A new book from Sir Keith Thomas is a major publishing event. Thomas secured his reputation early in his career with a book that has had a huge and lasting impact on the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English history, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). But since the early 1980s he has preferred to communicate through a sporadic series of landmark articles and occasional papers. What tempted him back between hard covers was an invitation to deliver the prestigious Ford Lectures in Oxford at the start of 2000, of which this volume is the belated fruit. Most historians nowadays are sub-specialists, professionally committed to a narrow topic or a short time period. In contrast to such delicate miniaturism, Thomas has always painted with a big brush on a broad canvas. But even by his standards this volume tackles a large theme: in fact, nothing less than the meaning of life, as it appeared to English men and women between the early sixteenth century and the late eighteenth. More specifically, his subject is encapsulated in his subtitle, ‘roads to fulfilment’. The book explores the means by which early modern people attained purpose, meaning and self-respect in their lives, and undertook what the framers of the American Declaration of Independence were to call ‘the pursuit of happiness’.
This panorama of human experience is captured within six thematic frames. Thomas devotes chapters to the fulfilment to be found in the exercise of military prowess; the changing social and cultural meanings of work and labour; the pursuit of wealth and possessions; the concern, manifested by all social classes, with