As wide-ranging and diverse as it surely is, Christopher Hill’s work on seventeenth century England is unified by recurrent concerns. It is no overstatement to say that he (although not single-handedly, as he would be the first to admit) has redrawn the contours of one of the most crucial eras of English history, the Civil War period, stretching from the accession of Charles I in 1625 to the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Like many historians, although perhaps more sympathetically than most, he has emphasized the contributions of the Dissenters (those outside the framework of the government-supported Anglican church) to the breakdown of traditional models of worship and social and political organization, and their great role in helping to forge new and sometimes radical ideas of personal freedom, political rights, and shared ownership of the earth. Hill is perhaps the great proponent among modern historians of the “good old cause,” the truly revolutionary hopes and dreams that surfaced especially during the relaxation of censorship and government-sponsored suppression of ideas from the early 1640’s to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. In much of his work he gravitates toward people normally thought of as unimportant and uninfluential, arguing persuasively that neglecting such groups as the Levellers, Ranters, or Fifth Monarchists leads to a serious misrepresentation of the real climate of opinion and social agitation in seventeenth century England. These groups take center stage in The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1972), and although Hill never denies that they flourished only briefly, he insists that they had then and continued to have a substantial impact not yet fathomed by modern critics and historians. Even the prominent literary artists of the time came into contact one way or another with groups that have since been contemptuously consigned to the “lunatic fringe,” and in a brief but marvelously suggestive appendix to The World Turned Upside Down Hill points out the necessity of viewing the two great Puritan writers, John Milton and Bunyan—great also by just about any other standard as well, one might add—in terms of their “Dialogue with the Radicals,” the subtitle of the chapter.
Hill’s subsequent biographical study, Milton and the English Revolution (1977), pursues one of the roads mapped out in this earlier appendix, showing at great length Milton’s affinity with some and creative disagreement with other ideas circulating in the radical culture of his times. A Tinker and a Poor Man: John Bunyan and His Church, 16284688 does the same for Bunyan, and in some respects his job here is much more difficult: not much is known about the details of Bunyan’s life, his works are primarily oriented toward religious subjects (unlike Milton who wrote a great many works directly focusing on social, political, and philosophical issues), and his literary style, heavily allegorical and biblically allusive, at first glance tends to move the reader away from realism to abstraction, and from a realistic contemplation of this world to an emotionally charged vision of another realm. Nevertheless, Hill shows how to look at Bunyan in such a way that his rootedness in the crises and controversies of his time becomes critical to a full understanding of his works.
Much of the book is taken up with the facts and features of seventeenth century life, and the picture that emerges is richly detailed and surprising in a number of ways. Bedfordshire, Bunyan’s home, comes alive as not only a predominantly anti-Royalist area but also as a “center of radical debate” on religious as well as political matters, an overlapping of interests that may puzzle the modern observer but that would have been commonplace for many seventeenth century people. There is no sure way of knowing exactly which arguments Bunyan might have overheard or participated in, but Hill sketches out some of the ideas that were widely discussed at the time and suggests that they play a prominent role in Bunyan’s early development and works. For example, the Civil War prompted an increase in millenarianism, the belief that some kind of radical transformation or apocalypse was imminent, and the success of the Parliamentary army in defeating King Charles led many soldiers to believe that the world was theirs for the remaking. Bunyan’s service in the Parliamentary army “radicalized” him along with many others, Hill stresses, at the very least by exposing him to a torrent of unconventional ideas.
For all his emphasis in the first part of the book on what was at least in some circles the exhilaration of the 1640’s, marked by the defeat of the King’s army, newfound freedom of discussion and printing, and widespread anticipation of a just and holy society, the greater part of Hill’s story revolves around the later years, from about 1650 onward, of discouragement, imprisonment, and defeat. Bunyan became a member of the congregation of Baptists in Bedford in 1653, started...
(The entire section is 2067 words.)