Alan Macfarlane's little book on The Origins of English Individualism came out in 1978. It argued that England had been in crucial respects a 'modern' society ever since the 14th century and maybe earlier, and that most accounts of the transition to modernity were therefore misconceived, and in so doing it attacked just about every vested interest in contemporary historiography. A good many historians returned the compliment by setting about it with the enthusiasm of crusaders clearing the infidel from Jerusalem. David Herlihy of Harvard derided it as 'a silly book, founded on faulty method and propounding a preposterous thesis', while Lawrence Stone thought it advanced 'an implausible hypothesis based on a far-fetched connection with one still uproven fact of limited general significance'. On the other hand, Paul Hyams hailed it as a blast of fresh air and the sort of book we need more of, and Ernest Gellner was equally enthusiastic about its intellectual daring. I thought it was a splendid piece of work: a small book with large implications. Moreover, in its main claims it was clearly right, and none of its critics have in the least disturbed its central contention.
LRB 21 January 1988 | PDF Download