Derek Hirst, Richard Strier, ed. Writing and Political Engagement in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. vii + 236 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-66175-1.
Reviewed by Malcolm Smuts (University of Massachussets Boston)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2001)
The History of the Book, the Study of Texts, and the Pursuit of Interdisciplinary Cultural History
The History of the Book, the Study of Texts, and the Pursuit of Interdisciplinary Cultural History
Although very different in approach, these books are both historically oriented studies of early modern texts. As such they belong to an increasingly fashionable genre that straddles the terrain where literary analysis overlaps with intellectual history and newer areas of specialization, such as the histories of the book, the library, the manuscript, and the activities of reading and writing. Reviewing them together provides an opportunity to reflect on the current state of this interdisciplinary field.
Daniel Woolf sets out to situate historical writing in England between 1475 and about 1725 within the history of print culture. He is not concerned with the evolution of historical methodology but rather with questions about how history books "were distributed and marketed; who was collecting them and for what reasons; where and how they were stored, retrieved and shared; and how readers made sense of them" (p. 6). The real historical revolution of this period, he argues, did not involve a change in methods of research so much as an expansion of the audience for historical works from small coteries of scholars in the sixteenth-century to a wide cross section of the educated public by the early eighteenth. The first chapter, tracing the rise and decline of the chronicle, has as its core a statistical analysis of 79 chronicle texts, which together accounted for a further 141 re-editions between 1475 and 1699. Publication of chronicles peaked between 1550 and 1579 but then fell off markedly by 1600 mainly, Woolf argues, because of competition from a variety of newer and more specialized types of historical writing. "The chronicle did not so much decay as dissolve into a variety of genres" (p. 26), including humanist histories, antiquarian treatises, newsletters, diaries, autobiographies, history plays, and ballads.
Woolf next deals with "the contexts and purposes of history reading." Although his evidence is too sporadic to permit truly systematic conclusions, he does succeed in demonstrating that people read histories for many different reasons and in a large variety of ways. Some of his examples provide useful correctives to studies by scholars like Lisa Jardine, Anthony Grafton, William Sherman, and Kevin Sharpe, which have examined the reading habits of extraordinarily diligent readers, such as Gabriel Harvey and John Dee, who left behind copious bodies of annotation. The purposeful methods and strong political interests of these figures contrast with the far more casual attitude of the Restoration vicar John Ward, who read histories for recreation, as well as the motives of Dudley Ryder, an awkwardly shy law student of the early eighteenth century who studied history to garner a stock of amusing stories to amuse and impress young women.
Further chapters survey information about the proportion of books devoted to history in early modern libraries (generally below 15% but rising by the early eighteenth century), practices of borrowing and lending, and the processes through which history books were published and marketed. Woolf provides information on the size of print runs, the uses of illustrations, and the costs and profit margins of publishers, as well as marketing strategies, the roles played by provincial booksellers, the methods by which gentry collectors procured books, and the advent of serial publications. This is a very useful and, on the whole, convincing study, although in places Woolf is hampered by the paucity of his evidence, which simply does not lend itself to the kind of systematic methodology, borrowed from previous studies of print culture, that he is determined to use. His focus on history books, to the exclusion of other texts and artefacts, also occasionally seems to get in the way of analyses that might have benefitted from being pursued through a wider array of evidence. Some of the most interesting sections of the book, dealing with topics like the pre-history of the lending library or the nature of relationships between gentry readers and the stationers from whom they purchased books, deal with all forms of print culture rather than history in isolation. I regretted the omission of any extended discussion of visual media, such as history paintings, commemorative medallions, and engravings of famous historical personalities, which might have supplemented the book's conclusions about the broadening range of historical interests of educated English readers toward the end of the period under study.
Even in surveying the variety of history texts produced in the period, Woolf arguably omits important categories. He has little to say about the role of histories as political polemics and he ignores the genre of published collections of historical documents, such as Rushworth's massive assemblage of materials relating to the Civil War. Omitting these genres tends to bias the analysis toward forms of history associated with leisured cultivation rather than political engagement. It also allows Woolf to avoid issues concerning relationships between print culture, scribal publication, and wider currents of political interest. How did the thriving manuscript culture of the early Stuart period--involving newsletters, manuscript "separates" documenting newsworthy events and libels masquerading as histories, such as Anthony Welden's Court and Character of King James--help give rise to the explosion of politically oriented print during the Civil War? How did printed collections of historical documents reflect earlier humanist habits of information gathering and analysis revealed by manuscript sources? While reading Woolf, I also happened to be working through the seven volumes of papers assembled by Thomas Murray, secretary to Charles Prince of Wales in the 1610s (Lambeth Palace Archives MSS. 664-70). These items relating to war and diplomacy on the European continent between 1614 and 1619 now read very much like a documentary history of the origins of the Thirty Years War. Of course Murray did not assemble his papers with this purpose in mind but they raise intriguing questions about the extent to which certain genres of printed history of the late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century may have derived from an earlier culture of humanist diplomats and secretaries, as well as pedagogical methods used to train young gentlemen for careers in the Crown's service.
