Comparing Cultures: France and Britain in the 17th Century

By Laurence, Anne | History Today, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Comparing Cultures: France and Britain in the 17th Century


Laurence, Anne, History Today


The English Civil War and its aftermath is a subject which has prompted historians almost to physical violence and certainly to unbridled verbal exchanges. The storm over the gentry and their alleged `rise'; the radicalism or otherwise of the parliamentary army; the role of the House of Lords; the significance of the personalities of such key figures as Charles I, Archbishop Laud and the Earl of Strafford; and even whether the Ranters existed have all produced animated and sometimes downright furious debate between historians.

In recent years the debate has shifted away from the political events in England to a larger stage, to that of the British Isles as a whole. What has become known, after Conrad Russell's lecture in 1985, as 'the British dimension' is rapidly becoming the new orthodoxy. It is certainly becoming unacceptable for historians of seventeenth-century Britain to refer only to the other nations of these islands solely in terms of their impact upon England. Increasingly, the history of the seventeenth century is being read in terms of the interaction of these nations.

But there are two difficulties. The first is that there is a real shortage of primary source materials for the histories of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. It is not just that there are fewer historians actually studying these countries, but that these countries are much less richly endowed with records. Added to this is the fact that the survival of these records has been much more haphazard than is the case in England.

The second difficulty is that the new emphasis on the British Isles is taking us away from broader European concerns. The excitement generated in the 1960s by the debate about the general European crisis of the seventeenth century is now almost forgotten. But it should not be forgotten that many European countries in the mid-seventeenth century did experience tremendous upheavals - France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Sweden as well as the British Isles. The arguments for taking a broader European view have never been stronger.

It was these concerns which prompted us, at the Open University, to create a history course comparing France and the British Isles in the seventeenth century. Princes and Peoples: France and the British Isles, 1620-1714' took its first students in February 1995. Ending in October last year, it is a thirty-two-week-long course which uses a variety of teaching methods, from traditional written material to video and audio tapes.

In sympathy with the kind of history which the Open University has been teaching since its inception, primary sources play an important role. It is essential to engage with the documents of the seventeenth century. But we have not confined ourselves to the written word. There is strong. emphasis on material culture, on how historians can use materials other than written documents to learn about the period. Buildings, paintings, furniture and woodcuts, for example, can tell us about much more than the history of artistic style. They can also tell us about cultural influences, about social and economic aspirations and the sense of peace and security which a society or region felt.

The distribution of new fortified buildings in France and the British Isles gives us an extraordinary insight into the sense of safety which, for example, the inhabitants of the Scottish borders felt on the eve of the Bishops' Wars between England and Scotland (1639-40). Yet there is a great deal of huffing and puffing in these buildings. Noblemen loved to retain the trappings of a castle even if, as is the case with several tower houses in the borders, it turns out that the building was totally indefensible. Yet elsewhere, as for example in Vauban's magnificent fortresses on the borders of France, the science and art of fortification was reaching new heights, influencing the English who built a similar kind of fortress to guard Cork harbour in Ireland. …

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