Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 September 2013
Early in my undergraduate career, my Cambridge supervisor in Economic History set two of us an essay on the agrarian problem of the sixteenth century: ‘was it less a problem of enclosures than of rents?’ (a good question). In trying to answer it we were not required to read Tawney's great book. We read about Tawney; not Tawney himself. That did not matter, because we were advised that Tawney was ‘an old sentimentalist’ who had failed to recognise that England was already a ruthless and competitive contract society in the sixteenth century, a society of which our supervisor clearly approved. Much later, I learned from another Cambridge economic historian that the trouble with Tawney was that, along with other ‘reformist’ economic historians, he suffered from ‘middle-class guilt’. Worse, he wrote ‘Mandarin’ prose.
When I actually read Tawney's Agrarian Problem for myself, shamefully late, I expected to find it a work with which I would have some sympathy, but which would inevitably be dated in both content and style. What a surprise, then, to find that Tawney's tone was predominantly cool, authoritative, and not at all sentimental; I thought him rather tough-minded. His purplish passages were justified in context and seemed to spring from indignation rather than guilt. His dominant manner was a sustained effort to explain, in a multi-faceted and at times distinctly distanced way, a set of profound and complex changes. If his sympathies were clearly with the losers in that process, he did not wallow in the celebration of victimhood.