Martial law does not have a good reputation. William Blackstone set the tone of modern attitudes in the 18th century. Martial law is ‘built upon no settled principles ... entirely arbitrary in its decisions ... no law, but something indulged, rather than allowed as a law’ (quoted at p. 251).
As Professor Gunn observes in his foreword, this book has been a long time coming: first mooted in fact in 1985 (a very suitable date). This has had two significant consequences which I shall discuss sequentially.
Martin Ingram’s 1987 book Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570–1640 is celebrated for many reasons.(1) Not least, it is recognised for its importance in rescuing ecclesiastical courts from previous unfavourable assessments that branded them corrupt and inefficient.
Between 1500 and 1700, the period of Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, of John Selden and Edward Coke, English law and literature flourished. Yet, these two worlds did not exist separately from each other.
The history of religious toleration during the early modern period has been revitalised over the past decade. Scholars such as Alexandra Walsham and Benjamin Kaplan have shown that early modern society did not view toleration as the social virtue that was later espoused by enlightenment thinkers.
Pauline Gregg’s Freeborn John was previously the most recent full biographical work on John Lilburne. Published in 1961, Gregg’s work was extremely close to H. N. Brailsford’s seminal The Levellers and the English Revolution; the two works standing for decades as the cornerstones to Leveller historiography.
There is no more exemplary figurehead for the history of legal culture than the late Christopher W. Brooks. As the editors of this volume observe, by the time of his death in 2014 Brooks ‘had established a firm reputation as the most important and influential historian of law and society in early modern England’ (p. 1).
Although England was just about early modern Europe’s least violent place to live it has, paradoxically, produced far and away the most research on the problem of homicide. The trend shows no sign of abating, as recent works by Lockwood and Sharpe demonstrate.
Gary De Krey is a leading historian of mid-to-late 17th-century London. His two monographs on the City: London and the Restoration and A Fractured Society capture the complexity, dynamics and interiority of London politics in ways that have often stumped the best of historians.
This volume arrives with high praise. The book ‘[d]eserves to become another classic’, opines Peter Burke at the top of the front cover. It ‘[c]ompletely overhauls our view’, observes Ronald Hutton somewhat further down. The work itself is not shy of ambition either. Both the title—The Decline of Magic—and the subtitle—Britain in the Enlightenment—promise sweeping panoramas.