Digging for Levellers, Ranters and Quakers

England's Turning Point - Liberty against the Law
September 18, 1998

Why are you interested in those bandits?" was the lofty, condescending question asked by Sir Lewis Namier, that arch-snob of the English historical profession, to a prospective researcher of popular movements in the French revolution. Christopher Hill, the doyen of historians of the English revolution and one of the pioneers of "history from below", has never been at a loss to provide an effective response to such hostile attitudes. Twenty-five years ago his famous book The World Turned Upside Down charted the radical subcultures of the troubled mid-17th-century decades in England and their explosive outburst once censorship and other forms of traditional authority collapsed. This new book by Hill continues on the same wavelength and draws meaningfully on the work of other historians both of the 17th century and of later periods. "For most of the propertied classes it was indeed a golden age," Hill writes. "Expanding trade led to increased customs revenue which nearly paid for the navy without increasing taxes. Yet looked at from the point of view of the lower classes, the years between Elizabeth and the elder Pitt looked more like a series of disasters."

More specifically Hill's subject here is the self-reinforcing interconnections between law, liberty, property and Parliament and the alternative perceptions of the less wealthy majority. For a great many, he claims, "the law was the enemy" and "opposed to their freedom" and customary rights. For others "their religious duty was to break the law" to conform with their understanding of the higher code of heaven. In the light of these divergences of perception and experience, provocative questions are pressed in this book about the making and enforcement of law and about the social variations experienced in accessing it and benefiting from its protection.

Here, as in many of his other books, Hill stresses the decisive importance of the mid-17th-century decades. Wage earners became a proportionately larger segment of society, enclosure had many casualties, and civil wars raised and dashed the hopes that some had entertained for radical change. Hostility to the law and lawyers was rampant in the overheated decade of the 1640s and the shrill cry for legal reform was heard in these years. The system, it was passionately argued, should be streamlined, delays and costs in litigation reduced, the learned obscurities of Latin court transactions abandoned. "There is one general grievance in the nation," declared Cromwell, "it is the law."

Hill's treatment is here more wide-ranging than those historians who have gone before him. The 17th-century use of the Robin Hood legends, the ramifications of the Norman Yoke myth, smugglers, outlaws, pirates, Gypsies, beggars and vagrants, imperial oppressions, marriage practices, and the appeal of antinomianism all find a place in these crowded pages. For years Hill has urged historians to make more use of all kinds of literary sources and has applauded the insights provided by literary critics. They are used here to good effect.

Hill's eye for telling quotations is legendary and this book offers them in superabundance. Shakespeare, Bunyan and Milton provide notable quarries. Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger leader and spokesman - in Hill's view one of the most telling and unsettling voices of the mid-17th century - gets a longish chapter of his own in which the religious foundations of his audacious secular programme are rehearsed. Levellers, Ranters and Quakers are given a platform. But Hill's coverage of his subject extends far beyond the 17th century. Eighteenth-century poets like Pope, Goldsmith, Blake and Burns are integrated into the discussion of key points. So are the early 19th-century writers George Crabbe and John Clare.

The integral presence of later writers such as Clare in this book draws attention to the inadequacy of Hill's subtitle, "Some 17th-century Controversies". The issues Hill deals with about law and liberty reverberated far beyond the age of the Stuarts and of Cromwell, as he himself recognises. There are other criticisms. Lively and inventive in his use of evidence, Hill nonetheless indulges in fertile speculations, attributions and guesses which at times fail to convince. He exposes himself to criticism here as he has done before in his depiction of the processes by which ideas spread. To describe the parliamentary electorate of this period as consisting only of gentry and merchants is inadequate. So is his description of the hard-nosed and aggressively rich Antonio in The Merchant of Venice as "a poor debtor". The idiosyncratic system of referencing in the book sometimes leaves much to be desired, and there is no bibliography. Most importantly the disjointed structure - chapters, the shortest only four pages long - does not always help the reader. There are also glaring repetitions. Nevertheless, Liberty against the Law is richly textured and written with a vigour that belies the fact that its author was born two years before the outbreak of the first world war. It may not make the impact of The World Turned Upside Down but this, after all, is a problem of Hill's own making. By any standards the earlier masterpiece is a hard act to follow.

England's Turning Point: Essays on 17th-Century English History helps place Hill's major works in the context both of his own development as a historian and of his responses to other historians such as Trevelyan, Tawney, Stone, Jonathan Clark, and the recent revisionists. Five of the component chapters are full-length articles and pride of place goes to Milton. The great majority of the rest, however, are occasional pieces, principally book reviews. Of particular interest is the earliest piece reprinted here, Hill's first appearance in print, a hard-hitting review of H. A. L. Fisher's History of Europe. Readers in 1938 deserved and needed far more than the banal, undiscerning platitudes the author offered. Fisher, said Hill in a parting shot, was a Whig historian who had buried "his head in the sand so as not to be convinced of the irrationality of his own behaviour. It is our job to dig him out again". That particular excavation proved a lost cause, but 60 years on Christopher Hill is still digging.

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

England's Turning Point

Author - Christopher Hill
ISBN - 1 898876 26 6
Publisher - Bookmarks
Price - £12.99
Pages - 366

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