These criticisms are not intended to detract from the substantial merits of Woolf's book, which succeeds admirably in illuminating problems on which its author does choose to concentrate. Yet precisely because it is such a careful and systematic study, Reading History raises the question of how far histories of the book--and more especially of particular kinds of books--can by themselves resolve the broader questions that cultural historians need to answer. After all that we have learned in recent years about the continuing vitality of manuscript culture well into the eighteenth century, the importance of oral communication among elite as well as popular groups and the roles played by visual media and ritual in early modern societies, we need to be wary of overstating the importance of findings based on print media alone. What ultimately matters most is the nature of relationships between print and other cultural artefacts, and between habits of reading in the narrow sense, as something we do with books, and the manner in which people responded to other media and to the challenge of making sense of their historical surroundings. Put differently, we need a history not just of texts and marginalia but of intellectual activities and habits of mind that can tell us how the things that people did in the study and the library were related to the ways they made sense of other experiences, including unsettling events like the Bohemian crisis of 1618 or the outbreak of civil war in 1642. A study like Woolf's can make a valuable contribution to this enterprise, provided we appreciate its limitations as well as its strengths, and seek to integrate its findings within wider contexts.
Writing and Political Engagement is in some ways a more conventional book, part of a large and growing list of interdisciplinary collections of essays by literary scholars and historians. Its specific purpose is to commemorate the work of John Wallace, especially Destiny his Choice: the Loyalism of Andrew Marvell (1968) which the introduction describes as "an interdisciplinary work ahead of its time" (p. 1). The individual contributions do not reflect any common methodology or theme, apart from "a shared concern for the relationship between ideas and events" and, more especially, "the relationship of virtue and principle to public life" during the seventeenth century (p. 1). They are, however, of a consistently high quality. Stanley Fish's chapter on "the struggle for insincerity in Herbert's prose and poetry" is a traditional exercise in close reading that manages to shed significant light on a facet of Jacobean religious culture. It amply justifies the editors' claim that old-fashioned formalistic analysis can still provide a valuable tool of historical research. Jackson Cope provides an interesting analysis of the allegorical autobiography of the courtier Sir Kenelm Digby, which he situates in relationship to both Hellenistic romance traditions and contemporary Catholic literature. Barbara Donagan's exploration of "casuistry and allegiance in the English Civil War" also explores the period's religious culture, while at the same time addressing the historiography of the Civil War. She argues that historians have paid too little attention to the processes through which contemporaries justified their decisions to take an active role in that conflict. The most important "popular" publicists who sought to justify active commitment were clergy, who wrote within the framework of Protestant casuistical traditions shared by both sides. What differentiated royalist from parliamentarian clerical apologists was less their theology than divergent treatments of secular political theories. Whereas royalist clergy preached an uncompromising doctrine of absolute obedience, their parliamentarian rivals developed a more nuanced position that repudiated resistance theory, which had become too identified with Jesuit writers, but sought to enlarge the range of exceptions to the normal obligation to submit to rulers. This meant pressing into service arguments about contractual and legal limitations on royal power. Donagan's essay qualifies and complicates, even if it does not entirely refute, the argument advanced by historians like John Morrill that the parliamentary movement was much more radical in its religious attitudes than its secular political outlook, by showing how fully these two categories of thought were in practice interdependent.
Quentin Skinner's masterful "Thomas Hobbes and Renaissance Studia humanitatis" provides a detailed demonstration of the degree to which Hobbes's work before 1640 was thoroughly rooted in a traditional humanistic curriculum, involving the study of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy, rather than in the scientific interests that became predominant in the philosopher's later work. Yet during this early humanist phase, Hobbes had already worked out most of the central conclusions later expounded by his later scientific method in De Cive. Victoria Silver provides a second study of political thought focused on Algernon Sidney's analysis of what she calls the "imagoes" of royalist political culture. This term refers to cultural images of central institutions, above all personal monarchy. Sidney's disagreement with royalists like Filmer stemmed from his conviction that political forms can never enjoy a fixed ontological status as reflections of an immutable natural order. They are always artificial, imperfect and therefore in need of continuous adjustment in response to experiences, and any attempt to pretend otherwise amounts to both an abdication of responsibility and a retreat into irrationality. Sidney's critique of Filmer is therefore grounded in an Aristotelian concept of virtue, involving the application of reason to public life.
All these essays reach significant and original conclusions by employing essentially traditional methodologies of the literary critic or the intellectual. Derek Hirst's contribution is somewhat more innovative in the way it crosses traditional boundaries separating different forms of seventeenth century discourse, although it too seems primarily indebted to older forms of rigorous scholarship than recent historicist ideas. Through an analysis of Marvell's Rehearsal Transpos'd and several related tracts of the period 1667-73, Hirst shows how arguments over religious toleration, produced by dissenters as well as defenders of Anglicanism, became thoroughly intertwined with fashionable concerns over literary issues like the development of the heroic style, the respectability of Thomas Hobbes and the current state of the theater. "Only a broad reading across the texts of these years," he concludes, "will open the full significance of the phrase 'political culture' for a period when the audiences for broadside, playbill and sermon often had ...much in common" (p. 164).
