Christopher Hill

Christopher Hill is the author of The Century of Revolution and Some Consequences of the English Revolution. The Ancient Historian Fergus Millar will also write about G.E.M. de Ste Croix’s book in a later issue of this paper.

Ancient Exploitation

Christopher Hill, 4 February 1982

This is a powerful book, which should be read by all ancient historians and all Marxists. It will not please the orthodox in either group. Dr de Ste Croix has evolved his own personal brand of Marxism, though he relates it carefully to Marx’s own works, and he gives short shrift to his Marxist predecessors in the field. George Thomson, whose Aeschylus and Athens excited me very much when it came out in 1940, is dismissed in three curt sentences. But Dr de Ste Croix is no less critical of his fellow Classical historians, among whom he commonly refers favourably only to A.H.M. Jones and P.A. Brunt. Sir Moses Finley is rarely mentioned except to be criticised.

Full-Employment Utopias

Christopher Hill, 16 July 1981

Dr Davis’s book is a long, careful and detailed study of utopian writing in England from Sir Thomas More to the end of the 17th century. He has interesting things to say about well-known figures like More, Bacon, Winstanley and Harrington, but I found his chapters on lesser writers even more instructive. Robert Burton and Samuel Gott are revealed as more significant ‘utopians’ than has been recognised. Dr Davis is also interesting on William Sprigge’s A Modest Plea for an Equal Commonwealth of 1659, the anonymous Chaos (1659) and The Free State of Noland (1696), which he classifies as ‘Harringtonian’. He has even found a couple of Royalist utopias, which he discusses in Chapter Ten. More important, he distinguishes a category of ‘full-employment utopias’, which includes Rowland Vaughan (1610), Gabriel Plattes’s Macaria (1641), Peter Chamberlen’s The Poore Mans Advocate (1649), Peter Cornelius Plockhoy (1659), John Bellers’s Proposals for Raising a College of Industry (1695), and two essays by an anonymous Hermeticist, Philadept, published in 1698 and 1700. Many in this last group were discussed in 1952 by J.K. Fuz in a pioneering work, Welfare Economics in English Utopias, to which Dr Davis refers only in a dismissive footnote. Davis also shows that Burton was an early advocate of something like a welfare state.

Good History

Christopher Hill, 5 March 1981

Professor Hexter made his mark in the learned world over forty years ago with an article in the American Historical Review called ‘The Problem of the Presbyterian Independents’. He pointed out that many members of the Long Parliament whom historians had traditionally labelled ‘Independents’ were appointed elders of the Presbyterian Church set up in 1645-8, and that many ‘Presbyterians’ sat in the Rump of the Long Parliament, which used to be described as ‘Independent’. To upset so many apple-carts in so short a space must have given him great pleasure: since his article no responsible historian has ever dared to use the labels ‘Presbyterian’ and ‘Independent’ in the old carefree way. Three years later followed The Reign of King Pym, a masterly study of Parliamentary politics during the early years of the English Revolution which has dominated historical thinking ever since. In 1952, he published More’s Utopia: The Biography of an Idea, a competent but not epoch-making work. Since then he has published no single full-length work of historical research. The editor of the volume under review says that ‘for over thirty years … he has served as the conscience of his fellow scholars’. He has written books with titles like Doing History and The History Primer.

Counting signatures

Christopher Hill, 22 January 1981

This is the first full-scale study of literacy in 16th and 17th-century England. Dr Cressy has long been known to scholars for his work on the subject: here he gives us his conclusions. For the whole of his period, he thinks, about two out of three adult males, and about 90 per cent of women, were illiterate. Proportions varied from region to region. In London by the end of the 17th century illiteracy may have been down to two-thirds or a quarter; for women about a half. There were fluctuations over time: a rapid growth in literacy immediately after the Henrician Reformation and again in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign; a recession from 1580 to 1610, and again in the Civil War decade, followed by a new advance in the 1650s, and a slowing down after 1660. The initial rapid rise may perhaps be attributed to a new emphasis on Bible-reading; the other fluctuations probably derive from economic factors – though the stagnation after 1660 must relate to the upper-class feeling that the revolutionary decades had shown that too much education was bad for the lower orders.

Reason, Love and Life

Christopher Hill, 20 November 1980

Rochester is one of the most exciting and paradoxical of English poets. Sexually ambivalent, a notorious member of the gang of young roués at the court of Charles II, he nevertheless managed to write a few poignant and haunting poems which suggest that his public notoriety concealed a sensibility reacting to the intellectual crisis of the later 17th century.

