Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


(J M Thompson, Blackwell, 2nd Ed, 1944)

The author wrote extensively on the French Revolution.  I have read and enjoyed everything he wrote on that period.  A tutor at Cambridge understood my respect.  He said that the author wrote at a time when style mattered.

According to sources on the Web, James Matthew Thompson lived between 1878 and 1956.  His father was an Anglican priest.  He studied theology and philosophy at Oxford and was ordained in 1903.  In 1906 he became Dean of Divinity at Magdalen College, Oxford.  He challenged orthodoxy, and resigned as Dean in 1915.  After the war, he returned to teach history.  The lectures in the present book were delivered to first year students during the winter terms of 1921 to 1924.  The book of those lectures was first published in 1925.  It may lack the complete style of the later work on French history, but it is wonderfully assembled and crisp, and it fills in many holes in the historical knowledge of those who go straight from the Renaissance and Reformation to the French Revolution.

In the Preface, Thompson says that ‘the essence of history is not the learning of facts, but the judging of evidence.’  In the first chapter, he puts that another way.

You don’t study history to learn historical facts, but to acquire historical judgment.  It is not learning that makes a historian, but discernment.

Two pages later, we get: ‘Politically speaking, England in 1494 is already 400 years ahead of the rest of Europe’.  That proposition is not just English hubris.

Since the eleventh century it has been virtually one country under one king – a condition that France and Spain are only just reaching, and which Italy and Germany will not reach for another 400 years.  It has the only effective parliament in Europe, and the only limited monarchy which remains limited during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Its kings have suppressed the arbitrary power of the nobles without transferring it to the crown.  By losing their continental possessions, they have learnt the uselessness of foreign conquest.  England in 1494 is peaceful and orderly, and the richest country in northern Europe.

And that’s without mentioning Magna Carta, the common law, habeas corpus, the Inns of Court and the judiciary, or the fact that England would shortly repatriate its church – which would further distinguish itself from Europe, even the Protestant parts.

The cannons of the King of France were inscribed Ratio ultima Regum – ‘the final argument of kings.’

Anyone could learn to fire a gun, and one gunman was almost as good as another.  Armies grew bigger.  Disciplined masses took the place of erratic heroes.  The business of raising and arming troops passed from the feudal lord to the professional soldier, and from the professional soldier to the State.  Thus Europe entered on an era of national wars waged by national armies.  But it was not long before unpopular governments trembled before armed mobs.

‘Tremble’ was a verb much loved by the armed mobs of the French Revolution.

Here is Thompson on the ancien régime in France.

It was a case-made constitution.  And in France, in the absence of any effective Charter, or Parliament, or public opinion, it was the kings themselves who decided each case as it arose, and in the interests of absolutism…..The great ‘seigneurs’ are becoming an idle aristocracy…Their duties disappear, and their life becomes a daily round of privilege.  The army and the church are the only occupations still open to a gentleman.  Meanwhile, the rising middle class, unhampered by social traditions or family pride was used by the Crown as a weapon against the nobles, and a stepping-stone to absolute power.  Below the nobles, below the clergy, below the middle class, came the peasantry, the great bulk of the population, whose duty it was to do the work left undone by the privileged classes, and to pay the taxes from which they were exempt.  These poor people were already in a state of degradation which made the brilliancy of the Court a farce, and national prosperity an idle dream.

There you can see that it was not if France would explode, but when – because there you have a concise statement of the key strands leading to the detonation in 1789.

An Anglican divine may have something to say about the Reformation.

It is always a difficult question, how far it is proper to receive wages for religious work, or to exact payment in return for spiritual privileges.  But all conscientious men feel (and they felt the same in the sixteenth century) that it is wrong to make a profit out of religion.

What would the Mormons now say?

It was not merely the demand for books, or the interest in theology, which secured Luther his circulation; but also his style.  Michelet compared it to a mixture of Moses and Rabelais.  As those two authors never collaborated, I cannot tell whether it is a good comparison.  But that Luther’s style is vigorous, eloquent, wordy, and rather vulgar, you can judge for yourselves, even from an English translation.  It was a new way of treating theology, in the sixteenth century; and it made an immense appeal……Politically, Luther was a conservative, and stood for the rights of the German princes against their own subjects, as well as against the Pope.  The discontented knights of 1523, the rebellious peasantry of 1524, got no sympathy from him.  Unlike Calvinism, which became a disintegrating force in politics, Lutheranism played into the hands of government, and became a State religion…..Like John Wesley, Luther was never really a member of the sect called by his name…..The upshot of Luther’s teaching was to dethrone the Pope and enthrone the Bible.  Authority was not destroyed; it was only transferred.  Orthodoxy was not impaired; it was refounded on the Scriptures.

You might then wonder on the benefits of a marriage between Germany and Luther.

The lecture on the Netherlands Revolt from Spain is riveting.

Politically, the Revolt leaves all Europe in debt.  The success of the northern states gave ‘the right of citizenship to revolutionary principles.’  For the first time since the organisation of the New Monarchies, a whole people had claimed and won its independence…..the Netherlands Revolt was a striking instance of the political results of the Reformation.  It showed that Protestantism could give not only the desire for political freedom, but also the resolution to achieve it…..Only Holland in the Old World set the pattern of Protestant democracy which was to be copied on so big a scale in the New.  Had there been no United Provinces in the Netherlands, there might have been (but I almost hesitate to suggest it) no United States of America.

As to the Sun King, Louis XIV, French historians believe that in a single generation, six millions of people died of want.  The author quotes Acton:

It would be easy to find tyrants more violent, more malignant, more odious than Louis XIV; but there was not one who ever used his power to inflict greater suffering or greater wrong.

Louis XV?  ‘….he was one of the most evil men who ever occupied a throne.’

What is the upshot?

When we look at Europe in this way, and notice how in one country after another, national character and policy persist from the end of the fifteenth to the end of the eighteenth century, we cannot fail to be impressed by the strength of nationalism, and its claim to be the ruling principle of political science.  This is the first lesson of modern European history; and none is more necessary nowadays; for it explains the disaster of 1914 – the nemesis of nationalism; and it leaves no illusions as to the barrier of habit and tradition that must be broken down before any international system, such as the League of Nations, can take the place of the Balance of Power.

Those remarks were indeed prophetic in 1924.  The worst of nationalism was yet to come.  It is crude nationalism that now undermines the United States and is undoing the European experiment.  This book is a must for those who want to try to understand where we have come from and where we may be going.  And it’s worth getting for the Michelet quote on its own.

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