Once upon a time history textbooks were history textbooks. In general they were large enough to contain what were agreed to be the significant themes of a recognised period within the bounds of a familiar political unit. At best they were magisterial in blending the results of detailed research into a coherent explanation of the course of events, inspirational to students as models of historical argument and good writing, and dependably accurate.
Writing such books has become harder. Should they deal, for example, with England alone or with the British Isles? Should they concentrate on the old political narratives or integrate the explosion of research in social and cultural history of the past four decades? Should they try to cater for both A-level students and undergraduates in need of an introduction, when the demands of A level now include formal exercises in the interpretation of primary sources and a structured understanding of historiographical change?
New demands have spawned new genres. John McGurk and Angus Stroud write mostly for A-level students, but Stroud aims to cover the whole history of Stuart England (to 1701) while McGurk concentrates on one theme within Tudor history, "the changing role of the English monarchy in government and its impact on society". R. Malcolm Smuts writes the sort of book that has proven immensely popular in the past dozen years, an introduction for undergraduates to the welter of monographs and articles on a well-defined topic.
Stroud's book fulfils its aims much better than McGurk's. It provides a clear, judicious and up-to-date synthesis of recent work. It uses extracts from a good range of primary sources and asks stimulating questions about them. It introduces relevant schools of historians at the start and then quotes representative expressions of their views for students to analyse, though too often it plays the cannibal in serving up for comment repeated slices of other textbooks.
In general it is accurate, though the glossary tells students that tithes were church lands; in general it is well written, though students will not be the better for meeting those old friends "principle battle" and "the reigns of government". But its successes come at the cost of a resolute focus on high politics. This is Stuart England without witchcraft or the East India Company, without even newsletters or pope-burning processions.
At his best McGurk also writes clearly and summarises effectively, but his text is marred by too many mistakes and misleading statements to be relied on. His range of documents is narrower and some of the questions posed about them confusing. Some crucial passages, such as that on the significance of Cromwell's reforms, consist mostly of questions with little apparent guidance to students on how to answer them. And all too often "recent" work - anything written in the lifetime of the average sixth-former - is either ignored or, more curiously, relegated to a mention in the notes but never really engaged with in the text. In the end it seems that tackling most of Tudor history, the Reformation, foreign policy and social problems in 124 pages including documents, was perhaps a misguided ambition.
Smuts's aims are less unrealistic, and he succeeds triumphantly in them. He blends the insights of the new historicist literary scholars - and, to a lesser extent, art historians - with those of social, cultural, political and intellectual historians to produce a lively guide for undergraduates and a sophisticated and original synthesis to stimulate researchers. Can such quality still be sustained across the breadth of an old-fashioned textbook and amid the new A-level requirements? The challenge awaits the brave.
Steven Gunn is fellow and tutor in modern history, Merton College, Oxford.
Stuart England. First Edition
Author - Angus Stroud
ISBN - 0 415 20652 9 and 20653 7
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
Pages - 220