Two essays in the collection lead us back to issues also raised by Woolf's study. John Pocock's investigation of "Thomas May and the narrative ov Civil War" is, in some ways, precisely the kind of study of historical methodology that Woolf eschews at the start of his book. But it also shows how May's efforts to grapple with the historiographical problem of writing about a civil war in which he was an active participant dovetailed into the wider problem of making sense of events that appeared to him, as to most of his contemporaries, as political and moral catastrophes. May traced the causes of this calamity to the Stuarts' abandonment of "the European Protestant interest," to which the majority of their subjects were committed. This "opened the door, first to favorites and counselors indifferent to the king's unity with his subjects" (p. 122); secondly to the assertiveness of non-puritan clergy and finally to the King's decision to use force against his own people. Yet to explain the war May needed to not only to trace this downward spiral into authoritarianism but to account for the fact that Charles I was able to gather an army from among the very subjects he was trying to oppress. Pocock acknowledges that much of this analysis is rooted in earlier puritan and parliamentarian arguments but does not point out that it also seems strikingly reminiscent of some very recent work, especially Jonathan Scott's thesis in England's Troubles (Cambridge, 2000) [reviewed H-Albion, March 2001, http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=11625985221987 ^Ö ed.] that the Civil War derived from the Stuarts' failure to respond adequately to the challenges posed by European Catholicism, and the revisionist argument that one of the key developments leading to the outbreak of armed conflict was Charles's success in gaining a party during the summer and autumn of 1641. If Pocock is correct then his analysis should challenge us to reflect on the degree to which twenty-first century interpretations of the Civil War continue to recapitulate ideas already present in the political culture of the seventeenth century. At the same time his essay shows why the production of history books in this period often cannot be separated from a broader effort by contemporaries to make sense of their political situation and justify their own political conduct.
Richard Strier's chapter appears, at first glance, to have nothing to do with historiography, since its central concern is to explore Shakespeare's portrayal of "the extent and possibilities of human power" in The Tempest. Strier acknowledged a debt to appropriations of this play in the Caribbean and Africa to explore the phenomenon of western colonialism. Prospero's position on the island, Strier argues, embodies a European fantasy of total omnipotence, rooted in the experience of domination over subject non-European populations, illustrated through a remark by the South Carolina planter George Ogilvie, in 1774, about the agreeable experience of being the only free man in a land of slaves, with a power "like the tyrant of some Asiatick Isle" (p. 20). Shakespeare intuitively associated this illusion of total control, Strier argues, with fantasies of magic. His reading of The Tempest is skillful and often convincing but it also raises questions about the extent to which eighteenth century diaries and post-colonial literature can truly provide an adequate context for analysis of early seventeenth century perceptions of colonial rule. Although he would have known about slavery in Spanish America and the very recent English attempt to colonize Virginia, he could not have anticipated the plantation economies of the eighteenth century or Britain's later expansion into Africa and Asia. The most immediate colonial context for an Englishman of his generation would have been Ireland. In addition ideas about colonization and imperial rule would have been shaped by histories of recent European experiences in America and Asia, and probably even more of Roman efforts to subjugate uncivilized areas of Europe, including Britain itself. If The Tempest is really a play about colonial domination, as Strier and other critics have insisted, then it needs to be situated in relationship to this body of historical literature. We also need to learn more about how concepts of imperialism deriving from books were adapted and refashioned in response to colonial experiences and concepts of racial difference rooted in European, as well as Asian, African, and the American settings.
In short, not only does the cultural historian need to read across different categories of texts, as Hirst argues; he or she also needs to be prepared to integrate textual analyses with other forms of historical enquiry. This is an extremely difficult thing to do well, which partly explains why so much work in this field has taken the form of volumes of essays in which contributions from scholars trained in different disciplines are juxtaposed to each other in ways that create a kind of symbiosis, without requiring anyone to integrate all the relevant perspectives and methodologies in a single discussion. Studies of interdisciplinary problems have become increasingly common in recent years, but individual--as opposed to collaborative--work that achieves a truly seamless integration of methods and perspectives drawn from different disciplinary traditions remains comparatively rare. The two books reviewed here reflect this state of affairs. Both are of high quality and make significant contributions to scholarship. Between them they also display something of the remarkable range of traditional and innovative methodologies now being used to explore the cultural history of the seventeenth century. But they also illustrate the degree to which intellectual history, literary analysis, and newer fields like the history of the book have tended to remain separate areas of research rather than coordinated aspects of a single holistic approach: a fully integrated cultural history.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Malcolm Smuts. Review of Hirst, Derek; Strier, Richard, ed., Writing and Political Engagement in Seventeenth-Century England and
Woolf, D. R., Reading History in Early Modern England.
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