• History-making: essays analysing the study of the past, by Penelope J. Corfield.

6.3 Fellow Historians

Penelope Corfield assesses the intellectual approach of a number of leading twentieth-century historians who were known to her and whose work she admired. Together, these scholars began with variants of a broadly Liberal-Left agenda – but, while they rejected old-style conservative histories about kings, queens and battles, they emphatically did not agree amongst one another. Indeed, some considerably modified their views over time, either moving from Left to Liberal/Centre, or from Liberal/Centre to Right.

6.3.1 Fisher, F.J. ‘Jack’ (1908-88) F.J. Fisher and the Dialectic of Economic History (1990; 2018), Pdf46
This essay is an abridged and updated text of PJC’s appreciation of the LSE historian F.J. (Jack) Fisher in P.J. Corfield and N.B. Harte (eds), F.J. Fisher: London and the English Economy, 1500-1700 (1990), pp. 3-22. An intellectually brilliant and witty man, Fisher was a leading economic historian, who helped to propel the subject into its high noon in the postwar years. He fused insights from economics, sociology, and critical philosophy to recast interpretations of sixteenth-century England not as a period of rampant capitalist growth but as an era of persistent underdevelopment. In his later years, Fisher was saddened when changing intellectual and cultural trends led to economic history losing its previously great research allure, with the 1960s/1970s rise of urban, social, gender and later cultural history instead. Those developments muted the long-term diffusion of Fisher’s work. Yet he remains a beacon of critical historical engagement, not least for his readiness to challenge all cases of sloppy logic and loose generalisations. Two Historians who Influenced Me, PJC BLOG/15 (Dec. 2011)
PJC’s tribute to the intellectual impact of two very different historians, the meta-critic Jack Fisher (see and the innovatory, volcanic E.P. Thompson (see

6.3.2 Hill, J.E.C. always known as Christopher (1912-2003)
There is some content overlap in the essays on Christopher Hill, which were written for different journals and readerships; but they are posted here since each has some new material. For PJC’s personal memories of Christopher Hill, see also Pdf47 Christopher Hill: Methodism and Marxism (2005), Pdf48
This short account assesses the impact upon the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, made by his family upbringing within York Methodism, and particularly by the radical sermons of an impressive circuit preacher, T.S. Gregory. He saw elements of the Divine in every individual, stirring the egalitarian impulses of the young Hill. And it was also T.S. Gregory who warned that great ideologies, initially experienced as liberating, could over time become codified, restrictive, deadening and even deadly. “We are All One in the Eyes of the Lord”: Christopher Hill and the Historical Meanings of Radical Religion (2004), Pdf5
This essay draws upon PJC’s personal memories of discussions with the eminent Marxist historian Christopher Hill to reassesses his philosophy of history. His fundamental belief was in the equality of all humans, derived from his personal response to his Methodist upbringing. As a student at Oxford in the early 1930s, he transmuted his egalitarianism into a life-long commitment to Marxism and to studying History ‘from below’, as a means of understanding oppression and people’s struggles for liberation. Hence his commitment was to a humanist and liberal rather than a Stalinist Marxism, while, over time, the specifically Marxist elements and terminology in his analysis notably faded. Christopher Hill’s Intellectual Trajectory: From Biblical Protestantism to Humanist Marxism (2003; 2005), Pdf50
This essay reprises the intellectual trajectory of the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, from Methodism to Marxism, and from orthodox Marxism to a looser Marxist humanism. Some of the content overlaps with the earlier essay Pdf5 ‘We are All One in the Eyes of the Lord’. Nonetheless, this text is included here as a companion piece, because it contains a range of further commentary, including a direct critique of Hill’s 1986 claim about the material origin of words. (‘Things precede words’). Did he really mean that real-life dragons must have preceded the word ‘dragons’? Hill’s materialist approach at this point seems to have overcome his common-sense. A rare lapse. “What is the Greatest Sin in the World?” Christopher Hill and the Spirit of Equality (BLOG/ 95, Nov. 2018)
This short commentary is the text of PJC’s encomium at the First Hill Memorial Lecture in November 2018, held at Newark’s National Civil War Centre. It highlights Hill’s life-long belief in human equality, which outlasted both his youthful commitment to Methodism and his subsequent adherence to Communism (until his resignation from the British Communist Party in 1957). Can be read in conjunction with Pdf5 and Pdf50. Video Interview of Historian Christopher Hill by Penelope J. Corfield (1988). First published in series entitled Video Interviews with Historians (1988), organised by London University’s Institute of Historical Research, [NB: Unauthorised copying of this interview would infringe the rights of PJC, the estate of Christopher Hill, and the Universities of London and Cambridge].

