bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Never mind the book, read the review

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 4 April, 2012

Sometimes a scholarly review can be as useful as the book reviewed, sometimes more so. Historians of fifteenth-century England know this: we remember Colin Richmond’s ‘After MacFarlane’ but may be less able to recall all the works he discussed in that 1983 article. If a roll-call of seminal reviews of the period was to be compiled, there is a new entry certain to be included, John Watts’ on-line review of Michael Hicks’ latest volume, The Wars of the Roses.

Watts’ comments appear on the Reviews in History website, run by the IHR in London. One of the site’s boasts is that it can provide greater space than usual for a review and Watts makes full use of this. What it allows him to do is to present something more than a discussion of the merits and flaws of the book under review, writing with studied urbanity in response to Hicks; it also permits him, first, to place the latest addition to the literature on the Wars in a broad historiographical context, giving appropriate acknowledgement to MacFarlane, Tony Pollard and Christine Carpenter, and, second,  to set out an agenda for future work. It is this road-map for the community of historians of fifteenth-century England that is the review’s real value. Watts notes Hicks’ own attention to the economic and international context of the period and he goes on to list other elements which deserve further study: the role of the towns, of policy to Ireland, the intervention of print (in the later decades), ‘neoclassicism’, and the related changes in education and literacy.

Some of these proposed areas of study are, of course, close to my heart, though, en passant, I would caution against seeing neoclassicism as an intellectual context for the conflict of the mid-century: at that point, it seems, rather, to have been a prism through which a few tried to apprehend what was happening around them, while, with a change of generation in the 1460s it became increasingly one mode of behaviour that could be adopted in politics and, particularly, diplomacy. It is also my sense that it remained one among several available modes, even into the 1500s when it was certainly becoming the dominant style of international correspondence. Perhaps more significant may have been the immediate impact of print — whether the new technology made England more or less governable in the last quarter of the fifteenth century could provide an interesting debate — though we might wonder how significant that was, considering the possibilities of manuscript circulation of bills and manifestoes that was a feature of both the beginning and the end of the 1450s.

We all might want to gloss Watts’ list of suggestions, revising and adding to them, but what is important is that we engage with the challenge he has presented. Personally, I would want to encourage us to broaden the chronological context slightly: Hicks’ book takes ‘the end of the wars’ up to 1525 and any encroachment onto the supposedly ‘early modern’ period is to be welcomed, but we might want to consider where to start the tale. Carpenter’s text-book begins ‘c. 1437′ — should we not stretch this back further to consider how far the nature of a long minority cast a shadow over later decades? Were the behaviours learnt to accommodate the absence of an adult monarch difficult to unlearn when (in body at least) he had reached something closer to maturity? Did, in other words, the minority generation live too long?

And, finally, let me throw in another factor. Hicks, in the preface to his book, makes a nod to Cliff Davies’ critique of our modern concept of a ‘Tudor dynasty’ — a critique the full force of which is probably still to be recognised. Of course, historians of Lancastrian and Yorkist England know their equivalent — the ‘Wars of the Roses’  — is an historiographical construct with little contemporary purchase. The term ‘roses’ always comes with caveats, but what of the term ‘war’? To modern ears, conditioned by memories of total war and images of ‘shock and awe’, as well as by expectations of policed peace, the concept has perhaps become so distant from the reality of occasional internecine conflict over a fifty year period that it can mislead rather than inform. Should we be returning to the points about the numbers of combatants made some decades ago by Tony Goodman? Should we be comparing in more depth (Hicks does this briefly) the experience of civil conflict with the impact of chevauchée and territorial invasion that defined the bouts of the Hundred Years’ War? I pose these as queries because, following John Watts’ lead, it is surely time not to give answers but to ask questions.