For fifteen years Conrad Russell has dominated that most embattled and most heavily populated area of historical study, the origins of the civil wars of mid-17th-century England. In doing so, he has banished controversy to the margins. This is a highly unusual accomplishment. Advances in contentious historiographical territory are generally achieved through baronial feuds, not through submission to a monarchy. Even Geoffrey Elton, who admittedly has dominated a much larger period for a much longer time, from the outset created controversy rather than orthodoxy. Russell has achieved his hegemony by not seeking it. The instinct of historians for confrontation has been disarmed by his intellectual ecumenicalism, by his distaste for entrenched positions, his readiness to modify his findings in the light of fresh evidence or reflection, his generosity to his younger critics: in other words, by his transparent determination to get things right. Those who have heard him lecture - who have witnessed his intensity of intellectual concentration, his unsurpassed mastery of archival evidence, and a memory that reproduces it with the alacrity and accuracy of a photocopying machine - will understand the magnetic authority of his findings. In the last five years or so, it is true, 'revisionism', the term popularly given to his position, has begun to go out of fashion -though it is also true, as these books show, that Russell's own revisionism has been substantially qualified. Yet his critics remain under his spell. If their answers are different from his, their questions and their techniques are the same.
LRB 29 August 1991 | PDF Download