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.

August 26, 2009

Agricola before Britain

Tacitus briefly narrates his father in law's career before he came to Britain in order to set the stage for the main events of the biography which occur when Agricola returned to the island. What is interesting about this part of Tacitus's life is that he clearly writes to provide lessons, arguments for how to survive in Rome and prosper. It is worth pausing over these- because they demonstrate the ways in which Tacitus beleives that an imperial career works. Firstly there is the sense that Tacitus had that prospering was a matter of delighting one's superiors. In a society dominated by envy, those superiors might easily be moved to be envious of superior talent in a junior official, hence, under the gentle and inferior Vettius Bolanus, Agricola 'schooled himself to subordinate ambition to propriety' and under the superior Petilius Cerealis, when Agricola had real acheivements to his name, 'he never sought to glorify himself by bragging.... It was his chief he said who planned all the operations' (Agricola trans. Mattingley 1970 para 8).

Such skills would be familiar to anyone working today- which should provoke some kind of reflection on what work is today- but they are not exceptional either to the time or to the system of imperial Rome. What follows though is special both to Rome and to the imperial service in which Agricola found himself. A Roman governor was expected both to be a commander and a judge. Tacitus reflected on the problems that this might bring: 'it is a common belief that soldiers lack the power of fine discrimination', they live in a world of court martials which gives 'no scope to forensic skill'. (Agricola trans. Mattingley 1970 para 9) Agricola, Tacitus argues, was able to fulfil both parts of the duty of a governor and was able to administer justice. One should bear in mind this is a hagiography- the fact of the accusation made against some governors may be a more interesting guide to Roman administration, than the fact that Agricola, according to Tacitus was innocent.

The same goes for a second accusation that Tacitus fends off from his father in law- but must have applied to some governors for him to mention it. That is the accusation that they brought their private lives into their public. In Aquitaine (Agricola's province before he moved northwest to Britain) Agricola separated his private and public life, refused to be sullen in disappointment or argue with colleagues and equals. Again in a society governed by ruthless (literally) ambition, Tacitus reveals Agricola to be untouched but also reveals that some must have been tempted. Agricola was called, Tacitus argues, because of his unimpeachable virtue by the public and Vespasian to future high office in Britain.

No matter what we think of Tacitus's characterisation of his father in law- which was unlikely to be negative- the things that he mentions here are important. They reveal something about the ways that Roman governors who were bad acted- they must have taken the habit of a soldier into the court room, have infested their relations with others with private hatreds and loves and been envious and reproachful of other's success, eager for each other's failure. It is a pretty unpleasant portrait of the imperial civil service under the Flavians- and substantiates his earlier point that the governing principle of tyranny was not honour but envy.

August 23, 2009

Agricola's Wife

From Britain Agricola returned to Rome to enter on his career of office and married Domitia Decidiana, the child of an illustrious house. It was a union which brought him social distinction and aid to his ambition for advancement. They lived in rare accord, maintained by mutual affection and unselfishness; in such a partnership, however, a good wife deserves more than half the praise just as a bad one deserves more than half the blame.

Tacitus's comment on Agricola's marriage is taciturn. Appalling puns apart this silence is both revelatory and a silence: it reveals and conceals in equal measure. It reveals the ancient Roman attitude to women. Domitia was a suitable wife for Agricola because unlike those harridans of antiquity- Aggripina the younger, Messalina or Faustina (wives of Claudius and Marcus Aurelius) she presumably did not have lovers or seek to exercise political influence. For Tacitus she was a perfect Roman wife- she bore children and kept quiet- she was seen but not heard. Furthermore the fact that nothing more has to be said about her reveals that Tacitus does not consider that she may well have had opinions about her husband's career and strategy- she does not matter and is a cipher, a container for children and a sympathetic sigh at home. That perspective reveals a deeply and unquestioning sexist attitude and morale. This is sexism, not as uttered pronouncement, but as precondition- as undefended assumption. It reveals as much about Tacitus's male world as about Aggrippa's actual life.

About which it reveals almost nothing. Domitia was from 'an illustrious family'- she would have been brought up in the centre of Roman politics and of Rome itself. She may have been a fool but there is no reason to suspect that: even with average intelligence she would have met many important and interesting people and imbibed their ideas, have seen the chaos of Claudius and Nero's reign and understood something of the sorrows that imperium could bring. It would be amazing if she did not communicate her own ideas to her husband, but we have no way of knowing whether she did or not or what she did. There is a hidden part of Agricola's biography that Tacitus cannot tell us therefore and that we cannot retreive: how did Agricola's family and in particular his wife influence his views. We can say this not merely about Agricola but about almost every important man across the next 1500 years and more. For characters as diverse as Cromwell, Charlemagne, the Earl of Liverpool (Prime Minister 1812-27), Constantine and more we have no way of knowing about the most important relationship of their lives and how it influenced their policies and political outlook. The politics of the bedchamber are hidden from us- in part from Tacitean silences, in part from the neccessary lack of sources.

I have commented of course about this before, but it needs restating again and again and again. The fact that we know nothing of Domitia beyond her name limits our knowledge of Agricola and ultimately of Roman policy in Britain at the time Tacitus was writing. Domitia probably as a patroness and a rich woman in her own right has her own history- not merely as an adjunct to her husband's- which involves supporting any number of individuals and influencing any number of spheres but it is one we will never understand. There are two things that you need to understand before you think about history: the first is that there is much more of history that we do not and possibly cannot know about than that we do know about, the second is that one of the larger areas of our ignorance in the historical record is about the role, influence, importance, intelligence and power of women. We know something thanks to the labours of feminist historians- but our history will never be complete because men like Tacitus thought fit only to record the name of women like Agricola's wife rather than give a more complex and detailed portrait.