Reviewed by: John Morrill Author: Keith Thomas Publisher: Oxford University Press Price (RRP): £20
Any new book by Sir Keith Thomas is a major event, and a book based on what he himself calls “one of the greatest honours which historians of Britain can receive; and one of the most daunting” – ie the Ford Lectures in Oxford – is even more of an event.
He has taken a mighty subject – how did early modern men and women make sense of the nature and purpose of human existence – and he treats it mightily, the 100 pages of references drawing on more than 2,000 modern books and essays, and rather more books and pamphlets published across the 16th to the 18th century in England.
Intimidatingly, a note preceding the references says that “the endnotes are illustrative rather than exhaustive”. The technique is one of ‘lumping’ (in a famous description by Jack Hexter of the method of Christopher Hill, Thomas’s undergraduate mentor), piling up example upon example against the slow pulse of a well-controlled unfolding argument.
In lesser hands this could produce severe indigestion in the reader. But so keen is Thomas’s eye for the memorable quotation, so firm is the discipline behind the steady gait of the argument, that the result is pure delight. And the text is brilliantly supplemented with 14 plates and ten on-the-page illustrations that are integral to the argument and to its effectiveness.
The felicity of the quotations (Sir Humphrey Gilbert urging Elizabeth I to found an academy for nobles, “that your Majesty, being dead, shall make your sepulchre for ever in the mouths of the living” (showing that Gilbert had the same reckless courage at court that he showed in the Irish theatre of war) is matched by the felicity of Sir Keith’s own style: “chastity to women was what courage was to men, the primary constituent of honour”.
This is peerless scholarship lightly worn, with its grasp of the classics, scripture, humanism and natural philosophy; and it takes the terrains of the new social history, with its preference for the poor and the middling sort, and explores them for the whole of society and the professions. Separate chapters explore roads to fulfilment represented by military prowess, by work and vocation, by wealth and possession, by honour, by friendship and sociability and by fame and the afterlife.
Thomas admits to the methodological challenges of his ‘lumping’ technique – that it brings together material from very different genres and cultural groups over a very long time. But he feels that the current fashion for ‘splitting’ – filtering out the distinctive and different – comes at a cost.
I am not persuaded that Thomas has always recognised change as well as continuity, but I never ceased to be challenged, startled and delighted. And when the anthropologist in Thomas claims to have recaptured the way men and women in that past made sense of their present and their future, I am content to say “Amen”.