Christopher Hill, class hatred and the many-headed monster

Brodie Waddell

In 1965, Christopher Hill published an essay entitled ‘The Many-Headed Monster’, from which this blog takes its name. The piece begins, of course, with a quote, but he then lays out much of the argument right on the first page:

Most writers about politics during the century before 1640 agreed that democracy was a bad thing … ‘The people’ were fickle, unstable, incapable of rational thought: the headless multitude, the many-headed monster.

According to Hill, the ‘class hostility’ of the propertied elite was deeply engrained in how they wrote and thought, so that ‘dread and hatred of the masses’ emerged in literature, philosophy and theatre.¹

It is difficult now to imagine that this was ever an important, novel argument. Today, historians of early modern England are well-aware of the distorting prejudices that shaped the way ‘the landed classes’ saw the actions of their supposed ‘inferiors’. We have, for a few decades at least, worked to read such sources ‘against the grain’ rather than to accept uncritically the words of the wealthy, educated men who provide so much of our source material.

‘Hydra’ from Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658). Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries: UH Digital Library.

But in 1965 this was not the case. Certainly there were already many good historians who thought carefully about the biases inherent in their sources and I would be very surprised if Hill was the first to make this point about Tudor and Stuart elites, but the essay still served an important purpose. It surveyed the wide-reach of this paranoia amongst the ‘better sort’ of people, setting it out in clear and unambiguous detail. Indeed, one weakness of the essay is its repetition – one reads quote after quote from authors expressing their fear or hatred of the ‘lower orders’. How many times do we really need to hear seventeenth-century toffs denounce ‘the ruder sort’ as ‘a violent flood’ or ‘foolish flies’ or ‘untamed beasts’ or ‘vile caitiff wretches’?

Hill nonetheless performed a valuable service by implicitly critiquing those scholars who had ended up (perhaps unconsciously) adopting the distorted perspective of their sources. One of the more well-known examples is Max Beloff, whose discussion of later Stuart food riots clearly owed much to the harsh descriptions of the unrest recorded in the state papers. Although it was only in 1971 that E.P. Thompson made Beloff notorious by criticising him directly, Hill’s essay showed the dangers of failing to account for the ‘class hatred’ of the English gentleman.²

Beyond this methodological point, Hill went on to show how these stereotypes influenced the course of the ‘Great Rebellion’ of the 1640s. Fear of the ‘giddy multitude’, he argued, actually shaped historical events. But perhaps this is a topic for another time.

For now, I’ll just close with a question: Do our own biases (as educated, middle class professionals) mean that we continue to often unconsciously imbue those of our well-off predecessors? Or maybe has nearly half a century of ‘reading against the grain’ left us less able to understand the genuine anxiety of a seventeenth-century gentleman faced with a crowd of ‘base and disorderly people’?


¹ Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from Christopher Hill, ‘The Many-Headed Monster’, in his Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England (1975), pp. 181-204. It was first published in C.H. Carter (ed.), From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation: Essays in Honour of Garrett Mattingley (1965).

² E.P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present, 50 (1971), p. 76, citing Max Beloff, Public Order and Popular Disturbances, 1660-1714 (1938), p. 75.

On the merits of dust

Brodie Waddell

Mark’s recent post – and the related questions that come up at EMOB, Tim Hitchcock’s blog, and elsewhere – got me thinking a bit more ‘about the relative merits of (cheap, easy and efficient) access to digitised primary sources on one hand, and to (often expensive, labour intensive and time-consuming) hands-on access to original materials on the other’.

This is something that I’m conflicted about too. On the one hand, I have an emotional and aesthetic preference for the dusty originals. On the other, I often find at least as much useful material in the clean, searchable digitised sources.

At a practical level, I’m inclined to throw in my lot with the digitisers. Wonderful resources like EBBO, ECCO, TCP, EBBA, BHO, OBO and LL opened up new worlds to me (especially when I was a student in Canada) and to many other scholars. Without them, much of my work would be impossible or, at the very least, about ten times slower.

An information related to the theft of two pewter pots, from the Middlesex Sessions Papers, dated March 1760, digitised at London Lives.

Nonetheless, I believe that there is another consideration that is rarely mentioned in discussions like these: there is an undeniable tendency for digitisation to reinforce existing biases in source use. Before digitisation began, people tended to use printed works more than manuscripts and to use southern English (especially metropolitan) archives more than distant archives. This makes perfect sense: if you are based at Oxford or Cambridge or flying into London from North America, why wouldn’t you focus on the sources accessible there. Digitisation has made this bias even stronger. Print has been digitised before mss and southern/metropolitan archives have digitised more than less central ones. (See, e.g., the sites mentioned above and also TNA and the ERO.)

What this means is that one often finds historians extrapolating from the same types of evidence, with the same innate biases, rather than drawing on anything even approximating a ‘random sample’. Indeed, I often find myself doing this, so I don’t blame anyone else for doing the same.

