Paul Foot

How history comes alive

(9 September 1993)

From Socialist Worker, 9 September 1993.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Articles of Resistance, London 2000, pp. 58–59.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I met the historian Christopher Hill once, last summer. I went with BBC producer Fiona Maclean to interview him in his Warwickshire home for a programme about poetry and revolution.

He took us into his garden on a bright summer afternoon and questioned us closely on how much time he had on air. He ascertained that he had a quarter of an hour. He then vanished upstairs and re-emerged staggering under a huge pile of books.

The tape recorder was switched on and he spoke, uninterrupted except by an infernal bee, referring to and quoting freely from his books for an hour. He spoke about Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell and above all John Milton, and their relationship to the English Revolution.

He spoke with such power and persuasive passion that we wondered, as we made our dazed way home, whether we should devote our whole 50 minutes to him alone.

After the interview I told him I had been searching everywhere for his Milton and the English Revolution, first published in 1978. Did he have a spare copy? No, he said nervously, he had none left.

So the search went on. It ended a year later on the top rung of a ladder in a second hand bookshop in Chicago.

Quaint and absurd

A book like this cannot be absorbed in snatched moments – it has to wait for a holiday. And so my summer holiday has been enriched beyond description by this wonderful book – the best, in my judgement, of all Christopher Hill’s long lifetime’s work on the English Revolution.

‘I am arguing a case’, he writes in his introduction. That was a dangerous enough confession from the Master of Balliol College, but far more subversive when the ‘case’ was that John Milton, the academics’ darling, the source of endless textual nitpicking from A level students to classical English Literature scholars, ‘got his ideas not only from books but also from talking to his contemporaries’.

In other words a lot of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and especially Samson Agonistes has more to do with the ‘loony left’ – known in the mid-17th century as Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Muggletonians etc – than with any classical text or Latin scholarship.

Christopher Hill’s great genius as a historian is not just that he can think himself back 300 years, and translate what often seem quaint and absurd religious discussions into the politics of the time. The relationship of the Son to the Father, the Trinity, the destination of the soul after death, the Serpent and the Apple, Adam and Eve – all these dead notions come alive in the revolutionary forces of the time.

Some of this is hard to follow but, thanks to Christopher Hill’s dry humour and unbending commitment, never difficult to read. For example:

When a modern theologian writes ‘it would no longer seem appropriate to speak of a God existing apart from man, or a human self existing apart from God’, we may dismiss this as an attempt to adapt Christianity to the modern world, to preserve a God who is in fact dead.

But we should not let our scepticism about trendy modern theologians reflect back upon the fantastic daring of the 17th century thinkers, who expressed their hard won belief in the importance of human beings through the medium of theology.

For them it was not a trick, not a last hope of drawing a congregation: it was a tremendous and tremendously new concept, won through spiritual torment and exaltation.

Last updated on 30 June 2014