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A Brief History of England: 4000 BCE - Yesterday
Robert Dees, author

Adult; History & Military; (Publish)

Part I provides a factual, but humorously written romp through English history, starting in 4000 BCE and racing through to the present. The perspective throughout is that of the farmers and their role in driving many of the key turning points in English history. Part II provides a little more detail, particularly on the decisive role that farmers played not only in producing the increases in agricultural production upon which each new, higher level of civilization was built, but also in political turning points. Most important was the civil war that produced the Forest Charter and its companion document, the Magna Carta. The latter, more famous document survived only because of the gains won by farmers, codified in the Forest Charter, which was the first step in curbing the power of the elites and making it possible for farmers to escape serfdom, and from there, produce ever-increasing agricultural surpluses.
Dees’s compact, provocative study, excerpted from The Power of Peasants: Economics and the Politics of Farming in Medieval Germany, surveys millenia of English history primarily through the lens of class warfare, presenting dispossession and violence at the root of property rights and the nation’s development. Dees begins with a brief outline of his brief history: a series of invasions (from the Romans, the German invasion of the Angles and the Saxons, the Vikings and, finally, Guillaume the Conqueror) followed by class war within the English nation: kings stealing land from nobles and the peasants, the nobles stealing property back from the king, and the peasants stealing their liberty from their lords. As English history develops and capitalism begins, we see enclosure too—the merchants stealing from both nobles and peasant landowners. Not for nothing is the figure of Robin Hood on the cover.

In inviting prose with polemical power, Dees digs into greater detail to focus specifically on the Magna Carta and the Forest Charter, which, he argues, were the first documents to place the law above the king, granting the common people effective rights. Echoing Engels, the English Civil War, too, is presented here as another in a series of class conflicts, in which Cromwell stands for the wealthy merchants, rouses the common people, and defeats the king.

Dees writes in a loose and humorous tone but with real passion and attention to detail. The reader may wish he had the space to go into more detail or end his history with a more robust conclusion (rather than a passing reference to coffeeshops and Isaac Newton), though the book’s origin as an excerpt perhaps explains its structure. Anyone interested in the economic story of England who wants to dive into the political conditions which led to dispossession and violence will appreciate Dees’s incisive, engaging, and pointedly outraged history.

Takeaway: Brief, class-minded history of England with an emphasis on economics.

Comparable Titles: E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Rodney Hilton’s Bond Men Made Free.

Production grades
Cover: B-
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: B+
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-