Friday, April 17, 2009

History 112: Some Thoughts on the English Civil War Readings

The ETEP module “The English Revolution” has been put together by Ohio State’s own David Cressy, who along with Geoffrey Parker forms the foundation of one of the strongest early modern history departments in the country. You would be very hard pressed to find a non Ivy league school with a stronger history department than the one at Ohio State so I encourage all students to take advantage of it. Cressy offers the provocative title of “English Revolution” instead of the traditional term “English Civil War.” I suspect that this is an attempt to plant the English Civil as an event of historical importance on par with the French Revolution. That the English Civil War, despite the fact that ultimately the monarchy would return, brought about certain fundamental shifts in European thought.

In the secondary source reading, Keith Lindley offers a comparison of the Whig, Marxist, Revisionist and Post Revisionist views. The Whig narrative emphasizes the progress toward liberal democracy. It features Parliament as the good guys fighting for freedom and Democracy against the autocratic Charles I, who wanted to return England to Catholic “superstition.” The Marxist narrative emphasizes class struggle. Parliament represents the rise of the bourgeoisie class and their victory represents the victory of the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy of Charles I. This victory has the unintended side effect of helping to create a new conscious working class which then comes to challenge the bourgeoisie Parliament. The Revisionist narrative rejects any claims of meta-narrative and sees the English Civil as simply a series of happen chance events. The Post Revisionists are Revisionists who are attempting to bring back long term causes into the narrative.

We have already discussed the Whig narrative in class (as well as on this blog) at length. This can no longer be considered a legitimate school of historical narrative. The only legitimate reasons for discussing it are that it exerted a tremendous influence during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it continues to exert a powerful hold on the public conception of history. The English Civil War was a lot more complex than simply Parliament good Charles I bad. Hopefully from reading some of the things that Charles I wrote you have seen that Charles I was a thoughtful and sophisticated individual who did not run around claiming that he ruled by divine right and could therefore act as he pleased.

When dealing with the Marxist narrative it is important to distinguish Marxist historiography from Marxist politics. You should not Marxist history and think Communism or even Liberalism. One can subscribe to the Marxist historical narrative and emphasize the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy without believing that the working class is going to rise and overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish Socialism. One can be a Marxist historian and decide that Capitalism is the greatest promoter of freedom and the public welfare ever created and be a dyed in the wool Republican. I recently took a Facebook quiz to find out what kind of historian I am and the answer I got was Marxist. I do not think of myself as a Marxist historian though that is the one aspect of Marxism that I admire. It was Marxists who played a leading role in moving history away from war and politics in helped bring in the lower classes to the historical narrative. Cressy lists Christopher Hill as an example of a Marxist historian. I have already recommended to you Hill’s Antichrist in Seventeenth Century England. So, if being a Marxist means being like Hill, than I will take the label. Hill unlike traditional Marxist historiography is willing to discuss religion in a serious and non polemical fashion.

Most historians have a contrary streak to them. The natural inclination for a historian is to attempt to take a text take it in the opposite direction of the author’s intent. Revisionist historians are the extreme end of this. The Revisionist historian strives to take the popular understanding of history and show that not only is it wrong but that it is really just the opposite. This is usually put into practice by challenging the existence of any sort of narrative. Norman Davies is an example of this sort of revisionism. I specifically chose him for a textbook because he makes the effort to give the “other side of the story” from what most history textbooks give and he offers a very readable non narrative form of history. I believe that it is particularly important to expose students to this form of history precisely because it is the sort of history that they are not likely to encounter otherwise.

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