August 29, 2009

Book Review: The Ends of Life in Early Modern England

Sir Keith Thomas's latest book exhibits the kind of scholarship that Thomas has become well known for over the last half century. Thomas's book attempts to survey a vast subject- the way that people in early modern England thought about their lives and the reasons that they had for describing something as a life well loved. The subject is almost impossibly vast- as it takes in such a timescale (over 200 years) and such a range of experience. A story which incorporates the experience and desires of Sir Richard Grenville, an Elizabethan knight of the sea, and Joseph Priestley two hundred years later will be broad indeed. One could argue that incorporating Priestley and Grenville is the least of the problems that Thomas encounters: the horizons of Edward Gibbon were European and literary, the beliefs and attitudes of an illiterate small holder in northern Cumbria in 1500 would be very different. We should not be surprised therefore if even Thomas's intelligence, narrative breadth and scholarship are insufficient for the task that he has set himself. Numerous historians will be able to pick apart the part of the book which relates to their own special field of study (I have concerns for example about Thomas's interpretation of Adam Smith): that is an unfair enterprise, when dealing with such breadth, an historian is bound to rely on other secondary texts. This review will not seek to do this- but rather than focus on the detail I want to criticise the argument of the text.

Thomas's book is a wonderful cornucopia of scholarship. Despite the fact that Thomas has had to rely on other historians and use canonical texts (opening the book at random I encountered Adam Smith, Bernard Mandeville, Thomas More and Thomas Wyatt) he has found illuminating examples which illustrate a particular point. So for example he cites Stephen Duck's early eighteenth century poetry to demonstrate the joy that peasant women found in the social activity of ploughing. He argues that the May morning ceremony in Oxford may have developed from the mass that Richard Perrot paid Magdelene College to hold for his dead wife in 1557 (p. 259). One of the more bizarre things he notes is the bequest of Philip Thicknesse to his son Lord Audley: Thicknesse announced in his will that

I leave my right hand, to be cut off after my death, to my son Lord Audley, and desire it may be sent him in hopes that such a sight may remind him of his duty to God, after so long abandoning his duty to his father, who once affectionately loved him.

We have no record of how Lord Audley reacted: but the significant 'once' in that passage should remind us that problems between the generations are far from new. Thomas describes particular processes as well interestingly- so he has an illuminating page on the development from ostentation to elegance in English taste during the eighteenth century (p. 131). Fascinating descriptions of how English surnames reflect the medieval need for friendship (Bellamy is descended from the French- well loved- something that definitely applies to the footballer of that name).

Thompson's overall conclusions fail to convince. Partly this is because of the nature of the subject Thomas describes: an argument about the overall trend of early modern life may well be impossible to describe. For example it is quite plausible to argue that during the two centuries between 1500 and 1700 economic consumption expanded, but for some it is also quite possible that it contracted. Furthermore there were many who advocated such consumption by acting upon their desires- trading, buying and selling- but there were many who disparaged such consumption arguing it was luxury and threatened to undermine freedom. Partly it is because of Thomas's structure- he describes parts of early modern life- its limitations, military prowess, work, wealth, honour, friendship and fame. There is an obvious omission- even though it touches on all of these the subject of religion was absolutely fundamental to many lives in the period from Wyckeham to Wesley. Without statistics though it is not easy to make generalisations about populations- so discussing the balance of forces in the discussion about military honour is not easy, so consequently even though on page 65 he concludes that 'the longterm consequence of the civilianisation o the population and professionalisation of the military was that valour and military prowess ceased to be moral qualities expected of all men of ambition', he reminds us on page 74 that 'the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would show...that the long held notion of masculine fulfilment as something best achieved in violent conflict was very far from having been extinguished'. It is not that there is no story here- he points out that by the eighteenth century military honour focused on a professional army rather than on a social caste- but that the story is complicated, punctuated by the exigencies of war and the demands of peace, punctuated importantly by the last civil war in England until the present day (1649-60- there was little fighting in England in 1688, though wars in Ireland and Scotland continued into the 1690s- and we shouldn't forget Jacobite and Catholic threats in 1715, 1745 and afterwards in Ireland.)

The problem in a sense with Thomas's book is not that it is bad but that it is an impossible book to write. There are big stories here- stories about all these concepts and their slow evolution but they are complex stories. The biggest is that controversial topic- secularisation- that Thomas touches on upon his last page (p. 267) but that theme draws in so many others (one that I always consider is that a major cause of secular understandings of the world must be the fact that the bible's cultural primacy has slipped- slipped because everyone now reads more than one book, we know that Oliver Cromwell did not between 1647 and 1649 read a single book apart from the bible, I would dare any educated modern person to be able to say that!) What Thomas has done is present a lot of stories- a vast resource about the ways that early modern people thought about the ends of their lives- for someone like me who is fixated on the particular (why were 30% of seventeenth century funeral stones carved before their subjects died?) it is fascinating- but it is significant that the book does not have a conclusion. I would suggest the structural absense suggests something further- though Thomas's detail is fascinating, his individual arguments are interesting and important- his conclusions are not so fascinating.

Historians will use this book in my view as a resource, a place to start research and find an illuminating detail in, but they won't use it as a theoretical model to attack or defend.


James Higham said...

Despite the fact that Thomas has had to rely on other historians and use canonical texts ...

How else could he have done it? :)

Gracchi said...

James I agree- I was meaning to say that I wouldn't criticise him for that reason but because of his broader argument. Its an impossible enterprise to perform if you ever tried to do all the primary research.

edmund said...

What are you dubious about on Adam Smith?

I supect there are some modern educated pepole who have only read the bible in the last two years-and depressingly probably a lot more who haven't read any book over the last two years. Still i think your basic point is a reallly good one.

sounds like he should have a conclusion!

edmund said...

Gracchi what are you dubious about on Adam Smith?

Gracchi said...

Apologies for not replying- I've been busy, I can't find the citation off the top of my head apologies! But as I said its not the detail that matters- we both know that this is too big a project to know all the details even for a historian like Thomas!

edmund said...