Over the Hill?

by Nick

There have been a few posts across the blogosphere in recent days about the historian Christopher Hill, sparked by an article about him by R. C. Richardson in the THES.

Richardson argued that despite shortcomings in Hill’s approach to sources, his legacy to current historians of the seventeenth century is a significant one. In particular, he focused on the impact of Hill’s most well-known book, The World Turned Upside Down, in forcing historians to confront the role that working men and women had played in politics and political thought.

This sparked some reflections by Christopher Thompson, wondering whether Hill’s impact was really as significant as Richardson asserted, and suggesting that the rise of revisionist interpretations of the civil wars marked the end of his influence. In turn, this sparked a response from J. N. Nielsen arguing that Hill does leave a legacy, through the passion with which he was able to make the lives and ideas of people from the seventeenth century come alive.

Richardson’s article and the two posts following it reminded me of a comment by John Morrill in an article assessing Hill’s career, in which he lamanted that his postgraduate students were unlikely to have read more than one or two of Hill’s numerous books. It may well be that knowledge of his work is slowly fading purely due to the passage of time, but I’m not so sure that his influence will. The World Turned Upside Down is a good example of that. It seems a shame to focus on it alone, given the prodigious range of books that Hill wrote. His biography of Oliver Cromwell, for example, is still despite its flaws and occasional inaccuracies one of the best single-volume books on the subject. Even its title, God’s Englishman, captures the essence of Cromwell more succinctly in two words than many books do in thousands. Similarly, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England still stands up well as an introduction to its subject.

Nevertheless, The World Turned Upside Down is probably the most famous of Hill’s books and the one which probably retains the most foundations in current historiography. It was actually about far more than just the lives and ideas of religious sects and political radicals. It dealt more widely with the social and economic conditions in seventeenth century England and how they influenced the ideas of ordinary men and women. It made a determined argument, on empirical rather than theoretical grounds, for the existence of class differences and, to some extent, class consciousness during the period. And by holding the mirror up to those who ruled, it also gave a detailed look at how they saw those below them in the social hierarchy. A line – direct or indirect – can be traced between this and current approaches to understanding the politics of the 1640s and 1650s by historians like Andy Wood, John Walter and David Cressy. While popular political ideologies were often more nostalgic and conservative than some of the individual subjects of Hill’s book, nevertheless Hill’s collective portrait in The World Turned Upside Down of the the forces shaping the political views of ordinary people has lived on.

It’s true that Hill’s historical method can be criticised. Hill’s typical style of writing was a kind of historical pointillism,  assembling a vast array of printed and calendared sources to build up an argument, peppered with direct quotations, that was lyrical and evocative but not necessarily representative. It is not a style you see much now with the rise of the monograph and the revisionists’ return to the archives. In particular, Hill’s reliance on printed sources always left him vulnerable to the charge that he was reflecting elite perceptions of the crowd rather than the views of the crowd itself (although in his defence, Hill did often gloss sources like this and make clear their limitations). What this style of writing did very well, though, was conjure up the collective mentalité of Hill’s subjects. The World Turned Upside Down, in particular, is a triumph of historical imagination and empathy. One of Hill’s opening sentences deserves to be as well-known as E. P. Thompson’s famous determination to rescue the working men and women of eighteenth-century England from the “enormous condescension of posterity”:

Lunacy, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder.

This maxim allowed The World Turned Upside Down to enter into the minds of subjects in a way that few other studies of the same period manage. It’s not surprising that it was able to be turned into a film and a stage play. I would argue that this is another of Hill’s legacies: his ability to inspire readers to take seriously the lives of people in the past. The World Turned Upside Down is still in print, and if you browse through the History section of any branch of Waterstone’s, it’s likely to be one of the few books on seventeenth-century England you will find. As a result, each generation continues to read at least one of Hill’s books, and be inspired. Every November, I do mock university interviews for sixth-formers at a north London comprehensive. Last year, I interviewed a student who had become obsessed with civil war radicalism after reading The World Turned Upside Down. She got into Cambridge to do history, and I have no doubt that her interest in the seventeenth century – like Gerrard Winstanley’s “parchment in the fire” – will still be burning after being lit by Hill’s work.