Skip to content

Response to Review no. 920

I thank Dr Cavill for his generous reading, an exhilarating summary of my narrative, the judgement that the book ‘makes a compelling case for the common identity of the popular politics of the late 14th and early 17th centuries’, and much else. He raises a number of enduringly controversial issues, not least the history and meaning of ‘progressive politics’.   

I did not mean class is ‘the only way of categorizing early modern society’, but that any account that excludes it ignores something fundamental and all-pervasive in early modern life, thereby distorting the true picture. I was interested in how the sources classified commonwealths, not what Marx and the Whigs or any later commentators made of them. I discovered class consciousness in the sources and tried to present and discuss images of society and its divisions in their (changing) language and contexts.   

I traced ‘commonalty’, not to communitas, but to innovative 13th-century usages of Norman-French ‘commonaute’. The book argued they were early symptoms or clues to a long collective movement from below, not that eventual outcomes necessarily represent ‘progress’.

The writers who became central to my account were ‘certainly unrepresentative’, as Dr Cavill says. They survived and became ‘canonical’ because of their lucidity and the intensity of their desire to make written sense of what went on around them. They mostly sprang from the ‘mediating’ ranks that governed local communities and connected them with national government. It is conventional to stress the nobility of their patrons, but one commonality across my ‘canon’ is that all its members were first shaped, not by courts, but by vernacular childhoods. That there are few known children of labourers, husbandmen and artisans – or barons – amongst them before the later 16th century is one kind of evidence for routine operations of class.

The common aim, I argued, was to bring the discontented parts, members or ‘classes’ into harmony. When they said or assumed government is good when authorities put the whole commonwealth, especially the nominally subject classes, first and always, it was not just what classics and academics thought, but what it was second nature for everybody to think. People intuitively thought public authorities devoted to anything less than the whole commonweal are corrupt. Seeking and using power for particular interests was corrupting because, unchecked, it set all the members at war with each other and commonweal collapsed into a war of each against all. They differed over how to end the war, and even if it could be ended, but all agreed the goals of commonweal were truce, mutual counsel and harmony between the members or ‘classes’.

My interpretation of the religious history is more complicated than that the English Church was ‘an alien Norman institution’. I suggest there may have been important efforts to close the gap between the estate-holding institutional Church and the commonalty in the 13th century. My impression is that one outcome of the Hundred Years War was that Church magnates became more closely associated with the administration of the secular state and the interests of the traditional ruling ‘members’ or classes. When I wrote ‘church’ with a small ‘c’ I generally meant the parishes, where, local sources often show, the quality of religious life in the 15th century depended more on popular demand and local initiatives than on what Church hierarchies supplied.  I found the idea that the Church cared more for ‘estate’ in all its senses than it did for the prosperity and spiritual welfare of common people was a late 14th-century commonplace. Knowing it was obviously true, in many cases, did not necessarily make affected communities welcome the reforms of Henry VIII and Edward VI, especially the dissolutions of chantries. I suspect the aggregate religious condition of pre-reformation England was more or less orthodox independency, but more parish studies are needed. Tensions between local, popular religious practices and institutional Churches were no less common after the Reformation. I don’t think nationalist Protestantism represented ‘progress’. I argue it forms a historical process with earlier themes, and that it had momentous consequences. I don’t think I said enough about the ‘puritan revolution’ as a collective millenarian movement with roots deeper than the anomie of the middle decades of the 16th century. As Dr Cavill observes, Tyndale was conservative in his vocationalism and view of established hierarchy, which anticipated Smith’s. Tyndale hoped reading vernacular scripture would foster ‘felyng fayth’ and that a ‘common-wealth’ inspired by vocationally specific ‘felyng fayth’ would make class, rank and hierarchy, for practical purposes, irrelevant. 

I think we agree there is now enough evidence of collective movements, including movements of collective consciousness and ethics, to sweep out taboos against studying them as such. My book argued transgenerational movements happened and were incomparably important historical agencies. Late medieval and early modern England is one of the earliest communities for which extensive primary sources, relating to the conditions that make collective consciousness possible, are extant. I found common conceptions (but not common judgement) of class were usually prominent, or prominently implicit, in the sources.  I greatly appreciate the compliment, but hoped to make the book one in which the ideas that really ‘fizzed’ were not mine, or even modern, but those of the sources.