite of classically educated intellectuals. The "new learning" of Gresham College and the merchant adventurers prepared the way for the revolutionary ideas which eventually led directly to regicide and the English Commonwealth.

Hill importantly does not suggest that Bacon, Raleigh or Coke were themselves political radicals, but rather that their progressive intellectual vision made political radicalism possible. For example, "Bacon's Utopian vision of undoing the consequences of the Fall" was restricted to scientific activity. But Winstanley asked 'Why may not we have our heaven here (that is, a comfortable livelihood in the earth) and heaven hereafter too?"' According to Hill, it was this intellectual innovation which survived the return of the monarchy. The royalists could eradicate the last vestiges of radical political dissent, but could not put the genies of free intellectual inquiry back into the bottle.

In this new edition, Hill has added a number of fascinating codicils to his original argument - an explanation of his original decision to focus on secular rather than religious debate; a further discussion of feudal tenures; a corrective discussion of what he now regards as a tendency in his original argument to over-individualise his key "scientific" figures; several pieces centering on the importance of literary evidence for historical accounts of the English revolution. They are designed to tighten up the original argument, to counter the contrary arguments on points of detail of his historian opponents and to keep Hill's English revolution, in all its complexity, at the centre of debate.

But the physical get-up of the new edition is strikingly bland and fusty. From jacket to promotional flyer it is eerily devoid of the kind of contextualising material which would allow a reader unfamiliar with the original Hill polemic to assess the importance of this final consolidating step almost 60 years after his original controversial appearance on the historical scene. What, I ask myself, will new readers expect of an author described on the dust jacket simply as "formerly master of Balliol College, Oxford", with jacket blurbs that contain not a single political epithet to describe his life's work? Without the counterpoint of arguments of his underminers and detractors somewhere (at least in new footnotes), how will such readers understand that new chapters are direct ripostes in Hill's old polemical style?

These are serious questions. In his preface to the new edition Hill himself describes it as "in effect a new book - my last will and testament as it were, after living with the English Revolution for 50 years". As such it deserves to be read for what it is, the definitive intervention, which has shaped 17th-century studies for the whole of the second half of our own century not just in political, economic and social history but in literary and textual studies also.

I began my own research on Francis Bacon's scientific method in 1968. I have no doubt now that Hill was a major influence on my decision to choose Bacon as the focus for my work on the development in England of a ground-breaking methodology for the sciences. At the time, I was entirely unaware of any relationship between what I regarded as two entirely distinct facets of my life: my "New Left" politics and my academic research. That, of course, is precisely what we intellectual historians find so fascinating about the history of ideas - only by strenuously contextualising is it possible to recognise how particular patterns of thought emerged and flourished.

Looking back, it is striking that whereas Hill's version of the political and doctrinal English revolution has provoked heated debate around associated ideological issues - the nature and significance of Puritanism, the extent of radicalism within the Leveller and Digger movements, etc - intellectual history seems largely to have absorbed Hill's version of events. The monumental research of Charles Webster's The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform 1626-1660 (based on lectures given by Webster in 1968) showed how the revolutionary period consolidated, rather than curtailed, the scientific and technological innovations of the early decades of the 17th century. In general it has become standard to assume that whereas the 1660 restoration set political life back a generation, Charles II's support for the new Royal Society ensured that scientific progress continued inexorably, completing the "scientific revolution", even as the political one failed. Nevertheless, this could not have happened without Hill's original clinching argument, which has shaped several generations of intellectual historians' work on the English scientific revolution. This volume should have been an open tribute to that ground-breaking initiative. Have Hill's "enemies" - the historians who have dedicated entire careers supposedly to proving Hill's central thesis wrong - in the end vanquished him by making him donnishly respectable?

Lisa Jardine is professor of Renaissance studies, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution

Author - Christopher Hill
ISBN - 0 19 820668 2
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £25.00
Pages - 422

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