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Response to Review no. 402

Professor Hicks has written the type of review, of The Origins of the English Gentry, which every author likes to receive. It is appreciative, it is generous in spirit and, most importantly, it engages with the work under review in a forthright and robust way. Moreover, Hicks unerringly puts his finger on points of contention and on issues that one hopes will lead to further inquiry and debate. I will try to respond in the same spirit and with the same vigour. Every reading is a writing, some literary critics tell us, and hence my book, like any other, carries potential implications beyond those intended by the author. Hicks draws out some lines of interpretation which go beyond, or even run counter to, authorial intent. This being the case, I value the opportunity to clarify my views. There are many points where I think the questions he poses are particularly apposite to my inquiry and I would like to draw particular attention to these. Needless to say, there are some other points on which we are never likely to agree, and these follow from our respective philosophies and historical approach. I will pay rather less attention to these, other than to point them out, since we can hardly expect a resolution. Although some sharp points are embedded in the first half of his review, it is in the second half – where he questions whether my findings deserve the significance I attach to them – that his major criticisms lie. I will, therefore, concentrate on these while bringing some of his earlier points into play as we go along.

First of all, he suggests that I ‘locate many decisive changes much earlier in time than would the historians of later eras’, citing specifically ‘the gentry rule over the localities, effective county communities, and the substitution of intra-class relations for feudal or bastard feudal lordship’. What he has in mind here is made explicit later in the paragraph: future expansion of the work of peace commissions; changes in membership of those commissions and questions surrounding their operation; problems relating to the depth of county sentiment and the relationship between self-interest and the representative principle; the persistence of vertical lines of association; and the continuance of gentry lordship along traditional lines. None of these issues is denied in the book. In fact, my concluding chapter draws attention to them. I do not argue that the gentry was fixed for all time in the mid-fourteenth century, nor that it immediately inherited the earth. On the contrary I emphasise that the gentry continued to evolve.

Nor, I might add, do I subscribe to the view that the subsequent history of the gentry is unilinear; indeed, there is every reason to expect brakes and fluctuations rather than a steady accretion of independence, solidarity and power. I considered it beyond the remit of a book on origins to trace the subsequent history of the changes manifested in the later thirteenth and early to mid-fourteenth centuries. But I wholly endorse the significance of the issues posed by Professor Hicks in the history of the gentry, and I hope that my findings will figure in future debates around them. In the mean time I do not think that I antedate later changes in the three areas Hicks has specified. Of course, this is a matter of perception and interpretation, but I was careful not to claim too much for the fourteenth century. Hence with regard to local rule I wrote:

Full gentry power in the localities was not to be realised. Indeed, it could not be realised without a tamed crown and a higher nobility whose social distance was sufficiently reduced that they constituted, in effect, the highest gradations of the gentry. For a long time to come, English political life, and much else besides, was to be dominated by the interplay of these three forces.(p. 253)

The second area is the county community. This, as we all know, is a much-debated issue, and – one has to freely admit – a difficult one. The depth and breadth of county sentiment are notoriously difficult to discern. Hence, whilst I do find an increasing identity with the county among knights and other landowners during the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, I have tended to avoid statements about county community precisely for fear of asserting too much. What clearly is important at this time, however, is the increasing inter-relationship between parliament and localities. Once again, it is necessary to stress that we must expect differences across both time and space, and that changes are not always consistently in one direction.

As far as the third issue is concerned, it is perhaps arguable, on the basis of the developments I have discerned, that ‘intra-class relations’, as Hicks puts it, may have become stronger at this time. However, it is no part of my argument that they substituted for ‘feudal or bastard feudal lordship’ in this period, and I have no quarrel at all with his assertion that ‘Lordship over the gentry and by the gentry had centuries to run’. Hicks offers an interesting perspective in suggesting that the ‘explosion of commissions was surely ephemeral, the experience of particular war-time generations, even if never fully reversed’. This is very probably correct. But his caveat is vitally important. Things never were the same again. Henceforward, we have, inter alia, JPs, MPs, knights and esquires, we have social gradation on a territorial basis, social control by lesser landowners on an extra-manorial footing, and interlocking fora through which collective interests can be clearly expressed. We have the beginnings of a true partnership between the lesser landowners – the gentry – and the central government. Beyond this it is not necessary to go.

Hicks’s second major objection is that my definition of gentry is unduly restrictive. He suggests replacing it with a broader one: ‘a lesser aristocracy that existed any time between the late Saxon and Victorian eras and yet underwent considerable evolution and development in between’. The continuities look more significant than the differences, he suggests, since ‘rank and status at all times depended on command of manpower and wealth, which derived principally from land’. Other early reviewers of my book have complained that I give too much attention to constitutional arrangements (I would rather say to ‘the polity’) than to the economic and social infrastructure. I think that this is a valid criticism and that a chapter devoted to lordship, particularly manorial lordship, would have produced a more balanced treatment. Land is a sine qua non of the gentry, notwithstanding the importance of upwardly mobile professionals, and seigneurialism was vitally important in the early history of the gentry. I regarded these things as given. My comparative neglect of the material base in the body of the book in favour of the four components of territoriality was because my primary concern was to differentiate the gentry from the lesser nobility from which it sprang and with which it shared those most vital characteristics, so that one might probe in detail precisely where the differences lie.

