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Collected Essays III

By R.C. Richardson | Published in History Today 1987 
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People and Ideas in Seventeenth-Century England
  • Collected Essays III: People and Ideas in Seventeenth-Century England
    Christopher Hill. xi + 340 pp. (Harvester Press, 1986)
The appearance of this volume completes – for the time being at least – the publication of Christopher Hill's collected essays. Such, however, is the prolific output of this justly celebrated doyen of seventeenth-century specialists that a sequel will soon be called for. He goes on writing – exploring new ground, re-examining old topics in the light of fresh questions – at a prodigious rate. Of the fourteen chapters to this volume nine belong to the present decade and a further four were first published in the 1970s. The longest piece reprinted here is Hill's Neale Memorial Lecture on 'Parliament and People in Seventeenth-Century England'. Though published as recently as 1981 to rebut the new revisionists, Hill admits in a postscript that it is already a period piece. 'The nine days wonder of revisionism is over. Its extremer manifestations have failed to convince the more intelligent younger historians, those who matter. Its positive contributions are being assimilated'. The oldest essay of the collection is a vintage chapter on Oliver Cromwell which originally made its appearance in 1958. 'I have left it virtually unchanged', says Hill. 'I hope readers will make allowances'.

The title of this third volume – People and Ideas in Seventeenth-Century England – is all-embracing and would have fitted the earlier volumes equally well. As ever with Christopher Hill the approach exhibits an insatiable curiosity and the writing is argumentative or combative in tone. There are tongue-in-cheek jibes here about J.H. Hexter's Marxist interpretation of Shakespeare's Richard II. Elton's stress on the primacy of political history is challenged. Though he applauds the boldness of the attempt, certain aspects of Lawrence Stone's treatment of The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 are called into question. Conversely the welcome Hill accords to a rather lightweight publication on Homosexuality in Renaissance England might seem excessively enthusiastic. It is Peter Laslett, however, who comes in for a relentless attack on what are held to be his false assumptions about the nature of seventeenth-century society, the validity of his evidence, and for his brash, ill-founded claims. The World we have Lost is clearly not one of Hill's favourite books.

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