Many decades ago I marked exam scripts with Keith Thomas. The arrangement was that if two examiners gave materially different marks to a script they would sit side by side and go through it in search of agreement. Reading with Thomas was like experiencing seriously fast bowling for the first time. I was still grappling with the opening lines of the candidate’s answer when Thomas reached the bottom of the page and asked to turn over. I would have been less embarrassed had his command of the script not been much the stronger.
I tell this tale because Thomas’s rapidity of assimilation, and the powers of retention and classification that accompany it, are essential to his achievements as a historian. Mechanical as the gifts may sound, they equip him to write with unique authority on big subjects that need big knowledge. No one masters so many primary and secondary sources. For more than sixty years he has been undertaking one of the high enterprises of modern historical scholarship: the re-creation of the mentalities of English society in (and sometimes outside) the period roughly from 1500 to 1800. His habitual method is to summon by quotation a mass of contemporary opinion and observation, drawn from treatises and tracts, essays and sermons, diaries and journals, poems and plays, conduct manuals and other genres. That technique, too, may sound mechanical, and as an interpretative tool it is open to objections that he must be used to hearing, but it is given character by the elegance and lightness of his literary touch.
His latest book explores the shifting and sometimes slippery concepts of civilisation, civility and manners, together with such related terms as courtesy, politeness, breeding and complaisance. These nouns had their opposites in barbarism, which was commonly applied to ancestors, foreigners or social inferiors. Then as now, ‘civilisation’ denoted a