Christopher Hill, class hatred and the many-headed monster

Brodie Waddell

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.

8 thoughts on “Christopher Hill, class hatred and the many-headed monster

  1. I have thought about this question a lot over the past few years. I am sure my own political journey over the past decade has influenced my current fascination with popular politics, and my approaches to it. I try to be aware of where it inclines me to make assumptions, but of course you can never eliminate that subjectivity.

    As an undergraduate my interests in early modern history were decidedly high political: economic and social history was something to get out of the way as quickly as possible so I could get back to kings and queens. And then I graduated, and having been fairly apolitical up to that point, belatedly caught up with contemporary politics. Later on I went back to early modern history as a part-time postgrad, and with a rather different set of politics than I’d had before, I suddenly realised that I had been neglecting 99% of Charles I and Cromwell’s contemporaries. So I caught up with what had been going on in social history since Hill: a lot, it turned out, to the extent that distinguishing between ‘social’ and ‘political’ history was not particularly helpful. And I read lots of work by David Underdown, Steve Hindle, Mike Braddick, John Walter and Andy Wood, and dived into their references, and reads lots of anthropology and sociology, and had a go at applying their methodologies to my own primary sources.

    Doing so was the first time I had ever really engaged with history in a properly humanist sense: that is with a concern to recover, listen to and respect the voices of the past, rather than viewing it detachedly. But it also made me realise how easy it is to see your own passions and prejudices reflected back to you. Reading sources against the grain was suddenly so obvious a methodology that for a time I was at risk of finding hidden transcripts where perhaps none existed. The flip side of widening our definition of what is political is that occasionally we can want to see ideology and agency where it may not be present. I think in retrospect I fell victim slightly to this in an article I did a few years ago, which centred on re-reading an elite account of a crowd action in Cirencester in 1642. It was done partly through necessity because there were few other surviving sources, but now that I know my way round county records offices a bit better, I suspect there’s things I’ve missed that would have made it a more balanced piece, and which might have tempered my conclusions.

    So my gut reaction has sometimes in the past been to take the side of the crowd, without considering the impact crowds had on the middling sort, the gentry, and the nobility. Now that I am studying a single middling sort individual, rather than a crowd, it has made me much more cautious about deploying terms like that: binary models of popular vs elite politics collapse rather quickly when you delve into the detail, and see the transitions in belief and actions that even one individual can take over their lifetime. Taking a step away from studying groups of individuals has certainly helped me reflect a bit on where I might otherwise make unwitting assumptions.

    • I’m inordinately pleased that the post provoked this response, Nick, because your self-reflection is really inspiring. I’m not going to try to reply in detail – though I might do in subsequent post.

      For now I’ll just say that one of your points really chimed with my own experience. The instinct to look for ‘hidden transcripts’ (which I too picked from James C. Scott via John Walter and Andy Wood) is something that I can see in my own work. For me, the result was a shift over a few years in the way I thought about and characterised popular economic behaviour. In my MA dissertation and to a lesser extent the resulting article, I was searching hard for kernels of radicalism and probably left an impression of crowds easily and consciously ‘appropriating’ the words of preachers. In my PhD and book, on the other hand, I was more careful in emphasising the limits of cynical ‘appropriation’ and the ways in which both ‘elites’ and ‘the lower orders’ often behaved according to a set of shared beliefs. I don’t know if my political outlook changed much over those years, but my approach to awareness of how this might affect my work certainly did.

      • Yes, great comments Nick – I likewise found myself nodding along when reading your thoughts and recognising my own experience, albeit more clearly articulated by you than the way I had been thinking about it.

        – Mark

      • If I am honest I feel like my self-reflection is the bare minimum I can get away with… as someone whose research is done in spare moments between (non-academic) work and family, I am very struck by how hard it is to carve out time and take a step back from one’s studies. I had the luxury a few months ago of a week away from work on a training course that was all about self-analysis and figuring out what I needed to work on to progress higher up in my profession. That was the first time in years that I’d had the intellectual space to really think about what sort of person I wanted to be at work, and what I needed to change. I don’t really get chance to think about what sort of historian I want to be in the same way: although my blog does give me an outlet for doing so. That is one of the benefits of blogging, I think: it’s not just that you can work out ideas and seek feedback, but that you can also ask yourself lots of questions (even if you don’t satisfactorily answer them!).

  2. “… left us less able to understand the genuine anxiety of a seventeenth-century gentleman faced with a crowd of ‘base and disorderly people’?”

    This is a good point. You could argue that the model James C. Scott lays out Domination and the Arts of Resistance should help historians do this: to understand the public transcript you have to look at both the elite and non-elite and their different hidden transcripts. In this context, he does give a convincing explanation I think for why peasant and slave revolts (and their repression) were very violent. Of course, if it works well for slaves and peasants it may not work very well for early modern England.

    Social historians interested in class relations have always tended to focus more on one class, rather than study the interactions between two classes (except perhaps in the case of domestic servants and their masters/mistresses.)

    • Yeah, I think Scott has some useful things to say about the limits of ‘domination’ and I’ll be trying to find time to read his more recent books focusing on state-building, a topic of great relevance to seventeenth-century society.

      I do think, though, that Scott’s discussion of ‘hidden transcripts’ is ultimately misleading – at least in the context of early modern England – because he implies that the ‘hidden transcripts’ are what people really believe whereas ‘public transcripts’ are merely ‘masks’ or ‘acting’ or ‘dissimulation’. In fact, educated prejudices against the poorer sort were hardly ‘hidden’. They were preached at the pulpit every Sunday. But neither were they simply propaganda. I think ‘the better sort’ often genuinely believed that the poor were inherently unstable and prone to disobedience. If you want the references, I talk about this issue a bit more in the intro to my book, and quote Scott specifically on p. 10.

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