6.3.3 Russell, Conrad S.R. – 5th Earl Russell (1937-2004) Remembering Conrad Russell, Historian of Stuart Britain and “Last of the Whigs”, BLOG/ 72 (Dec. 2016)
PJC remembers Conrad Russell as a distinctive personality, congenial colleague, and thought-provoking historian, although she argues that his excessively literalistic reading of documents ultimately distorted his interpretation of seventeenth-century history.

6.3.4 Thompson, Dorothy, née Towers (1923-2011) Dorothy Thompson & the Thompsonian Project (2011), Pdf/19
PJC recalls with affection her first encounter with Dorothy Thompson as colleagues at Birmingham University in 1969. She was a role model of calm feminist engagement and commitment to empirical research. Those qualities of temperamental calm and bracing research were hallmarks of Dorothy Thompson’s contribution to ‘History from Below’ as practised both by herself and her husband/ fellow historian E.P. Thompson.

6.3.5 Thompson, Edward P. (1924-1993) E.P. Thompson, the Historian: An Appreciation (1993; 2018), Pdf45
A heterodox figure and a polymath, in personality both innovative and volcanic, the historian E.P. Thompson drew upon varied intellectual roots which he welded into his distinctive vision of cultural Marxism. This essay analyses those roots as Thompson’s deep love of English literature; his argumentative relationship with the evolving corpus of Marxist thought; and his heritage of secularised religious dissent. See also further reflections by PJC in ‘Two Historians Who Influenced Me’. ‘Worst and Best Academic Lectures that I’ve Heard’, PJC BLOG/26 (Jan. 2013)
PJC’s reflections on the quality of academic lectures that she has heard delivered by historians, ranging from the utterly inadequate to the outstanding. The most brilliant was a gem of literary-cum-historical analysis by E.P. Thompson, given without ostentation to an adult-education conference in Preston sometime in the mid-1980s. Thompson began by reading a short poem by William Blake; then analysed its contents; and then read the poem again, with added emphasis. The second version was a revelation. It was like going from monochrome to colour. An example of how a master lecturer can encourage an audience to see an entire world even in ‘a grain of sand’. Video Interview of Historian E.P. Thompson by Penelope J. Corfield (1992), directed by Trevor Scott. First published in series entitled Video Interviews with Historians (1993), organised by London University’s Institute of Historical Research. [NB: Unauthorised copying of this interview would infringe the rights of PJC, the estate of E.P. Thompson, and the Universities of London and Cambridge.]

For more about E.P. Thompson, including another copy of this interview, see also Youtube Channel: E.P. Thompson.

6.3.6 Thompson, F.M.L. ‘Michael’ (1925-2017) Michael Thompson’s Intellectual Outlook (2018), Pdf51
This appreciation was originally delivered as a speech and then revised for publication in History Workshop Journal, 86 (Autumn 2018), pp. 306-10. The same issue also contains sympathetic obituaries of F.M.L.T. by David Feldman (HWJ, 86 (2018), p. 303; and by Martin Daunton (HWJ, 86 (2018), pp. 304-6. https://academic.oup.com/hwj/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/hwj/dby028/5058075.
PJC examines the intellectual roots of Michael Thompson’s classic liberal values, which were laced with Quaker egalitarianism. He translated those values into a liberal empirical approach to history. He hated all loose and erroneous pseudo-historical generalisations that claimed to have the answer to everything, especially when such sweeping and inaccurate views were used by politicians as an excuse to bash Universities (for example for not being ‘enterprising’ enough). Mike Thompson’s own research was dogged and detailed, looking at unfashionable themes to provide broad-brush interpretations of the organised complexities of history. He stood upon the intellectual middle ground, not in the perilous sense of someone-about-to-be-run-over-by-the-traffic-from-left-and-right (as in Nye Bevan’s cutting phrase) but in the balanced stance of someone seeking the Aristotelian Golden Mean.

6.3.7 Honouring Vera Bácskai (1930-2018) PJC BLOG/109 (Jan. 2020)
PJC reflects on the life and career of Hungarian urban and social historian Vera Bácskai. She lived in the eye of Hungary’s political macro-storm as a supporter of internal reform in 1956; was abruptly exiled to Romania by the Soviet Army; but came back and made a successful career, initially as an archivist, still living under a political cloud, and then as a leading academic in Budapest. Her stoical commitment, her freedom from dogma, and her capacity for outreach form part of an important strand of liberal/radical/internationalist thought in Hungarian intellectual life and politics, to which this testimony pays warm tribute.