Literary Texts and History

Obviously a great historian.

Remember the fun I was having with Thomas Corn’s edited collection, The Royal Image? It closes with an afterword by Kevin Sharpe, who naturally makes the case for the contribution of critics – literary and otherwise – to historical study. “What we now need,” he writes, “is to combine the skills of critics and historians in a full history of the relationships of courts and kings (and republics) to the images and representations of those courts and rulers over the period of the English Renaissance.” [pg. 290]  You could, if not constrained by the theme of a collection, make the wider point that critics, with their sensitivity for genre and mode, are well-placed to identify cultural contexts where the specifity of historians may not do so.

Sharpe himself wrote in his Criticism and Compliment, “it is my purpose to [re-read] literary texts as documents of the culture and values of Caroline England.” [pg. ix]  That book was published in 1987; The Royal Image, meanwhile, was published in 1999. Since then, we’ve had David Norbrook’s Writing The English Republic, but the use of seventeenth-century literary texts as historical sources still seems (with the possible exception of some writing on Milton, or the work of historians like James Loxley), in academic historical circles at least, to be a relatively niche activity. There are good reasons for this, of course, not least that such texts tend to prioritise artistic effect over fidelity to their particular age; but isn’t there a broader context yet, in which culture is generative as well as reflective, to which literary material might well be a useful guide?

I was struck by Blair Worden’s particular permutation of an old argument, in his Roundhead Reputations, that, “historians, like novelists, are makers of order.” [pg. 19]  Naturally, Worden wasn’t suggesting that this makes the two professions identical in method or intent, but there’s still a hint in those bon mots that the old walls are not as impermeable as they are often still taken to be. You might not be surprised to hear, then, that I’ll be trying to take part in Early Modern Underground’s collaborative reading of ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Probably mostly for the great beauty of Ford’s masterpiece; but, also, perhaps, for a bit of historical insight…


Pithy History

Here’s my point: Early modern stuff matters. Books matter. The humanities matter. In a time when money is scarce and stupid ideas about universities and the humanities are flying about like nobody’s business, we should be speaking up and making the case for the value of reading and teaching and thinking.

Why Bother?
Why Bother?

Sarah at the very fab Wynken de Worde just recently posted the above in an inspiring reflection to mark the occassion of her blog’s first birthday. It’s already inspired at least one new blog which is worth following straight off the bat. We’ve been neglecting the history posts for a couple of weeks,  but Thursday was once the day for them so here’s an attempt at making an effort.

Sarah’s point that early modernists should be making their history matter is a pertinent one, and you might remember me going on about the dangers of inconclusiveness before now. It’s just as dangerous, of course, to feel the need to force relevance upon historical study: no one moment in time can be a perfect allegory for another. History doesn’t and shouldn’t work like that. But, by the same token, in my own particular area of interest it seems sad to insist that, as Blair Worden recently did, “The only lessons to be drawn from it are to do with the consequences of destructive enthusiasm.” I like Sarah’s distinction between academic writing and blogging: you can get away, perhaps, with a bit more immediacy in a blog than you might in the properly cautious fields of academe (and there’s some interesting discussion of the relationship between the two in the comments at Wynken de Worde).

To whit, I was struck today, on looking through some notes, by David Norbrook’s description of the trial and execution of Charles I: “The king had been brought down from the eminence of his mysteries of state and forced to engage with his people.” [Writing the English Republic, pg. 199] The blogger in me can’t help but see present-day parallels. Such superficial similarities with the latest headlines, of course, are not what make history important. But to ignore them entirely might not help in making the case it is. One pithy way, maybe, in which the blog can help the historian.

“Thy Wars Brought Nothing About”

Blair Wordens English Civil Wars

I had a teacher at school who would insist that narrative history was the finest art known to civilized man, and the only truly commendable form of historical writing. He certainly had good taste: he passed me his copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, but also recommended Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and most of all James McPherson’s superlative single-volume history of the American Civil War, The Battle Cry of Freedom. (It was surpassed, he said, only by Shelby Foote’s towering three-volume history. I’ve never managed to wade through that, though, so alas cannot yet pass judgement.)

