Liberty against the Law: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies

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9780140240337: Liberty against the Law: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies

There seems to be a continuing theme in English literature on the freedom of beggars and highwaymen. Beggars and highwaymen pride themselves on their relative honesty, using a rhetoric of liberty. Robin Hood and his outlaws were "free" in the Greenwood, and stole from the rich to give to the poor. Highwaymen and pirates (or writers about them) used libertarian rhetoric, and often won the sympathy and hero-worship of crowds at Tyburn. Contracting out of the state and its laws is complemented by religious dissenters contracting out of the state church. Economic changes - the eviction of the peasantry from enclosures - made many essential traditional rights illegal. Freedom was opposed to the discipline of the market and its laws. The author explores these linked themes - both in literature and in historical reality.

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Review:

Christopher Hill, the peerless people's historian of the 17th century, has written a book that challenges the common history of liberty and the birth of liberal politics. While historians from Lord Acton to J. H. Hexter have written histories in which property-holding men figure as the champions of liberal freedom, Professor Hill deftly illustrates the manner in which enclosure laws and claims to property were used to deny the traditional rights of the common folk of 17th-century England. Drawing evidence from popular ballads, plays, and his extensive knowledge of the period's literature, Professor Hill demonstrates that the supposed "dawn" of liberal rights and freedoms brought economic dependence, penal punishment, and the loss of freedom for the rural poor and artisan classes who were being swiftly enveloped in a burgeoning commercial society.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Renowned English historian Hill (The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, 1993, etc.) uses popular literature and ballads to shape a stimulating critique of the concept of liberty in 17th-century England's struggle between king and Parliament. Even today, the English Civil War, Cromwell's Protectorate, the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 are still commonly viewed as an inevitable progress toward popular liberty. But what really happened, Hill asserts, is that men of property won absolute power to overrule both the customary rights of the poor (e.g., copyhold and common land) and the restrictions of the Crown. The peasantry gained little from the new freedoms and lost much, including in many cases their land. Hill, of course, is not the first to challenge the so-called Whig view of history by seeing the English revolution as the triumph of a capitalist economy, and in his long career, which included 13 years as master of Balliol College at Oxford University, he has approached this theme before from many different angles. Here he eschews state papers (``Government statements are usually intended to deceive'') and attempts to rescue the landless ex-peasantry from posterity's silence by turning to popular culture for his source material. We move from the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher to John Gay's fiercely satirical Beggar's Opera, which boasted that only beggars, who were outside the law, were truly free. When censorship broke down in the 1640s, the uneducated--even women--could get published, and Hill guides us through his favorite terrain, that of the radical popular movements which briefly appeared, such as the Muggletonians, who denounced the law and lawyers as agents of the rich, and the Diggers, whose spokesman Gerrard Winstanley advocated a return of the land to the common people. Superbly written, Hill's account throws light on a crucial epoch in English history, one that was to have a profound influence on American attitudes. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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