HIST 251: Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

Lecture 25

 - Concluding Discussion and Advice on Examination


In this final lecture, Professor Wrightson reviews the major themes of the class through a reflection on the nature of the historical process. He explains how the developments traced in the course illustrate the complex and ambiguous nature of historical change and emphasizes the importance of studying history as a means of “understanding ourselves in time” through the disciplined recreation of the past in the present. He concludes by offering his thanks to the teaching fellows.

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Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

HIST 251 - Lecture 25 - Concluding Discussion and Advice on Examination

Chapter 1. Conclusions [00:00:00]

Professor Keith Wrightson: Okay, well today we’re just winding down. First of all, a few concluding reflections to wrap up the course.

Well, we’ve now traced the development of a society, of a political culture and indeed, in many ways, a whole national culture, over more than 200 years, 250 years. I promised when we started off in lecture one that we’d be looking at some great personalities, some great events and some great processes, and I hope that that promise has been met.

We’ve had the great personalities, warts and all, with or without heads. We’ve also traced a changing political culture: the development of the institutions of representative government; the eventual taming of personal monarchy; the development of concepts of the rule of law, of political participation, of notions of liberty under the law. We’ve also looked at the emergence, the early stages of the emergence, of a fully capitalist market economy, and indeed its connections to a nascent world economy. And we’ve looked at the transition from a late medieval society of orders to what can reasonably be described as a nascent class society. We’ve looked at a transformation in religious culture, the eventual acceptance of a tentative pluralism and toleration in matters of belief. And of course we’ve looked at enormous changes in levels of education, in popular literacy and the print culture that served these and so on. And throughout all of this, in many ways, we’ve looked at the hammering out of the conflicts to which all of these processes gave rise. And eventually, the finding of ways to deal with those conflicts peaceably.

Well, these are things of some significance. They matter, most obviously, to the extent that some of the events and processes that we’ve been examining in this period have left a legacy in the modern world in terms of institutions, in terms of values, in terms of ideas. And that’s not just true of England or Britain, but also of a larger world that at one time or another was subject to British influence, firsthand or at secondhand. To that extent, many of these things are a widely shared legacy and worth knowing something about. They are, in the words of one Tudor chronicler, in his definition of history, they’re “tales useful to be known.” And all that is one form of what Peter Laslett, in his famous phrase, described as “understanding ourselves in time.”1

But when he used that phrase, he also meant something larger. He meant reflecting on the actual nature of the historical process. Now, of course one can do that for any period of history for any country; they’re all equally valuable as human experience, though the stories and the meanings vary. We’ve looked at one particular case, but it also serves to illustrate some general points about the historical process and I’ll raise them briefly.

Chapter 2. Historiographical Lessons [00:03:54]

First, of course, history is process. We’re looking at societies which are in constant motion. Change is the heart of the matter. People change, societies and their institutions change, their values change, their identities change. An outline course of this kind helps to reveal that, and early modern England certainly illustrates that general truth. It was a time obviously enough of the breaking of worlds and of the making of worlds, of the erosion of old certainties and identities and structures, and the creation of new ones.

But secondly, historical change of this kind is messy. It’s complex and messy and, in many ways, ambiguous. History is never scripted in advance. Historians who have an ideological cast of mind might like to pretend that it is and to describe historical processes as though they have a certain inevitability, leading to preconceived ends of one kind or another. But they deceive themselves. Nothing in history is pre-ordained. Some change may be the successful outcome of deliberately planned action, but a great deal is the result of improvised responses to immediate contingencies. And in both cases, there are always the unforeseen consequences. The history of early modern England illustrates this well enough. Think of the Henrician Reformation, or think of the regicide and what followed it, or think of the long working out of the outcome of the Revolution of 1688.

So it’s not scripted in advance and it’s not synchronized either. Change of different kinds proceeds at different paces. We’ve looked at political change, economic change, social change, cultural change. We’ve seen the urgency with which political change can often take place, but then there are also those processes which are of a very gradual, very slow and cumulative nature, worked out over generations and uneven in their long-term impact. Think of the uneven spread of literacy, for example, or the process of economic change that I’ve looked at. As a result, at any one point in time, any society is a kind of mixture of forms because change is uneven, because it’s partial.

So, the process is messy, but nonetheless, in all of this one can find patterns, one can trace connections. If it wasn’t so, one would not be able to offer interpretations of the process of change. One wouldn’t be able to offer arguments about the nature of causation. And again, looking at a particular society over a long period of time helps one to appreciate this aspect of the study of history. It reveals the interconnections. It reveals the way things work their way through over time. But no single interpretation ever encompasses it all, of course. No single interpretation ever holds all the answers. How can one simply answer a question like, “When did England become Protestant?” And what did that mean, anyway? That’s why, of course, we constantly need to revise our views of it all in the light of new evidence, in the light of new imaginative insights on the part of historians.

We can never wholly recover the past; it’s gone, it’s drowned in time. But we can enter a dialog with the evidence that it has left and, by doing that, remake the past again and again in the present, according to our changing preoccupations and our changing understandings. Finding new dimensions of what was going on, previously neglected; finding new meanings, new understandings. And this is very evident in the ongoing debates over all the major issues of this particular period, and the way that new issues are constantly emerging.

