Margo Todd, ed. Reformation to Revolution: Politics and Religion in Early Modern England. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. 296pp. ISBN 0 415 09691 X Cloth; 0 415 09692 8 Paper.
Bernadette Andrea
West Virginia University

Andrea, Bernadette. "Review of Reformation to Revolution: Politics and Religion in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 (January, 1998): 11.1-6 <URL:

  1. Revisionist historians, the models of history they react against, and the critics who react against them form the subject of Margo Todd's edited collection. This book features a range of republished articles and abridged chapters from the most influential historians of the Revisionist camp, who throughout the 1980s elaborated their model of the English Reformation and Revolution (or, in their terms, Rebellion, or even Revolt), and have since become a dominant presence in historical, though not yet in literary, studies of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. Methodologically, Revisionist historians favour archival sources and local studies. Conceptually, they reject both the Whig progress narrative towards parliamentary reform and the Marxist master narrative of class conflict; instead, they emphasize consensus, continuity, cooperation, and contingency.

  2. Complicating this model of broad-based consensus, however, is the mid-seventeenth-century Civil War. Todd highlights this crux through a series of rhetorical questions, asking Revisionist historians of the English Reformation, "What, then, upset this consensus and gave rise to a war of religion in the 1640s?" (3), and Revisionist historians of the English Revolution, "if Parliament and the early Stuart kings were able to work out their differences on the basis of a commonly held understanding of the structure and function of government, what drove them to take up arms in 1642?" (4). As Todd notes, other critics loosely labelled under the heading "counter-revisionists" push this critique of the Revisionist contingency theory even further (5).

  3. Meant primarily for classroom use, this collection divides the Revisionist debate into three somewhat broad, though pedagogically useful, movements: "Revising Religion," "Revising Politics," and "Responding to Revisionism." The first section begins with Christopher Haigh's survey of "The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation" (13-32), where he specifies four approaches to English Reformation studies - a "rapid Reformation from above" (15), a "rapid Reformation from below" (17), a slow Reformation from above (21), and a "slow Reformation from below" (23) - to demonstrate that "the Reformation in England was . . . the contingent product of a series of conflicts and crises and of the interaction of social, geographical and political influences which varied from region to region" (26). Patrick Collinson, whom Haigh praises as the best representative of the "slow Reformation from below" approach, argues in his "Protestant Culture and the Cultural Revolution" (33-52) that a distinct cultural dialectic developed within early English Protestantism, moving from the positive embrace of "the cultural forms which already existed and employ[ing] them for its own purposes," to the rejection of "these same cultural media, which now became the enemy no less than popery itself," to a renewed positive response, at which point "an authentically protestant literary culture emerged" (36). Nicholas Tyacke's study of "Puritanism, Arminianism, and Counter-Revolution" (53-70) similarly establishes continuity in Protestant English culture by asserting that the event Whig historians labelled the Puritan Revolution was actually a Calvinist "counter revolution" against Laudian innovations (69). "Archbishop Laud" is precisely the concern of Kevin Sharpe's essay (71-77), where he attempts to rehabilitate Laud's standing in English Reformation Studies by establishing him as a stabilizing figure who was "devoted to the Church of England" and who "sought peace and unity" (73). Peter White concludes this sections with his assertion of "The Via Media in the Early Stuart Church" (78-94), where he likewise defends Laud against antagonistic propaganda, especially that of the seventeenth-century polemicist William Prynne, and warns against allowing Prynne's perspective to determine subsequent historical assessments of Laud.

  4. The next section, "Revising Politics," shifts to Revisionist historians of the English Parliament and the Civil War who, characteristically, stress consensus over conflict and regional interests over national. Geoffrey Elton, for one, examines "Parliament in the Reign of Elizabeth I" (97-115) and finds factions rather than parties, debate rather than conflict. He thereby rejects the assumption of a "Puritan opposition" (114), pivotal for Whig interpretations of the pre-Civil War period. Addressing "England in 1637" (116-141), Conrad Russell confirms the Revisionist sense that stability and neutrality characterized English parliamentary politics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In "The Coming of War" (142-54), John Morrill draws this section to a close by addressing the most troubling question for Revisionists: "All this emphasis on neutralism and pacifism begs the questions: Why did civil war break out? Who were the activists and how did they break down the pacifism of the majority?" (152). Though he rejects the Whig court/country opposition, Morrill finds he must account for those "activist groups" who pushed the substantial body of moderates towards Civil War (151). Morrill thus exemplifies the intra-Revisionist phenomenon Todd stresses: "those whose work is focused on politics have been turning back to religious division as central to the ultimate outbreak of violence - hence the concern of so much of this volume with religion - even while religious Revisionists downplay the division" (8).

  5. The final section "Responding to Revisionism," is set in counterpoint to the first two. A. G. Dickens, a target of attack for many Revisionists, develops and defends his model of a rapid Reformation from below in "The Early Expansion of Protestantism in England, 1520-1558" (157-78). He emphasizes that his work always respected the diversity of regional cultures in England; however, he insists that, because "the regions of England were not of equal influence upon the history of the nation" (160), the relatively rapid Reformation in London and environs was decisive. In "Calvinism and the English Church, 1570-1635" (179-207), Peter Lake posits a division between conflict-promoting "experimental predestinarians" and consensus-seeking "credal predestinarians" to frame an interpretation of the religio-political conflicts in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England that avoids the excesses of both the Whig and the Revisionist models (179). In arguing against historians who continue to accept seventeenth-century polemics "at face value" (179), Lake proposes an increasingly rhetorical historiographical method. David Underdown in "Popular Politics Before the Civil War" (208-31) seconds this call for a rhetorical emphasis in historical studies with his analysis of the cultural roots of the political upheaval in mid-seventeenth-century England. Richard Cust continues this theme in his survey of "News and Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England" (232-51), concluding that the "news," with its demand for attention grabbing headlines, both exaggerated the degree of conflict in early seventeenth-century England and produced a counter-discourse of consensus. Ann Hughes, who in "Local History and the Origins of the Civil War" (252-73) proposes a modified Whig view of early modern English history, appropriately has the last word in this collection. Against "a fundamentally unsatisfactory account of the Civil War as an irrational, unnatural, accidental conflict brought about by a few religious extremists" (254), Hughes concludes that "the conservatism and localism" that the Revisionists stress "was not natural, or pre-existing, but was created, called into being by the strains of war," and comments that "[t]oo often local historians forget that people develop new ideas, change their minds under the pressure of events" (269).

  6. As a whole, Todd's wide-ranging, meticulously edited collection enables us to launch a corresponding critique of currently hegemonic representations of mid-seventeenth-century English history as - most infamously and most influentially for literary studies in The Norton Anthology of English Literature (1993) - "the Puritan Revolt." Clearly, Todd's collection has much to offer historians who teach the English Reformation and Revolution, and much to teach literary critics who engage these histories.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(BA, LH, RGS, 22 January 1998)