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In 1935, R. G. Collingwood defined the historical imagination as an innate or a priori part of thinking that allows students of history to reconstruct the past. Whether stored in the furniture of the mind, learned through practice, or inherited as genetic inclinations, imagination is indispensable to the historian's craft. The historian's imagination may be richer, more diverse, more inventive than that, say, of an orthopedist, because the historian's present is the surviving but elusive past. Historians have to imagine more because they can never know what actually happened. Like orthopedists and everyone else, historians enter their professions hauling baggage packed haphazardly with images drawn from cultural, personal, religious, moral and practical experience. An orthopedist checks his psychological and social luggage when treating anesthetized muscle and bone in the controlled atmosphere of an operating room. For the orthopedist, the only images relevant for diagnosis and remedy are those produced precisely by x-rays or magnetic resonance. A historian neither diagnoses nor remedies. Instead, relying upon recalcitrant evidence, she tries to explain events that occurred in a dynamic, unpredictable, uncontrollable world already finished.
When historians conduct research and then interpret what they find, they are unwilling and unable to lay aside their every day images of human nature and society. Such concepts, even when wrong, are logically necessary to explanation. Historical imagination organizes the categories that provide a historian with a match between her expectations and the subjects of her inquiry. The historian's juxtaposition, unlike the orthopedist's realistic image, is impressionistic. It becomes satisfying only when it fulfills a cultivated sense of propriety. Although honest historians are persuaded by the information they discover, there are few experiences more pleasing than that frisson of recognition when initial impressions are validated by the historical records. That pleasure is far more agreeable than disappointment. If the records repudiate anticipations then the historian must search for a more adequate explanatory scheme that approximates the truth more closely.
In an attempt to understand the public and private roles of medieval women in the English countryside, historians have devoted growing attention to widows as villein tenants and transmitters of land in manorial communities. Villein women are often recorded in manorial sources as co-tenants and recipients of property rights on their husbands' deaths. Although in Common Law the widow's share ranged from one-third to one-half of a free husband's lands, the villein widow often received a right to life usage of the whole of the conjugal estate upon her husband's death as her “free bench.” The extensive property-holding rights of these villein widows have made them rich subjects for study of their legal, social, and economic status and activities.
Case studies based on manorial estates, however, have often focused exclusively on the widow as a transmitter of property and have subordinated the study of widows within a framework governed by considerations of land markets and property transmission. Medieval historiography contrasts with studies of early-modern and modern populations that have put elements such as age at widowhood, number of dependents, social status, personal choice in connection with widow remarriage, and provisions for widows at the forefront of study. By connecting work on widows and the landmarket with these other concerns it is possible to study medieval peasant widows within broader comparative perspective.
The year 1655 might with reason have been described as the “annus horribilis” of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate. January saw the dissolution of his first Parliament, which had signally failed to ratify the Instrument of Government, the constitution imposed by the Army in December 1653. This undermined the already dubious constitutional basis of the government's ordinances, resulting in legal challenges and even recalcitrance among some of the judges. The policy of “healing and settling” had gained at best a grudging acquiescence from the political nation, and the determined enemies of the Protectorate sought to exploit its instability. Former allies of the Army, such as the commonwealthsman John Wildman and the Fifth Monarchists, continued to publish bitter condemnations of the regime designed to incite rebellion; in March, Royalist plotting culminated in Penruddock's abortive uprising. Instability and disaffection at home coincided with military disaster abroad: July brought news of the failure of Cromwell's “western design,” the expedition against the Spanish island of Hispaniola. This was the first major defeat suffered by the New Model, and was received by Cromwell and many of the godly as an indication of divine displeasure.
In August, Cromwell abandoned “healing and settling” for more military counsels, appointing Major Generals to provide security by raising a new militia, financed by punitive taxation of the Royalists, and by imposing godly order on the localities. Despite the initial optimism of the Major Generals, it was plain by the beginning of 1656 that they could not finance the new militia, and that their efforts to impose reform were far from uniformly effective.