Christopher Hill is one of the modern era of British Civil War historians. He obviously has socialist leanings but his analysis of background and events is interesting and well worth considering if you are studying this period (which I am).
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.
Christopher Hill is one of my favourite historians, and of his books, of which I have about a dozen on my bookshelves, this is probably the best. Its style owes much to EP Thompson's monumental 'The Making of the English Working Class', both in terms of structure and historical methodology. Hill is a Marxist historian, but there is little dogmatic or reductionist about his work, and, contrary to the review below, a familiarity with Marxist concepts is not at all necessary to appreciate the value of this important book. Hill begins the work with a general survey of the social, religious and economic background to the English Revolution; the forces which created it, and the openings it itself created through, eg, the New Model Army, the consequences of the Protestant Reformation, and so on. Hill is looking at 'internal' and 'external' causes of the 'flourishing of radical ideas' in the revolutionary decades, 1640-1660. He traces the development of the ideas in themselves, and the response to social conditions, conceived here in the broadest sense possible. Thus his work follows a sophisticated dialectical structure, whereby 'ideas' are discussed in themselves, but always related to the social and cultural millieu in which they operate. And what ideas! Christopher Hill shows enormous sympathy for the 'exhilirating freedom' of the revolutionary decades. He shows us, like Thompson, people making their own history, not because but in spite of thier 'circumstance'. Thus he presents the Seekers and Ranters, anarchist libertarians who believed, as a logical consequence of Calvinist doctrines of predestination, that the holy were justified sinners; the radical Quakers; and individuals like Samuel Fisher, Abeizer Coppe, the anonymous author of the anarchist 'Tyranipocrit Discovered', and John Bunyan. Of course the book is most famous for its portrait of True Leveller Gerrard Winstanley, the hero of the book. For Hill, Winstanley is the apogee of seventeenth century radicalism. His agrarian communist priciples strikingly resemble modern libertarian socialism, and his social theory, like Hegel and Marx, was dialectical, in a way. Winsatanley's shadow stretches long and dark over the book, and it is no worse for that. The book has a scope far beyond the sects of the English Revolution, also discussed are the protestant ethic, the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, Milton's epics, the burgeoning scientific revolution, the 'puritan sexual revolution', and much more. From this book one gets a sense of the experience of the civil war, as Hill states in his Introduction, from a worm's eye view. But it is a very one-sided view. More balance is necessary. It would be interesting if Hill had had more to say about popular conservatism, about resistance to these ideas, so that a greater understanding of the radicals may be brought to light. Yet this book fully deserves its five stars, and equally deserves to be read, discussed and appreciated after almost thirty years. A testement to one of the greatest historians alive today.
Certainly a candidate for it. Hill's monumental work is probably the definitive work of the British Marxist Historians group of scholars who appeared in the immediate after of World War II. It featured such lumanaries as E.P. Thompson and Rodney Hilton and basically invented Social History through its study of what became known as 'History from Below'. Thompson's 'The Making of the English Working Class' is the most famous publication of the group, but 'World turned Upside Down' is, in the humble opinion of this author, the best. It expands on Hill's thesis about the two revolutions that took place in England at the time of the Civil War. Focussing on the second, democratic, revolution, that ultimately failed; Hill examines some of the main players. Groups such as The Levellers, The Diggers and The Ranters are examined as are the early Quakers, in a way that is sad, compelling and eminently readable. At the same time important questions are asked about the so-called 'traditional' view of history..... Buy this book, read it and inject the arguments into your brain