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Milestone in Civil War Historiography,
This review is from: The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Penguin History) (Paperback)
Love it or loath it 'The World Turned Upside Down' is a landmark in the history of the study of the Civil Wars, and arguably the zenith of the career of Christopher Hill. The original was published in 1972, and as a schoolboy I was lucky enough to attend a seminar at which he, Koenigsberger, and GR Elton were all present. A close run thing but Hill was probably the star turn. I finally got my own paperback penguin edition in 1981 - its still here now, and remains influential in the way we think about the period. It is particularly interesting to note that after the first edition Hill took on board many suggestions and corrections from a swathe of luminaries including Roots, Hobday, Thomas and Capp.
So what is actually in this volume ? The thrust of the book is that the Civil Wars were a 'revolution', and that within this event - which did turn over the world as men knew it - both 'common people' and a middle class played an important intellectual role. Hill's main concern is not chronology, but the ideas and philosophy. The moot point of course is whether what actually happened is reconcilable with the 'social tensions' and 'class antagonism' which Hill regarded as a mainspring of events. Whatever your opinion on this crucial matter Hill clearly researched extensively, covered widely, and wrote with great elegance and conviction.
Key players in Hill's thoughtful vision are the Diggers, Levellers, Seekers, Ranters and Quakers, all of whom he probed and explained with great lucidity. The unleashing of these non-comforming idealists who ranged across the spectrum from the sober and pacifist to the most wonderful and bizarre of crackpots did indeed have an impact on religion and society that stretched far beyond 1660. Yet we need to remain aware, as Hill plainly was, that it was the war and the freedom that the lifting of various forms of censorship that followed that allowed this to happen - not that the ideas expressed from the mid 1640s created the conflict. Another issue with the Hill thesis is that what he takes as significant belief is highly selective, great chunks of thought and print being dismissed as 'nonsense' - whilst other things, now also widely disregarded, are accepted as core to the debate. Finally, the revised edition at least, ends rather oddly. For after the conclusions there are two appendicies one which refers to Hobbes who properly 'has no place in this book' and one on Milton and Bunyan.
In short this is a fascinating and well written volume with which anybody interested in the period should be familiar. Whether it presents a complete historical picture, or a convincing 'explanation' is a different question entirely. Nevertheless highly recommended reading which will doubtless stimulate new conclusions from fresh generations of readers.