Renowned English historian Hill (The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, 1993, etc.) uses popular...


LIBERTY AGAINST THE LAW: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies

Renowned English historian Hill (The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, 1993, etc.) uses popular literature and ballads to shape a stimulating critique of the concept of liberty in 17th-century England's struggle between king and Parliament. Even today, the English Civil War, Cromwell's Protectorate, the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 are still commonly viewed as an inevitable progress toward popular liberty. But what really happened, Hill asserts, is that men of property won absolute power to overrule both the customary rights of the poor (e.g., copyhold and common land) and the restrictions of the Crown. The peasantry gained little from the new freedoms and lost much, including in many cases their land. Hill, of course, is not the first to challenge the so-called Whig view of history by seeing the English revolution as the triumph of a capitalist economy, and in his long career, which included 13 years as master of Balliol College at Oxford University, he has approached this theme before from many different angles. Here he eschews state papers (""Government statements are usually intended to deceive"") and attempts to rescue the landless ex-peasantry from posterity's silence by turning to popular culture for his source material. We move from the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher to John Gay's fiercely satirical Beggar's Opera, which boasted that only beggars, who were outside the law, were truly free. When censorship broke down in the 1640s, the uneducated--even women--could get published, and Hill guides us through his favorite terrain, that of the radical popular movements which briefly appeared, such as the Muggletonians, who denounced the law and lawyers as agents of the rich, and the Diggers, whose spokesman Gerrard Winstanley advocated a return of the land to the common people. Superbly written, Hill's account throws light on a crucial epoch in English history, one that was to have a profound influence on American attitudes.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1996


Page Count: 368

Publisher: Allen Lane/Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1996

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