03.09.24, Hicks, English Political Culture

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Cary Nederman

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.024


Hicks, Michael. English Political Culture in the Fifteenth Century. London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xvii, 261. ISBN: 0-415-21764-4.

Reviewed by:
Cary Nederman
Texas A & M University

The vocabulary of "culture" has become a commonplace of the historian's lexicon during the past couple of decades, reflecting the influences of fields such as anthropology and cultural studies on the professional study of history. Michael Hicks is entirely aware of how this interest in "culture" has transformed research within his own area, and he boldly proclaims of his book: "It is the first synthesis of a new type of history of fifteenth-century England" (ix), building upon more specialized studies in order to create a full picture of the "political culture" of the era.

After briefly making a case for the chronological "parameters" of his investigation, specifically, 1399 to 1509, two eminently sensible choices, Hicks proceeds to explain how a "political culture" approach to the century weaves together the conceptual categories that people at the time took to be important to their experience of public life. Thus, religion, attitudes to women, and the concepts of worship and service--"ideas that are not primarily political, but which nevertheless have political implications"--are to be studied alongside and in their myriad connections with "ideas that are overtly political: what are normally categorized as political and constitutional theory." In Hicks's view, the tendency of traditional political history to restrict itself to the latter demands challenge, on the grounds that broader "cultural" constructs "underpinned all areas of life including politics, but only occasionally impinged directly on it and determined political behavior" (9). Consequently, adoption of the "political culture" framework permits the historian to bridge the divide between strictly political notions and the wider field of ideas in which those concepts are constructed and deployed.

The advantage of studying political culture is presumably the ability to possess a more integrated holistic view of what holds social order together from the highest reaches of the rich and powerful all the way down to the humblest (and mainly silenced) urban and rural denizens. Perhaps more importantly, given the conflicts that were particularly endemic to the latter half of the period covered by Hicks's book, concentration on political culture provides a path to understanding why civil wars and political upheavals did not ultimately endanger the English social fabric. As Hicks emphasizes in his brief conclusion, the rate and extent of change during the fifteenth century has been considerably overestimated (219).

The bulk of the book walks the reader through the main features of the political topography of fifteenth-century England, including the king and his government, the nobility, the lesser classes, and also examines some of the main sources of both cohesion and tension, such as bastard feudalism, provincial society, taxation, judicial and official corruption, and treason. Many of Hicks's micro analyses are very helpful in illuminating the larger set of issues that animated English public life in the period. One of the problems arising from such a political culture perspective is the tendency for political ideas to become buzzwords or facile phrases rather than doctrines for which sustained theoretical arguments had been proposed. Thus, while John Fortescue's name is mentioned repeatedly, and his writings are used as evidence for elements of English political culture, the reader searches in vain for any coherent exposition of his important contributions to the political thought of fifteenth-century England. Political theory becomes mere fodder for political culture, which diminishes the integrity of the theoretical enterprise. One suspects that, all too often, the appeal to political culture becomes an excuse for not having to take seriously political ideas as presented and defended in texts with rigorous philosophical and legal arguments. "Political culture" can readily encourage "political thought lite" that only reinforces the trend among many historians to dismiss altogether the study of intellectual history.

Has the focus on political culture radically changed the way in which we organize our understanding of fifteenth-century England? In comparison with the narrowly institutional and legal approach of someone like S.B. Chrimes, Hicks presents a vision of the period that is more expansive and inclusive. But when contrasted with a work such as J.R. Lander's Conflict and Stability in Fifteenth-Century England, written about thirty-five years ago, the differences of scholarly tone and emphasis seem less pronounced. Many of the themes that Hicks highlights, religion, bastard feudalism, political corruption, socio-economic unrest, form central elements of the tale that Lander tells as well. So I am less than entirely convinced that Hicks's book and the "political culture" approach that it self-consciously trumpets constitute the radical departure that is claimed. It strikes me that what Hicks remarks about fifteenth-century England--that it "witnessed no fundamental turning points" but rather "endured essentially the same" (219)--seems to apply as well to the last couple of generations of scholarship on the topic. And such a measure of continuity is by no means a bad thing. Those who do in fact radically depart from their predecessors in scholarly matters all-too-commonly stand properly accused of reinventing a wheel that had been in serviceable working order all along. In conclusion, I strongly recommend Hicks's clearly written, up-to-date volume as a useful and accessible text for those seeking some insight into the foundational values and doctrines that gave England its identity and coherence in the fifteenth century. In particular, beginning students of history and those in fields such as literature who require a synthetic overview of the times will benefit greatly from Hicks's efforts.

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Cary Nederman

Texas A & M University