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The English: A SOCIAL HISTORY, 1066-1945 by Christopher Hibbert (Norton: $32.95; 785 pp., illustrated)

May 03, 1987|Jeffrey Meyers | Meyers has published biographies of Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. "Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle" (Arbor House) will appear this year. and

Christopher Hibbert's well-organized and comprehensive synthesis of 900 years of English social history has a clear and lively style and contains many odd facts and interesting anecdotes. He uses literary evidence effectively: Chaucer and Langland, Swift and Defoe, Cobbett and Dickens, and those two insatiable fornicators, Pepys and Boswell. He could also have used D. H. Lawrence's "The Rainbow" for the harsh transition from agricultural to industrial society, "Sons and Lovers" for the life of miners (1,000 were killed each year in the 1870s) and "Women in Love" for the effect of war on civilian life.

The rare lacunas concern obscene theatrical performances at the court of Charles II, Guy Fawkes Day and Boxing Day, the German origins of traditional Christmas celebrations, the Education Act of 1870 (of which Lawrence was a beneficiary) and the exotic influence of the Empire on English life. Hibbert mentions that the initial response to military recruiting in 1914 was overwhelming, but does not explain the reasons: There had been no major European war since 1815, and everyone believed the fighting would be over by Christmas. One-tenth of the 8 million soldiers were killed and one-quarter wounded.

Hibbert has excellent chapters on religion, law and crime, pastimes and pleasures, sex and marriage, disease and death as well as clear explanations of the Gordon Riots, Luddites and Chartists and generous portions on food. There are no typographical errors, and he never mentions the rise of the middle class.

After the formation of a Benedictine monastery by St. Augustine at the end of the 6th Century, there were no other monastic foundations in England until the Order of Cluny was founded in 1077. One out of 25 men was ordained in the 13th Century, when bishops were obliged to rule that sons of Catholic priests could not inherit their fathers' benefices. Nunneries were filled with illegitimate daughters, wives of noble rebels, rich women who had their fortunes stolen and daughters of unsound mind as well as those with a recognized vocation. After Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, 8,000 monastic houses were suppressed and had their property transferred to the Crown.

In the Middle Ages, bribes were common in court, and churches provided sanctuary for only 40 days. Trial by ordeal was abolished in 1219, but the law allowed mutilation as punishment, and criminals continued to be drawn, quartered and decapitated. Coiners were castrated and had their eyes torn out in lieu of capital punishment. Under Cromwell, a blasphemous man who claimed he was God and advocated free love was pilloried, whipped and branded. Witches were tolerated until about 1500 and then fiercely persecuted until 1736. Bestiality was a capital offense for three centuries. Jews were expelled in the 13th Century and allowed to return in the 17th; Catholics were emancipated in 1829. There were 223 capital crimes in the 19th Century, when a boy of 13 was hanged for stealing a spoon. Slavery was abolished in 1807; public executions ended in 1868.

In the 18th Century, towns had bull-running (as in modern Spain) and goose-riding in which the bird, with greased neck, was tied to a bough while riders attempted to snatch off its head. The mania for gambling reached such a peak that one lord bet 3000 on which of two raindrops would be first to reach the bottom of a window. In taverns, a man might have his ale, his pipe and his poxy whore for thruppence.

Profit, not happiness, was the main consideration in marriage, and wives were beaten as often as children. Chastity belts were not worn at court, but brides wore gloves to bed. Women had artificial mouse-skin eyebrows, and men secured condoms (or "English overcoats") made of fish skin by a red ribbon tied around the scrotum.

This long book, which ends rather abruptly, should have offered some general conclusions: about the sharp decline in the intelligence and taste of kings after Charles II, the change from hierarchic to democratic society, and social progress (if any). It might also have mentioned that the dominant human characteristics in all periods of history have been mendacity, greed, corruption, cruelty and violence.

A rational historian of the future, observing the supposedly civilized societies of the West, would probably be astonished and appalled not only by our genocidal barbarism but also by the perpetuation of monarchy and destruction of the traditional family, the belief in mysticism and faith in the stock market, the cult of youth and lack of respect for old age, the extortionate medical and inefficient legal systems, the mania for sport and mindless pursuit of pleasure, the addiction to drugs and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

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