Montereale

Christopher Hill, 6 November 1980

This is not quite another Montaillou. Professor Ginzburg’s book deals with an isolated heretical individual, not with a heretical community. But it shares some of the qualities of that marvellous book. It reveals an almost equally startling body of wholly unorthodox ideas existing within a nominally Roman Catholic society. The Middle Ages, it has been unkindly said, appear to be ‘the age of faith’ because nearly all the evidence which survives was written by monks and priests. We might extend this to the couple of centuries after the invention of printing: they appear to he centuries of faith because priests controlled the censorship. It is very difficult to find out what ordinary people thought. They may have accepted the orthodoxy of their betters, though there are many indications that this was not the case. But if they did hold unorthodox views there was no prospect of getting them printed, except when the orthodox refuted and denounced them. Only in the present generation have historians like Robert Mandrou and Peter Burke seriously attempted to ascertain what was going on beneath the surface. In Montaillou Le Roy Ladurie utilised one lucky cache of evidence. Professor Ginzburg has found another.

Newton and God’s Truth

Christopher Hill, 4 September 1980

There are at least three possible portraits of Isaac Newton. Traditional internalist historians of science depict him as an aloof scholar, remote from the world, solving in his Cambridge ivory tower problems which derived logically from the state of contemporary mathematical knowledge. A second approach, which originated with the Soviet scientist Hessen, relates the problems which Newton studied, together with other scientists of his day, to the economic needs of rising capitalist society, or draws attention to the continued influence of his Puritan background on his mode of thought. This school finds it easier than the first to explain the later Newton, the dictatorial Master of the Mint and President of the Royal Society, and to take account of his continual obsession with alchemy, Biblical chronology and the end of the world – grave embarrassments for the purist ‘internalists’. The latter do not like to be reminded that Newton said he first turned to trigonometry and geometry in order to understand a book on astrology. A third approach is psychological, seeking the key to Newton’s achievement in his personality.

Exact Walking

Christopher Hill, 19 June 1980

In 16th-century England Protestant theology was overwhelmingly predestinarian. ‘Calvinist’ is the word normally used, but Dr Kendall, as we shall see, is unhappy about it. Bishops like Jewell, Grindal and Whitgift, Puritans like Cartwright and Perkins (though Dr Kendall would not call him a Puritan), later King James I, all agreed on the essentials of theology. This orthodoxy was challenged by Laudians in the 1630s, by sectaries in the Forties and Fifties. By the end of the century, Calvinism was no longer the intellectual force it had been. It was not stressed by the official Church of England, though the ‘Latitudinarians’ who came to dominate the Church had more in common with the earlier ‘Puritans’ than with Laudians. In the 18th century the ‘old dissent’, Presbyterians and Independents, was still mainly Calvinist, though Arminianism and Unitarianism were making inroads into their ranks. Calvinism survived among Particular Baptists and Muggletonians. It had ceased to be in the forefront of intellectual history. What had happened?

Letter

Doggerel

4 August 1994

I’m surprised Gerald Long hasn’t met this one:Voici un gendarme à Nanteuil,Qui n’avait qu’une dent et qu’un oeil,Mais cet oeil solitaireEtait plein de mystère,Et cette dent d’importance et d’orgueil.Needless to say I cannot remember the source, but I assume it would have been British.

Rolodex Man

Mark Kishlansky, 31 October 1996

It is becoming difficult to remember how influential Christopher Hill once was. When E.P. Thompson dedicated Whigs and Hunters to ‘Christopher Hill – Master of more than an old Oxford...

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Playgoing

Donald Davie, 27 May 1993

The Seventh Psalm is required in the Book of Common Prayer to be sung or said, in Miles Coverdale’s version, on the evening of Day One of the Church’s calendar: God is a righteous...

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Danger-Men

Tom Shippey, 2 February 1989

Christopher Hill has shown literary critics the way before now. Many must have felt at least mildly chastened by his remarks in Milton and the English Revolution (1977), no less forceful for...

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History and the Left

Jonathan Haslam, 4 April 1985

In 1977 E.H. Carr completed his 14-volume History of Soviet Russia. He had embarked on an intellectual day excursion but found himself on a major expedition through a dark continent of knowledge....

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Losers

Conrad Russell, 4 October 1984

The point Mr Hill makes in his title is one he has made before, yet it bears repetition. By 1660, and in many cases before, the radical causes which make the middle of the 17th century such an...

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Rescuing the bishops

Blair Worden, 21 April 1983

The publication of Patrick Collinson’s The Religion of Protestants is a stirring event in the rediscovery of Early Modern England. Unmistakably the work of a historian who has reflected on...

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Winner’s History

Howard Erskine-Hill, 20 August 1981

Some great and some good things, and some both great and good, undoubtedly came out of the period 1640-60 which Christopher Hill calls ‘the English Revolution’. What came out,...

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