Freshers’ week… sort of

by Nick

Well, I’ve started the MA! I had my induction earlier this week and seminars start in earnest next week. It’s been interesting returning to a university environment. Even just walking through the faculty door, there is a certain buzzy atmosphere that you just don’t get in a workplace. It was a feeling I’d almost forgotten, but suffice it to say I am incredibly excited to have started.

The first term is a thematic look at big issues in early modern historiography. Although the course is European in scope, the first thing we’re looking at is revisionism in British history, so I’ve been having fun going through some of the key flashpoints of the revisionist and post-revisionist debates in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Gavin’s posts on the debates over the causes of the English/British civil wars over at Investigations of a Dog have been rather helpful for this, and if you haven’t seen them I would recommend them.

The article I’ve picked to post about is Glenn Burgess’s classic piece in the Historical Journal about the nature of revisionism – partly because it’s a classic, but also because you can download it for free from the HJ website at the moment.

Burgess argues that the chief work done on the early Stuart period in the immediate post-war period was essentially an attempt to add a socio-economic dimension to S.R. Gardiner’s high political narrative – whether this came out in a Whiggish or Marxist style. However, it ran into the sand over the difficulties in connecting social trends with political trends. The storm over the gentry is the classic example of this, although you could argue that fizzled out more because of the unreliability of the evidence as it was than because of the irreducible complexity of linking these two themes. Still, this is a helpful starting point. And it reminds us that despite the tendency for some “revisionists” – I use the term in inverted commas for reasons I’ll set out below – to automatically label their predecessors, and even contemporaries as Whigs, there wasn’t a “Whig consensus” waiting to be smashed. The debate between Trevor-Roper and Stone over the gentry, for example, was just as heated as later debates over puritanism, or the extent of oppositional ideologies in the 1630s and 1640s.

Burgess is also helpful on trying to unpick what revisionism actually means, and whether it can be called a movement, ideology or methodology of sorts. Some of the characteristics often picked out and ascribed to the movement include rejection of long-term causes in favour of contingency, replacement of ideology with faction, and rejection of teleology. Burgess convincingly argues that although many revisionist historians do favour a more “accidental” explanation, many also pick out long-term factors or preconditions. He also points to the interest of many (eg Kevin Sharpe) in ideology. As for teleology, he makes the helpful distinction between “weak” teleology – writing with a certain end point in mind, for the purposes of narrative, which all historians have to live with – and “strong” teleology, which assumes an inevitable outcome of a set of events. It’s certainly true that many revisionists have accused colleagues of being teleological without quite understanding this distinction.

So if revisionism wasn’t a set ideology, was it a uniform group? Not really. Burgess looks at the example of Derek Hirst, who for many trailblazed a revisionist, even post-revisionist approach to parliamentary studies, only to be called a Whig by Mark Kishlanksy, who in turn was called a Whig by John Adamson. Generationally and temperamentally, as well as in research interests, there is a big gap between these three, and yet despite the name-calling amongst themselves they have all been labelled revisionists. And the pejorative nature of the terms doesn’t help – revisionist as much as Whig started as a pejorative term used by critics. If we’re going to follow the revisionists’ advice and use terms as contemporaries understood them, maybe we should abandon the use of the terms altogether as a methodological descriptor of how historians operate.

And yet this almost reduces revisionism to nothing. It reminds me of John Morrill’s famous (and misunderstood) quip that his old history teacher said to him, after reading Revolt of the Provinces, that he had explained why the civil wars didn’t happen! But clearly something happened during the 1970s and 1980s to overturn many of the assumptions of the post-war period, even if there was no organised movement as such. There are some who have seen it as a general reaction to the 1960s liberal consensus, linked to Thatcherism. However, I’m always suspicious of arguments about the “general intellectual mood”. They seem to me just too hard to link to actual results. Ronald Hutton has a couple of more interesting possible causes. One is the growth and subsequent contraction of the historical profession during the 1960s/70s then the 1980s – first there was an expansion in the number of historians around to challenge the traditional “big guns”, then competition to publish and make a mark expanded as jobs got scarcer. The second is the increased availability of county archives during the 1960s. This certainly explains the surge of interest in county studies that resulted in the so-called “county community” school inspired by Alan Everitt. And it explains, up to a point, the ability to bring fresh sources to bear on established “facts” that, in many cases, resulted in long-cherished explanations being abandoned. Both these points are interesting in that they explain why a re-examination of this period started, without trying to claim that it coalesced into a movement – as an explanation it leaves room for the wide spectrum of reviews within “revisionism”.

The other interesting point Hutton brings out is that some of the significant players in the revisionism debate were either American, or held academic posts there at key points in their career. Thus, it was an “Atlantic” debate over the period rather than just one amongst British academics. He doesn’t, however, really draw out the significance of this. Was there something peculiar to US teaching or methodologies that helped to spark off the re-examination of this period? Or is it just a coincidence? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to pursue.

With that, I must get ready to head off to the library – I’ve got more reading to do…