In 1965, Christopher Hill published an essay entitled ‘The Many-Headed Monster’, from which this blog takes its name. The piece begins, of course, with a quote, but he then lays out much of the argument right on the first page:
Most writers about politics during the century before 1640 agreed that democracy was a bad thing … ‘The people’ were fickle, unstable, incapable of rational thought: the headless multitude, the many-headed monster.
According to Hill, the ‘class hostility’ of the propertied elite was deeply engrained in how they wrote and thought, so that ‘dread and hatred of the masses’ emerged in literature, philosophy and theatre.¹
It is difficult now to imagine that this was ever an important, novel argument. Today, historians of early modern England are well-aware of the distorting prejudices that shaped the way ‘the landed classes’ saw the actions of their supposed ‘inferiors’. We have, for a few decades at least, worked to read such sources ‘against the grain’ rather than to accept uncritically the words of the wealthy, educated men who provide so much of our source material.
‘Hydra’ from Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658). Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries: UH Digital Library.
But in 1965 this was not the case. Certainly there were already many good historians who thought carefully about the biases inherent in their sources and I would be very surprised if Hill was the first to make this point about Tudor and Stuart elites, but the essay still served an important purpose. It surveyed the wide-reach of this paranoia amongst the ‘better sort’ of people, setting it out in clear and unambiguous detail. Indeed, one weakness of the essay is its repetition – one reads quote after quote from authors expressing their fear or hatred of the ‘lower orders’. How many times do we really need to hear seventeenth-century toffs denounce ‘the ruder sort’ as ‘a violent flood’ or ‘foolish flies’ or ‘untamed beasts’ or ‘vile caitiff wretches’?
Hill nonetheless performed a valuable service by implicitly critiquing those scholars who had ended up (perhaps unconsciously) adopting the distorted perspective of their sources. One of the more well-known examples is Max Beloff, whose discussion of later Stuart food riots clearly owed much to the harsh descriptions of the unrest recorded in the state papers. Although it was only in 1971 that E.P. Thompson made Beloff notorious by criticising him directly, Hill’s essay showed the dangers of failing to account for the ‘class hatred’ of the English gentleman.²
Beyond this methodological point, Hill went on to show how these stereotypes influenced the course of the ‘Great Rebellion’ of the 1640s. Fear of the ‘giddy multitude’, he argued, actually shaped historical events. But perhaps this is a topic for another time.
For now, I’ll just close with a question: Do our own biases (as educated, middle class professionals) mean that we continue to often unconsciously imbue those of our well-off predecessors? Or maybe has nearly half a century of ‘reading against the grain’ left us less able to understand the genuine anxiety of a seventeenth-century gentleman faced with a crowd of ‘base and disorderly people’?
¹ Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from Christopher Hill, ‘The Many-Headed Monster’, in his Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England (1975), pp. 181-204. It was first published in C.H. Carter (ed.), From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation: Essays in Honour of Garrett Mattingley (1965).
² E.P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present, 50 (1971), p. 76, citing Max Beloff, Public Order and Popular Disturbances, 1660-1714 (1938), p. 75.