Though I might part company with him on the virtues (or lack thereof) of analytical history, there is no doubt in my mind that he was onto something about the artistic skill involved in writing narrative: a good narrative is of very difficult to draw from disparate primary sources and disputed secondary texts without over-simplification or straight-out error. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Blair Worden’s The English Civil Wars, published this year and, as discussed previously on this blog, reviewed favourably by another recent narrativist, Michael Braddick.

Worden’s text gives itself a shorter space in which to cover 20 years of one of the most complicated periods of English history than John Adamson gave over to the footnotes of his Noble Revolt, a book which covers merely the period’s first two. Inevitably, it is very short on detail, and Worden is noticeably constrained by space in his section on the 1650s, the weakest section of his book. Astoundingly, though, he is extremely good on the war’s origins and on the moves towards Restoration; he also gives a very commendable broad brush outline of the wars themselves, which whilst lacking much new for the specialist achieves brilliantly his aim of providing, at last, a new, concise and readable introduction for the outsider.

Diana Purkisss The English Civil War

The book’s success in dextrously handling difficult subjects without doing them a disservice brings to mind, very unfavourably, Diane Purkiss’s The English Civil War: A People’s History, which covers just half of Worden’s ground in more than twice the space – and does so without achieving either greater depth or clarity. Worden’s work is masterful, and if he is modish in his conclusion that the wars achieved nothing, he somehow manages to squeeze enough context in the book for it to be an honest introduction to the scholarship. As a very small example of the grace of Worden’s narrative art, his couple of sentences on Milton’s responses to the regicide are both more accurate and more compelling than Purkiss’s confused and conventional effort: “As the title implied, Milton [in Eikonoklastes] was eager to align Charles’s death with the iconoclasm that for some had been the whole point of the war. But the moment was over by the time it was printed, and new winds were blowing.” [pg. 562]

Worden’s account, on the other hand, neither resorts to cliché nor suffers from a ‘my print run is larger than yours’ tunnel vision, and always makes clear where he is making his own argument and where he is summarising others’. Narrative history is an art which does not allow the poet’s license; my old teacher would have approved.

An Enduring Power to Fascinate

Returning Fire...
Returning Fire...

In that shameless searchbait of a post in January, I linked to Keith Thomas’s review of Michael Braddick’s God’s Fury, England’s Fire. It was a review most notable for its disappointment at the book’s open-ended conclusion:

After his long, carefully grounded, empirically based narrative, Braddick in his final paragraphs abruptly dissociates himself from the “hubristic pomp” of professional historians who seek a definitive account of the period. Instead he plumps for indeterminacy. “Experiences of these conflicts,” he declares, “were plural, ambiguous, divided and contrasting; their potential meanings equally diverse.” They deserve to be remembered, he tells us in one truly awful concluding sentence, “not for a single voice or consequence, but because they provide many knowledges for our discourse”. His impressive book deserves a less murky conclusion.

In April 10th’s TLS, Braddick himself turns to reviewing, in his case tackling Donagan’s War In England, Worden’s The English Civil Wars, and The English Civil War, a collection of essays edited by John Adamson. Adamson’s major project, of course, is constructing a new narrative of the period (in case you haven’t been paying attention to me or indeed anyone else who’s read it, The Noble Revolt is a work of considerable brilliance); Braddick arugue in his review that this is an effort which proceeds from “revisionist attacks on comfortable verities”, but which seeks, in drawing new narratives together, to do more than deconstruct the faulty assumptions of the past. Worden’s book, too, is a stab at a new, reconstructed version of events.

Braddick seems to respond to Thomas’s criticism, however, in his suggestion that new unifying narratives are reductive: “there are multiple lessons to be learnt from a period of such intense conflict,” he writes. “Perhaps we should be more comfortable with the thought that this is a good enough reason to write about it.” His review contains great praise in particular for Worden, and clearly has great admiration for Adamson, but despite that it seems opposed to their approach. “Narrative synthesis” is not for him.