| Doyen of the dons
Christopher Hill, who died on February 24 at the age of 91, belonged to Balliol, and the 17th century belonged to Christopher Hill. No other historian mined the sources of that century and wrote about all its aspects — politics, economics, society and literature — in the way Hill did. He opened up the field and taught us to look at it afresh. His writing was informed by a staggering erudition and a rare passion. E.P. Thompson, dedicating a book to Christopher, captured Hill’s loyalty to Balliol and his supreme control over the century that he made his own: “Master of more than an old Oxford college”.
Christopher was born in York. His father was an affluent solicitor and his parents were Methodists. It was this ambience of dissenting Protestantism, Christopher was fond of saying, that predisposed him to lifelong political apostasy. He went to St Peter’s School, York, and came to Balliol as a scholar in 1931. It is said that the two History dons at Balliol, Vivian Galbraith and Kenneth Bell, were so impressed by his entrance papers that they not only awarded him 100 per cent but also drove to York to ensure that Hill came to Balliol and did not defect to the “other place”, i.e. Cambridge.
Thus began Christopher’s 43-year-long association with Balliol, of which he was to become Master in 1965. He took the top first in History in his year and won the distinguished Lothian Prize. He went on to be elected a fellow by examination of All Souls. He came back to Balliol in 1938 as fellow and tutor in Modern History. His bonding with Balliol is best illustrated by an anecdote. After his retirement, his successor as Master, Anthony Kenny, reintroduced formal Hall (formal dining in the College Hall). On the first occasion when formal Hall was reinstituted, a masked figure appeared beneath the organ loft and shouted, “Long live the spirit of Christopher Hill.”
The incident alludes to the loyalty that Hill commanded and also to his position against some traditional Oxford practices. Hill was Oxford’s most famous Marxist who had been a member of the British Communist Party from the mid-Thirties till the Soviet invasion of Hungary. His conversion to communism occurred while he was still an undergraduate. The impact of the Depression and the rise of fascism forced him to question the premises of the society in which he lived. Such queries led, as it did for many others in the Thirties, to Marxism. In Balliol, this commitment was evident only in the bright red tie that he occasionally wore. His radicalism — not an easy thing to maintain as the Master of an old Oxford college — helped in his steering of college affairs in the turbulence of 1968 when the Balliol junior common room was the nerve centre of student dissent. Hill introduced greater student participation in decision-making in Balliol and, more importantly, opened the college to women students. He marked the end of the ancien regime in Balliol. For many students and younger dons, the end of term party that he and his wife, Bridget, always gave inaugurated an era of freedom.
Hill never thrust his own ideological beliefs on his students. It is remarkable that those of his students who have become famous historians — Keith Thomas, Maurice Keen, David Underdown and so on, the list is long and illustrious — are not Marxists even though they are all eloquent in their indebtedness to Christopher. He was at his best in tutorials, curled up in his armchair, raising questions and directing students to the most useful article or book. Few who knocked on his door will forget that inimitable “Come in” that followed the knock. As a lecturer, he was not as mesmerizing as E.P. Thompson. He had a shaky voice, a nervous twitch of the head and an occasional stammer which he could use with devastating effect.
His scholarly output was enormous. He wrote 21 books and innumerable essays. The first book came out in 1940 and the last in 1996. That first book, The English Revolution 1640, despite its many drawbacks and its schematicism, has become a minor classic. Looking back at the book, Hill once said it was written by an angry young man in a hurry because he knew he was going to die. It was written up self-consciously as a last will and testament. It broke from prevailing historiography which saw the events of the 1640s either in constitutional terms or as a religious conflict. Hill tried to show that it was a more comprehensive social and economic transformation, the first significant moment in the birth of English capitalism and the bourgeoisie. It was an irony that Christopher had to live with his last will and testament for over 60 years.
From 1940 to 1956, Hill did not publish any books. This was, if one could use a Marxist phrase, the period of primitive accumulation of knowledge and scholarship. The results were evident immediately thereafter and they coincided significantly with his marriage to Bridget Sutton and his exit from the communist party. Looking back at the corpus of Christopher’s writings, it is clear that all his books (save one) and articles were connected by a running theme. He wanted to understand the place of the English Revolution in history and to document and analyse the mental and cultural transformations that accompanied and facilitated the rise of capitalism. He looked at Puritanism and its relationship with capitalism and the political upheavals of the 1640s; he drew out the links of Puritanism with an intellectual and political radicalism which challenged the very premises of the new socio-economic formation even as it was being born. This is how he made the 17th century his own. He set the agenda for research on the period.
It is difficult, of course, to even list, let alone summarize, all that Christopher wrote. I will take the liberty of presenting here my own personal favourite and I dare say Christopher’s too. This is The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1972), conceived and written in the period of student radicalism and the flowering of counter culture. Here he drew out the revolution within the revolution, ideas and movements that aimed to overthrow what the English Revolution was trying to institute at every level of English life and society. Men and women seldom written about came alive in the book as did ideas and movements long relegated to the loony fringe of the 17th century. Hill brought to his archive a historical imagination that lit up a utopian and inevitably passing moment of teeming freedom.
This book and, in fact, everything else that Hill has written is invariably marked by a sensitive use of literature as a source for history writing. He had the rare ability — most tellingly revealed in his great book, Milton and the English Revolution — of setting his reading of literary texts within a general view of the processes of historical continuity and change. His essays on Marvell, on Clarissa Harlowe, on Vaughan, not to mention his book on Bunyan, are rich in literary and historical understanding.
Hill believed that the study of history humanizes us. History can never be only the recounting of a success story. He quoted Nietzsche approvingly, “History keeps alive the memory of great fighters against history.” Hill was only too aware that persons of his ideological persuasion would have to live with “the experience of defeat” (the title of one of his books). History is a tragedy, Christopher Hill wrote way back in 1948, although not a meaningless one.