In contrast, I’ve been privileged to have had the opportunity (i.e. time, funding) over the last few years to be able to regularly trek to a range of different county record offices and to simply dive into their material for a particular period to see what I find.  As a result, I feel like I’ve gained a genuinely stronger sense of what was going on than I would have had I been constrained by the limits of digitised material as it exists now or even as it continues to expand in the near future. I can see now that some previous historians may have mischaracterised events and periods purely because they were unable to explore a range of local material.

Obviously this isn’t something everyone, or even most historians, is able to do, so I unhesitatingly endorse all the good work that is going into digitising ever-more material and making it accessible to a much wider audience of researchers. Still, we must guard against the temptation to think that the great masses of sources that have been digitised somehow represent a more balanced source base merely because they are now so numerous. Biases remain and they may even be growing stronger.

PS: As Gavin Robinson is showing with his series blogging a soldier’s letters from the English Civil War, even when a manuscript source has previously been transcribed and printed (and will be eventually digitised), it’s often worth revisiting the original. Earlier editors sometimes made hilarious errors or took liberties with the text that can completely change the meaning.

The people love us

Brodie Waddell and Mark Hailwood

At some point around midnight on Saturday, September 1st, the many-headed monster received its thousandth hit. This calls for a celebratory cheesy animated gif…

Not bad for only a month and a half of blogging. Thanks to our readers for taking an interest in our thoughts an d little discoveries. And keep the comments coming. This place works best when you share your own interpretations and experiences alongside ours.

Also, on a more technical matter, we have now split up the ‘manyheadedmonster’ user into its component parts (manyheadedhailwoodbrodiewaddell), so it will now be possible to click on the author’s name at the top of each new post and see all of their other posts, except for those published before today.

UPDATE (03/09/12): Apparently the people love us even more than we could have hoped, because yesterday we jumped from around 1,000 total views to over 1,250. Thanks to Loretta Chase and Isabella Bradford for linking to us.

Update (14/09/12): Today we hit 2,000. When we make it 10K, we’ll have to break out the bubbly.

Huntington Library Treasures

Mark Hailwood

Days before I boarded a plane to Los Angeles to spend my summer as a research fellow here at the Huntington Library, I came across this article in the Times Higher Education supplement. Needless to say, the following quote only added to my sense of anticipation: ‘One of my friends said that if she died and went to Heaven, she would expect St Peter to ask for her Huntington reader’s card at the pearly gates.’ Six weeks later, and I can see where she was coming from.

But there was something else from that article that I carried with me across the Atlantic – a question mark about the relative merits of (cheap, easy and efficient) access to digitised primary sources on one hand, and to (often expensive, labour intensive and time-consuming) hands-on access to original materials on the other. The article echoed a sentiment I have often heard expressed at an academic conference or seminar series: historical research may be a lot easier today due to advances in digital technology, but as a result something valuable has undoubtedly been lost. But what?

Too often, the arguments deployed here reach for an intangible, almost mystical quality to doing good old-fashioned grubbing in dusty archives. That handling original sources is somehow more righteous; it allows us to ‘get a better feel’ for our sources; in some way by touching centuries old parchment we can almost touch the past itself. I often find myself thinking in these ways after a day in the archives, but as a historian who is trained to judge arguments in a detached and ‘rational’ manner, I have to admit that they don’t add up to a very concrete or convincing case. As a historian that has done a reasonable amount of work on both digitised print material, and on fusty manuscript legal records, I can’t honestly put my finger on a tangible difference in the quality of research I produce from each. Even if exploring one does contain a greater sense of adventure than the other.

It was with this jumble of thoughts on my mind that I bunked off from the library for a few hours to take a look at a new exhibition of ‘Huntington Treasures’. It’s hard to imagine a more star-studded collection of early modern books together in one place: an original Gutenberg Bible, which was the first major book produced on a printing press anywhere in the world; the Ellesmere Chaucer, one of the earliest collections of the Canterbury Tales produced around the turn of the 15th century; a first folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays from 1623; first editions of works by Hobbes, Locke, Ben Jonson… I could go on. I was, of course, appropriately impressed

There was something exhilarating about seeing original editions of these landmark texts, but I wasn’t prepared to let that steamroller my lingering uncertainty about the innate superiority of consulting originals over reproductions. What as a historian had I really gained from seeing these texts up close and personal? I wasn’t convinced that it brought me any closer to how contemporaries would have connected with these works: venerated in an exhibition hall, in a glass case, as a ‘treasure’ rather than as reading material. There were aspects of the ‘materiality’ of these books that could provide more tangible insights for the historian to take away: the sheer size of a Gutenberg or King James bible meant that reading it would have required some supporting apparatus, whereas a single sheet broadside ballad could be read on the move or in any position (think hefty hard-back versus kindle, perhaps). The act of reading one or the other would have been very physically different, and would have therefore been experienced, approached and understood as a distinct type of reading activity. Sure, but I didn’t really need to travel 5000 miles to see the originals to figure that out.

I am, admittedly, trying to be provocative here. I wouldn’t disagree that there is value in consulting original materials rather than relying exclusively on digital reproductions. That said, I do think that historians should be asking themselves to come up with far more rigorous explanations as to why that’s true.