This article assesses the state of modern English rural history. It identifies an ‘orthodox’ school, focused on the economic history of agriculture. This has made impressive progress in quantifying and explaining the output and productivity achievements of English farming since the ‘agricultural revolution’. Its celebratory account was, from the outset, challenged by a dissident tradition emphasizing the social costs of agricultural progress, notably enclosure. Recently a new school, associated with the journal Rural History, has broken away from this narrative of agricultural change, elaborating a wider social history. The work of Alun Howkins, the pivotal figure in the recent historiography, is located in relation to these three traditions. It is argued that Howkins, like his precursors, is constrained by an increasingly anachronistic equation of the countryside with agriculture. The concept of a ‘post-productivist’ countryside, dominated by consumption and representation, has been developed by geographers and sociologists and may have something to offer historians here, in conjunction with the well-established historiography of the ‘rural idyll’. The article concludes with a call for a new countryside history, giving full weight to the cultural and representational aspects that have done so much to shape twentieth-century rural England. Only in this way will it be possible to move beyond a history of the countryside that is merely the history of agriculture writ large.