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Michael J. Braddick, ed.: The Oxford Handbook of the English Revolution.

Michael J. Braddick, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the English Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. xvi + 619 + 3 illus. $160.00. Review by JOSEPH P. WARD, UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY.

Michael Braddick has assembled a highly useful compendium of recent research by thirty international scholars on a subject of perennial interest. The state of the field surrounding the revolutionary events of the middle decades of the seventeenth century has created an opportunity for stock taking of precisely the sort this volume offers. Illuminating the various strands of scholarship that have addressed the English Revolution for the past two generations, the book's chapters range widely from politics to literature, from religion to social groups, and all across the British Isles.

Braddick and Peter Lake each write introductory chapters. Braddick provides an overview of the volume as a whole against the backdrop of the major historiographic trends from the "progressive" approaches that assumed the English revolution was a watershed moment in European history through the revisionism that has dismantled that older view. The volume assesses the field at a time when revisionism "is now being historicized, however, and much of the heat has gone out of these debates" (4). Braddick insists, quite rightly, that the resulting fracturing of the field into a variety of scholarly discussions rather than one central debate is a sign of the subject's vitality, with research focusing not so much on ideas or material conditions, groups or individuals, but rather on elucidating the relationships and connections among all of them. For his part, Lake counsels scholars not to look for the origins of the revolutionary struggles of the 1640s in the religious turmoil of the preceding century. If much of the public debate in the 1630s was framed within a discourse of anti-puritanism, anti-popery, and evil counsel that had been established half a century earlier, then that discourse itself was hardly a cause of revolution. Instead of sparking the crisis, "the modes of political and communicative action which contemporaries had learned to use in the century or so following the English Reformation ... did profoundly shape the sort of crisis or series of crises" that plunged the nation into civil war (35).

The volume's first section, "Events," contains ten chapters that, as a whole, span the political crisis from the late 1630s to the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660. In keeping with a central aspect of research over the last generation, the essays in this section attend to the important features of all of the Stuart kingdoms. Developments that may at first have appeared to have had local roots and consequences--Covenanting in Scotland, an uprising in Ireland--turned out to have causes related to the general challenge of governing diverse kingdoms and effects that were felt throughout the British Isles. While highlighting the unpredictable and hardly inevitable outcomes of events, these chapters also emphasize the surprisingly durable nature of governing authority in the period. Philip Baker concludes his assessment of research into the execution of Charles I, a momentous event if any could be described thus, by observing that "for all the immediate shock value of the act of regicide itself, its structural impact on the English state was surprisingly minimal" (166). Similarly, Tim Harris finds that the Restoration hardly fulfilled the hopes of those who expected stability and concord to sweep away the divisions of the previous twenty years. In many ways the political and religious controversies of the 1630s found new life in the separate settlements in the three kingdoms: "this was a society with scores to settle, where bitter rivalries and resentments remained" (210). Given the inconclusive nature of events during the period, it should be little wonder that scholars are reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions from them.

The next section presents ten essays arranged loosely around the theme "Institutions and Actors," and although it lacks the refined shape of its predecessor, it offers a series of case studies that demonstrate fully why it can be maddeningly difficult to engage with the English Revolution in a general way. The proliferation of printed pamphlets in the wake of the collapse of censorship after 1640 has long been considered a crucial factor in the emergence of popular politics, but as Jason Peacey's chapter makes evident, subsequent government intervention in the marketplace for news "was qualitatively different to the policies of earlier regimes, and it was combined much more obviously with a determination to engage with the people through persuasion and the black arts of propaganda" (289). Rather than creating a free market of information, the proliferation of print created both the need and the opportunity for the revolutionary regime to manipulate the press in ways that the royal government likely could not have imagined, and it laid the groundwork for the aggressive interventions of the later Stuarts. Ann Hughes's essay assesses gender relations during the revolutionary decades, and while highlighting several important areas in which the crisis challenged traditional assumptions about patriarchal authority, she also describes the attempts to reassert long established customs and practices. Although some women learned new ways of engaging in religious and political discourse that would survive the Restoration, Hughes summarizes the state of the field by emphasizing that a "gendered analysis of the revolution defeats any simple narrative of progress to modernity" (360). Toby Barnard's review of research into life in Ireland during the 1640s and 1650s strikes a similar chord. The English policies towards Ireland vacillated "between repression and conciliation," sowing confusion as well as division, with the result that "Flux, both political and cultural, beset the country, reducing the Cromwellian interlude to just that: indecisive rather than formative for centuries to come" (389).

Flux features prominently in the six chapters of the book's fourth section, "Parties, Ideas, and People." Rachel Foxley's essay explores the failure of Parliamentarianism to evolve into a coherent, ideologically consistent program that could have served as a platform for the emergence of a new, and lasting, political paradigm. Instead, she suggests that the "tragedy of parliamentarianism was that it generated the oppositional power to fight the king, but could not find the cohesive force to forge a positive settlement" (420). In the realm of letters, Steven Zwicker celebrates Marvell's "Upon Appleton House" as perhaps the epitome of the artistic excitement of the age because of its unwillingness to embrace simplicity. Drawing inspiration from Wittgenstein, Zwicker asserts that "an inexact, a fuzzy picture may be just what we need for imagining these decades at the middle of the seventeenth century--because a more distinct picture distorts political and ethical uncertainties, the blurred cultural alliances and allegiances that writers and readers occupied in these decades of warfare, political revolution, and the unsteady restoration of old forms" (480). Such conclusions are certainly sound; indeed, the available evidence can support nothing more. Still, it remains to be seen whether future generations of scholars will be attracted to engage intensively with a period that seems to defy our grasp so thoroughly.

The volume's final section sets aside the elusive qualities of the revolutionary decades in order to focus on their consequences. The categories for consideration are social and economic (John Miller); state formation, political culture, and ideology (Mark Knights); nineteenth-century British and French literature and art (Laura Lunger Knoppers); the British and Irish contexts (John Morrill); and the seventeenth-century continental conflicts (Peter Wilson). Together, these essays, each of which is quite erudite, support the volume's central theme: the English Revolution was a very important, if not fully transformative, series of interconnected events that had widely disparate consequences for different people. There is a virtue, a quiet elegance, in this rather unassuming conclusion, and perhaps that is the great lesson from half a century's worth of historiographical battles over the causes, consequences, and meaning of the turbulent middle decades of the seventeenth century.
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Author:Ward, Joseph P.
Publication:Seventeenth-Century News
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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