A Freeborn People: Politics and the Nation in Seventeenth-Century England.
The Ford Lectures at Oxford, the greatest honor available to historians of Britain, have an even deeper resonance for seventeenth-century scholars. The first Ford Lecturer was S. R. Cardiner, whose monumental histories of England from 1603 to 1656 remain the fons et origo of much modern scholarship. David Underdown, Somerset-born and Oxford-trained, but the first Ford Lecturer to have taught principally outside the British Isles (at Sewanee, Virginia, Brown, and Yale), offers in this volume the printed version of his 1992 lectures. Their special virtue is that of most of Underdown's recent work: openness towards and command of the "new" history (notably, popular culture and gender) and old-school mastery of graceful narrative and of political history in its several guises - local and national, event-intensive and sweeping. One suspects that Cardiner, were he at work today, would be a historian much like Underdown. Certainly Cardiner would recognize himself in Underdown's ability to see the landscape as would a royalist and a parliamentarian, a national politician and a parish overseer, a godly reformer and a devotee of the traditional festive culture. Underdown's addition of gender perspectives to the mix is as engaging as it is appropriate.
Underdown's primary mission is a dynamic reading of the relation of popular and elite culture in England from the early Stuart decades through the Restoration. He first delineates a zone of fellow-feeling across the social order in early seventeenth-century England. While there was a distinctive and exclusive elite culture as well as a popular culture with its particular emphases and concerns, before the civil war the gentry plausibly thought "their tenants and neighbors shared the same preoccupation with liberty, property, and Protestantism, and meant the same things by those terms as they themselves did (89)." Generally they shared no less strong predilections for social and familial order, monarchy, and custom. All these, they agreed, were menaced by aulic corruption and sexual scandal, an apparently un-Protestant foreign policy, and Arminianism and Catholicism. That created an opposition to the Stuart courts if not precisely to the Stuart kings. In the 1640s, however, innovation and inversion were perceived to be the province of the new powers-that-be and the assorted malcontents whose interests they were supposed or imagined to reflect - obsessional reformers, sectaries, Levellers, and, predictably, women. Underdown himself demonstrated in Revel, Riot, and Rebellion that common people could be as powerfully offended as their betters by such doings. Here, though, he stresses the extent to which the traditional elite pinned the plebeian tail on the radical donkey and withdrew themselves from the common culture; the largely plebeian-dissenter Monmouth's Revolt (a "civil war . . . without the gentry," ) is evidence of the expected parallel phenomenon of a specifically popular radicalism.
Underdown is also determined to provide an integrative reading of "private" and "public" discourses, particularly with respect to gender. Both sides in the war accused the others of sexual inversion - court effeminacy vs. the curiously symbiotic stereotypes of strictness and license dogging the puritan and sectarian fringe. Underdown usefully examines the royalist newsbook writer John Crouch as the purveyor of politicized smut to the more ordinary run of mankind (gendered term intended), and provocatively suggests that genderbashing lost some of its attraction for Restoration elite. But whether the decline of witchcraft accusations after the Restoration reflects mellowing of means in the gender wars or, as Keith Thomas would have it, "the decline of magic," is an open, if perhaps unanswerable, question.
Ford Lectures usually produce slim volumes, inevitably better at summation and trail-blazing than exhaustive investigation. Underdown will not satisfy all readers that he has exorcised every historiographical demon he has conjured in these thoughtful and entertaining lectures. But that is not the object of his current agenda, which in more ways than one is neo-Whig. Acknowledging that it would be "absurd" (19) to reconstruct the old Whig orthodoxy, he nevertheless joins younger historians such as Richard Cust and Thomas Cogswell in rejecting the equal absurdities of the revisionists. There is another dimension. At their best the old Whigs were inclusivists, finding a place in the story for those marginalized by old Tories and modern "high-political" revisionists. In return the Whigs expected that those on the periphery would find common ground with those closer to the center. That is not merely Underdown's reading of the first half of the seventeenth century. It is no less an appeal to those practicing social and gender history not to neglect the central national narrative to which, he has taken pains to show, they can make a fundamental contribution. Nothing less befits a "freeborn people."
MICHAEL MENDLE University of Alabama
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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