February 8, 2016 by James Crossley
[Part 1 available here, Part 2 available here, Part 3 available here. All Hill posts based on the chapter, ‘Christopher Hill’s World Turned Upside Down’, in Crossley, Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968 (2014, new edition coming soon)]
Hill’s Marxist reading of what he would call the English revolution owed at least something to his Nonconformist upbringing and turn to Marxism and the Communist Party in the 1930s. As he turned his back on Stalinism, his seventeenth-century radical revolution from below helped him come to terms with changes in radical thinking in the 1960s. Though he was never naïve about the power of capitalism, the optimism in the aftermath of the 1960s soon gave way to the melancholy of defeat in the face of Thatcherism and it was partly to the post-revolution seventeenth century in which Hill looked for answers.
But Hill also played a role in another defining myth: the Second World War. This has arguably been the dominant myth in English and British myth making since 1945. In 1940, Hill published a kind of popularist call-to-arms, The English Revolution 1640. Here Hill was already attempting to claim or reclaim a radical English tradition which clearly (and obviously intentionally) was written in the face of fascism:
In time of war men must choose one side or the other…They were fighting a system…Nor was it a war of the rich only…Many of those who fought for Parliament were afterwards disappointed with the achievements of the revolution, felt they had been betrayed. But they were right to fight…The fact that the revolution might have gone further should never allow us to forget the heroism and faith and disciplined energy with which ordinary decent people responded when the Parliament’s leaders freely and frankly appealed to them to support its cause…The important thing is that the social order was new and would not have been won without revolution…It is struggle that wins reforms, just as it is struggle that will retain the liberties which our ancestors won for us…That is the lesson of the seventeenth century for to-day. (English Revolution 1640, pp. 56-58, 80-82)
He would recall that this was written quickly and in the expectation that he would die in the war. It was certainly part of Popular Front mentality against fascism (which did not really leave the work of those historians radicalized in the 1930s) but, for all the professed internationalism, it was also part of the construction of an radical English tradition, much like his colleague/comrade in the Communist Party Historians’ Group, E.P. Thompson, and his The Making of the English Working Class. Indeed, it is worth noting that one of the key reasons why Hill, Hilton, Hobsbawm, Thompson and others get a place in the Marxist canon is because they are deemed to represent an Anglicized Marxism.
The World Turned Upside Down opens with ‘Popular revolt was for many centuries an essential feature of the English tradition’. A central, heroic figure for Hill is Winstanley, who is understood as innovating within a particularly English radical tradition [see also Hill, ‘The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley (1978-1980)’, in C. Hill, Religion and Politics in 17th Century England (1986), pp. 185-252]. Hill might have recognised antecedents to, and similarities with, his English radical tradition, among, for instance, ‘Italian Neo-Platonists’ and ‘German Anabaptists’, but would still stress the importance of his radical figures in relation to English affairs and how ‘the form and shape [of their ideas] were their own, drawn from experience of their daily life in England’ (World Turned Upside Down, pp. 363-64). We might compare Hill’s younger contemporary and radical historian, Sheila Rowbotham, who published Women, Resistance and Revolution in the same year (1972) as World Turned Upside Down. Rowbotham worked in similar circles to Thompson and Hill, she looked at seventeenth-century revolutionary thought (including the role of the Bible), and has a chapter called ‘Impudent Lasses’ (compare Hill’s ‘Base Impudent Kisses’). However, even Hill’s wide-ranging interests look provincial next to Rowbotham’s internationalism as she also looked at women and revolutionary struggles in for instance, France, China, America, and Vietnam.
The Bible was, of course, integral to Hill’s construction of a radical English tradition. In The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (1993), Hill argues that by the seventeenth-century, the vernacular Bible had become popularly available and thus, for Hill, a significant means for lower class resistance. So when ‘Englishmen had to face totally unexpected revolutionary situations in the 1640s and 1650s’, they could not turn to a Rousseau or a Marx but to the only authority they knew: the Bible. By the time of Hill’s Revolution, survival of the English Bible was, for Hill, part of a deep-rooted tradition of lowly illegal gatherings where participants might find ‘profoundly subversive messages’ (English Bible, pp. 8-10). But Hill’s English Bible was also part of the development of the Protestant English nation. This both radical and nationalistic Bible is tied up with the Cultural Bible. The availability of the English Bible provided a means to learning and a stimulus to read, as well as instigating ‘a cultural revolution of unprecedented proportions, whose consequences are difficult to underestimate’ (p. 11). The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution was, as we saw, dedicated to the Bible and radical politics but it is telling (and here it unsurprisingly echoes World Turned Upside Down, as well as Hill’s work on Milton) that there is a major section on ‘The Bible and English Literature’. Alongside, the radicalism was an important subtheme: the ‘century from the 1580s to the 1680s is the greatest age in English literature’ and the importance of ‘the English Bible…in the transformation of English literature in this crucial period’ (p. 335).
An interest running throughout Hill’s career, and which brings all these strands of biblical interpretation together, is his work on the ‘Norman Yoke’. This is the idea that despotism is a foreign (Norman) import alien to the more benign Anglo-Saxon mentality. Hill’s classic presentation is ‘The Norman Yoke’, in J. Saville (ed.), Democracy and the Labour Movement (1954), pp. 11-66. Hill looked at the history of this myth in his radical English tradition and he suggested that it was a variant of the peasant myth of a golden age. Hill would argue that one revolutionary seventeenth-century argument was to blend the myths of the Norman Yoke and The Fall through a non-historical, ‘poetic’ reading of the Bible. Thus, Hill’s radicals (esp. Winstanley) went beyond a call for the restoration of Anglo-Saxon laws and looked back further still to a pure state of humanity before The Fall where Adam and Eve (and so humanity) have rights to the products of nature, whether on waste or common lands (cf. Genesis 1.28). Other seventeenth-century combinations of the myth of the Norman Yoke and the Bible picked up by Hill included ideas that lawyers and priests represented the Norman army of Antichrist’s laity and clergy and that the Norman Yoke was code for ‘Philistine’ (or vice versa). For Hill, the actual development of a Bible in English belonged to the resistance to the Norman Yoke. Similarly, the English Nationalist Bible came about by asserting the supremacy of the English language against the dominance of French-speaking Normans between the eleventh and fourteenth century.
In the grand scheme of Hill’s English history and Hill’s career, the English Bible marks both a recovery of a radical English tradition but also its decline as the bourgeois revolution eventually won (in whatever guise). His Radical Bible did not die out and its presence was felt again in radical circles in the following centuries and in the rise of Enlightenment biblical criticism. Given the narrative of defeat which would eventually pervade Hill’s work, there is something else significant about the dominance of the Bourgeois Bible, i.e. which version of the Bible would also win. While Hill’s radical revolution brought about the recovery of a more radical Geneva Bible, ‘market forces’, among other things, would help the state-authorised King James Version (Hill uses ‘AV’) to go on to be the dominant Bible. For Hill, the AV was ‘far cheaper to produce than the Geneva Bible with its copious notes, illustrations and other accessories’ and, with the decline or radical biblical politics, the Geneva Bible and its infamous notes also lost their revolutionary relevance and thereby paved the way for the AV’s conservative and bourgeois victory (English Bible, p. 435).