There has been nothing in English historical writing over recent decades to match the intensity of interest in the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. The foundations were laid a century or so ago, when S R Gardiner, aided by his protégé C H Firth, brought to the period a depth of chronological and documentary investigation that other periods have rarely or never acquired. Gardiner did not write well. His contemporaries, used to reading less searching but more eloquent narratives, were dismayed by his ‘barren and poverty-stricken prose’. Half a century passed before historians with more trenchant pens – R H Tawney, Lawrence Stone, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Christopher Hill, Jack Hexter – built on Gardiner’s foundations to create the analytical excitement of ‘the gentry controversy’ and of parallel attempts to relate the wars to long-term social and economic developments. Those debates commanded a lay as well as a professional audience. Yet in the next generation, with the rise of the doctoral thesis, civil war scholarship became predominantly the preserve of academics, who wrote only for each other.
Behind much of the gentry controversy there lay an economic determinism, or semi-determinism, which discounted the art of narrative. If events are the mere surface of history, beneath which irresistible currents flow, then their recreation will seem a trivial process. Few historians of the civil wars are determinists now. Hardly