This brings us to the issue of continuity. Few historians these days, I suspect, would applaud J H Round’s attack on ‘the anti-cataclysmic tendencies of modern thought’, and continuity is very much in fashion (1). My argument is that the gentry evolved from a lesser nobility, one which had Anglo-Saxon roots, and that the gentry continued to evolve in later centuries. It might be added that in the natural sciences evolution tends to be understood today less in terms of Darwinian gradualism and more in terms of sharp shifts in response to specific stimuli. I am thus quite happy to agree with Professor Hicks that a lesser aristocracy existed from the late Anglo-Saxon to the Victorian era. Where I do not agree is that lesser aristocracy, or lesser nobility, should be regarded as synonymous with gentry.

There is, however, a growing advocacy of Anglo-Saxon gentry among British medievalists; in fact, it threatens to become an orthodox position. If, as Hicks suggests, to argue that the English gentry was ‘formed between the mid-thirteenth and the mid-fourteenth century’ is controversial and hence ‘not likely to enjoy universal acceptance’ that is increasingly because it runs counter to this new view rather than to the traditional framework he traces back to McFarlane: ‘The gentry were thus “a kind of lesser nobility”, whom, as K B McFarlane long ago suggested, were what remained when the parliamentary baronage were defined in the fourteenth century [my italics]’. The new proto-orthodoxy has certain advantages, and I have to admit that I rejected the idea of a weak Anglo-Saxon followed by a stronger later medieval gentry only after much thought.

There are, I think, two major problems with it. One is that it is extremely difficult to reconcile a very broad definition of gentry, such as the one Professor Hicks advocates, with the idea of the gentry as a specific (essentially English) form of lesser nobility. And yet that is what many, including some of the best-known, advocates of the Anglo-Saxon gentry continue to do, with their emphasis upon central and local institutions as well as upon the manor and seigneurial power. It is difficult to have it both ways: a gentry that is both broad and specific at one and the same time. It could certainly be argued that by abandoning some of the specifically English contours of the gentry historians might better facilitate comparative study. However, no one, as far as, I know is suggesting this.

The second problem is a connected one and it takes us back to the issue of continuity. There is a version of continuity in which late Anglo-Saxon society is seen as the same, in all its essentials, as the society which persisted throughout English history and into recent times. It slides easily into notions of English exceptionalism and into the Whig interpretation of history. I have tried to confront this issue more squarely in ‘What’s in a construct? The “Gentry” in Anglo-Saxon England’, in Ralph Evans, ed., Lordship and Learning: Studies in Memory of Trevor Aston (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, due September 2004). It is ironic, therefore, that Professor Hicks should accuse me of ‘a certain Whiggish determinism’. I may have a blind spot here, but I do disavow the appellation. Of course, I readily concede that all quests for origins contain an element of teleology. However, the Whig interpretation, as I understand it, sees the perceived virtues of the present in the past and applauds those individuals and institutions that have, historically, facilitated the progress of those virtues. As Herbert Butterfield wrote: ‘The fervour of the whig historian very often comes from what is really the transference into the past of an enthusiasm for something in the present, an enthusiasm for democracy or freedom of thought or the liberal tradition'(2). Neither I, nor Clio through me, is specifically on the side of the gentry. I stand more with Butterfield’s historian as ‘essentially the observer, watching the moving scene’ (3).

Finally, Professor Hicks ends with some assertions which reveal that he perceives medieval society in an entirely different way from me. In fact, he accuses me of ‘a somewhat tendentious Marxism’. I am not sure that the label Marxist is of any value at all in this context, unless one were to regard the likes of Marc Bloch, Michael Postan and Georges Duby, for example, as Marxists; but that is by the way. I would not have thought it tendentious, Marxist or otherwise, to suggest that courts were an important component of seigneurial income, nor that social control was a significant motive in medieval lordship. Few would want to use the diffusion of aristocratic values, I would have thought, to argue that every property holder’s interests were the same. And most commentators on medieval society that I know of believe that territorial power was a primary motive among magnates, whether one is talking of the twelfth century or the fifteenth. John Watts, for example, has written recently that the ‘dream of every nobleman was surely the unchallenged rule of the locality, in which case everybody would be, in some sense, a part of his following’ and Helen Castor that the ‘aim of every magnate . was to defeat or neutralize by accommodation the regional pretensions of his rivals in order to achieve or maintain control of his “country” (4). Here it is Professor Hicks with his somewhat tendentious anti-Marxism who appears to be swimming against the tide. However, tendentious is just a stronger word for contentious, and contentious for challenging. Challenge is the stuff of academic history, especially when the challenge is proffered in a crisp and courteous way.


1. J H Round, Feudal England (London, 1985; repr. 1964), p. 182.

2. Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London, 1931; repr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), pp. 71-2.

3. Ibid., p. 52.

4. John Watts, Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (Cambridge, 1966), p. 67; Helen Castor, The King, the Crown and the Duchy of Lancaster: Public Authority and Private Power, 1399-1461 (Oxford, 2000), p.100.

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