Well, it’s because of that complexity that I’ve tried to present an account of change in this period that is complex and many faceted, that includes many dimensions; the political, the economic, the social, the cultural, each of them making its own contribution to an overall process, each of them helping to make the overall process comprehensible. And it’s because of the ambiguities in all of this that I’ve tried to adopt a variety of perspectives; looking at things from the Catholic point of view and from the Protestant point of view, from the monarchical, from the populist; history as viewed from the top, or from the bottom, or from the middle; history wearing breeches, history dressed in a gown. And there’s a point to all of this; the point is simply that history contains many stories, all of which deserve to be told. It contains, in the evidence it leaves to us, many voices, all of which deserve to be heard. No one owns the past; it’s common land. There’s no velvet rope denying access. It’s not a gated community. The dead, in the evidence they leave to us, will talk to anyone. They’re very nice that way.

I’ve also tried repeatedly to give a sense of the context within which people lived, made their decisions and choices, and acted. And again, there’s a very simple historical philosophy behind that which is neatly stated in the old adage that people make their own history, but they don’t make it just as they choose. They make it within contexts and under conditions that are not of their own choosing; some of which are inherited, some of which are newly encountered, some of which can be anticipated, some of which take them by surprise. But by their actions and responses and choices, they can change their world, though always within certain constraints. And to understand that process and the outcomes, we need to understand the context within which people acted in their own time, in their own ways, according to their own lights.

One of the most important of such contexts is of course the structures of power in any society, in determining action, in initiating change. Some people carried more weight, some had more clout; we’ve seen examples enough of that in early modern England in the political sphere, in the economic sphere and elsewhere. But we’ve seen examples too of the fact that power can be resisted, it can be confronted, it can even be put under restraint. People make their own history, they can alter the contexts, sometimes quite significantly, reshaping the world that is encountered by the next generation, and that in a sense has been the core of the narrative element of this course. So to conclude: things change, change is messy, it’s ambiguous in its meaning, there are many interconnected stories, history has many voices, people make their own history, but not just as they please, and if some have more power than others to call the shots, they don’t have to have it all their own way; nor did they.

Reflecting on the process as a whole gives the history of any period and any country its meaning, its many meanings, and that’s why it’s worth bothering. In studying history, we constantly reconstruct the past in the present, disciplined as we do it by respect for the evidence which it leaves to us, but drawn in to examine and to re-examine that evidence by the problems which we ourselves feel the need to understand. Each of us is drawn, almost instinctively, to those aspects of the past which continue to resonate to us individually across the centuries because they speak to us for reasons we sometimes might not fully understand. They speak to our preoccupations, they speak to our dilemmas. And in trying to understand them, we can not only understand ourselves better in time, but also see possibilities for the future.

Historical events can often be dismaying, but historical study is ultimately encouraging; it’s concerned with change, with possibility, with adaptation, with finding ways. It’s concerned with human experience and achievement of every kind. Sustaining a sense of that ancestry is important in what sometimes seems an increasingly frivolous and de-historicized Western culture with an extremely shallow awareness of its own past that can result in a kind of disorientation. History, in contrast, tries to understand; to understand what we have been, to raise questions and suggestions and implications for what we might be capable of becoming. And that’s why history, all history, matters. It really does matter.

Chapter 3. Awards [00:15:31]

Okay, well that’s my little sermon, and now we’re going to have a short awards ceremony, for which I must prepare myself. [Laughter]

Right. [Laughter] I hereby declare myself Supreme Head of the History Department. Henceforward only my interpretations will be taught, and henceforward, all books published by members of the Department will contain a groveling dedication to me. [Laughter] But even the most horrid tyrant cannot rule alone. You need an aristocracy. [Laughter] And aristocracies, as you know, need to be rewarded. And so we have an awards ceremony to reward our teaching fellows; the russet-coated captains of this course who (laughs) know what they teach and love what they know. Okay, now I have some nominations for these awards here prepared for me by Thomas Cromwell.


Right. Now, first of all, what do we have here? Yes, okay. We have the Henry VIII Award for Devotion to Family Values and for being top redhead. [Lucy Kaufman] [Applause]

Student: [Laughs] Oh, thank you [laughs]. It’s a divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived bag, which I will use for my library books for my work.

Keith Wrightson: Okay. And now we have the Elizabeth I Award for Not Making Windows into Students’ Souls and for Keeping Advisors in their Place. [Courtney Thomas] [Laughter and applause].

And looking ahead to the Stuart Succession which I’ve done my best to avoid, but unfortunately it’s going to happen, so my soothsayers tell me, we have the King Charles II Award — the last real king — the King Charles II Award for Being Tall, Dark and Partly French — [laughter] — and for staying cool and carrying on. To Justin DuRivage. [Applause]

Okay. So that’s it. [Laughter] Do remember to let me know if you intend to come to the Center for British Art tomorrow morning for the last visit there and now we’ll turn to housekeeping matters and I’ll tell you a little bit about the nature of the exam.

[end of transcript]


1. Peter Laslett, in The World We Have Lost (1965).

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