Seventeenth-Century Britain 1603-1714 
by J.S. Morrill.
Dawson, 189 pp., £11, May 1980, 0 7129 0839 0
Show More
Show More

This book, which seems to have been published somewhat furtively, deserves to be widely known and widely used. The second in a series of ‘Critical Bibliographies in Modern History’ (the first, by David Nicholls, covers the 19th century), it is a handbook for ‘school-teachers, lecturers and students’ who ‘clearly need guidance about what has been coming out, and about whether some beloved work has stood the test of time’. John Morrill has identified a hungry constituency to whom his book will be a godsend.

The width and depth of Morrill’s reading are awesome. How else can one appropriately respond to the book than by resolving guiltily to get up earlier and work harder? Morrill has read or ‘browsed’ all of the 885 books and 478 articles which he lists, and which between them cover the whole spectrum of research; and it is clear from his running commentary that ‘browsed’ can be taken to be a stronger verb than ‘seen’, which was used by an even more distinguished and (if possible) even more voracious Cambridge historian in a comparable venture a decade ago. Seventeenth-Century Britain will lead to better reading-lists, better essays, better thought. The publishers should reprint it regularly, so that its author can keep it up to date, and they should put it into paperback at an accessible price. In future editions there should be a subject index as well as the author index provided here; and the large number of small errors should be removed. The arrangement of the book, although ingenious, presents some difficulties. It is based on a numerical key which is not conducive to literary grace. Thus we are told on page 31 that ‘the patient and involved context delineated in 195 for the period 1649-53 probably applies earlier,’ but we have to pick our way through a minefield of bold type and cross-reference before we learn on page 42 that 195 is an abbreviation for ‘Blair Worden’s brilliant reconstruction of the politics of the Rump Parliament’. My blush of pleasure, deep as it was, faded slightly when I found how many other works are hailed as brilliant too: Morrill’s range of adjectives is not quite equal to his task. Perhaps he errs too frequently on the side of kindness. Except on one enjoyable occasion, he is rude to no one whom he is likely to meet again. Students inexpert in reading between the lines may be tempted toward some dull books. Still, Morrill combines, as few scholars of his energy can, a firm independence of judgment with a reluctance to create an orthodoxy or an empire. The book is hearteningly latitudinarian.

Even so, its perspective could usefully be broadened. We could be reminded more often that England is part of a wider world. Some of the great – and resilient – ‘life-and-times’ works merit insertion: Spedding’s Bacon, for example, and perhaps Masson’s Milton. The self-denying ordinance which has led to the inclusion of so few primary sources could be breached more frequently. The section on political thought (where Machiavelli is repeatedly accorded a curious, almost Scottish spelling) could be stiffened. I hope, though, that the unintended echoes of the Good Food Guide will be allowed to stay: ‘Reviewers worried a little about the handling of ecclesiastical complexities and the lack of regional contrasts, but agree on the overriding success of the venture.’

Morrill has composed a manual, not a treatise. He gives nothing away about the educational philosophy behind the commitment which so evidently inspires the book. Perhaps because of that restraint, he can make historical inquiry sound rather Prussian. A study of the polemicist Henry Parker is ‘urgently needed’. The publication of two books was ‘premature’. ‘All is not well’ on the ecclesiastical front, despite some recent advances. Cultural history is a problem ‘because so little has been written by trained historians, so much by others’. Morrill notes, correctly, that ‘few historians write about literature in ways that are felt to be sensitive or intelligent’ by specialists in English literature. Why should that be? One obvious explanation is that most historians are philistines who have allowed their subject to be cut from its literary roots and who are deaf to the delights and the lessons which literature affords. To Morrill, however, the difficulty is ‘simply a demonstration of the problems of truly interdisciplinary work, problems which for largely practical reasons seem to have been ironed out between historians and social scientists, but not yet between historians and pure arts specialists’. What ‘interdisciplinary problems’ have to be ‘ironed out’ before historians can write sensitively and intelligently about the richest century of our literary heritage? A Macaulay, a Gardiner or a Firth would have been mystified by the suggestion.

Morrill tells us that ‘over 80 per cent of all the titles which I now suggest to students have appeared since ... the mid 1960s.’ He speaks for most of us – disconcertingly. Can any teacher read through Morrill’s list of recent historical writings, most of them specialised and relatively few of them offering a warm invitation to the imagination, without asking whether the intellectual diet which they offer to young minds is a wholly nourishing one? History used to be an education for gentlemen. In that now anachronistic ideal lay the healthy assumption that history cannot properly be divorced from life or from literature. For whom is history an education now? Of that question the specialist’s agnosticism can be a mere evasion.

We learn at the outset of Seventeenth-Century Britain of ‘the decline and fall of the Whig interpretation of 17th-century history’ in recent research. The word ‘Whig’ may indeed come to be redefined in protest against excessive and imprecise usage. Conceivably, however, the scent of victory has reached Morrill’s nostrils too early. Whig history has died many deaths. Gardiner, now widely regarded as an arch-priest of Whig history, was hailed in his own time as its destroyer. The Marxist interpretation sought to overthrow the Whig one, yet students now often find the two scarcely distinguishable. Could it be that the more the Whig interpretation of history changes, the more it remains the same?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences