November 11, 2009

Review: The English Civil Wars

Blair Worden's new book on the English civil war is part of a genre that doesn't appear enough at the moment, it is an introductory essay. The best work I can think of comparing it to- and this should show those who know me how highly I rate it- is F.W. Maitland's fellowship essay on liberty and equality from Hobbes to Coleridge. What Worden does is provide us with a superb introduction to the civil war, which carries real intellectual punch within it. He attacks the large questions- why did the civil war begin, why did Parliament win it, what did it achieve- without breaking the pace of a narrative that seems to remain both detailed and unencumbered by detail.

His basic line is one that few English historians of the period would disagree with. There are motifs running through Worden's history. The major themes of his history are stories about the battles about religion, between Presbyterian, Anglican and Congregationalist advocates; the creation of an English state and the difficulties that Oliver Cromwell and Charles I found in fiscally supporting their own state; the devastation and economic costs of war, particularly the human cost in a war which saw 1 in 10 men in England in arms and a greater proportion of the population than in any other war in English history dying; the miscalculations of human individuals from Charles in the early 40s to John Lambert in the late 1650s and the great clashes of principle and arguments. Worden is deeply attuned to the ironies of history, to the fact that almost no one fighting in 1641 wanted to execute the King, and that not many in 1641 would have anticipated that the longest lasting consequence of the war on the statute books would be the Navigation Acts of 1651. We are left in no doubt that the outcome of the war was not intended and at almost every stage, participants were surprised and frightened by the turns of fortune.

There is the odd thing to criticise in the book. Sir Thomas Fairfax is a figure that Worden persists in underestimating: Luke Daxon's Cambridge MPhil showed that Sir Thomas did have a reputation in England prior to his command of the New Model in 1645 (far from having 'little national standing' Worden p. 61) and to label him as 'no politician' fits an image that Mr Daxon and Andrew Hopper have significantly undermined in the past ten years (Worden p. 88). Irish historians might object to the judgement that 'no narrator has succeeded in making them [Irish politics in the interregnum] more than momentarily intelligible (Worden p. 37). But these are quibbles- in general the narration is so rich in ideas and so well written that Worden can survive the occasional passable judgement, furthermore to criticise a work which deals with such a complex area for its asides seems a little unfair: Worden does not have the space to flesh out these observations here in the way that I am sure he would like to. There were other moments when I regretted the lack of space- there are some fantastic stories, Thomas Harrison shooting a soldier who was in civilian life a comedian at the Drury Lane Theatre, exclaiming 'Cursed be he that doth the Lord's work negligently' is a moment that deserves immortality (Worden p. 54). It also deserves a footnote- I would love to see where Worden got the story from! No doubt there are also angles on the war that were left out- women's history, to some extent economic history and the history of the book are three that sprung to my mind and more will come to others- but in a book of this length such omissions are to be expected.

The pace of the book though is necessary- both because it should keep anyone interested in what Worden has to write and say. At a short 160 or so pages, this book is a sprint rather than a marathon. It allows him to keep in the spirit of writing an introduction for the general reader- but what it also allows him to do is to make the book into an essay. Like Maitland, you feel with Worden in the hands of a master of the period- there is an incredible discipline to making writing so rich in analogy and interpretation. Every sentence in this book has been crafted and therefore every sentence counts. That in part adds intellectual cache to the conclusions. This richness though also means that the reader is continuously confronting big intellectual conclusions- you cannot draw away into some foxhole of detail but are continuously pressed to think about the impact of war on society, on the state and all the other issues that Worden wants you to confront. If writing the book is a discipline, then reading it is a pleasurable one and one I intend to return to one day.

This book therefore has things for both the general reader and the more specialist. For the general reader it is the shortest and best introduction I know of to the civil war. For the specialist, because Worden has packed all his fire into 160 pages, it is an incredibly provocative and intellectual exhilarating read: it helps refocus the mind on the big issues about the period- something I cannot think but to be a good thing.

November 09, 2009

The death of Decius

Manlius sacraficed his son to Roman authority: Livy presents a second sacrafice to Rome therefore which brings back to my mind at least the second aspect of Roman authority- religion. The consul Decius commanded one wing of the Roman army against the Latins: Manlius the other. On Decius's flank the battle went badly and then Decius shouted to Marcus Valerius who blessed him and bade him put on his toga.

