Bridge between two ages

Early Tudor Government 1485-1558
September 22, 1995

Bravely rushing in where others fear to tread, Steven Gunn sets himself the ambitious task of bridging medieval and early modern England. He begins with a sleight of hand, conveniently approaching the gulf as historiographical rather than historical. But even if we accept his blanket assertion that postwar Tudor historians have written about institutions and medievalists about people, we soon find that he too slips into the early modernists' familiar pattern of forging continuity by reading institutions backwards from G.R. Elton's governmental revolution. Thus he talks of Henry VII's council having a membership, lending it a corporate existence alien to medievalists who tend to think of a fluid mass of potential counsellors. In fact, the structural likeness of Gunn's analysis of government with Elton's of four decades ago runs to the extent of bracketing the development of parliament with the elimination of independent franchises as aspects of emergent national sovereignty.

A historiographical approach should also address the tendency of Tudor historians, whether stressing continuity with the medieval past or discovering rapid and momentous change in their period, to assume that in the Middle Ages things changed slowly if at all. Gunn shows awareness of this pitfall but none the less occasionally slips into it. Thus, his review of the ideological background to the break with Rome finds that Henry VIII's imperial pretensions were not new because notions of imperial monarchy had "seeped into English political discourse across the period of the Hundred Years War". On the other hand, the possibility that "empire" had changed its meaning over time is ignored. Did Henry I, who had claimed an imperial monarchy as far back as the 12th century, use the term in the same way as Henry VIII? If political terms did change in meaning, then perhaps the reasons for Gunn's perception that medievalists and early modernists "do not speak the same language" are as much historical as historiographical, so that before we pursue the debate about when and how the Middle Ages ended, we need a reappraisal of what they were.

These conceptual misgivings aside, this is a robust and stimulating addition to the extensive range of textbooks on its subject. Gunn may not have broken Elton's mould, but he has certainly added a personal stamp through his subtle incorporation of recent research, his intimate knowledge of a wide range of contemporary characters and a string of choice quotations from the sources.

A. J. Gross is associate lecturer, Royal Holloway College, University of London.

Early Tudor Government 1485-1558

Author - S. J. Gunn
ISBN - 0 333 48064 3 and 48065 1
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £35.00 and £9.99
Pages - 254

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