The Canon: The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill

June 24, 2010

Christopher Hill (1912-2003) was an astonishingly prolific historian and for a time the dominant figure in the recent historiography of the "English Revolution" of the 17th century, a concept he did most to popularise. Above all a social historian of ideas, fascinated with the complexities of Puritanism and revolution, Hill was committed - as a Marxist - to the idea that the 1640s and 1650s constituted England's major historical turning point.

His 1972 book The World Turned Upside Down, arguably his finest work and one that was both symptom and engine of the concept of "history from below", took him out of his usual preoccupation with the revolution that did happen to the one that only might have happened, and one that was excitedly canvassed by plebeian radicals of all kinds in the middle years of the 17th century.

Here Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Muggletonians, the early Quakers and others taking advantage of the collapse of censorship to bid for new kinds of freedom were given centre stage. Challenges to all kinds of authority, to dominant ideas and the institutions upholding them, to private property, to social norms and to the Protestant ethic received patient and sympathetic attention. Although they were doomed in many cases, these ideas, Hill insisted, should not be dismissed as the mere febrile outpourings of a lunatic fringe.

It was a book that immediately attracted a huge amount of attention. It was widely and appreciatively reviewed and it inspired not only a film, Kevin Brownlow's Winstanley (1975), but also a stage play by Keith Dewhurst, which paid homage even to the extent of retaining the title of Hill's book.

I gave a full account of Hill's achievement in my own 1977 book The Debate on the English Revolution, making clear how his pioneering work had influenced others, myself included. But in truth, Hill - one of the most dedicated opponents of all orthodoxies - founded no historical school. Even those much indebted to his rethinking of 17th-century English history recognised his blind spots and methodological shortcomings. He invariably relied on printed primary sources - an obvious limitation. He stage-managed them selectively. Activists always caught his eye. By contrast he downplayed popular conservatism and had little to say about women, a fact that subsequently caused him great remorse. By today's standards, too, his oeuvre is remarkably Anglocentric.

His critics - like the US historians J.H. Hexter and Mark Kishlansky - became more numerous, noisy and ungenerous in the 1970s and 1980s as revisionism and post-revisionism took hold, and as Marxism increasingly appeared a spent force in a changing world. But the most astute commentators, such as John Morrill, still recognised his worth and lasting significance. Fashions in historical interpretation unavoidably change; canons cannot be immutable. But Hill lives on, even in historians' reworkings of his legacy. My latest book - Household Servants in Early Modern England, which deals with an occupational group Hill largely ignored and very largely with women - indirectly recognises an enormous debt to The World Turned Upside Down.

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