Then he girded up his toga in the Gabine manner, leaped fully armed on to his horse and rode into the midst of the enemy- a sight to admire for both armies, almost superhuman in its nobility as if sent from heaven to expiate allthe anger of the Gods and deflect disaster from his own people to the Latins. Thus the terror and panic in every form which Decius brought with him...penetrated deep into the Latin army.... and when he finally fell beneath a rainof missiles, from that moment there was no doubt that the Latin cohorts were thrown into complete confusion VIII 9
This incident is fascinating: obviously it describes something Livy admired. Decius's actions are the epitome of the Roman who throws away his own life to save his country: unlike Manlius's he sacraficed his own life- an unproblematic moment.

They also record something it is right to consider: for Livy here provides us an example of religious enthusiasm. In a peculiar sense Decius is a kind of martyr- unlike Christian or Muslim martyrs he does not die to justify a faith- rather Decius dies to justify an army to his Gods. In the first case the act of martyrdom says something about the individual's relationship with God, in the second the martyrdom, as Livy presents it (and as usual we have no idea of whether this happened or not) justifies the city to the Gods. The nature of the religious relationship has subtly changed between say Decius's sacrafice and Diocletian's persecution.

November 08, 2009

Daniel and Universal History

Arnaldo Momigliano argues in a collection published in 1987 (the essay was first published in 1979) that the sources of modern universal history lie in Greece and Israel. The Greek tradition was mainly in the hands of non-historians: Hesiod who wrote before any of those that we normally consider historians (Hecateus, Herodotus and Thucydides are normally considered the first) formulated the first univeralist structure for history. Hesiod posited several ages- an iron succeeding gold, silver, heroic and bronze. There were other schemes available to the Greek universalist- that of ages, leading from youth to senility, something picked up by Romans who as late as Marcellinus in the fourth century compared Roman age to barbaric youth, and that of cultures perhaps expressed first by Hecateus and then carried on by others. Greek historians though were mostly interested in political history- Herodotus uses the idea of a succession of empires, Babylonian, Mede, Persian, to structure his non-Greek history. Others turned to the same idea- adding the Macedonian empire after the Persian once Alexander had acheived his conquests.

Momigliano talks about this using the familiar tools of close textual analysis. Perhaps as interesting though is where he takes up this narrative of empire and suggests that it became fused with the Hebraic apocalypticism visible in Daniel. Daniel is an odd book of the bible: it is one of two that appear to have been written in two languages- Hebrew and Aramaic. It concerns a figure Daniel- who we can locate in Middle Eastern literature right back to the 14th Century BC- and yet it places him in the reign of Belthazzar, the legendary successor of Nebuchudnezzar. Furthermore as Momigliano suggests it shows clear signs of being compiled- chapters 7-12 were compiled with a clear knowledge of the politics of the court of Antiochus IV which the previous chapters do not show. Incidentally Daniel also shows ignorance of contemporary events: there never was a 'Darius the Mede'! But more importantly the book interestingly separates into two parts- the first Momigliano argues was written when the Jews still believed in their place in the Seleucid Empire, its tone ressembles that of the Book of Esther and the second was written under Antiochus, referring to things like an unhappy marriage for one of his predecessors.

What is interesting about Daniel though is that whoever wrote it seems to have absorbed the Greek idea of a succession of world empires. In Daniel obviously these are the four human empires followed by the fifth divine empire- Hebrew apocalypticism has been imported into a Greek scheme. There is no echo outside of the Greek tradition of this scheme according to Momigliano and he submits that this must be an influence on Daniel- one of the first instances of the long story by which Greek philosophy and Hebrew theology became wedded together. Its an interesting argument and I leave the analysis of its truth to others: Momigliano does not fully develop it in his piece and more could be done to work with and through it but the argument that Daniel's structure owes much to Greek influence does not seem stupid and reminds us once again that the story of the Jewish and Christian Bible is not that of an unbroken single tradition, but rather of a conversation and impulses to record at different points in time.